Unless you have been living on a galaxy far, far away…then you would have heard of the term Intermittent Fasting. This concept has been circulating the nutrition and fitness space for many years now and has risen in popularity ever since.
So what is Intermittent Fasting? Is it a special weight loss strategy that has no equal? Is it a fad diet like many others who rise and fall over the years? These may be some of the questions you may have about Intermittent Fasting.
Nevertheless, Intermittent Fasting is becoming a staple of the nutrition space and it is important that you understand it fully so that you can decide on if it’s the right nutritional strategy and dietary approach for you.
That is why I wrote this “no B.S. and straight to the facts” Intermittent Fasting For Beginners Guide. Keep reading to stay informed.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is a structured approach to eating where you alternate between periods of eating and fasting. While it is typically seen as a “diet”, it is actually a framework/pattern to eating that dictates how you approach your diet based on timing and not necessarily what you eat (as a true diet would).
Over the years, Intermittent Fasting has continued to become more popular and be tried by more and more people.
With this wave of interest has come a increasingly more prevalent promotion of the supposed health and weight loss benefits attributed to Intermittent Fasting. In the sections below, I will explore the truth behind it all and bluntly tell you if there is any basis to any of it.
How does intermittent fasting work?
In a nutshell, Intermittent Fasting works by restricting your calories through the strategic manipulation of your eating based on meal timing. Over the years there have been plenty of benefits attributed to fasting such as cell repair through autophagy, increase human growth hormone, and improved insulin sensitivity.
However, these effects have been largely exaggerated from a practical sense as well as making Intermittent Fasting out to be a “magic” health solution of sorts. This is not true, however, and the benefits of the approach lie in the weight loss it can help achieve if done correctly.
The fact of the matter is that Intermittent Fasting results still rely on the ability to reduce calories through meal timing restriction. Oh and in case it’s not clear yet, doing Intermittent Fasting does NOT automatically create a calorie deficit - you can still do fasting and eat more calories then you need.
The types of intermittent fasting
There are many versions of Intermittent Fasting floating around these days. Just like there are different types of game consoles around that are all different but all let you play a game. Same to are all the different forms of Intermittent Fasting - they all cycle your eating and fasting periods but do so in different ways.
While I could go on and on explaining every single type under the sun (both current and since extinct), I want to simply focus on the 2 main types of Intermittent Fasting: The 16:8 Method and The 5:2 Method.
The 16:8 MEthod
This version of Intermittent Fasting is the most common. It involves alternating between a 16 hour fasting period followed by an 8 hour eating window within each 24 hour period. Approaching your Intermittent Fasting (IF) in this manner is the most “natural” and “balanced” way to do it and therefore is my recommended method if one must try some IF action.
The 5/2 Diet Method
This method of doing the ol Intermittent Fasting is another popular one but is a lot more restrictive. It involves eating “normally” for 5 days of each 7 day week and then eating only 500-600 calories on the other 2 days. I am personally not a fan of this method as it is unnecessarily strict with calories, doesn't mimic natural eating (nor hunger cycles), and is generally not a sustainable way to eat.
Intermittent Fasting & Your GOals
We have covered all the fundamental basics you need to know about Intermittent Fasting as a beginner. You now know what it is, how it works, and the different ways you can implement an Intermittent Fasting regimen. Now it is time to dig deeper into how Intermittent Fasting nutrition relates to the most typical goals most dieters have when starting this eating approach: Weight loss and muscle gain.
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Intermittent Fasting & Fat Loss
If there is one reason most people (sometimes feels like all!) try Intermittent Fasting, it’s to help them lose weight. Intermittent Fasting has been promoted not only as a fat loss tool but a “super, duper, effective fat loss tool like no other” by social media, guru’s, and fasting enthusiasts alike.
The truth is that there is nothing special or magic about Intermittent Fasting’s ability to achieve fat loss - it merely is a tool that can make it easier to achieve and stick to a calorie deficit.
Some people do fasting and still eat enough food during the eating window to break the calorie deficit for the day or week. So it’s the calorie deficit the Intermittent Fasting causes that leads to fat loss, not the fasting itself.
However, when done correctly and for the right person it can be wielded as a solid fat loss strategy because it can help regulate food intake with a minimal learning curve (AKA eat now, don’t eat now…not exactly a brain buster).
In order to achieve fat loss, we both know you need to be in a calorie deficit. Intermittent Fasting restricts the time you can eat and therefore in theory it creates less opportunity to eat a calorie surplus. No magic required. Less eating hours = less food - less calories = fat loss potential.
In addition, by alternating fasting and eating and allowing your food to only be consumed during a smaller timeframe you can actually feel fuller and manage your hunger and satiety. This in turn only makes fat loss easier by making a calorie deficit less crappy.
INTERMITTENT FASTING & Building Muscle
Intermittent Fasting and weight loss goes together like spaghetti and meatballs (more or less). However, Intermittent Fasting and muscle gain is a whole different ball game and there’s some blunt reality you need to be aware of before venturing on the path of fasting to build some sweet, sweet lean muscle gains.
The reality hit is this: Intermittent Fasting is NOT an optimised strategy for building muscle.
Can you gain muscle while doing it? Sure. Is it an effective way to promote the gain of lean muscle? Not exactly.
When you are trying to build muscle you need a combination of calorie adequacy, protein adequacy, and the right training stimulus. More specifically for protein, it is optimal that you consume a regular dose of protein throughout the day (general guideline: 25g+ dose of protein across 4+ meals).
