The health and fitness industry is a wild and untamable beast. Although virtually uncontrollable, there is no shortage of predictability. The number of approaches to diet and training are far too many to count. However, these approaches are often recycled and presented in new ways to make them look more appealing. Men and women’s fitness magazines are full of these examples promising amazing results in record time.

So, why do these approaches not work? Simply put – and at the risk of sounding crazy – they all work in their own respects. Are some more effective than others? Yes, some are exponentially more effective than others. Everybody is just a bit different. There are basic physiological processes that all humans undergo. However, the external circumstances that happen to people trigger different responces for different people. Like mom use to say, everyone is their own individual snowflake.

It is very easy to see how people can be confused with the many different health and fitness strategies. Some strategies work for some and not others. How does one know which one to follow? Well, the simple answer – which actually is not so simple — is that it depends. It depends on one’s current set of circumstances such as body composition, training experiences, and specific goals (again, only to name a few). To answer the question of which protocol works best, one needs to know how his/her body responds to certain things. Simply put, trial and error is the only sure fire way to tell.

When considering a fitness protocol, Intermittent Fasting should be one to seriously consider. Intermittent Fasting (IF) is ideal for those trying to lose body fat and obtain a better physique. IF has numerous benefits for those looking to lose body fat, gain muscle, or attempt the impossible, both at the same time. Intermittent Fasting should be a serious consideration in long-term health and fitness.

Intermittent fasting is more of a lifestyle rather than a diet. Intermittent means having separated intervals. Therefore, IF would be intervals of eating and not eating (fasting). The typical protocol is an eight-hour feeding window followed by a sixteen-hour fasting period. There are other protocols under the IF umbrella. For instance, Brad Pilon’s book “Eat Stop Eat” is an example of the diversity that IF has to offer. In this book, twenty-four hour fasts are followed by twenty-four hour eating windows. Intermittent fasting is truly adaptable and can be suited for almost everybody. Once the misconceptions and non-factual evidence are debunked, one can understand the benefits of implementing an intermittent fasting diet regimen.

Meal frequency is a big issue of debate in the fitness world. The most well-known approach is to eat five to six meals a day. This approach is said to help keep metabolism high which will keep one burning calories all day long. This is true. The metabolism is boosted due to the energy the body requires to digest the incoming food. If one’s goal is to boost metabolism, look no further. However, most people could care less about having a fast or slow metabolism. More people care about their body composition. People want to be fit and healthy. The general public relates a high metabolism to a leaner physique without understanding why. Without getting too technical, briefly, the increase in metabolism comes from the food ingested. The breakdown of fats, carbs, and proteins all require energy (calories[1]). This metabolism of macronutrients[2] is also known as the Thermogenic Effect of Food (TEF).

More meals equal more calories, which yields a much larger metabolic energy expenditure (EE). In another sense, if the same amount of calories are consumed in six meals or in three meals the EE will be the same. A study out of the School of Human Kinetics in Ottawa, Canada, found that a greater meal frequency does not promote better weight loss. The study observed eight men and eight women who were considered obese and were sedentary (less than thirty minutes of continuous exercise performed two times per week). Other than being overweight, the subjects were considered healthy: non-diabetic, non-smokers, women with regular menstrual cycle, etc. The men and women were divided into two groups. One group had a high meal frequency which consisted of three meals plus three snacks. The other group had three meals a day. The study found that “there was NS [no significant] difference in body weight loss between the low-MF [meal frequency] and high-MF groups” (Cameron et al. 1099).

Basically, one can conclude that the number of meals is not as important as the calories of the meals. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition would agree:

There is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through the effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation. (Bellisle et al. S57)

Both groups were given the same caloric deficit and the same type of meals. The daily overall calorie consumption is what is most important in achieving any body weight goal. The body cannot be tricked into burning more calories by eating more frequently. The same number of calories will have the same TEF if eaten in six meals or one meal. Another study out of the British Journal of Nutrition states, “we conclude that increasing MF does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study” (Cameron et al. 1098).

