This post was kindly written by Max Shippee, owner of CrossFit 1440 in suburban Los Angeles, and fitness guru extraordinaire. Learn more about Max here.
“No, no, no special concoctions.”
“Just don’t eat?”
“Yeah, just don’t eat.”
Welcome to the third post on Scheduled Eating/Intermittent Fasting! We’re going to delve into some of the most common questions in this post. If you’re reading this first, you may want to check out our previous posts here and here.
Here we go!
Is this the same as “Detoxing”?
In general a “detox fast” is one where people feel their body is full of toxins (heavy metals, pesticides, for example), and they need to spend a certain amount of time either refraining from food, or having special concoctions (cayenne lemonade anyone?) to assist their bodies to do so. This process is generally embarked on for a set time (usually 3-10 days, depending on the fast), and then the person tries to make better food choices from then on. As far as I could find, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of scientific research proving that people had these desired “detoxing” effects. For example, I found no studies showing that detox fasting individuals lowered their cellular concentrations of Round-Up Ready Pesticide. However, there does seem to be a LOT of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people feel more alert, have better energy, have “brain fog” lift, and things of this sort that they attribute to “detox” fasting.
Some people swear by detox fasts, but I’m still searching for peer reviewed studies showing actual documented detoxification. If anyone reading has some that aren’t linked directly to a product, let me know!
In contrast, Intermittent Fasting is a way of eating that has many real scientifically observed benefits, but it is also something that is practiced on a regular basis, usually daily or weekly. It’s seen as a way of scheduling your calories continuously, rather than a yearly “detox.”
What about going into “starvation mode” & losing muscle?
Aha! The dreaded “starvation mode!” On any of the current generally recommended protocols, you won’t be fasting long enough to get into the dreaded “starvation mode.” Unless you’re running a marathon every day, it takes, on average, around 2-3 days for your body to use up its stored sugar (read: glycogen), and go into super fat-burning mode (a “healthy” ketosis), then it can take up to several weeks (link), depending on your body composition, to get to the place where your body will start to break down muscle to use as fuel, usually 5-6% body fat. If you’re not doing extreme fasting for 40 days, and if your body perceives the need to keep that muscle on you (see next question), you have nothing to worry about! (link) The longest intermittent fasting protocol (which we’ll go over later) is 24 hours, well within this timeline of several weeks. It will also help tremendously if you periodically lift heavy things.
So, I should still workout during a fast?
Yes, but be aware of the timing of your workouts (see more on this below). The most effective way to maintain that sweet lean muscle mass that we’ve worked so hard to acquire, or to put it another way, the best way to stay “toned,” is to pick up some heavy stuff, repeatedly (and with good, safe form!). There must have been a time in cave-people’s lives when food was scarce, or at the very least, not as plentiful. Imagine if our ancestors, after only a few days without eating, were eating up their muscle mass. When that bison herd came back through, they wouldn’t stand a chance of chasing one down and killing it! Sure, that ultimate survival/starvation mode would turn on eventually (see above), but for the fasting protocols that we’re talking about (24 hours or less), we are well within the “safe” window to be getting the good effects from our bodies, without too much worry about the negatives.
Should I train fasted or fed?
Ideally, you’d be training in a fasted state, then break the fast after your workout, though this may not be practical for everyone (don’t obsess about this!). For most of us, this will take a bit of getting used to. If you’ve never trained hungry before, go easy the first couple of times. You may find that you don’t have as much juice as you usually do. I wouldn’t try to hit my 1 rep max deadlift, or beat my mile time the first day out. After an adaptation period of a week or two, however, you may find that you prefer to work out in a fasted state, and studies like this one have shown that working out in a fasted state (before breakfast in this study) keeps your insulin sensitivity primed and can keep you from putting on weight, even on a surplus of calories.