Intermittent Fasting makes this harder to achieve and limits the opportunity for adequate dosing. In addition, you need to eat more calories to build muscle compared to fat loss so Intermittent Fasting doesn’t logically make sense as you are limiting the hours you can eat.
Not impossible to eat enough during the eating window, but just saying that technically approaching calorie adequacy through fasting regimens is somewhat counterintuitive. So all in all, if you are using Intermittent Fasting to optimise muscle building…you are barking up the “unoptimized” tree so to speak.
Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
As we know, Intermittent Fasting can help you achieve weight loss effectively when done correctly, but what about the bigger picture: health. Does intermittent fasting lead to any tangible, proven health benefits? There has been a lot of talk over the years about the impact of fasting on health. Well, let’s explore this together.
Autophagy & Intermittent Fasting
One of the biggest proposed benefits of fasting is the upregulation of a process called autophagy. However, any calorie restriction helps with autophagy so while fasting can “technically” help with autophagy, so does dieting over an extended period of time anyway.
Not to mention that you spend 6-8 hours sleeping a night when you are technically “fasting” too. So don’t believe the hype - autophagy should not dictate your decision to do Intermittent Fasting.
Inflammation & INTERMITTENT FASTING
There is actually some more robust evidence regarding the beneficial impact fasting can have on markers of inflammation and metabolic health. There have been studies that observed a significant reduction in glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein (the inflammation marker), when periodic fasting was implemented.
However, the issue with using this as a reason to do fasting is that the participants in these studies happened to also lose weight too. So which is it: the weight loss or the fasting mechanism in itself? Now that is a question that is hard to answer.
However, don’t get carried away with this information here. I stated earlier that much of the benefits of Intermittent Fasting are a bit exaggerated and that it isn’t a revolutionary health solution. Many of the studies providing these findings are small, short, or conducted in animals which means this is still very much a “watch this space” situation as more research needs to be done.
Who shouldn't try Intermittent fasting
While I ALWAYS recommend you seek the individualised guidance of a Dietitian before undertaking any new diet approach, it doesn’t hurt knowing who should probably not bother with Intermittent Fasting and who should avoid it altogether due to health concerns. The following should not try Intermittent Fasting:
For physiological and/or mental health reasons, the above should avoid intermittent fasting. This is due to the fact they require adequate nutritional intake for increased needs for growth and development, nourishment, and recovery from disordered patterns of eating.
Intermittent Fasting FAQ's
Here are the answers to some of the more common questions I get on Intermittent Fasting (that haven’t been covered above).
Does it matter what hours I do?
Not so much. Take 16/8 for example. The typical way to do it is fast from 8pm to 12 noon then eat between noon and 8pm. You could do your fast from 11am to 7pm or any variation. So the hours really come down to personal preference.
How long do I do it for?
This question has a very nuanced answer and truly is a classic example of “it depends”. However, for now just know that there is no right or wrong answer here. Just don't do it for a couple weeks and expect the world.
Will I get hungry?
If a calorie deficit is achieved, then there is bound to be some natural hunger going on but you should not be ravenous or constantly hungry. However, if you are asking if doing a fasting diet will increase hunger in on of itself…well maybe. Depends on you.
Isn’t skipping breakfast bad?! What’s the deal?
We all grew up being told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Truth is that the way I approach my nutrition is that there is no more important meal of the day - they all are important and serve a purpose. So skipping breakfast in of itself (without knowing more about your situation), is not inherently bad.
I’m concerned about my metabolism. Will intermittent fasting reduce my metabolism?
It can if you eat so little calories that you speed up metabolic adaptations. If you do it correctly and create a proper calorie strategy, then the effects wont be any different to other diets - it is the calorie adequacy that primarily impacts metabolism (not fasting itself).
Can i drink liquids during the fasting window?
Yes, but if they have calories then “technically” you broke your fast. However, too many IFer’s are such sticklers for their fasting windows. Truth is that the likelihood a bit of milk in the coffee you drank during your fasting period will impact results, is negligible.
Is taking supplements while fasting a bad idea?
Not a good or bad idea. It depends. Does the supplement have calories? If so, then technically you broke the fast but that doesn’t mean you stuffed up either. Are they performance supplements? Then the effect will be much the same. Always consult your doctor and a Dietitian when supplements are involved.
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Recap on intermittent fasting
Your decision to try Intermittent Fasting should take into consideration all the information discussed above. Any new dietary strategy should be look at through the lens of “does this make sense for me?”
Intermittent Fasting is not exactly a diet but more so an eating pattern that determines how you approach your nutrition based on meal timing. I tell all my clients that it is a classic example of a dietary approach that can be effective if the following criteria can be met: done in the right way, for the right reasons, with the right person, and for the right goal.
Can it help you lose weight? Sure, if it helps you achieve a consistent calorie deficit.
Should you try fasting for muscle building? You are probably better off looking at a more optimised approach to your nutrition.
Is Intermittent Fasting the next best health solution? Probably not in the way you think or to the extent you hope.
In the end, the decision to try Intermittent Fasting should come down to asking yourself if you can actually sustainably do so and ideally also consulting your doctor and a Dietitian to guide you and ensure it is the right path to take.
In fact...have you been thinking about working with a Dietitian? Perhaps I can help.
Want help executing the right nutrition strategy?
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Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Nutritionist
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Brisbane Sports Nutritionist. I have 7+ years experience in providing professional nutrition consulting and want to help you learn about the power of flexible nutrition.