In the last post, I did a quick introduction to intermittent fasting and covered some of the myths and misconceptions people have about at it. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience with it, the different fasting methods and which one you should try.
My Experience With Intermittent Fasting
Over the past few years, the popularity of intermittent fasting has really grown, and slowly but surely, it’s becoming more mainstream and accessible.
At the risk of sounding like a complete hipster twat, I was one of the “early adopters”. I say that not to brag about how clever I am, but to give some context. I’ve got a decades worth of experience with fasting, and I’ve tried probably EVERY method under the sun.
I first got started back in the summer of 2006. I was 20 years old, working on a house painting crew, and I was trying to lose some weight.
Like so many people, I bought into the whole “metabolism myth”. It was even worse back then, because this was when every single magazine and “nutritionist” was insisting that you need to eat 6 meals per day, every 2-3 hours (newsflash- you don’t. See Part 1 of this article where I talk about fasting myths).
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled on The Warrior Diet. Written by former Israeli soldier, artist, and all around badass Ori Hofmekler, the diet advocated deliberately under eating during the day and overeating at night (pretty much the exact OPPOSITE of what everyone at the time was doing). In practice, what this meant is that you’d eat very little (or nothing) during the day, and than have a big feast for dinner.
The rationale was that by not digesting food during the day when you’re working, you activate the sympathetic nervous system and stay more alert and focused. By overeating at night, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system and feel relaxed. The book also alleged that, contrary to popular belief, your calories would be used more effectively to build muscle in the evening.
But what ultimately convinced me to give it a try was the historical angle. This was the eating pattern used by warrior cultures throughout history- the Spartans, the Romans, they all (at least, according to Ori) followed this style of eating.
Seriously…anyone who’s been a 20 year old dude knows how much 20 year old dudes love Spartan soldiers. I HAD to give it a shot.
This was way back in 2006, long before I knew what I was doing. I did A LOT of things wrong back then, but looking back on it, this was the one thing I got right. I would get up in the morning, go to my painting job, drink only water and coffee, and have an enormous dinner at the end of the day. I definitely got some weird looks from my coworkers at lunch time (and some shit from my Mom when she found out what I was doing).
But it worked. That summer, I managed to lose almost 10 pounds. But even more surprising was how I felt. I thought that not eating until 6:00pm was going to be brutal, but it wasn’t. I don’t know about that whole sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system thing, but I felt alert, awake and had tons energy. There were definitely a few hunger pangs, but they weren’t NEARLY as bad as I expected.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really last. Once school started, I went off the diet and started eating like a “normal” North American again, and the weight crept back on.
Still, it worked. Even if it was only for a few months, it was a small victory. More importantly, it convinced me that fasting does work, and that I absolutely didn’t need to be eating every 3 hours.
Is Intermittent Fasting A Magic Pill?
NO! There’s no such thing as a magic pill when it comes to fat loss. There are benefits to it though. Over the past decade or so, researchers have discovered a number of them, including:
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Reduced oxidative stress
- Increased growth hormone release
- May help prevent illnesses such as diabetes and cancer
These are all great, but as far as I’m concerned, this is just icing on the cake. The NUMER ONE reason intermittent fasting “works”, and the reason so many people have had success losing fat on it it is…
Appetite control. That’s the big reason. When you restrict and narrow the window of time you can consume food, it makes overeating a lot harder. But it also lets you eat larger meals and still lose weight (or maintain your current weight).
Think about it. If you can only eat 2500 calories per day, and you spread that over 6 meals, that sucks. It’s really tough to stay satisfied. But if you spread that out over TWO meals? As a former fat kid, I can get behind that.
Different Fasting Styles Explained
Like I said, there are quite a few different ways to do it, so I’ll explain the most common (and effective) ones out there.
1. 20/4: This is basically the Warrior Diet. You fast 20 hours a day, every day, and then you have a 4 hour “feeding” window in the evening.
- It’s next to impossible to overeat (even I would have trouble taking down 3000 calories in one sitting).
- You get to eat a HUGE meal at the end of the day.
