The concept is a pretty simple one: if you want to lose weight, you need to be burning off more calories than you take in. In fact, short of signing up for some fairly extensive surgery, it’s the only way to lose weight.
Every diet plan that has ever produced results is, at its heart, a strategy for lowering calorie intake. All-fat, no-fat, reduced-carbs, gluten-free, paleo… they may all take different approaches to weight loss, but they all have the same result. By limiting food intake, or even just limiting food options, these diets reduce our calorie consumption. And when calorie intake drops below calorie burn, that’s when we start to drop the pounds.
Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Exercise and workout plans approach the problem from the other side, increasing calorie output rather than reducing input.
Diet to reduce calories. Exercise to increase burn. Like we said, simple. Right? But what about a plan capable of doing both?
Welcome to the world of intermittent fasting.
Fed vs. Fasted
Intermittent fasting is probably what you’d think. It’s fasting… intermittently. Or, to be a bit clearer, it’s skipping meals. But while missing a meal will certainly mean fewer calories throughout your day, the magic of intermittent fasting isn’t just in how it reduces food intake, but in how it helps your body make better use of the calories you keep.
You see, when it comes to how it uses food, your body can exist in one of two states: fed or fasted.
When you are fed, meaning that you have just recently eaten, your insulin levels become elevated. This hormone signals to your body to begin storing excess calories while also telling it to stop burning the fat stores it currently has in reserve, and to instead burn the glucose it got from your most recent meal.
When you haven’t recently eaten anything, then your body transitions into the fasted state. While in this state, your body’s insulin levels go into decline, and your body switches to burning stored fat cells for energy. The more time you spend in the fasted state, the better your body burns stored calories. And when that happens, you lose weight.
The thing is that if you want to slim down and get rid of excess pounds, then the fasted state is really the best way to do it. If you keep taking food into your body, insulin levels will remain high, and you will keep burning glucose for fuel instead of burning fat. Of course, to remain in the fasted state, you need to not be in the fed state, and that can be a problem. Starving yourself all of the time isn’t enjoyable, and it’s not healthy. To be blunt about it, your body needs nutrients, it just doesn’t need them all day, every day.
Feast and Famine
Intermittent fasting is an eating plan (rather than a diet) where a participant makes a conscious decision to skip certain meals. Instead of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and whatever snacks one tends to throw in between, an intermittent faster will consume their calories during a specific, predefined window. Outside of that window, they avoid food.
And while this may sound difficult, it’s really not. After all, the reasons our bodies store fat in the first place is because we, as a species, aren't really designed for constant eating. The three-square-meals (or more) eating plan is a relatively new phenomenon in human history; for much of our past, feast and famine were the order of the day. Our bodies know how to handle long stretches without food, and they know how to make good use of the “feasts” when they come along.
The problem is that we tend to spend so much time in the fed state, fueling our bodies exclusively with glucose, that we become addicted. Once the flow of glucose stops and our insulin levels drop, we start getting hunger pains. This is one of the reasons that overweight individuals — people with more than adequate energy stores in their fat cells — often have such a difficult time cutting back on food intake. They’re not starving, but they’re not getting the glucose their bodies are used to.
The good news is that it is possible to safely and comfortably transition to a more fasting-centered lifestyle. However, doing so demands that you embrace an intermittent fasting schedule that works for you.
The Best Intermittent Fasting Schedule Options
Devising a fasting plan means more than just deciding to eat fewer meals. Setting, and sticking with, an intermittent fasting schedule will help you make and keep the dietary changes that will get you on the path to burning fat.
There are many different ways to commit to intermittent fasting, but here are four of the most popular ones:
Every other day
Alternate between days where you eat normally, and days where you take in fewer than 600 calories. Some participants will even go so far as to eliminate food altogether during the off days. Just remember to stay hydrated while fasting, and be aware of what your body is telling you. If you find yourself feeling faint (instead of just hungry) then this may not be the best option for you.
Eat normally for five days of the week, taking in fewer than 600 calories on the remaining two days; fasting days should be non consecutive. This is a slightly less arduous variation of the every-other-day fasting plan, but it also puts you in the fasted state for significantly less time. Consider using this particular intermittent fasting schedule as a stepping stone to something more advanced.
Fast for 16 hours of the day, and allow yourself a single eight-hour window for eating. This may be a good option for most beginners, because it represents the most subtle change from the standard three-meals-per-day lifestyle. As approximately eight of those fasting hours should be spent getting a good night’s sleep, that leaves only eight hours where participants need to be consciously avoiding food. For many, allowing themselves to eat normally from noon until 8pm gives them a stable meal schedule while also staying in a fasted state for the majority of the time.
One Big Meal
Eat one large meal per day, cutting out all other meals and snacks. For those who aren’t interested in checking clocks and calendars, this is probably the easiest option. This is also a good choice for busy individuals who have a lot going on during the day. Just skip breakfast and lunch and have a large dinner that will carry you over through until bedtime.
Each of these plans is designed to get your body used to being in a fasted state for prolonged periods of time, but how each one will work with your particular lifestyle is something that only you can figure out. As you get into intermittent fasting, give these methods a try and see what ones seem like the right fit. And, if you want some good fasting tips, don’t hesitate to reach out to intermittent fasting forums online; a little community support can go a long way towards helping you get into a routine that works.
Fasting and ExerciseIt’s worth noting that if you also plan on exercising while you fast, there are a few things you should remember.
To start, recognize that the bulk of your weight-loss is going to come from fasting, not from working out. Exercise will have other benefits, of course, like building and preserving muscle tissue, improving performance, and increasing endurance, but it won’t be where you’re really taking off the pounds. With this in mind, if your priority is to lose weight, you’ll need to be prioritizing meal planning over working out. As you start intermittent fasting, you may need to pull back from regular strenuous exercise, at least until you feel like your body is used to your new schedule.
Also, be aware that when you exercise, your body directly burns away glycogen (a form of glucose stored in the muscles). Fasting depletes these stores, which can mean less available energy for the muscles to use when they need it. This can lead to extreme fatigue and decreased performance. The best fasting tips for athletes are to precede each workout with a low-calorie protein shake designed to deliver creatine, BCAAs, beta-alanine, and other amino acids directly to the muscles as they work them, and then to follow each workout with a whey-protein supplement to replenish depleted nutrient stores in order to speed up the recovery process. These workout supplements won’t add much to your overall calorie count, and will help ensure that your intermittent fasting schedule and your workout regimen aren’t getting in each other’s way.
On the Fast TrackIf you want to lose weight, you need to be burning more calories than you consume. A good diet will help reduce your calorie intake. Working out will increase your calorie burn. But while each of these is a step in the right direction, why not approach the problem from both ends? Intermittent fasting empowers you cut down on the influx of calories while also training your body to become better and more efficient at using the calories stored in fat cells. The end result is a quicker path to a healthier you. You could even call it the “fast” track to weight loss success.
Give intermittent fasting a try, and see for yourself just how satisfying missing a few meals can be.