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The Science Behind Intermittent Fasting
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Conversation, Food

The Science Behind Intermittent Fasting 

Intermittent fasting isn’t a new concept, nor is it a difficult one to understand. The idea is that you take in all of your calories for the day within a limited window of time, and the rest of the day, you stick with water, maybe a cup of coffee, or tea in the morning, if you feel inclined. The idea is that giving your body a period of time “off” from digesting food allows your cells to heal and renew.

Intermittent fasting became popular because calorie restriction was found to contribute to healthy aging. A few mouse and worm studies seem to show that drastic reductions in food intake over a long period of time could prolong your life. The research is compelling, but actively restricting your calorie intake for long periods of time could be a rough path to enjoyable longevity. The goal is not to be thin, frail, distractible, or preoccupied with food. Rather vibrant and full of zest. There is a way to eat big strapping meals of steak and veggies smothered in butter without worrying about calories. All while maintaining muscle mass and having enough energy to go on long hikes. 

Pushing off breakfast for a few hours gives me all of the benefits of calorie restriction, without all the misery. Fasting is the way to be able to eat a cake when you feel like it without having to worry about the fat gain. It offers many of the same benefits of calorie restriction – increases longevity, neuroprotection, regulates insulin sensitivity, stronger resistance to stress, beneficial effects on endogenous hormone production, boosted mental clarity, and more – but without the active, agonizing restriction.

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You can eat meat and vegetables with plenty of animal fat, and skip meals on occasion. A sixteen-hour fast is on the low-but-still-effective end, or you could opt for longer, more intermittent fasts – say, a full twenty-four hours once or twice a week. 

When you’re done with the fast, eat as much as you want. It essentially turns into “eat when you’re hungry,” because let’s face it: eating the types of foods we evolved to eat induces powerful satiety and makes eating the right amount of food a subconscious act. Fasting becomes a whole lot easier (and intuitive) when you’ve got your food quality dialed in. 

You’ll hear that you should never exercise on an empty stomach. You’ll hear that fasted training will burn your muscles and cause you to waste away. You’ll hear that performance will surely suffer. None of these things are necessarily true – and they are even less so if you are well- adapted to a low-carb eating strategy. Fasted training can actually result in better metabolic adaptations (which mean better performance down the line), improved muscle protein synthesis, and a higher anabolic response to post-workout feeding (you’ll earn your meal and make more muscle out of it if you train on an empty stomach). Studies on Muslim athletes during Ramadan show no effect on performance while fasting, as well as a more favorable lipid profile in those who exercise and fast rather than just fast. When you train in a fasted state, glycogen breakdown is blunted and more fat is burned, leaving you more glycolytic energy in the tank for when you really need it and less body fat. Those are just a sampling of the benefits to fasted training; there are dozens more.

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A lot of health influencers will tell you that failure to eat something every few hours will cause mental fog and sluggishness, so keep a banana or a granola bar on your person at all times. Of course, this is all based on an assumption that we need to supply exogenous carbs on a regular basis to properly fuel the brain. This notion that fasting is only the province of anorexics or “caveman” has kept many people from experiencing the vast array of benefits.

I maintain that one’s comfort in handling intermittent fasting effortlessly does increase dramatically when you’ve reprogrammed those cells (and genes) to predispose your body to derive most of your day-to-day energy from fat, as opposed to constantly dipping into glycogen stores as happens when we rely so much on refeeding carbs every few hours.

Overall, fasting just seems right. It’s like a reset button for your entire body, presumably across a large spectrum of maladies and dysfunctions. It puts your body into repair mode – at the cellular level – and it can restore normal hormonal function in the obese or overweight. It is definitely an interesting thing to consider. Have you ever tried intermittent fasting?

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