Intermittent Fasting is one of the most debated topics in the fitness and nutrition world. Many so-called “experts” tell you to “graze” – eating constantly throughout the day. This may be good advice for women, but it’s terrible advice for men. Here’s how to do it right.
Modern life screws up food beyond quantity and quality. For much of our existence, food has not been immediately available whenever we had a passing interest. Evidence indicates that little of our hunter-gatherer past was spent in times of starvation or famine, but food still required more work than walking to the kitchen, break room, grocery store, or McDonald’s.
Our eating patterns were more closely controlled by food availability and social custom than they are today.
Breakfast was rare, and if food were around, it was typically leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Men would go off to hunt, typically foregoing food completely until returning with a kill in the evening. Women ate more frequently while gathering, which lead to gender-specific responses to feeding schedules that still persist today (women don’t enjoy the same benefits of fasting that men do).
The main meal of the day was dinner, typically enjoyed in a large group shortly after sundown. Study of modern hunter-gatherers indicates that the hunting bounty is typically shared amongst the entire tribe, whereas gathered goods are only shared within families.
As a result of enjoying this lifestyle for upwards of two million years, men are well adapted to feasting and fasting. In fact, men are built to feast and fast.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent Fasting turns the body’s attention to two key areas: rebuilding and procurement. During a fast, the body has freed up resources from digestion and can use those resources for repairing cells and building new ones. Recognizing that fasting forever would result in death, anything that helps obtain new food gets extra attention. In the case of men (hunters), this means the body up-regulates hormones and pathways that increase focus, energy, athletic performance, and skill.
Let’s take a look at the research. Intermittent Fasting:
- Reduces blood triglycerides and improves LDL particle size (reduces heart disease risk)
- Induces growth-hormone secretion
- Improves neuronal plasticity and increases neurogenesis (improves brain health)
- Increases autophagy (clean up of failing cells), in turn:
- Increasing muscle mass retention
- Improving brain health (again, in a different way)
- Reducing signs of aging
- Improves muscle protein synthesis (helps build muscle)
- Improves metabolic adaptation (increases athletic performance)
- Increases anabolic response to meals (builds muscle)
- Decreases glycogen burning (causing more fat burning)
- Increases energy and mental clarity
- Reduces cancer cell proliferation
- Increases tolerance of chemotherapy
- Increases Longevity
As you can see, fasting holds myriad benefits. The best part? Fasting is totally free, and no one can stop you from doing it.
The Anti-Fasting: Snacking
If Intermittent Fasting and its myriad benefits are on one end of the spectrum, snacking is on the other. With 100-calorie SnakPaks and fast-food chains on every corner, snacking is easy and appealing. In fact, some “experts” even recommend eating throughout the day, or “grazing”, to help “keep blood sugar up.” That is terrible advice (especially for men).
Herbivores, especially ruminants (like cows), eat almost constantly because their food has a very low nutrient density. Carnivores, like Lions and Tigers, eat very sporadically (often going days without a meal) because their food is very nutrient dense. As an omnivore, your eating schedule should fall somewhere in the middle. And since men are elite predators, yours (as a man) should fall much closer to a carnivore’s. In J. Stanton’s words:
“Eat like a Predator, not like Prey.” –gnolls
This means you should eat less frequently, but enjoy larger meals – the opposite of snacking. Beyond making poor logical sense, snacking has been shown empirically to cause problems and disrupt good health. The problem is twofold. First, snacking keeps you weak by increasing blood sugar without providing enough protein, causing your body to eat its own muscles (called proteolysis). Second, snacking prevents your body from learning to rely on stored body fat for energy; therefore snacking impairs metabolic flexibility.
The Big Fat Loss Lynchpin – Metabolic Flexibility
To burn fat, two requirements must be met:
- The brain must order the burning of fat.
- The cells must be able to burn fat.
The first requirement is addressed in the chapter concerning hyper-palatability in the book. The second requirement is all about metabolic flexibility.
Every cell in the body uses cellular respiration to convert energy to action. Most of the time, they use aerobic cellular respiration, the two types of which are glycolysis (sugar burning) and beta-oxidation (fat burning). If the cells are healthy, they can easily switch between the two, and often do. At any given time, weight-stable, healthy people are getting approximately 60% of energy from fat and 40% from sugar. The ability to switch between these two metabolic modes is called metabolic flexibility.
Impaired metabolic flexibility is often found in the overweight and obese, and is a strong predictor of future overweight. Put more simply, flexible metabolism means healthy person, inflexible metabolism means fat person.
When we say “impaired metabolic flexibility,” we really mean “impaired ability to burn fat for energy.” Glucose is toxic in the bloodstream, so the body always clears it first. This means that cells get regular training in sugar burning and never lose that capability. Those cells can and do lose their ability to burn fat. This causes issues with appetite regulation and energy levels.
If a man has impaired metabolic flexibility, he’ll feel fine right after a meal. Give it 30-60 minutes, however, and all that new incoming sugar has been stored away. Blood sugar drops to normal resting levels, signaling his cells to switch to fat burning. Except they can’t swing that way, so they scream at his brain that they aren’t getting any fuel – time to eat again! Beyond feeling the need to constantly eat, he won’t be able to lose body fat; his cells are incapable of burning it off, even when his brain thinks they should.
The only way to regain your metabolic flexibility is to force it. When your cells refuse to burn fat and ask for more sugar instead, you have to say “too f#$&ing bad boys, you’re not getting any sugar from me right now.” They’ll get the message after a few days.
It follows that a relatively painless way to force your cells to become more flexible is eating a low-carb diet for a few weeks. After an adjustment period over the first few days, you’ll feel great as your cells get good at burning fat again. Another option is Intermittent Fasting, which has the added benefit of all that good stuff listed above.
My personal favorite method for regaining metabolic flexibility is high-intensity, fasted exercise. Go into your workout on a 16-hour fast, and your cells will have no choice but to start burning that fat in overdrive.
The engines of your cells, the drivers of cellular respiration, are the mitochondria. Increasing metabolic flexibility is all about improving mitochondrial function. Fasted high-intensity training not only improves mitochondrial function – it actually grows new mitochondria (called mitochondrial biogenesis).
Moving Forward – How to Start Intermittent Fasting
Skip breakfast tomorrow morning and have your first meal at lunch. After you get good at that, try skipping both breakfast and lunch to make it all the way to dinner. Once you’ve gotten better at fasting, you can settle into more of a routine (16-hour fasts a few times a week is a perfect balance). While fasting, enjoy all the water, unsweetened tea, and black coffee your heart desires.
Now that you’re getting the benefits of fasting, push your metabolic flexibility into superhuman territory by engaging in regular fasted high-intensity training a few times a week (the workouts in the six week guide are a great example). All those new and improved mitochondria will be blowing through your fat stores (even when you’re resting), keeping you fit and healthy for life.
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