Intermittent fasting is one of the most popular diet regimens and nutrition tools in the world today. Athletes of all levels wonder if fasting is the answer to their performance goals and physique goals. So is Intermittent Fasting a solid dietary approach to harness?
In today’s blog post, I share with you the key pros and cons of Intermittent Fasting so that you can make a more informed decision about if this is the diet that is right for you. The truth is that Intermittent Fasting is not a universal solution for everyone and you need to understand the in’s and out’s before you decide it's a good diet to do as an athlete. That is what you will learn today - the truth about the suitability of Intermittent Fasting for athletes.
The popularity of Intermittent Fasting can be attributed to both the hype built through celebrity endorsement as well as the proposed benefits that certain health guru’s out there have attributed to the act of nutritional fasting. The premise is that fasting has effects on the body that make it a superior fat loss and health solution.
The purpose of today’s blog post is NOT to delve deep into the science behind Intermittent Fasting but if you want to read more about the 2 common forms of fasting then CLICK HERE to read my previous blog that I wrote that may help you out in regards to these questions. However, I will say that Intermittent Fasting is NOT as “magic” as some people will have you believe - it is just a tool in your toolbox that should be harnessed only with consideration of suitability for YOU!
So without further ado, here are the pros and cons….
Can help reduce mindless snacking
Intermittent fasting creates a framework whereby you only eat during certain periods of time. As a result of this, it can be harnessed in a way to minimise mindless (not hunger related) snacking that happens at specific times of the day (e.g. if someone is a late night snack attacker).
Can be used to help create awareness around hunger and satiety cues
As humans, we would hope that we follow our internal nature cues as much as possible. However, our lifestyles over time have disconnected us from this more and more to the point most people are actually not mindful eaters and we do not have a solid and consistent grasp on our hunger and satiety cues. Fasting regimens, when used correctly and for the RIGHT REASON, can actually help bring us back in touch with our natural food cues.
Increased feeling of fullness on a set amount of calories
One of the key benefits of Intermittent Fasting is in the ability it has to maximise fullness on a given set of calories - provided you are still adopting the focus on caloric adequacy. If someone is doing a cut, for example, then they will be eating less calories than they are used to which will increase feelings of hunger. By eating the new calories in a smaller window of opportunity, it can be effective in making the individual feel more satisfied with the food being eaten.
However, this is a pro only on the premise that the right strategy is in place and for the right reasons - otherwise it becomes a slippery slope of using fasting to mask natural hunger cues that drive correct recovery nutrition (it can be a fine line indeed).
Reasonably customisable in its execution
Intermittent fasting is actually quite the customisable nutrition regimen due to the various ways it can be interpreted and executed. This can obviously be both a pro and a con due to the fact people can push the limits with this. However, I will look at it from the pro side due to the fact it enables it to be customisable to an individual which promotes sustainability and individualisation - key pillars of my approach to nutrition.
Easy to understand and implement
There doesn’t need to be much said about this pro either - it simply comes down to the fact that Intermittent Fasting is easy to implement. You simply decide on your eating and fasting windows, make sure it's not too restrictive, and implement. The fact there is no steep learning curve makes it an easy dietary strategy to implement without worry of steering off path too much and it can be an attractive aspect for athletes who are already busy and overwhelmed.
Can be used as an excuse to suppress natural hunger cues (on very low cal diets)
This primarily applies to very low calorie and very restrictive diets that are done in conjunction with the wrong mindset. However, this is a major concern with athletes doing Intermittent Fasting nonetheless. As I mentioned earlier when I stated that the increased fullness can be a positive, conversely it can be a big negative when the regimen is used for the sole purpose of suppressing natural hunger cues for the purpose of losing weight without consideration of the bigger picture.
This is why having a Sports Dietitian create and coach you through a fasting protocol is highly recommended. It’s a fine line that can be easily breached so think about the nuances behind why you are thinking of using fasting.
Over restriction is a concern
Similarly to the above con, using fasting to restrict significant calories in a quick and easy way is a concern I have with athletes (or anyone really!) using it as a go-to dietary approach. The most common reason Intermittent Fasting is used is for the purpose of fat loss. Therefore, care needs to be taken that it is not being used as an intentional or unintentional trigger for crash or fad dieting.
Not sustainable for a lot of people
Sustainability is one of the best ingredients for diet success in the world. I will not be swayed from believing this. Therefore, the fact that fasting regimens DO NOT suit most peoples natural lifestyle and are not typically sustainable, is a key con worth acknowledging. That is why all athletes who consider fasting need to sit down and ask themselves - “Will I be able to actually do this?”
Not optimised for recovery nutrition nor muscle growth
This is the con that will probably make or break your decision to do Intermittent Fasting as an athlete. The fact is that fasting can be a useful and solid tool with nutrition…for the right person. However, even when done correctly, the fact of the matter is that Intermittent Fasting is STILL NOT an optimized diet for ATHLETES! As an athlete you have unique and specific considerations such as recovery nutrition and the need to build lean mass at times.
Fasting is not “technically” ideal for either - even though you can still achieve them with Intermittent Fasting. Just some food for thought before you think about wielding this dietary tool.
Lack of understanding that cals still dictate
And finally we arrive at the last con I will share with you today. This consideration is actually one of the biggest pet peeves I have with Intermittent Fasting and that is that there seems to be an incorrect belief that with fasting you do not need to worry about caloric balance. This is untrue and I can’t state that enough. Intermittent Fasting does not cause fat loss. The fact that fasting happens to reduce one's calorie intake by restricting time to eat is what causes fat loss. It’s a key distinction but one that is often disregarded by many.
So yes, fasting can help with fat loss but it’s due to the reduction in intake and you can still gain weight on an Intermittent Fasting plan if you eat enough. This is not to say that fat loss is a key goal nor that it’s what you want to achieve but it is important that you know that a key con is that you may be thinking of this regimen as something that it is not. Think of this as my way of ensuring you know exactly what Intermittent Fasting does and does not do.
In the end, the fact is that Intermittent Fasting is simply a dietary tool or strategy so to speak, that has both positives and negatives that need consideration before adopting as a lifestyle. And furthermore, fasting is a regimen that has key limitations for the athletic individual and therefore needs to be carefully considered if thinking about doing Intermittent Fasting as a competitive level athlete. You now have a deeper understanding of the pros and cons of fasting so that you can make better decisions around if this is the right approach for you to use in your plan.
At the end of the day, the best diet is the one that is suitable for your lifestyle and goals AND is sustainable vs. a temporary fix or impulsive decision. There is nothing inherently bad about the correct use of Intermittent Fasting, but it is overhyped to a degree which places it in the category of fad dieting for many - food for thought and consideration.
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Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Dietitian & Nutritionist. The aim of this blog is to provide value and spread quality evidence-based nutrition information to counter the BS floating around.