A warning about intermittent fasting

Screen-Shot-2012-03-24-at-8.58.04-PM-300x200.pngThere’s a lot of talk about intermittent fasting (IF) these days in the Paleo community, and we have a few posts on it coming up by our favorite fitness guru, Max Shippee, pretty soon. However, I think before you go jumping on the intermittent fasting express train, there are some things you should know.

Blog posts by Martin Berkhan of leangains.com, Mark Sisson, Arthur De Vany, and so many more will tell you about the potential benefits of intermittent fasting and how exactly one goes about doing it. To sum it up, you could get super ripped, more fit, and maybe even kick cancer’s ass with IF. I truly believe that intermittent fasting can help people lose weight and feel amazing if done properly by the right people. After all, we didn’t evolve always having 3 square meals a day, so our bodies are, in theory, well-equipped to deal with fasting. By the way, when I say “fasting”, I’m talking about going for longer periods than normal without eating. So, for instance, that could mean eating your last meal at 6pm and not eating again until 10am the next day (only missing breakfast) or it could mean not eating for an entire day.

So let’s jump right in here. Some people can intermittently fast, but a lot of people are going to have problems with it.

The hangries need time to heal.

A large population of people get hangry (hungry+angry=hangry) when they don’t eat for long periods of time. They get headache-y, weak, shaky, irritable, and even black out sometimes. This phenomenon is known as hypoglycemia. It can happen even while on a Paleo diet because the blood sugar problems of some people’s Standard American Diet (SAD) days have still not healed. It can take months or years on a Paleo diet for some people to stop having those energy crashes.

Also, a lot of Paleo people still graze throughout the day on small meals full of carbohydrates (almond flour baked goods, Larabars, fruit, nuts, etc.). If you have a history of hypoglycemia, then grazing on carbs is a recipe for disaster, even when it’s technically Paleo foods you’re grazing on. Don’t get me wrong: eating Paleo carbs is generally way better for hypoglycemia than the carbs in a SAD diet. If you try fasting while you still have hypoglycemic tendencies, you’re probably going to experience the hangries. Regularly letting your blood sugar get super low is stressful on your body and it can contribute to inflammation and adrenal fatigue. Here’s more on that – it has to do with cortisol and epinephrine.

Enter caffeine.

It’s no surprise that when people get really hungry, they crave caffeine. Caffeine can suppress hunger and make you feel like you’ve eaten an entire meal because it acts like a meal in your body. When you consume caffeine, you’re telling your body that something terribly stressful is happening. It’s a stimulant drug, after all. Caffeine stimulates epinephrine and cortisol to be released in your body. Epinephrine causes fat stores to be released and cortisol causes glucose stores to be released into your bloodstream to give you energy. Those are the same hormones that are released when you’re being chased by a murderer. Very stressful for your body. It’s certainly not meant to happen every day at 6am, 10am, 3pm, and a decaf after dinner.

A lot of intermittent fasters are using caffeine just like you’d use diet pills to alleviate hunger and give them energy while they’re starving themselves. Do you know what the main ingredient is in the very popular diet pills, Hydroxycut and Zantrex? Caffeine. 600 mg in Hydroxycut to be exact. That’s less than 2 16-oz Starbucks drip coffees. Curiously,some trainers are even recommending caffeine pills (200mg per pill) to get through fasts and to help with stubborn body fat. I’m sorry, but I’ll leave diet pills to the Jersey Shore girls. Consuming caffeine regularly can overwork your adrenals and wreak havoc on your health over time.

Eventually, tired adrenals can give you heinous fatigue, leaky gut, thyroid problems, stubborn fat, insomnia, poor athletic performance, weak immunity, and low sex drive, among many other things. But this will never happen to you, right? Right. Look around – this is 2/3 of America. But I’m sure that bragging to your friends about how you fasted for 72 hours with only espresso to fuel you through 6 grueling WODs will have been totally worth it… Seriously, though, is fasting at any expense really worth it?

Some Practical Tips

Here’s my advice to you if you recently switched over to Paleo and you’re intrigued by the concept of IF.

1. Try it yourself only after you’ve been Paleo for at least a couple months and only when you’re not having energy crashes anymore.

2. Then, start to experiment with going for longer periods of time between meals to see how you do. Check out the different ways of doing IF (see the references in the second paragraph) and see which of the methods works for you.

3. Be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. Maybe it will later. For now if you want to lose fat, play with your macronutrient ratios and/or your calorie intake at regular meals. Hint: higher fat content helps satiate you for longer.

4. Do NOT use caffeine to get you through your day (whether you’re intermittent fasting or not) unless you’re prepared for serious adrenal problems later in life. Here’s another fun post on that.

Intermittent fasting can be an awesome thing, especially for people who really have a lot of weight to lose and/or whose adrenals are pretty healthy. Just use it with care. You’ve most likely already done damage to your body by eating Neolithic crap your whole life up until your induction into Paleo nirvana (myself included). There’s no need to do more damage with caffeine and intermittent fasting.

I’m sure I’m going to hear it from some highly caffeinated IF-ers on this one. I’d love to know your thoughts!