- You get to go to bed on a full stomach, even when you’re cutting.
- It gets you some badass cred when you tell people you eat like a Spartan warrior.
- It’s incredibly simple and a time saver (you only need to plan one meal a day.
- Social obligations can get in the way (good luck just ordering a coffee during a lunch meeting).
- The last few hours before you break the fast and have dinner can be really challenging (even after you get used to not eating during the day).
- You’ll definitely catch some weird looks from people, and you’ll probably get some comments. I personally don’t care what other people say, but some people do.
2. 16/8: This is the less intense (and less restrictive) little brother of the Warrior Diet. It combines a 16 hour/day fasting period with an 8 hour eating window. In practical application, this typically involves skipping breakfast and having a late lunch as your first meal.
This approach is also sometimes known as Lean Gains, popularized by Swedish bodybuilder Martin Berkhan. Although there are other components that go into his dieting system, the most popular one that Martin’s known for is the 16/8 fast, and the term Lean Gains has become a cultural shorthand for it in the fitness world.
- The easiest system to adapt to. You get to eat most of the time you’re awake. Most “normal people” just grab a donut for breakfast anyway. Skip it and just have coffee and you’re good to go.
- Good for your social life. Most social events involving food happen after noon (most of us don’t have too many breakfast commitments).
- Adherence is extremely high. Skipping breakfast is seriously easy after a few weeks, and most people don’t even notice the hunger in the morning. Plus, you get to eat larger meals later in the day.
- A small amount of social pushback. People have spent the last 50 years being indoctrinated with the idea that breakfast is the “most important meal of the day” (it’s not). Expect some strange looks and some unqualified advice giving from people in worse shape than you.
- Honestly, the only other con I can think of is that you don’t get to eat breakfast food. And breakfast food is seriously delicious. Then again, you can always just have it for dinner like I do.
3. 5:2: This one’s definitely a different approach than the previous two. Created by Brad Pilon and called Eat Stop Eat, 5:2 fasting involves eating normally five days per week, and then having two 24 hour periods where you fast.
The idea (or one of the ideas) is that instead of being in a calorie deficit every single day to lose weight, you only have to do it twice per week. By cutting out an entire two days worth of food, you shave some serious calories out, while spending most days eating as if you weren’t on a diet.
I personally started with this style of fasting a few weeks ago, and so far I’m seeing awesome results.
- Surprisingly flexible. The only requirement of the system is that the two fasting days aren’t back to back. Other than that, it doesn’t matter what days of the week you do them. If something comes up, just change your fasting day.
- Makes cutting easy. Put it this way, when you take a bandaid off, do you pull it off slowly and painfully, or do you rip that bad boy off? I for one like to get it over with all at once. Same thing with dieting. Cutting sucks. Get if over with all in two days rather than drag it out over seven.
- Makes you tough. There’s something about knowing you can go 24 hours without food that cultivated a kind of mental resilience that most people don’t have.
- The hardest to get started with. I had already been doing intermittent fasting for years before I started this, and even I found 24 hours to be difficult in the beginning. You do get used to it though.
- The last few hours can be really challenging. It does require a certain tenacity.
- You need to watch out for “compensatory eating” (i.e. going crazy after your fast). In order to lose weight, you need to eat “normally” the other 5 days, not go on a feast.
My Weekend As A Case Study
Remember in Part 1 of this post when I put up pictures of all that food I ate over my trip to Busan?
How was I able to do that? Simple. On the Wednesday and Friday leading up to my weekend, I fasted for 24 hours. That shaved several thousand calories off my weekly total. On Saturday (the night I smashed that burger and multiple drinks), I also fasted until about 7:00pm, saving all my calories up for that event. On the Sunday, I skipped breakfast, and ate all that Korean goodness for lunch and dinner.
How Do You Actually Fast?
You don’t eat…I know, that sounds like a smart ass answer, but that’s basically it.
You can, however, drink whatever you want- as long as it doesn’t have calories. Coffee, tea, sparkling water- all those things are fine (you can put a small amount of milk in your coffee if you want, as long as you don’t drink multiple cups of it).
