Earlier this week, I posted a brief guide on getting started with intermittent fasting. You can read it here.
Intermittent fasting is a great tool for getting strong and lean without changing your diet. But it can also seem confusing or extreme if you’re not familiar with it. In fact, my guide seemed to prompt quite a few questions, many of which I responded to over email.
Because you may be wondering many of the same things, I figured I should write about them here as well as share some of the important lessons I’ve learned from practicing intermittent fasting for over one year.
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12 Lessons Learned from 1 Year of Intermittent Fasting
1. The biggest barrier is your own mind.
Implementing this diet is pretty simple, you just don’t eat when you wake up. Then you eat and lunch and go about your day. At least, that’s how I do it.
But there is a mental barrier to get over. “If I don’t eat will I not be able to think? Will I faint? Will I feel sick? What will it be like?” These are all thoughts that went through my mind before I started.
What ended up happening? Nothing. Life went on just fine.
Thinking you need to eat every 3 hours or six meals a day or always have breakfast or whatever it is that you’re convinced you have to do to survive … is all mental. You believe it because you were told it, not because you actually tried it.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed that separates successful people from unsuccessful ones in life it’s not just the ability to think differently, but the ability to act differently as well.
2. Losing weight is easy.
When you eat less frequently you tend to eat less overall. As a result, most people who try intermittent fasting end up cutting weight. You might plan big meals, but consistently eating them is difficult in practice.
For this reason, I think intermittent fasting is a great option for people who are looking to lose weight because it offers a simple way to cut down on the total number of calories you eat without changing your diet. Even if you tell people that they can eat two large meals at lunch and dinner, they typically end up eating fewer calories than they would at 3 or 4 normal meals.
Most people lose weight while intermittent fasting because when they cut out meals, they don’t make up for it with bigger meal sizes.
3. Building muscle is quite possible (if that’s what you want).
I have managed to gain weight while intermittent fasting (I’ve added about 12 pounds of lean body mass and cut 5 pounds of fat over the last year), but only because I have focused on eating a lot during my feeding period.
As I mentioned above, the natural tendency is to lose weight on intermittent fasting because it’s easy to eat less when you cut a meal out of your day. However, at the end of the day eating 2,000 calories is eating 2,000 calories whether it comes during a 16–hour span or an 8–hour span. It just takes more effort to make sure you eat it all within 8 hours.
It’s totally reasonable to build muscle as long as you eat enough.
4. My best work is usually done when I’m deep into my fast.
I’m most productive during the first 3 hours of my morning, which is about 12 to 15 hours into my daily fast. This is the exact opposite of what I expected when I started out. I assumed that if I didn’t eat for hours, then I wouldn’t have any energy to think. The reality is just the opposite.
I have a lot of mental clarity in the morning when I fast. I can’t say for certain if this is due to the fasting or the fact that I’m just refreshed when I wake up, but one thing is clear: fasting is not hindering my ability to get things done in the morning. In fact, I’m almost always more productive in the morning when I’m fasted than in the afternoon when I’m fed.
5. For best results, cycle what you eat.
Intermittent fasting works, but I didn’t start cutting fat at a significant rate until I added in calorie cycling and carb cycling to my diet. Here’s how it works…
I cycle calories by eating a lot on the days that I workout and less on the days that I rest. This means I have a calorie surplus on the days I train and a calorie deficit on the days that I rest. The idea behind this is that you can build muscle on the days you train and burn fat on the days you rest. And by the end of the week, you should have done both.
Additionally, I cycle carbs by eating a lot of carbohydrates on the days that I train and few carbohydrates on the days that I rest. This is done to stimulate fat loss. I eat high protein all the time and moderate to low fat on most days. Cycling carbohydrates has also led to additional fat loss.
For me, this is when the intermittent fasting seemed to pay off the most — when I coupled it with calorie cycling and carb cycling.
6. Like most things, you should take a long–term view of eating.
Too often we think about our diet in super short timeframes.
It’s better to think about what we eat over the course of a week than over the course of a day (or worse, a few hours). For example, whether or not you have a protein shake within 30 minutes of working out, is largely a non–issue if you’re getting a meal of quality protein within 24 hours of working out.
One reason intermittent fasting works is because the super short timeframes that we are pitched by food companies and supplement companies are largely a myth. Let’s say you eat 3 quality meals per day. That’s 21 meals per week. Over the course of a week, do you think your body cares if the meals are eaten from 8am to 8pm (the normal eating schedule) or 1pm to 8pm (an intermittent fasting schedule)?