This can be highly individual, so play with it. For sure, working out in a fasted state can be really tough, especially for people prone to hypoglycemia, but some people prefer it. And actually, breaking the fast after a workout makes paleological sense (very hungry, track bison, chase bison, eat bison). I’ve found personally that working out fasted fits me well, and when I refuel, I feel amazing. You may or may not find the same for you. You may find that you like to train during your eating windows after a meal. Or you may prefer to train while fasting on “heavy days” but have a little something on your “cardio” days, or vice versa.
What kind of workouts should I be doing?
Something like CrossFit is good, but by no means necessary, though focusing on heavier weights, instead of traditional long drawn out “cardio” will do more to maintain muscle mass and keep “starvation mode” in check, rather than simply depleting the energy stores you have in place. Working the big, major muscle groups is a good place to start, movements like deadlifting, squatting, bench press & chin-ups, are the big 4 that activate the most bang for the buck as far as your lean muscle mass goes.
You can drive yourself crazy here trying to make up the perfect workout, but as a basic guideline, you want to push with your legs, and both push & pull with your arms. Using heavy enough weights that you find you hold your breath, or make a face for a second to lift them (if you’re making a face, you’re probably holding your breath too :) A good trainer/coach can be very valuable here. Complete articles have been written on breathing and lifting, but for here, lets just make sure that you’re pushing with the legs for a full range of motion (read: squatting), and pushing and pulling with your arms with a full range of motion (read: bench press or push-up, and chin-ups). We could really make an exhaustive list here, with weights and protocols, but individual needs can vary greatly. That’s what your local trainer is for, or hit us up in the comments, and we’ll see if we can get you started. You could always go hang with Neely for a session or two of full body climbing goodness. ;)
Let me just say here that you need to be doing something, as far as weight training. If you’re not using you muscles, your body has no reason to keep it. Have you ever had a cast on a part of your body? What happened? It got way smaller and weak. This was from non-use. The rest of your body is the same way: if you don’t at least give it a little challenge now & then, it’s like having a cast on your entire body. Find a way to move your body through a full range of motion that involves added resistance at some point. Not just a “body pump” class, but some kind of weights, machines, whatever!
Should I worry about calories?
I know that we don’t make a huge deal about calories here at the Plan, but I want you to just bear with me for a second (caution…math ahead). The basics of “calorie counting” can be beneficial when looking at the general effects of weight loss, or body maintenance when fasting.
You can imagine that if we’re closing the eating window for a period of time each day, we’d also be cutting a few calories. Though that may happen, cutting calories isn’t necessarily the goal. The full 24 hour fast, however, is a very efficient way to cut out calories without making yourself crazy counting them at every meal.
If we shrink your eating window each day, it may even feel like you’re eating more, since you’re eating the same amount in a shorter period of time! Try getting in that 2,000 calories a day in only a few hours instead of the 14-15 we usually do!
If you skipped a full 24 hour period of eating each week (more on approaches in the next post), and ate “normally” for the rest of the week, you’d be at a 2,000 deficit at the end of the week! That’s getting close to the caloric equivalent of a pound! Now, we all do realize that weight loss is NOT linear, but you CAN see how this math can work in your favor, and over time, can have some pretty sweet, and perhaps even dramatic, effects. The trick, if fasting for weight loss, is to not “reward yourself” with food. As in, “I made it through my fasting, now I get to eat two full batches of carrot banana muffins!”
How about caffeine?
Be careful. If having green tea helps you delay breakfast and gives you something to sip on in the morning, I’d say you’re fine. But as Neely warned in this post, don’t use it as a way to enter the world of eating disorders. If used like a crutch, caffeine can be just as bad as diet pills. Sure, it doesn’t raise your insulin (by itself), but it’s really not doing you a bunch of favors either.
Once again, if your green tea happens to have caffeine, no worries for most people. If you’re popping Exedrin and washing it down with an espresso and Diet Coke, maybe you really just need a nap.
How do you recommend starting again?
Our previous post suggested a 12/12 split, meaning 12 eating/12 fasting. You should head over there to check it out!
As always, comments are always appreciated!