This is it, guys and gals. My secret weapon. This is how I got lean and stay lean year-round while still crushing workouts, building muscle, and maintaining high energy levels.
Of all the ridiculous stuff I’ve tried, it’s given me the best results with the least effort.
What am I talking about?
What you’ll learn in this blog post:
(click to navigate)
What is Intermittent Fasting?
One way to describe intermittent fasting is cycling between periods of fasting and periods of eating.
Another way of describing it is you compress your eating into a smaller feeding window.
For example, one popular method of intermittent fasting is to only eat during an 8-hour window (say 1-9pm). More on this later…
Wait, what?! I can’t eat for 16 HOURS?!
The idea of going long periods of time without eating is, to most people, totally unacceptable.
They think: surely three square meals and a couple of snacks is the only sensible way of eating? Don’t you need a steady flow of calories to ensure you have good energy levels all day? Won’t I be totally distracted by hunger?
I used to think that way too. When I first heard about intermittent fasting, I never thought I’d be able to go so long without food. I also thought that it was, as we say in England, a load of bollocks. Just another fad diet.
But I’ve done the research, tried it, and come to the conclusion that it’s actually easier than you’d think to go that long without food. And it definitely isn’t a fad diet.
Let’s start off by dispelling a few myths about intermittent fasting.
Intermittent Fasting Myths
Here are the six most common myths…
Myth 1: You lose muscle
The number one concern of gym bros everywhere is losing muscle. The bros claim you need to eat every two to three hours if you want to build muscle; according to them, your muscles will shrink if you don’t eat for long periods of time.
Here’s why this is wrong: fasting actually makes your body produce more growth hormone. More growth hormone will lead to more muscle.
In other words, intermittent fasting can lead to more lean muscle mass.
Myth 2: It’s basically starving yourself
This is a ridiculous idea. Just because you haven’t eaten in a few hours doesn’t mean you’re going to enter starvation mode. Seriously, how delicate do people think the human body is?
Starvation is a very specific response to a lack of nutrients over an extended period of time. You can probably survive for at least 3 weeks (504 hours) without food.
One obese patient actually underwent a fast for 382 days (9168 hours) under medical supervision.
If you’re eating a very low-calorie diet for weeks or months, this is when you might enter starvation mode. Your body doesn’t get enough nutrients and it starts burning both body fat and muscle tissue for fuel. It essentially starts eating itself.
Intermittent fasting is not starvation, for the simple reason that you’re still eating plenty of calories within your feeding window. Your body is nourished and remains healthy.
Myth 3: It lowers your metabolism
We’ve all heard that we “should” be eating 4 or 5 small meals a day. Even PhD researchers believe this bollocks, and well-known science popularisers publish it (not that I trust so-called experts, but that’s a subject for another day).
Intermittent fasting doesn’t lower your metabolism. Quite the opposite: short-term fasting will actually increase your metabolism.
In other words, you burn more calories in a fasted state.
Here are a couple of examples of things that actually do lower your metabolism:
– Extended periods of time following a low-calorie diet.
– Having too little muscle mass (this is why you have to lift weights, especially as you get older).
Myth 4: It’s bad for hypoglycemia
People who suffer from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) might be wary of intermittent fasting. They probably think something like: I need to eat regularly to make sure I have enough energy!
But they’re not looking at the whole picture. Hypoglycemia is often caused by excessively high levels of insulin.
How is this relevant? Well, one of the best ways to reduce insulin levels is … fasting!
People with low blood sugar often find that intermittent fasting leads to improvements in their condition.
Yet again, the myth is the opposite of the truth.
Myth 5: It’s a stress on the body
I hear this one a lot. People worry about intermittent fasting causing excessive stress on the body. Presumably, they think the stress will lead to the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and encourages fat accumulation.
Do they need to worry? Not really.
There have been plenty of studies on people during Ramadan, the period when Muslims don’t eat during the day. The way of eating during Ramadan can be considered a form of intermittent fasting.
One study found that there was no change in cortisol/testosterone ratios during Ramadan.
But how about overall health? Are the markers for clinical markers of disease affected during Ramadan?
They sure are but in a positive way. Another study found reductions in cholesterol and triglycerides, high levels of which are associated with disease.
Intermittent fasting is a stress on the body? Quite the opposite.
Myth 6: It’s unnatural
I have a couple of problems with this argument.
First, what the hell does “unnatural” even mean in the first place? If enough humans do it, it’s natural.
Second, do people really think that humans have been eating three square meals plus snacks our entire history?
Just look at religion: pretty much every major religion features periods of fasting.
Muslims have Ramadan. Jews have Yom Kippur. The Greek Orthodox Church had 22 days of fasting in 2018.
There’s a great book called “The Paleo Manifesto” that goes into this in more detail. I highly recommend it.
