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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ad Lib Eating and Intermittent Fasting

"Eat 5 smaller meals per day to maintain energy levels." That's pretty common knowledge in the nutrition world, is it not? I reject this line of thought. I eat only as many times as I need to eat each day. My day consists of somewhere between 1 and 3 meals, generally two large meals with about 18-20 hours of fasting ("compressed eating window"). I don't really see the point in forcing myself to eat 5 or 6 times each day. There are several reasons I eat this way.

First, the human body isn't designed for constant feasting. A constant titration of calories and insulin is not a natural state for humans, who would've fasted (or eaten lightly) during the day's hunting and gathering and then feasted at night. Some days there would be little food (unsuccessful hunt). Some days there would be abundant food (woolly mammoth!). But nevertheless, our ancestors would not have eaten 5 meals each day. I have no scientific data to back this up, but my body tells me that giving it a break from constant digesting is much appreciated. The studies that have been done on Intermittent Fasting (check PubMed) show promise.

Second, Caloric Restriction (CRAN) has shown promise in promoting health and extending life (in mice). Intermittent Fasting, which is technically a 24 hours on, 24 hours off schedule, shows many of the same benefits as CRAN, such as increased beta hydroxybutyrate, marked decreases in blood glucose and insulin, and increases in neuroprotection and neuroendocrine response. But the beauty of IF is that it doesn't have the downsides of CRAN like decreased body weight. Take a look at some of hardcore CRAN practitioners...many are quite twig-like and quite a few lose their sex drive, all for a chance at having a few more years tacked onto the end of their lives. I love this quote: "I'm a much more considerate husband and father than I was prior to starting the diet. My testosterone is extremely low, in the ballpark of an average woman." Sounds like a blast. Robb Wolf has written some good stuff in The Performance Menu about Intermittent Fasting; Issue 6 is a nice introduction.

Also, I find that I think better when I don't have a belly full of food. This works out well at work. When everyone else is hitting their post-lunch lull, I'm still humming along. And I don't lose the 30 minutes or hour of work to eating. Similarly, my workout performance is better during my fast than if I have eaten within 4 or 5 hours before the workout. I'm stronger, lighter, and crisper during a fast than afterwards. The body and mind just seem to work better during short fasts. I surmise that this is an evolutionary adaptation providing peak performance right when it is needed: at food finding time. The body doesn't need such levels of energy and clear thinking following a meal as energy supplies are secure for awhile so it can devote the blood supply to the stomach for digestion.

Finally, it's hard enough to put together 2 or 3 perfect meals of meat, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and tubers. Forcing yourself to eat on a schedule is setting yourself up to eat subpar foods. And eating 5+ times per day is that many opportunities to eat foods that you really shouldn't be eating. I have very few chances to cheat on my nutrition plan each day since I rarely eat away from my house. And the cheat foods that are in my pantry aren't as detrimental as anything in a snack machine. Plus, it is easier to not eat than it is to eat just a little.

While I generally end up not eating breakfast or lunch and then chowing down when I get home, the real beauty is that I can break my fast at any point in time without a major effect. If I get overly hungry, I eat. I don't have to remain dogmatically tied to a certain eating schedule. If I'm hungry in the morning, I'll grab a small breakfast. If I get hungry at work, I can walk downstairs and grab a salad. That's the "ad lib" part of my fasting regimen. I find that following an this nutrition plan puts me much more in tune with my body than 5 perfectly timed meals ever did. I understand what is real hunger and what isn't. I aim for long fasts, but if my body says "uh uh," I eat.

I typically follow one of two eating plans each day. Right now, I'm not working out due to my shoulder surgery (which I'm recovering from nicely), so most days I get up, get dressed, go to work, come home from work, then break my fast with a handful of nuts while I make my patented enormous salad (~20 hour fast). This constitutes my first meal, which I follow about 2 hours later with another feast of meat and vegetables and plenty of olive oil. If I'm still hungry after that, I might coat some berries, grapes, and/or melon with coconut oil, coconut, and cinnamon for dessert or get ahold of some almond butter and get some more good fat calories in. Two large meals in 3-4 hours. When I am working out, I usually time my workout for early- to mid-afternoon and then eat some starchy carbs, protein, and fat an hour or so later, then I head home after work and have 1 big meal (15-18 hour fast).

Many people that follow a "compressed eating window" (eating the same number of calories in a shorter time frame, like my 18-20 hour fasts) find that they recover from workouts faster and contrary to what you would think, don't lose tons of weight. Until my recent bout of two shoulder dislocations and surgery (mid-May), I had gained about 8 lbs while dropping some fat, so probably a 10-pound muscle gain starting in Dec, with pretty big gains in the major lifts of deadlift, squat, and overhead press. So I was getting in enough high quality calories to fuel muscle growth while gaining weight and still losing fat. That's contrary to the popular belief that you can't gain muscle while losing fat unless you are a rank beginner, isn't it? It is possible if one is eating properly and lifting properly. Alwyn Cosgrove touched on this recently.

I've been asked a few times about "starvation mode" and catabolism (muscle breakdown). I don't know the mechanisms behind it, but my jump from 185 lbs (~9.5% bodyfat) to 193 lbs (~8.5% bodyfat) during the months of Dec to May certainly show that I wasn't wasting away and that a bit of catabolic action didn't harm muscular growth. Catabolism is every bit the natural process that anabolism (muscle growth) is. Art DeVany gave a brief description of the benefits of catabolism following a workout.

An easy way to get up to speed on fasting is The Fast-5 Diet. I dislike the author's lack of concern over food quality, but I think that's more of a way to make it marketable than anything else. I mean who really wants to hear that they have to get rid of their crappy food AND not eat for 19 hours of the day? Needless to say, a fasting protocol with high-quality natural foods is better than a fasting protocol with low-quality processed foods. It is also easier to fast on a low-carb diet than on a low-fat diet since carbs stimulate the appetite, while protein and fat are satiating.

One other thing I've noticed is that I appreciate my food much more. When I eat, I really savor the flavors, textures, smells, and colors rather than just mindlessly forcing more food down my gullet as I did in past days of eating every 3 hours. Fasting really brings an appreciation of the food that you are eating. Give it a shot.