One of the more popular forms of “dieting” these days is “intermittent fasting.” The term refers – rather loosely, I might add – to a wide range of different eating plans. The premise, however, is rather simple: You go for an extended period of time with little or no calories (the “fasting” period) and then you follow this up with a “feeding” period, which comprise either one meal, multiple meals, or possibly even an entire day of eating.
Opinions surrounding intermittent fasting are vast and, well, quite opinionated as to whether it’s good or bad. The opinions run the gamut from “the best friggin’ diet on the planet” to “absolutely sucks, and has to be the worst diet ever; you’ll be starving all the time, and you’ll probably lose all of your muscle to boot!”
But I think the truth is somewhere in between.
Intermittent fasting can be a good way to lose bodyfat while also maintaining – or even gaining – strength. But you need to listen to someone who actually uses one of the forms of IF –or has used it in the past – before you either write it off as bogus or decide that it’s good.
I first read about this form of dieting from an article on “T-Nation” back in 1999. The article was about the Warrior Diet, and it was an interview with the diet’s originator Ori Hofmekler (who was, at that time, the editor of Penthouse Magazine). Since then, the Warrior Diet, and other forms of IF, have become fairly well known and generally well-accepted, but at the time, that just wasn’t the case. In the ‘90s, such a form of dieting flew in the face of everything that was thought to be effective for building muscle and burning bodyfat. Only out-of-shape, non-athletes were thought to do something so foolish as eat only one meal per day.
But the diet fascinated me. Despite the fact that it was decidedly not what I was doing at the time – which was eating six small meals per day, as I had been doing for more than a decade – so much of what Ori said made sense, and so I wanted to give it an honest try. (My workout partners, by the way, who subsisted on diets of burgers, steaks, milkshakes, lots of beer, and a minimum of 5 meals per day, thought I was absolutely crazy. They were all pretty sure that I would soon shrivel into a shell of my former self, and not a very strong one at that.)
A few months after reading about the diet, I was scheduled to do a “raw” powerlifting meet. (Raw powerlifting was actually kind of rare at the time, but that’s for another article.) I had always competed in the 181-pound class – and always had to lose a few pounds to do so – but I thought for this meet I would use the Warrior Diet to see if I could get down to the 165-pound class while at least maintaining my strength. About three months later, at the meet, I weighed 163 pounds – down from around my starting weight at around 185 – and squatted 510 raw. Not bad considering the fact that I was fasting between 18 and 20 hours each day, and getting most of my calories (which weren’t very high) in a small 4 to 6 hour window.
What follows are some of my thoughts – rather random, mind you – on intermittent fasting.
· There are basically two forms of IF. The first, which the Warrior Diet falls under, is where you eat every day (a “feeding”) after going for an extended period of time without food. The feeding could be one meal per day, or it could be multiple meals crammed into a “window” of time. The second, which I haven’t tried but still wouldn’t recommend for lifters, is where you fast almost entirely from food for one day – maybe even two – and then follow this with a day of eating. The 2nd option may actually be good for health reasons, but for those of us who need to train frequently, it could be a nightmare.
· I have performed all of my IF experiments with something similar to the Warrior Diet, so that is the kind of IF that most of these thoughts apply to – keep that in mind.
· After a few days of eating this way – which I have done several times since my initial experiment 15 years ago – my body always adjusts to the lack of food during the day. In fact, I find that I’m rarely hungry, and the hardest thing is getting enough calories and macronutrients in my body during the feeding period. This is especially tough considering the fact that I would still try to get in close to my bodyweight in protein grams each day.
· Several proponents of IF recommend training during a “fasted” state, followed by a post-workout meal to optimize fat loss and muscle growth. I never found this conducive to building strength. Since I always lifted in the evening – and still do – I found it best to eat a small meal (or a protein shake) immediately prior to training. I would then have another meal as soon as my workout was finished. Once my body adjusted to the diet, I had no problem eating this way and staying strong throughout the workouts.
· Intermittent fasting is not particularly good for building muscle.
· IF is good for losing bodyfat.
· IF can be good for building strength while simultaneously losing weight. I say can because often strength development – at least the kind of strength need for powerlifting or Olympic lifting – is more a product of training than diet. The reverse is not necessarily true, which is why you often hear from bodybuilders that 80% of building muscle is nutrition. If you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter who is trying to stay in his/her weight class, then IF is probably a very good selection, as long as the training is not too frequent and/or intense.
· I don’t think this diet would be as good for people who train with a lot of “metabolic conditioning” – you simply wouldn’t have the energy to make it through a lot of tough met-con workouts. But it’s fine for lifters who train with heavy weights and low reps.
· IF tends to work much better for men than it does women. I don’t know why this is. It just is.
· This is the best diet to follow if you don’t want to actually think or plan your diet much in advance. It’s incredibly simple: go a long time without eating, and then eat as much as possible during the feeding window. Although I still try to eat a “training friendly” diet – lots of green stuff, lean protein, and good fats – I find that you don’t have to be all that strict with what you eat and you can still lose bodyfat with relative ease.
· IF is probably even better as a “health” diet than one focused on changing body composition.
· Several times, toward the end of my IF diet cycles, people have remarked to me about how young I look. And I’m not the only one who has said this. Nick Horton, over at his blog, has expressed a similar sentiment. Some proponents of IF claim this is because of the growth hormone released during the fasting states. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I guess I could partly buy it.