Diet Analysis: Intermittent Fasting

Reducing our eating window can help increase satiety keeping the need to snack in check.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 13 Dec 2017

Nutrition Advanced
12 Mins

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When it comes to almost everything we do in life, the majority of us fall victim to the ‘if something is good, then more must be better’ mentality.

This is also true for those of us in the bodybuilding and fitness world, too.

‘If 200g of protein is good for muscle growth, then 300g must be better?!’

‘If training with weights four times per week works, how much better will my results be if I train 6-7 days per week?!’

We’ve all been there, and become overly enthusiastic in our pursuit of achieving the physique we’re after. But sometimes constantly pushing the extremes can be counter-productive. Often times in fitness, there is a ‘sweet spot’. Where by more is not better. Better, is better.

The topic of this piece is going to be meal frequency.

You see, for both fat loss and muscle growth – we have people pushing the extremes of how many meals per day they eat.

For fat loss, we’ve been told for years that ‘6-8 small meals per day stoke the metabolism’. It turns out, this is untrue. Any increases in metabolic output when it comes to food intake is usually related to total caloric intake, or more specifically, protein intake (TEF: Thermic Effect of Food).

In actuality, for some clients, pushing their meal frequency this high can be detrimental in terms of dietary adherence. Take a female on the lighter side of 50kg/110lb. If she was to start dieting on 12cal/lb, that would equate to 1320cals.

Dividing 1320 by 8 (meals) would give us 165cals per meal. I mean, I’ve used the word meal, but really it’s a snack. And the issue with this is that not many people are going to feel satiated eating 8 small snacks per day.

For muscle growth, again, we’re told ‘eat every 2 hours’. The theory behind this one is to keep plasma amino acid levels elevated through the day.

The problem?

Supplying the body with protein too often and having prolonged elevations in plasma amino acids can actually lead to a refractory response. This is where the body stops responding to pulses of amino acids – muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is no longer stimulated.


SWINGING THE PENDULUM: INTERMITTENT FASTING


So, we know that eating 8+ meals a day likely isn’t going to offer much in the way of benefits, and perhaps is actually a detriment.

Going in the opposite direction we have Intermittent Fasting, or IF.

In a nutshell, IF is basically a pre-determined and planned way of scheduling your meals to fit within shorter time frames and thus going through periods of extended fasting.

There are various ways to achieve this:

  • Alternate Day Fasting
  • 5:2
  • Eat-Stop-Eat
  • 16:8

These all work differently, and for the scope of this article we’ll focus on 16:8 which is the most popular and seems to fit in well with the fitness lifestyle.

How the 16:8 protocol works is really simple: You fast for 16 hours, and you eat for 8. Which, sounds horrendous on paper. But in practice, is actually very manageable! When we think about it, 8 of the 16 hours is already accounted for just by sleeping!

As an example, if going to bed at 10pm, you’d stop eating then. This would be the start of your fast. You’d then push on through until 2pm the next day before breaking the fast. This then gives you an 8 hour ‘feeding’ window of between 2pm-10pm.

The key benefit here – for some people – is that now instead of spreading say 2000cal across 12-14 hours, and potentially 6 meals. (333cal per meal). You’re now spreading that same 2000cal across 8 hours, and perhaps 3-4 meals. (500-666cal per meal).

It’s not that one option is right or wrong. It’s down to individual preference and adherence. If you’re someone that prefers to eat ‘little and often’ then of course the higher meal frequencies would likely suit you.

If you’re someone that prefers less frequent, larger meals that are more satiating then opting for IF can work very well. Especially if you’re the type of person that struggles with appetite in the mornings, yet find yourself bored in the evenings and wanting to snack after dinner!

Another benefit to IF, is better blood sugar regulation. Now, this doesn’t mean that the fasting window magically allows you to burn more body fat. That is correlated to total caloric intake. But from a health standpoint, especially for those that carry an excess of body fat, small periods of fasting can improve insulin sensitivity and thus be a good tool for those that are pre-diabetic.

There does also seem to be big promise for ‘longevity’. Lowered IGF-1 levels, better digestive health, improved growth hormone output, anti-cancer benefits and so on.

The caveat to all of these are:

  • Being 100% truthful, I just haven’t researched into the health aspect of things deep enough to warrant being able to give any science backed insight
  • From the small amount I have read, it appears that extended periods of fasting (24hr+) ilicit these benefits. Intermittent fasting may not have quite the same effect

For me, the biggest positive is matching where the majority of peoples hunger tends to sit; and that appears to be toward the end of the day.