Drinking lots of water is also highly encouraged. I seriously drink at least two litres of water while I’m fasting. Keeps me hydrated, and I feel amazing (I do piss like a race horse though).
The other thing I’d recommend is to stay busy. Once you start really getting used to fasting, you’ll find that you have a lot more mental focus when you’re in the fasted state. Take the opportunity to get some work done rather than sit around thinking about your next meal.
Which Style’s Have I Personally Used?
I’ve used all three, and I think they’re all great approaches. I’ve also tried other fasting techniques that aren’t “intermittent”.
The first thing I tried out after my summer on the Warrior Diet was juice fasting. Juice fasting is just like it sounds- consuming nothing but freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juice for a set period of time (anywhere from a few days to a week).
Juice fasting should be done to detox your body, and is one of those things you only do a few times a year (DON’T try to do this every week or month). Key word there is “should”. At the time, I convinced myself that I was doing it for detox, but really…I just wanted to lose weight QUICKLY. I did a 10 day juice fast. I lost a shit ton of weight. I put it back on in less than a few months. Lesson learned.
The BIG takeaway I took from my summer on the Warrior Diet was that I didn’t HAVE to eat like a “normal person”. I didn’t have to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times. I could eat whenever I felt like it.
Since the main thing I liked about the Warrior Diet was eating later in the day, starting around 2010 or so I played around on and off with 16/8. It eventually got to the point in 2013 where I eliminated breakfast all together, and really went all in with it.
Seriously, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had breakfast in the last 3 years (pretty much only when I’m really hungover).
For me, it’s been an absolutely amazing strategy for appetite control. I just don’t get hungry during the day, so really, why eat? By contrast, I’m usually starving in the evening (even if I had been eating all day). This makes dieting SO MUCH EASIER.
And to take it back to the one of the objections to intermittent fasting, no, I have not lost muscle and strength by doing this. Over the last 3 years, I’ve actually increased my strength substantially while dropping nearly 30 pounds of fat.
What Am I Doing Now?
Like I said, a few weeks ago I started using 5:2 fasting for this 60 day challenge I’m doing. So far I really like it, and it’s been delivering some pretty serious results (I’ve dropped over 6 pounds in under 4 weeks and taken my body fat percentage from 16% to around 13%).
On days where I’m not doing a 24 hour fast, I do still like to use a modified 16/8 fasting though. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just become part of my life style. But I don’t really worry about strictly adhering to the 16 hour fasting window on these days.
So for example, if my last meal is at 9:00pm, and I have my first meal the next day at around 1:00pm, I don’t worry about it. The main thing I like about 16/8 is the ability to skip breakfast and have bigger meals, so as long as I can do that, it’s all good.
I also occasionally make use of 20/4 fasting. I do this on days when I know I have some kind of social event in the evening involving food- a party, going out for drinks with friends, a work dinner.
I basically just fast right up until the evening. It’s a lot easier going into these things knowing that I have an entire days worth of calories to play with.
Which One Should You Try?
If you’re brand new to this and you’ve never tried fasting before, I’d highly recommend you start with 16/8 fasting. It’s the easiest one to adjust to. I’ve also noticed that learning to skip breakfast just straight up works for most people. It’s easy to get used to, and it’s a huge time saver (use the extra 45 minutes you spend making breakfast to sleep).
16/8 is great because you can use it regardless of what your goals are- bulking, cutting, it’s all good.
Going beyond that, I’d recommend trying out either 5:2 or 20/4 if your goal is to cut fat. 5:2 is the one I’m on right now, and between the two it’s the one I prefer because it allows more flexibility.
If you lead a lifestyle where you’re busy during the day but you’re also able to get away with not eating lunch for social reasons (student, work from home, etc.), you may really enjoy the freedom that comes from 20/4 (gotta love only having to cook one meals a day).
The important thing is to get started and try something.
What do you guys think? Give intermittent fasting a shot and let me know down in the comments what you thought of it.