Meal timing is a tricky endeavor. For the longest time, the blanket suggestion from most nutrition folks used to be, “eat 3 square meals per day and two snacks in order to keep your metabolic fires stoked.” But then more primal eating protocols became popular and everyone, it seemed, started to experiment with more extreme meal timing.
So is fasting a simple way to manage calorie intake? Or is it an unnecessary, miserable, and extreme way to eat? Unfortunately, like so many other topics in nutrition science, the truth is…it depends.
First of all, let’s redefine our idea of fasting. Technically speaking, we all fast. Fasting is simply a period of not eating. That’s why we call it “break-fast” – we’re breaking the fast of not eating while we sleep. While fasts can last days or weeks, a common and less extreme strategy is called “time restricted feeding.” You can think of it as a daily “mini fast.” An example of this would be the 16/8 protocol – which calls for an 8 hour eating window followed by a 16 hour fast, repeated daily.
Is fasting something you should consider? Or asked another way, what meal frequency would make you the happiest and healthiest version of yourself?
Here’s where things start to get dicey because there is not one universal answer. Some people do well with fasting protocols. Some people do not. That means the choice to fast is going to require some self-exploration. (FYI – randomly skipping meals and then binging is not a good plan – it’s a haphazard and stressful relationship with food – which is not something we recommend.)
Before we decide whether to fast or not, let’s talk about some science. Because we want you to understand a little bit more why it’s sometimes good for us NOT to eat.
What happens when we fast?
One of the biggest benefits of fasting is appetite control. The first thing we learn when we fast is that our body gets okay relatively quickly when we don’t eat. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) is down regulated when we fast. It makes sense, when you think about it. Our body produces ghrelin to encourage us to eat, but let’s say a few hundred thousand years ago if food wasn’t available our body wasn’t going to sit around and be miserable. We’d have to go hunt or gather. And so hunger goes away quickly – usually within 15 minutes of the initial onset.
Another benefit of fasting is increased autophagy. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh joy. Autophagy is my favorite.” No? What is autophagy? Autophagy is the process by which we disassemble and recycle cells in our body. Again, it makes sense that this would be upregulated when we fast. When food isn’t available for an extended period of time, our body starts to disassemble cells. But, in its infinite wisdom, the human body goes about this process in an orderly manner. Logically, it goes after the most unnecessary and dysfunctional cells first. And that makes fasting and autophagy a markedly good thing – the process by which we eliminate weak cells in our body to increase our overall awesomeness.
I’d (Rob) like to point out here that the literature doesn’t indicate autophagy from fasting to be any greater than autophagy from other forms of calorie restriction. So fasting isn’t some magical state. If there are other forms of calorie management that are easier or more enjoyable for you, those would absolutely be recommended.
What else? When we fast we also reduce our blood lipids, our blood glucose, our blood pressure, and our markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. In terms of body composition, fasting also helps regulate the window in which we consume food. A smaller window usually means we consume less energy, which leads to fat loss.
But it’s not all rainbows and fairy sprinkles. There are some downfalls:
- Lack of energy
- Mood swings
- Loss of focus
- Preoccupation with food
Here’s the tricky part. Some of these side effects are more pronounced in certain people than other (which is why this stuff takes some self-experimentation.) The side effects do tend to diminish as we get more accustomed to fasting, but for many the cost can still outweigh the benefits.
BIG NOTE: Women have a tendency to respond to fasting differently than men. This makes sense from a biological perspective. Lack of food is a much greater threat to the reproductive capability of women than it is to men (because we have to house a baby for 9 months.) Reproduction and metabolism are intimately connected and so women tend to have more severe physiological and hormonal responses to fasting. Big take home: If you have ovaries, TREAD LIGHTLY. You can experiment with fasting, but start with mild protocols and don’t expect to respond the same as your Y-chromosome carrying compadres.
(Rob) I often use a 16/8 fasting protocol. My first meal of the day in usually around 1pm, and then I’m done eating at night around 9pm. This is an excellent protocol if you’re able to workout in the late morning, but not so convenient for early morning or evening sweaters. I also often use a “fat fast” – a generous serving of coconut oil or cream in my morning coffee in place of a meal – which is a modified fasting protocol that works well.
The success of various IF protocols proves that our body isn’t that delicate which is reassuring. Not eating for an extended period of time won’t “break” our metabolism…it isn’t a toy truck. That means self-experimentation is absolutely essential to creating a smart plan because there really isn’t a right answer. Meal timing simply comes down to preference and personal schedule. All of this is to say, we can fast, but we certainly don’t have to in order to find a nutrition protocol that is ideal.
Meal Frequency FAQ
Q: I’ve had some food issues in the past…would you still recommend fasting?
A: No. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder, have a history of disordered eating, or have a tendency to obsess over food, fasting isn’t ideal for you. Keep your nutritional timing balanced and consistent (every 3-4 hours.)
Q: If I fast, can I eat more junk food?
A: You can eat “junk food” whenever you want. Also, we just usually call it food.
Q: Any tips to make fasting more manageable?
A: Start slow. Like anything else we do on the reg, fasting gets easier with time. Get conformable with it before you take it a step further. So for example, if you workout after work, you might start by having your first meal at 10am for a week. Then 11am. Then noon. Then 1pm. You can train your hunger hormones like you can train anything else.
Q: I notice I’m way more hungry if I don’t sleep. What’s the story there?
A: Because a lot of our hunger hormones are balanced when we sleep, good sleep habits make all of this much easier. When we don’t sleep well, we don’t eat well. Said another way, when our sleep is messed up, lots of other things follow suit.
We know there was a lot of information in this section. More of a meal than a nibble. But we want to provide authentic and meaningful information, so we had to go beyond the basics. We hope it’s helpful.
Love & muscles,
Rob & Mel