Since meal frequency does not matter, the upside to intermittent fasting can be taken a step further. Intermittent fasting can be more beneficial. Blood glucose[3] is another topic that relates to the higher meal frequency diet. It is thought to believe that the six meals a day approach is better at regulating blood sugar. A recent study from Syracuse University compared high frequency (6) carbohydrate (CHO) meals with low frequency carbohydrate meals (3). The Syracuse study concludes, “Glucose levels remained elevated throughout the day with the frequent CHO meals compared to 3CHO meals” (Holmstrup et al). It turns out that the higher meal frequency has the exact opposite effect on blood sugar levels (Berkhan). The study takes it one step further and states, “Increasing the protein content of frequent meals attenuated both the glucose and insulin response” (Holmstrup et al). This conclusion brings up the crucial element on any successful diet, protein.

The debunking of the six meals a day myth takes on many forms. The myth is rooted in a proclaimed better result of body fat loss and the maintenance of blood sugar. This myth also has to do with protein. The rationale of the six meals a day, as it pertains to protein, is based off of the belief that the human body can only handle twenty to thirty grams at a given time. Therefore, one must maintain a steady supply of protein to feed muscles. This statement is true; it is beneficial to have a trickle effect of amino acids into the blood stream, which will continually feed muscles. This trickle effect will happen regardless. A simple review of the digestion chapter in any high school anatomy book describes this process. However, that will not suffice for the task at hand and is simply not this author’s style.

In reference to a typical high school anatomy book, one might recall the digestion process being a slow one. A typical meal containing fats, carbs, and proteins can take up to four hours just to leave the stomach. (Remember mom saying not to swim after eating? Turns out she was right, sort-of.) Taking it a step further, the Department of Internal Medicine out of the University of Federico in Naples, Italy found that:

The absorption of a natural mixed meal is still incomplete at 5 h [hours] after ingestion… the splanchnic area transfers >30% of the ingested proteins to the systemic circulation; and after meal ingestion, skeletal muscle takes up BCAA[4] to replenish muscle protein stores. (Capaldo et al)

The ingested protein trickles into the blood stream over several hours after the meal is complete. That answers the question of “how one will maintain muscle while fasting” before it is even brought up. If protein in the diet is sufficient towards the specific goal, muscle catabolism[5] is not an issue.

It is easy to see how the majority of people can believe such things without questioning it. Protocols are repeated ad nauseum by the majority of the fitness industry. Supplement companies like to push the six meals a day because they know the average person does not have the time to sit down and eat six meals, nor the time to cook six meals and wash dishes afterward. This shortage of time plays right into their hands. The solution is protein powders and protein bars. They are convenient and easy to take along throughout one’s busy day. Most trainers love the six meals a day because it brings up a bit of complication. If people deem something as complicated, they are more likely to need or want to get help, not to mention the more difficult something is (or seems), the more money one can charge for the services.

The arguments against intermittent fasting are many. However, they are easily dismantled. The main roadblock people face is mental. Most people find it difficult to go a different direction than the majority. That is understandable. People like safety and security. However, one cannot steal second with his/her foot on first. If average and status quo is what one is looking for, it is not too hard to find. Follow the pack, and one is well on their way. For those who dare to be different and question the status quo, their results may far outweigh the risk. Now that one knows the main arguments against intermittent fasting, the discussion of IF’s benefits seems appropriate. The only issue is where to begin.

Fat loss is a big issue. There are thousands of television and radio adds that promise to help one lose weight. Intermittent fasting makes these same promises and delivers. During the fasted state, the body’s blood circulation increases, insulin levels are low, and the body detoxifies itself. Because there is no food (energy) coming in; the body starts breaking down stored forms of energy (primarily fat). Not only does the body begin to use stored fat for the energy it needs, but there is potential for that “stubborn” body fat to be oxidized (burned) as well.

To clarify, “stubborn” body fat is mostly associated with the excess fat around the midsection and lower back (love handle area) and the upper legs and glutes for men and women, respectively. One of the reasons these areas are more difficult to get rid of – stubborn – is because of their poor supply of blood flow. Blood flow is very important when it comes to fat metabolism. In order to “burn fat,” there are three steps, which must occur. First, one must create a need for the body to use stored energy such as working out or, in this regard, fasting. This demand will create the breakdown of stored body fat – in the form of triglycerides (TGs) primarily – into free fatty acids (FFAs). Once broken down, the FFAs will need to be taken away from the fat cell through the blood stream. The FFAs travel in the blood stream until they find a tissue (such as the liver or muscle) that can use it for fuel (McDonald 27-32).

