Myth Busting: Intermittent Fasting

As with many diet fads, intermittent fasting (IF) comes and goes. It picks up steam within certain communities and then gradually falls off as another fad comes along and presents itself as the better alternative.

I’ve seen a lot of information about intermittent fasting around the internet lately, so I figured I’d take a second to debunk some popular myths regarding this dietary strategy.

“Special” Fat Burning

First is the idea that fasting promotes some sort of special “fat burning process.” The prevailing idea is that after 10-12 hours of fasting, your body enters ketosis and your brain starts using fatty acids (instead of glucose, it’s preferred energy source) for fuel.

However, isn’t it a little unbelievable that after only 10 hours your brain has depleted your entire body of it’s stored glucose? The liver alone can store somewhere in the realm of 100 grams of glucose at a time, roughly the same amount of glucose that your brain needs for an entire day of looking at memes on Instagram and refreshing your email inbox. That would mean you’d only be about halfway empty by the time you reached lunch.

Ketosis isn’t like changing your clothes. In fact, it can take multiple days to deplete glycogen stores and ketosis often comes with sluggishness & headaches as your brain makes the switch. This would be made worse by a constant “in” and “out” of ketosis. But don’t worry, your IF diet likely won’t get you there.

The common argument here is that the quick, 12-hour switch to fatty acids as your fuel source is an evolutionary trait – we’re designed with this back-up system. But if we’re going to use the evolution argument, wouldn’t it also make sense that your body would store glycogen (it’s preferred fuel source) for more than just a normal eight-hour workday at the office?

The truth is that your body burns through both carbohydrates and fats differently throughout the day based on the intensity and duration of your minute-to-minute activity level. It can take multiple days to enter ketosis, not just 12 hours.

Extra Weight Loss

Another common misconception with intermittent fasting is that these diets somehow drive immediate and sustainable weight loss. Fasting is supposed to increase growth hormone production, thus increasing the rate of fat burning.

And in the case of weight loss, some of this myth is partially correct. In the absence of food intake, glycogen depletion will be accompanied by dehydration. In fact, the human body retains approximately three parts water for every molecule of glycogen that it stores. As glucose is used up and not replenished, this dehydration creates weight loss. However, this weight loss is not true fat loss and the weight lost will be reacquired when food and fluid intake begins again.

True fat loss can only be achieved through a negative energy balance over time combined with adequate protein intake and anaerobic exercise. 

Periods of fasting impede your body’s ability to synthesize new proteins. As protein breakdown occurs naturally and amino acid turnover occurs, the lack of incoming amino acids make a loss of amino acids inevitable.

This deficit would probably be neutralized at best during the feeding period, making lean mass retention actually more difficult (note that I said more difficult, not impossible by any means) during IF. Of course, this would depend largely on the ratio of fasting to feeding.

In the end, you’ll probably want a steady stream of amino acids to replenish the body’s amino acid pool and some anaerobic exercise (a.k.a. lifting & sprinting) to create the right hormonal environment. These extra pieces ensure that you’re losing fat, not just weight.

A Hidden Secret

A third myth perpetuated by the intermittent fasting community is that the food industry somehow has a stake in not telling you the truth about intermittent fasting and it’s benefits.

While I can agree that the food industry probably isn’t the best place to look for an unbiased look at health and wellness, it’s not safe to assume that they are withholding some ultra-important nutrition secret either.

The idea is that a diet based on intermittent fasting is also one of “less eating,” which would mean less business for restaurants and food stores. While this might be true in some cases, IF does not guarantee a smaller caloric intake and, although it might hurt breakfast venues, it might actually work in favor for the dinner industry as hungry fasters make irrational decisions in their evening search for sustenance.

IF & Exercise

And what about morning workouts? While many in the IF community rave about the increased brain function (which I’ll touch on in just a second), those that are fasting through their workout and for many hours afterward are missing out on key times that the body might be more sensitive to proteins and carbohydrates.

This means that you’d be leaving valuable #gainz on the table by not consuming food around your workout.

And what about nighttime workouts? If you’re worrying about stuffing your face with an entire day’s worth of calories like you’re in an 8 hour eating contest, can you really afford to lose a couple of hours to exercising?

