As with any diet, the underlining principles are as follows:
- Control calorie intake
- Eat quality unrefined foods
- Exercise regularly
How these principles are translated and moulded into dietary guidelines or weight loss strategies varies extensively. One of the factors that makes critiquing these diets near on impossible is what works for one person may not work for the next. Everyone is different, from genetics to food preferences.
Different diets may, at the end of the day, achieve the same outcome, but you need to consider the journey it takes to get there and your tolerability to sustain the outcome.
Contrary to the idea of eating frequent meals consisting of nutrient-dense healthy food, low in refined carbohydrates are the growing claims that short periods of fasting can accelerate fat loss. It’s not uncommon to find individuals who deliberately skip breakfast in an attempt to reduce their calorie intake and prolong the time in which they have been in a fasted state but more and more people are turning to prolonged periods of restricted food intake as a means to short-cut fat loss.
The proposed benefits of intermittent fasting include; reduced blood lipids, reduced blood pressure, reduction in markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, increased cellular turnover, increased fatty acid oxidation, improved appetite control and improved blood sugar control.
It’s fair to say myths are well ahead of the research when it comes to intermittent fasting. Numerous protocols have been advocated a full 24-hour period without food to an intermittent fasting protocol involving a daily routine of a 16-hour fast interspersed with 8-hours of eating.
My 24-hour fasting experience
I have to admit, this was far easier than I thought it would be. As an athlete, I eat 3 meals a day interspersed with a selection of healthy snacks. Although weight loss is not a goal of mine, I was intrigued to understand what real hunger felt like and what lessons could be learnt from this process.
There are very few days where more than 3-4 hours pass without me eating. I eat to fuel exercise and recovery and often have to eat when I’m not hungry. A variety of hormones control appetite. How our body responds to these hormones often differs between individuals. I found that I started to get hungry around 12pm but the hunger did not build. I remained hungry until 3pm but this subsided again until 6.30pm. The waves of hunger did not get any more extreme and I continued to function well throughout the day without any significant side effects of note.
What did I learn?
I used to think I couldn’t function if I was hungry. I rarely ate according to hunger and struggled to recognise the difference between boredom and hunger. I’ve learnt that hunger is nothing to be fearful of! I understand, once again, what real hunger is and am confident I will now be able to better identify the difference between my physical and psychological desires for food. On the down side, I had no desire to exercise and didn’t even attempt a session out on the bike! If I had to train today, I’m not sure I would have lasted more than 10 minutes.
I cannot say that this strategy wouldn’t bring about favourable outcomes with SOME people but I strongly believe there are better ways to achieve the same outcome. The limited benefits I can see from this strategy are that it enables people to learn to distinguish between hunger and boredom and it enables well-trained, healthy individuals to lean up quickly in preparation for a specific competition or event.
The main issues I have with this type of diet is that it is often used to try and compensate for eating rubbish. If what you habitually eat is high in saturated fat, heavily processed carbohydrates and poor quality or limited protein, fasting is not the best use of your time. It would also be prudent to mention the side effects associated with restricting food intake in some individuals: dizziness, moodiness, lethargic, inability to concentrate, short-tempered, irritable and an inability to perform high intensity exercise.
In conclusion, the healthiest approach to nutrition is to advocate a diet composed of regular meals constituting good quality protein, low in saturated fat, packed with vegetables and some fruit, moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates and some good fats. Once this has been achieved there may be scope to manipulate calorie intake to refine body composition. Restricting the body of essential macronutrients, vitamins and minerals is certainly not advisable for the majority of the population over a prolonged period and without supervision. Intermittent fasting may be a beneficial exercise to help understand the difference been real hunger and boredom eating.