It is easy to see that blood flow plays a major role in fat metabolism. Without enough blood flow the FFAs will never leave the fat cell and eventually be converted back into TGs. More often than not, that is exactly what happens with “stubborn” body fat. The TGs are broken down into FFAs. Once broken down, FFAs are ready to be transported but the poor supply of blood flow leaves many FFAs stranded. There is no other choice but for the body to convert these FFAs back into TGs and store. This scenario is like having all the bags packed and arriving at the train station only to find out that the train is not running today. This is where IF comes in. While fasting, the body is able to detoxify the blood and remove excess waste products that have not yet been used or stored. Insulin levels remain low while fasting, allowing the body to further utilize stored body fat for energy. The increase in blood flow while fasting has a great potential to better transport those FFAs released from the “stubborn” fat cells, thus, getting rid of the stubborn body fat that everyone hates. Please note however, that if one is not lean enough (approximately 10-15% body fat for men and 18-25% for women) the break-down of “stubborn” body fat will be minimal.

From a time-saving standpoint, intermittent fasting reigns supreme once again. If one was to prepare and eat six meals a day, just imagine the time it would require and the thought process involved. Many bodybuilders do not have a problem with this protocol because eating is part of their job. However, planning one’s day around food is not very realistic. Eating the same amount of food in eight hours versus spacing the meals out equally every two-three hours yields the same results; therefore, there is no need in going through all the mental anxiety of ensuring no meal is missed. One must consider the amount of time it would take to physically cook all those meals, washing all the dishes, as well as the time required to sit down and eat the meal. Does not sound like much of a problem if you are not busy all day. However, for those who find frequent meals a job within itself, it could pose a serious problem.

In regards to intermittent fasting, there are many physiological benefits. The benefits fasting has on the body’s natural hormones are quite interesting. Many people believe that fasting increases cortisol levels and lowers growth hormone as well as testosterone (more significant in men than women). These beliefs stem more from of a lack of knowledge about what these hormones actually do in the body. People prefer things in a “cookie-cutter” type way. For example, fruit is good and candy is bad. Most would agree with that statement. However, the context is unclear. If one was trying to refill glycogen stores[6] after several days of depletion, the preferred choice might be a type of candy that is simple sugar, such as dextrose. In this situation, fruit would not be the preferred choice, as fructose[7] is mostly used to refill liver glycogen instead of muscle glycogen. In a similar way, people do the same thing with hormones.

Cortisol gets the blunt of this “cookie-cutter” approach to understanding hormones. Cortisol is considered a catabolic[8] hormone. The term catabolic is primarily referred to as the breakdown of muscle – another misunderstanding. Catabolism is the break down of any molecule. As a matter of fact, without cortisol it would be near impossible to lose body fat. Cortisol is also very important when it comes to pain tolerance. During exercise cortisol is elevated. The elevated cortisol levels help burn fat, increase performance, and is even responsible for the “runner’s high” or “second wind” that one may be familiar with. Therefore, rises in cortisol levels are not necessarily bad. In fact, good luck training without the presence of cortisol. One might not be able to complete a single set (Sapolsky n. pag.).

As with most things, too much of a good thing can be bad. Cortisol is no exception. Chronic levels of high cortisol can be detrimental to the human body. Thus, rest and recovery is crucial to keep cortisol levels under control. In regard to short-term fasting, there is no effect on average cortisol levels. Martin Berkhan’s review of several Ramadan Fasting studies concludes, “…the belief that fasting increases cortisol, which then might cause all kinds of mischief such as muscle loss, has no scientific basis whatsoever” (Berkan, Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked).