How about if we stretch it out over the course of a month? Wouldn’t it make sense that if you ate 80 quality meals every month (about 3 per day) that your body would make the most of those meals whether you ate them in an 8–hour block or a 12–hour block on each individual day?
When you take a slightly longer view, you start to realize that the time difference between eating from 8am to 8pm versus eating from 1pm to 8pm isn’t that large over the course of a week or a month.
7. It’s strange, but when I’m fasting I want food less.
Now that I’ve started fasting, I want food less. I’m not addicted to it. I’m not a victim to my diet. I eat when I want because I want to, not because my body tells me I have to.
This is a marked change from my previous eating schedule and I think the additional power and flexibility I have over my diet now is a benefit.
8. Losing fat and gaining muscle can both be done, just not together.
If you’re looking to lose fat and build muscle mass, then the combination of intermittent fasting, calorie cycling, and carb cycling that I have mentioned here is one of the best solutions you’ll find.
You see, it’s basically impossible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. You need to have a net calorie deficit.
To build muscle, you need to eat more calories than you burn. You need to have a net calorie surplus.
It should be fairly obvious that you can’t have a net surplus and a net deficit at the same time. For example, you can either eat more than 2,000 calories or you can eat less than 2,000 calories … but you can’t do both at the same time. This is why it’s basically impossible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
However, if we get away from the small timeframes and start thinking about our diet over the course of a week or a month, then we start to have more options. For example, let’s say that you workout 3 days per week. You could organize your eating routine to have a calorie surplus on the days you train (i.e. gain muscle) and then a calorie deficit on the days you rest (i.e. lose fat). That way, by the end of the week, it’s possible for you to have spent 3 days gaining muscle and 4 days losing fat.
9. When fasting, I have made more gains by training less.
I’ve recently began testing a new hypothesis for strength training, which I call “Do The Most Important Thing First.”
It’s as simple as it sounds. I pick one goal for the workout and do the most important exercise first. Everything else is secondary. For example, right now I’m working out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I do two sessions each day. Upper body in the morning. Lower body in the evening. But I’m only doing one exercise each time (pushups in the morning) and squat or deadlift in the evening. If I feel like it, I’ll finish my evening workout with kettlebell work or bodyweight stuff (handstands, front levers, and so on).
The results have been very good. I’ve seen improvement each and every week over the last three months. It’s worked so well that I’m starting to think that it has very little to do with fasting, but instead is just a better way of training. I’ll write more about this in the future, but I wanted to note it here because when I compare it to the previous way I trained while fasting (snatch and clean and jerk three days per week, plus squat or deadlift), I seem to be making more progress.
10. As long as you stay under 50 calories, you’ll remain in the fasted state.
A lot of people like to start their day with a cup of coffee or a glass of orange juice. Maybe you’re one of them. I have a glass of water. Well you don’t have to dump your morning routine if you want to give fasting a try.
The general rule of thumb is that if you stay under 50 calories, then you’ll remain in the fasted state. I’m not sure where this number came from, but I’ve seen it dished around by enough reputable people that I’m going to go with it for now. Following the opinion of the majority is typically a lazy move, but in this case I think you’ll be alright if you want to have a cup of coffee in the morning.
11. Prepare to drink a lot of water.
I drank a lot of water before I began intermittent fasting, but now I drink an incredible amount. I’m usually over 8 glasses for the day by the time I get done with lunch.
You mileage may vary, but even if you don’t drink as much water as I do, I recommend having it at the ready.
12. The best diet for you is the one that works for you.
Everyone wants to be handed the ultimate diet plan. We all want the answers on one sheet of paper. “Here. Just do this and you’ll be set.”
This is why diet books sell so well. A lot of people are willing to pay for a quick fix, a diet in a box, or the nutritional solution to long life.
Here’s my problem with marketers telling everyone that their diet is the best: it’s like telling the whole world to wear medium sized shirts and then wondering why they don’t fit a lot of people.
In most ways, your body is the same as everyone else’s. But in some very important ways, it’s also different than everyone else’s. To find the diet that works best for you, you need to experiment and see what your body responds to.
This is why I enjoy intermittent fasting. You can play with your eating schedule very easily. Choose one that fits your lifestyle and that your body responds to. Once you figure out when you should be eating, then you can move on to the harder part: what you should be eating.
As always, your mileage will vary, but the most important thing is that you’re covering ground and moving forward.