DRAWBACKS OF INTERMITTENT FASTING?


I think the biggest single drawback is the limit in stimulating MPS.

If we look at each meal as an opportunity to stimulate muscle growth and recovery, the issue with limiting everything to that one 8 hour window means outside of that we could be missing out. If we were to get up at 7am and not start eating until 2pm, that’s 7 hours of missed opportunities.

As referenced in the opening paragraphs, you can also over-do meal frequencies. So, we need to find somewhere in the middle.

The next drawback would be for those with a binge type mentality. If you naturally lack an appetite earlier in the day, and putting most of your food in the latter half suits you – then go for it.

But, if you’re forcing yourself to abstain from the earlier meals and staring at the clock until your feeding window is due to start – that probably isn’t going to be conducive in the long run.

The fasting period of IF doesn’t suddenly have you burn lbs of fat. The reason it may work so well is through increased adherence to your diet. And by that I mean that over the 24hr you’re finding it easier to stay within your caloric target.

If you go the other way though, and find yourself starving up until that point of breaking the fast, you risk falling into the trap of bingeing and overeating. This totally negates the point of doing IF in the first place (if the goal is fat loss).


Remember: The number one element to fat loss is energy balance.


You can fast all you like, but if over the week your input (calories) exceeds your output (activity/expenditure) then you simply won’t lose body fat.

The third drawback for some could be decreased training performance. If training early or mid morning, you may notice a decline in energy prior to your sessions. Which is more than likely going to lead to strength drop offs (and in turn less muscle retention).

This isn’t black and white, and some may even thrive without food in the system slowing them down. But anecdotally, for me, I need to eat 60-90min pre-training if I want my most productive sessions.


THE SWEET SPOT


We’ve discussed the implications of having too many or too little meals in terms of maximising muscle growth and recovery.

Too many = we risk causing a refractory response in MPS

Too little = are we stimulating MPS enough?

So, it’s obvious there must be a ‘sweet spot’ that is just right. In my mind, that sweet spot is likely going to be around 5 meals per day.

If you’re an RNT client that’s been working with me, you’ll probably note that your meal plan is going to be 5 meals per day. (Naturally, there are anomalies, some clients may have 4 meals, some may have 6).

But for the most part, if appetite/hunger aren’t causing you any issues then I think spreading your calorie and protein allotment somewhat evenly over 5 meals throughout the day. For someone eating 2000cal and 180g protein, it could look like this:

Breakfast = 400cal / 35g protein
Mid-Morning = 400cal / 35g protein
Lunch = 400cal / 35g protein
Mid-Afternoon = 400cal / 35g protein
Dinner = 400cal / 35g protein

I’ve found through trial and error that this works well for most of the clients that I work with.

However, if you do find that you have little desire for food in the mornings, and would prefer to ‘backload’ your food to later in the day, then IF could work very well for you.

We just have to be mindful about the lack of stimulating MPS during our fasting period, and for that reason I’d suggest pulsing 20g EAA once to twice prior to your breaking your fast.

Using that same 2000cal and 180g formula as before, this is how I would structure a typical IF set-up:

Breakfast = Black Coffee + 20g EAA

Mid-Morning = 20g EAA

Lunch = 666cal / 60g protein

Mid-Afternoon = 666cal / 60g protein

Dinner = 666cal / 60g protein

(This is assuming a 2pm-10pm feeding window, so ‘lunch’ would be 2pm)

Using the set-up above means that we have MPS covered in the morning by giving two pulses of amino acids.

From 2pm-10pm, the amount of meals is up to you, the key is that you stay within your caloric target. You can see above that although the meals are much larger (and thus, more satiating) they still total the aforementioned 2000 calories.


CONCLUSION


Just like every method of dieting out there, IF doesn’t work via some fancy biological magic. It works by allowing the dieter to more easily adhere to their diet and ensure a consistent caloric deficit is achieved.

If you find yourself snacking and ‘running out’ of calories of an evening, then simply consider taking some of your calories from the morning and placing them later in the day to give you a larger pool to play with.

This doesn’t mean you even need to go to the extremes of IF.

But, if eating earlier in the day is a chore (whether it be from lack of appetite or simply busy at work) then IF may be a suitable dieting protocol to attempt.

Potentially even offering some long term health benefits too!
Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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