Growth Hormone (GH) is another hormone to consider. GH plays a pivotal role in fat metabolism, muscle gain and retention, and many other body processes. It is believed that fasting lowers GH output which will decrease the metabolism of fat and halt muscle preservation mechanisms. There is little research that agrees with that conclusion. In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (JCEM) found that GH levels actually increase in short term fasting (forty-eight hours). The study found that there was more secretory bursts of GH in fasted individuals versus test subjects in the fed state (Hartman et al n. pag.). A more recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reached the conclusion that, “…there is increased proteolysis and oxidation of leucine on short-term fasting even though glucose production and energy expenditure decreased” (Nair 557). It is important to note that short term fasting in the previous study was considered to be three days.

Testosterone is another hormone worth taking a look at. For men, testosterone is directly proportional to how much muscle mass and body fat one has. This is similar in women; however, women’s testosterone levels are significantly lower than their male counterparts. Again, it is believed that fasting can decrease testosterone levels. In Brad Pilon’s book, Eat Stop Eat, he addresses fasting’s effects on testosterone, “the important thing to remember about fasting and testosterone is that while brief fasts do not seem to impact normal testosterone levels, longer periods of fasting may negatively influence testosterone levels.” Pilon continues, “A 58-hour fast has been noted to cause reduced morning serum Testosterone measurements by the third straight morning of fasting, however these measurements were still well within the normal range for healthy adults” (Pilon, n. pag.).

Too much of a good thing can be bad. The benefits of fasting are no exception. Fasting for extended periods would wreak havoc on the body’s natural function. The intermittent fasting protocol is based upon all the benefits of fasting along with the detriments of a standard meal plan. With all the pros and cons in mind, intermittent fasting provides the best of both worlds. During the fasted state the body is burning more fat, metabolic functions are more efficient, and, in most cases, energy levels will be higher as a result. During the feeding window, one is able to eat large meals and feel satisfied. There is no need to stress about meal scheduling or timing. Intermittent fasting allows one to adhere to their nutritional program much easier as well as giving them great body composition benefits. It is a protocol that gives the dieter more freedom and less stress, all the while helping them prove their health and body composition. Intermittent fasting is certainly a protocol to be considered by most, if not all, people interested in becoming happier and healthier in the long term.

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Works Cited

Bellisle, France, Regina McDevitt, & Andrew M. Prentice. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” British Journal of Nutrition (1997): S57-S70. Cambridge Journals. Web. 15 Sept 2014.

Berkhan, Martin. “Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked.” LeanGains. LeanGains.com. 21 Oct 2010. Web. 3 Nov 2014.

Cameron, Jameason D., Marie-Josee Cyr, & Eric Doucet. “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet.” British Journal of Nutrition (2010), 103, pp 1098-1101. Web.

Capaldo, B., Gastaldelli A., Antoniello S., Auletta M., Pardo F., Ciociar D., Guida R., Ferrannini E., Sacca L. “Splanchnic and Leg Substrate Exchange after Ingestion of a Natural Mixed Meal in Humans.” Department of Internal Medicine, University Federico II, Naples, Italy. PubMed. Vol 48. Issue 5. 1999.

Hartman, M.L., J.D. Veldhuis, M. L. Johnson, M. M. Lee, K. G. Alberti, E. Samojlik, and O. Thorner. “Augmented growth hormone (GH) secretory burst frequency and amplitude mediate enhanced GH secretion during a two-day fast in normal men.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Vol 74. Issue 4. 1991.

Holmstrup, Michael E. et al. “Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day.” The European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (2010). Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

McDonald, Lyle. The Stubborn Fat Solution. Salt Lake City: Lyle McDonald Publishing, 2008. Print.

Nair, Sreekumaran, Paul D. Woolf, Stephen L. Welle, and Dwight E Matthews. “Leucine, Glucose, and Energy Metabolism after 3 Days of Fasting in Healthy Human Subjects.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2014). Original Research Communications. Web.

Pilon, Brad. Eat Stop Eat. Strength Works International Publishing, Inc. Boise: Basic, 2012. Print.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1998. Print.

 

[1] The body’s energy source

[2] Macronutrients are nutrients that the body needs in large quantitities. These include proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and, in some instances, water

[3] Blood sugar

[4] Branch Chain Amino Acids

[5] Breaking down

[6] Where muscles store energy

[7] Fruit sugar

[8] Metabolic pathway that breaks down molecules

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4 Comments

Lisa Provost · February 18, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Good reading! I am a believer now!