Intermittent fasting, practically speaking, works really well for some schedule-wise. However, if it doesn’t fit your schedule, you can’t workout on an empty stomach, or you’re a nighttime exerciser with a short fasting window, I wouldn’t count on IF working out long-term.

The Pros of IF

So maybe intermittent fasting isn’t the best choice when it comes to overall performance or body composition, but how about that extra alertness throughout the day?

As somebody that has tried intermittent fasting at length in the past, I can vouch for the increase in awareness that seems to come with an eight to 12 hour fast. When the brain is put under the mild stress of not having fuel, it seems to improve it’s own efficiency through the development of neurons and synapses. In simplest terms, your brain builds more efficient wiring through which to communicate within itself and with the rest of your body.

From a psychological perspective, I enjoyed what fasting taught me about hunger and thirst cues. These feelings (at least for me) often come in waves – they calm down after a while and then start back up again. This doesn’t mean you should ignore these cues, especially thirst, but it was an interesting discovery.

The Cons

On the other hand, intermittent fasting hampered my ability to get through my workouts. Despite eating adequate calories, I found myself with headaches throughout my workouts and for the days afterward. Of course, this is probably dependent on the type of workouts being performed and will vary greatly from individual to individual.

Additionally, strong hunger cues and general life stress can lead to an overload of the hormone ghrelin and (more importantly) turn you into a kitchen gremlin wherein anything and everything is on the table (literally). See here.

The Summary

On the surface, intermittent fasting (and other related nutritional philosophies like the 5/2 diet) can be an attractive diet option for many busy people. But as is the case with most health & fitness question, the right answer can depend.

It depends on your goals. If you’re looking to give your digestive system a break, feel more alert in the morning, or just lessen the stress of eating throughout your morning and work day, maybe IF is for you.

If your goals involve performance, body composition, or overall health, it might be worth it to look a little deeper before you make the commitment.

Don’t be fooled. Intermittent fasting doesn’t have any special capacity for fat loss. The rules still apply; create a negative energy balance, eat your protein at regular intervals, and lift weights. 

But just to end this article on a lighter note, remember that you’re technically fasting already. It’s an eight hour fast … while you’re sleeping.

What The Health Indeed

If you’ve been on the internet for even three seconds lately, especially on Facebook, then you’ve probably seen videos and commentary from a documentary entitled What The Health. From the doc’s website,

What the Health is the groundbreaking follow-up film from the creators of the award-winning documentary Cowspiracy. The film exposes the collusion and corruption in government and big business that is costing us trillions of healthcare dollars, and keeping us sick.

What The Health is a surprising, and at times hilarious, investigative documentary that will be an eye-opener for everyone concerned about our nation’s health and how big business influences it.

Actually, a pretty good description. It doesn’t claim itself to be vegan, vegetarian, or cow-hugging. And it was created by the same people that created the documentary Cowspiracy, a film that investigates the effects of animal agriculture on our environment’s health.

What The Health takes a different approach, mostly concerned with animal and animal product consumption by humans as a chief influencer of our health and our nation’s biggest health concerns.

After a brief Google search, I was unable to find any film reviews by any of my impartial fitness colleagues, so I took some notes and want to share what I found.

For the record, I am in strong agreement that animal agriculture is affecting our environmental health in a similar fashion to other industries like transportation. But What The Health is about human health, so let’s go. (And also for the record, this review will contain not only evaluations of facts, but also critique of the way in which those facts were presented. Presentation is, of course, the key to getting into the mind of the viewer and it’s important to present facts with integrity.)

The Cons

The most disappointing part of the film was the clear misunderstanding of carbohydrate metabolism by medical doctors presented in the film as weight loss experts. It seems that, these days, it’s easier to just flash that M.D. on the screen and assume that whatever is said must be the unabridged truth.

But as in the personal training industry, the medical industry includes a wide range of professionals with many different experiences and educational backgrounds outside of their doctorates.

To assume that one doctor’s opinion is the aggregate opinion of the medical community would be like test-driving a Ford and assuming that every single car on Earth felt the exact same way.

