The first time I fasted, I was in my early twenties living in a Hare Krsna temple in Brooklyn, New York.
It was the mid nineties and I had just joined the band “Shelter”, whose posters had hung on the wall of my tiny bedroom back at my folks’ house in London, and whose lyrics and spiritual philosophy they espoused had hugely impacted me.
We fasted in celebration of specific spiritual holidays and it was often a prescribed remedy if someone was getting sick or under the weather.
It was the first time I had been exposed to the idea that going without food was a good thing that could actually have some real health benefits and wasn’t just a punishment meted out to unruly children in Charles Dickens’ novels.
I remember finding my first fast to be incredibly challenging. All I could think about was food and I felt like I was counting down the hours until I would finally have my bowl of delicious Dahl soup to eat.
Brooklyn, New York…circa 1996
After the temple, although I didn’t fast again for many years, it was always back in the corner of my mind that maybe there was something to it.
Although I had craved food the entire time, I did notice I felt more alert and more mentally sharp. I had also noticed that although the first day was a real challenge, that when I woke up the morning after, I wasn’t really that hungry at all. In fact, I felt great… like I could have gone longer.
I had also noted that when I had taken the veteran monks’ advice and fasted when I was getting sick, that more often than not, the sickness wouldn’t amount to much.
And then I started hearing old school trainers talk about the longevity benefits, and the anti cancer possibilities, and how it could be a potent weapon against a whole host of lifestyle related diseases.
Maybe it really was a very simple solution to a lot of very complex problems.
I knew I had to give it a shot, but how to begin?
As a certified master in the art of google fu, it was only a few short clicks until I arrived at Leangains.com. For those interested in fasting, this place is kind of the jump off. Martin Berkhan, who is to Leangains what Trent Reznor is to Nice Inch Nails, is a long time researcher and advocate of the health benefits of fasting. It was there that I encountered what has come to be termed as the “leangains protocol” or the 16/8 fast.
It basically means that you eat within a compressed window of 8 hours per day, which for me was noon until 8pm, with the other 16 hours being essentially sans calories.
So things like herbal teas, water and black coffee, which for me is a morning must, are A-OK?
So all I had to do was push my breakfast until the early afternoon?
That seemed doable, so do it I did.
And now, three years on, I’m still doing it.
I didn’t waste away to nothing, or fall into a Rip Van Winkle like sleep due to low energy.
I hover somewhere between 7 – 10% body fat year round at 200 lbs and I credit a lot of that to Intermittent Fasting.
Trust me, for a couple of those years I was slamming down a couple of pints of Talenti Gelato a week, doubling up on the bread at Italian dinners, and taking regular trips back down memory lane to the school yard and going all in on English candy raids. But, I still drifted no more than a point or two above my baseline.
(Quick note here to make sure we’re on the same page: The majority of my diet at those times was, by most standards, still a reasonably healthy one, but certainly one in which there was plenty of room for indulgences. It’s not like I was subsisting purely on cookies, donuts and Big Gulps and staying healthy. No, my diet was maybe “on point” 80% of the time, with the other 20% being whatever I damn well pleased!)
Back to the fasting. Yes, it’s a little out of the box and left of center, but it’s by no means a new fad, as it’s been around for about a thousand years and has also been finding some very legitimate scientific backing of late.
More and more research is emerging that shows that intermittent fasting can have the following benefits:
Reducing Insulin Resistance: This basically means it can head off a whole bunch of health issues before they become serious. Including, but certainly not limited to, Type 2 Diabetes, which is currently the 7th biggest killer in the United States.
Initiating Autophagy: This is your cellular system’s internal house cleaning mechanism. It basically breaks down damaged cells, degraded proteins and other such nasties, and clears them away, allowing the body to replace them with newer and more healthy ones. This is a very potent tool in both anti aging and cancer prevention.
Improving Cognitive function and helping prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. This is done via a little something called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which is what Harvard Neuropsychiatrist, John J. Ratey, MD refers to as ““Miracle-Gro for the Brain”.
On a personal note, as someone who has seen the effects of Alzheimers within my own family, this one was big for me.
Helps in building lean muscle, burning fat and improving performance: This is likely due to the higher levels of Human Growth Hormone promoted by fasting, which can be up to 5 X higher than baseline, and without a lot of the deleterious effects that can come from external supplementation. So for the guys and gals in their forties and up, this could be great news for you.
Celebrities such as Terry Crews and Hugh Jackman have used Intermittent Fasting as a strategy to get in camera ready shape (claws not included)
Helps regulate appetite: Your body is remarkably trainable and after a few days, it will settle into the new way of eating and you won’t need to use willpower anymore.
This is one of the greatest misconceptions about Intermittent Fasting, that it somehow takes a Herculean act of will put forth on a daily basis to adhere to. If that were the case, trust me, I would have hopped off this bus a few weeks in.
No, once you get adapted, this shit is easy!
A couple of notes for those interested in trying this out for themselves:
First and foremost, I am NOT a doctor or a registered dietician.
Yes, I do have nutritional credentials via industry leaders, Precision Nutrition but primarily I am reporting my own personal experience and what a lot of the science seems to be showing.
If you have any existing health conditions, you might well want to talk to your MD before starting.
Now, moving onto brass tacks:
- Guys and Gals tend to respond differently to I.F due to the hormonal differences between us. Women seem to do better on a slightly shorter fasting window of around 14 hours.
- Most people do better having their fasting window in the morning. This is likely for a variety of both psychological and physiological reasons. So using myself as an example, I eat from either 12pm until 8pm or 1pm until 9pm.
- During the fasting window, only non caloric beverages may be consumed. From a health perspective, zero calorie sodas or artificial sweeteners aren’t the best choice although they may not actually break the fast.
- During the eating window, try and steer towards making healthy whole food choices whenever possible. Aim for 80% adherence and then allow yourself 20% to enjoy some of the finer pleasures.
- If you are someone who trains on a regular basis, then by all means try fasted workouts. Personally, I prefer to train on a empty stomach and then remain fasted for another few hours. If you are going to try this approach out, I recommend just sticking with the fasting for a few weeks and then trying out a fasted workout. Also, something that can be experimented with is supplementing with Branch Chain Amino Acids, which you can consume both pre and post workout without losing the benefits of the fasted workout.
- Allow yourself a little flexibility. If you’re on a brunch date or if you have a breakfast meeting, then by all means, go ahead and eat. You can either just start that day’s eating window early or just allow yourself a few extra hours of food and then hop back on the I.F train the day after. Just don’t make it a super regular thing. This type of lifestyle based flexibility is invaluable when it comes to long term sustainability.
So as you can probably see, I’m a big believer in the benefits of fasting, especially as they relate to longevity and I do think they are under promoted to the population at large
Nobody really stands to make much money off of selling you on the idea of fasting as a tool for anti aging, health and fitness so you don’t hear about it as often as you should.
However, with researchers such as Martin Berkhan, Dr Valter Longo of USC’s Longevity Institute and Dr Mark Mattson of John Hopkins School Of Medicine leading the charge. I’m confident more and more reasons to incorporate fasting into your own personal health regimen will be revealed.
Stay hungry, my friends,