Ramiro · February 27, 2015 at 8:25 am

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Al Marie · March 3, 2015 at 4:14 pm

This is definitely a different look at breaking the “norm” of the 6 meals/day. I wouldn’t consider the 6 meals a day a “myth”, because it has been shown effective in many different scenarios.

It would be interesting to see weight loss studies pertaining to intermittent fasting that have been performed over the course of 6-12 months instead of just 8 weeks. Weight loss studies are more reliable over longer periods of time. Also, is this diet sustainable? What happened to listening to the normal, natural hunger cues from your body?

Absorption of many vitamins and minerals is also altered when consuming large meals in a short amount of time. Although this could be an easier alternative for some people, it’d be nice to see some studies on absorption rates of these vitamins, minerals, and protein content.

Studies have found that the feast and famine method could actually extend your life (this study was performed in rats) – however, this diet is very difficult to maintain over a lifetime. It all goes back to, what are the implications of this diet and what does this mean for us in the long run? This may work for short term weight loss, but what happens when you suddenly eat a meal past your 6-8 hour window? Will you gain that weight back?

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150227112508.htm

http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/weight-loss/your-health-and-your-weight/intermittent-fasting

    Nick LaToof · March 3, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    The “myth” that I’m referring to is that you need to eat 6 meals a day for optimal health and/or body composition purposes. Didn’t mean for that to sound as if it didn’t work. The main argument I want to bring up is that it is no more affective than the intermittent fasting approach (see the Cameron et al study). And ultimately, the aproach that’s best for the individual is the one that is “best.”

    For example: Many people who have an active job cannot expect to eat 6 meals a day.

    I do not suggest Intermittent Fasting for everyone. This paper was just to bring people more aware of diet strategies that could work for them. I wanted to bring up a strategy that could fit into their lifestyle. That’s what makes this approach sustainable long term. Personally, I’ve been doing IF for the past 4 years.

    These practices are very sustainable for most. After the initial period of adjustment, the headaches, sluggish feelings, etc are gone. Just like with anything, it always gets worse before it gets better. I feel energy is much better in the earlier part of the day and my workouts haven’t suffered in the least after the initial adaptation period. Kind of ironic, but it’s true and I’m not the only one who’s discovered this.

    I think a lot of times people really discredit how unique and incredibly adaptive the body is. We so easily adapt to training stimulus that we must adjust our routines regularly. Why do we not feel the same way when it comes to metabolic adaptations?

    My speculation is that the body eventually adapts to your chosen meal tendencies and can absorb the same amount, if not more, of the nutrients you ingest. By eating less frequent (compared to 6-8 meals/day), your body can utilize available nutrients from mixed meal during the fasted state.

    Digestion is a metabolically expensive process. I for one would rather not have my body digesting foods all day long. I speculate that this a culprit when it comes to feeling sluggish during the day (i.e. after breakfast/after lunch, etc).

    Even though fasted, your body is never absent of nutrients.

    If the diet is sufficient in all macronutrients, the rate of absorption will be much slower in a large mixed meal. And once the adaptions to one’s eating regimen have been made, the body will realize that it will have a longer time to digest nutrients (during the fast).

    Please, keep in mind, that these adaptations do not create a magical 8 hour window. If you happen to eat outside your typical window, the results will not vary significantly. And if you must change your window, it will not be detrimental to your success.

    I found no additional info in the two links. However, I am very interested in intermittent fasting’s affects on diabetics. Would love to do some studies for my thesis on that subject, granted we can do so ethically.

    As always, further research will need to be done in order to determine long term results. However, I feel like this is much more sustainable long term that eating every 2-3 hours and being a slave to the clock.

    I agree that listening to your body would be ideal. However, for most people differentiating between hunger (body’s need for food) and appetite (mental ‘want’ of food via environmental stimulus) would be near impossible. Most are weak-minded and would give in to the slightest temptation.

    And YES!!! Implications for this routine, and any other routine for that matter, must be clear. Why are you doing this? You must know your goal before considering anything!

    Just to be clear, intermittent fasting is not for everybody BUT everybody could use it!

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