The film states that carbohydrates cannot be stored as fat because they are immediately burned as fuel or stored in the liver.

To be more correct, any and all macronutrients (including protein, fat & carbohydrates) can be stored as fat. In fact, carbs and fat frequently are. However, fat cells are more akin to a revolving door than a locked vault as fatty acids are constantly becoming mobilized and used as energy throughout your day.

In regards to the liver, the liver itself can only store about 100 grams of glycogen at any given time, give or take depending on the person. These stores are used by the brain throughout the day when blood glucose is not readily available. Ingested carbohydrates are then used to replenish these stores.

And just as an aside, muscles also store glycogen and that uptake is determined by overall usage. It’s much higher after an intense weight lifting or sprinting workout, but muscle glycogen can be used at points throughout the day.

The next point made in the film was that insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) plays an essential role in the development of cancer. The idea is that IGF-1 should be reduced in order to prevent the growth and spread of cancer.

IGF-1 is actually a peptide hormone, stimulated by the release of growth hormone, that contributes to the growth of almost every cell in the human body, including skeletal muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, nerve, skin, lung, blood, and even DNA cells.

So, yes, it may affect the growth of cancer cells. But it also affects the growth of almost every cell in your body. I think there’s probably some benefit to healthy lung, nerve, liver & kidney function, lean mass retention, strong bones, and resilience within our ligaments as we age.

You also need skin.

The third thought that I had while watching the film involved the idea that asthma is caused by animal agriculture or eating animals.

There are too many factors to asthma to connect it to food intake. For instance, improper diaphragmatic positioning and function can lead to aberrant breathing patterns that could manifest as asthma and might present itself at other times beyond just during exercise.

(And while we’re at it, yes, two-thirds of the country is overweight or obese, but only one-fifth of them belong to a gym. Even fewer actually use that membership. Can’t we just be even a little bit moderate in our views and understand that neither dietary choices nor exercise trends are the only explanations for our country’s weight issue?)

The next piece that I can say I didn’t exactly love were a few of the comparisons within the film. To be specific:

  • Casein protein stimulates the brain like heroin. Okay, really? I know we had 2,000 casein protein overdose deaths in Massachusetts last year alone, but did we need to publicize that?
  • The film equates the number of people dying from animal-borne diseases every year to the number of people that were killed on September 11, 2001. (They even show videos of of the military.) I’m dumbfounded by this choice of comparison.
  • The amount of people that will die from cardiovascular disease is the equivalent of four jumbo jets crashing every single hour, every single day, every single year. Again with an illlustration.
  • There are multiple references to race and racism in the film, which critical thinking tells me is the film’s way of stirring controversy and anger versus actual education.
  • Osteokinematic problems aren’t always or only caused by diet. There are too many other factors, including exercise & movement habits, to link only diet.
  • There’s a comparison in the film of humans to elephants, gorillas, rhinoceroses, and other large land-based animals as a way of demonstrating that the largest, strongest animals on Earth are all plant-based. And even if we did want to be like those animals, wouldn’t we want to be drinking the same milk that the film is telling us to avoid? Make up your minds!

The Pros

Eating a whole food (for me, this means “containing minimal ingredients”) vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet will mostly likely bring about a large decrease in overall calorie consumption, including calories from both protein and fat.

If we can be honest with ourselves for two seconds here, any and all particles in the bloodstream have the potential to be inflammatory to the arteries. Less particles equals less inflammation, which is a good thing for cardiovascular disease, so less calories overall seems to be a good idea. Additionally, less calories equals a smaller glycemic load in all of your meals, which logically seems to be a good thing in regards to diabetes.

Also, less calories equals less fat which equals greater sexiness and isn’t that what we all want?

Eating a diet of mostly plants seems to be closely connected with overall longevity. If you’re curious about longevity, check out Blue Zones, a company dedicated to the exploration of longevity and life expectancy and how we can maximize our time.

Not only does a plant-based diet help us live longer, but my best guess is that a plant-based diet might also help our Healthy Life Expectancy. That is, the number of years we might be free of major, debilitating diseases.

Eating a diet that is more rich in plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, will undoubtedly help you consume more of the micronutrients that your body needs to perform all of your body’s micro-processes. These are the processes that happen at the level of individual cells and keep you alive.

I personally recommend that at least two-thirds to three-quarters of my own clients’ dietary choices come in the form of plant-based foods, including things like vegetables, fruits, and “healthy fats.”

Additionally, the film (though Cowspiracy does it better) does touch on the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Whether you agree with the idea of a plant-based diet or not, you should investigate for yourself how animals are currently raised and the toll it takes on our environment. In any case, finding a more sustainable way to raise animals for food should be a priority.

And lastly, the film discusses the continuing impact of “big business” on policy at the national level. To have the food industry impacting decisions regarding human health is a clear conflict of interest. I won’t dive into this topic though because that could be an entire year’s worth of blog posts, spanning more than just the food industry.

Above all, it’s important to remember that plant-based, vegan, organic, non-GMO, whole food, vegetarian, pescatarian, and omnivorous are not mutually-exclusive. You don’t have to be one-or-the-other. Plant-based does not mean tree-hugger. It doesn’t mean you can’t eat the occasional cheeseburger. And 100% plant-based dieting might not be the most sustainable way to grow/raise our food. I think we have much left to learn.

The most important thing out of all of this is that we clearly need better, more accurate, well-rounded and moderated material to make more educated decisions regarding diet and exercise. Hanging out at one end of the spectrum and producing outlandish, and at times offensive, documentaries doesn’t help anybody.

(I did not include any studies throughout this review because, as I’m sure you might be aware by now, you can prove anything with one single study and it takes the collection of thousands of studies over hundreds of years combined with the experiences of millions of individuals to reveal the truth behind any science.)

Why I Named The Gym After Myself

The most interesting phenomenon (in my opinion) in the training world is the desire of most young trainers to work with professional athletes.

Around the time that Crossfit exploded and planted itself in every town in North America (sometimes multiple times), personal training and performance training centers starting popping up all across the United States. I guess I probably notice it more because I live in such a densely-populated area – the South Shore of Massachusetts is literally freckled with people and businesses.

These training centers all came with the same common theme: nobody was naming the business after themselves. Instead, the business name frequently center around words like performance, power, premier, advantage, optimal, and ultimate.

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The Value Of Stretching

When many people think of “tightness” within a muscle, they might imagine a muscle that is physically short and unable to elongate itself to the proper length. Thus, we stretch that muscle in hopes of making some sort of mechanical alteration.

But think of it this way for a minute: instead of using the word tight or tightness, use the word tension. The feeling of tension within a muscle, similar to the sensation of pain, has a large neurological component.

It’s also important to remember that tension can arise in muscles for a number of reasons. There are psychosocial factors to tension and “tightness” within a muscle. For instance, prior injury can induce tension in a muscle or nearby muscle group in order to protect again future injury. As an example, someone with a history of back injury might feel tension throughout the lower back as a protective mechanism. As another example, someone performing an exercise or activity that previously induced pain into a certain area might feel pain or tension even without any structural harm being done.

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How Do I Optimize My Workouts For Fat Loss?

You Should Read This If You:

  • Are interested in losing fat
  • Want to optimize your workouts
  • Are interested in being healthier or “just feeling better”
  • Enjoy comparing apples and oranges

It’s no secret that “fat loss” is probably one of the top three most common goals of the non-competitive gym-goer. But don’t read that as a criticism of the 99% of people that never play a sport past their senior year of high school.

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Eat Like An Adult

A few years ago, I came up with the acronym DEER. I even wrote a short pdf about it. It stands for “Drink more water, eat more protein, eat more vegetables, and replace crap.” See, when I’m coaching nutrition, I generally start by asking somebody to drink more water. It’s fairly simple and a relatively “win-able” task that helps set somebody up on the right path.

Protein always came next. Protein assists in recovery from workouts, requires more energy to digest, and usually keeps us satiated longer. The third thing was always vegetables. Vegetables are usually the hardest thing to add to a diet. Our Western diet doesn’t include many vegetables (save for the lettuce, tomato, and red onion on our cheeseburgers) and it can be tough to find a “spot” for them in our meals and snacks. So this is where people usually get hung up.

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