And how about our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors? Do you think they just woke up and threw some bread in the toaster? No: they’d wake up and spend a few hours hunting and gathering food before eating.
Summary: Intermittent Fasting Myths
– You won’t lose muscle; you’ll actually build more muscle.
– It isn’t starvation; you remain nourished and healthy.
– Short-term fasting doesn’t lower your metabolism; it raises your metabolism.
– People with low blood sugar probably won’t feel worse. This way of eating should help (check with your doctor first).
– Fasting isn’t stressful on the body; it positively affects the clinical markers of disease.
– It isn’t unnatural; fasting has been part of human life for tens of thousands of years.
Intermittent Fasting Benefits
Now we’ve dispelled the myths, here are seven benefits to following an intermittent fasting way of eating.
Benefit 1: Intermittent fasting is great for losing fat while maintaining muscle mass
This is the most common reason people follow an intermittent fasting protocol: it’s stunning for fat loss.
How? There are several ways.
The first way is, as already mentioned, that fasting is a great way to lower your insulin levels. Bringing down insulin levels makes the fat burning process – lipolysis – much easier and more efficient.
Also, intermittent fasting has been shown to increase testosterone levels. Testosterone is a fat-burning and muscle-building hormone. So you’ll lose body fat and maintain your muscle mass, which is perfect for keeping your metabolism nice and high.
And the final, simple way: it’s a lot harder to overeat if you’re not eating as often.
Let’s say you’ve calculated you need to eat around 2000 calories to burn body fat. What do you think is easier: eating three small 650-calorie meals, or two huge 1000-calorie meals? I definitely prefer the latter.
Benefit 2: Intermittent fasting minimises fat gain while building muscle
If you’re trying to build muscle, you have to be eating at a calorie surplus. This does mean there will probably be some fat accumulation during your “bulking” phase.
But there are a couple of ways to minimise the fat gain during this period:
The first thing you can do is stick to whole foods. This is called a “lean bulk“. Some lifters choose a “dirty bulk” instead, which means they eat anything and everything they want: ice cream, pizza, doughnuts etc. A dirty bulk will often result in 10-20 lb of fat accumulation on top of the muscle gained. You end up looking fat and out of shape.
To me, this is an almost pathological way of living your life.
A lean bulk is a much healthier way of building lean muscle mass.
And the second thing you can do is employ intermittent fasting. As mentioned before, intermittent fasting can increase testosterone levels, and make you more insulin sensitive. This is going to make it a lot harder to accumulate body fat.
So while a muscle-building phase is going to result in a little body fat accumulation, intermittent fasting plus following a lean bulking plan is going to minimise how much fat you actually gain. You won’t look fat and out of shape; instead, people are going to compliment you on how muscular you’re looking.
Benefit 3: Intermittent fasting is anti-inflammatory
I should probably begin by explaining why chronic inflammation is a bad thing. So here are a few conditions that have a strong association with chronic, long-term inflammation:
– heart disease
– poor bone health
You don’t want to be chronically inflamed. Gabish?
Fortunately, intermittent fasting has been shown to be very anti-inflammatory.
In fact, as mentioned earlier, studies performed during Ramadan show that general health markers improve during the fasting period.
Benefit 4: Intermittent fasting improves cognition
I always feel most creative and able to problem-solve during my morning fast. I’m fueled by caffeine and ketones (the energy source released when body fat breaks down) and I can focus for hours.
But that’s anecdotal. What does the science say?
The studies are pretty bloody positive in favour of intermittent fasting.
One study found that intermittent fasting can actually stimulate the production of new brain cells.
And another found that intermittent fasting can make your brain more adaptable to change and less fragile when stressed thanks to increased production of a protein called BDNF during the fasting period.
Finally, a recent study has found that intermittent fasting might actually be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
Benefit 5: Intermittent fasting saves you time
I’ve previously posted some easy fat-loss breakfasts that don’t take too long to make.
But if you’re a busy parent or you have a demanding job, imagine how much easier your mornings would be if you didn’t have to worry about making and eating breakfast. You could probably be at least 10% more productive before you even get to work.
Intermittent fasting saves you time and can make you more productive.
Benefit 6: Intermittent fasting might help you live longer
Now it might seem obvious by now that intermittent fasting might help you live longer; after all, it can reduce inflammation and improve brain health.
However, there’s another way that intermittent fasting can potentially increase your lifespan.
To understand how, you need to understand the function of mitochondria. Mitochondria exist in cells and produce energy. Part of the ageing process is the reduced ability of mitochondria to perform this task.
A recent study on nematode worms, that live for just two weeks, had some interesting findings. By mimicking calorie restriction – which is what intermittent fasting does – the scientists were able to increase the worms’ lifespan. The worms’ mitochondria remained in a “youthful” state and maintained their ability to produce energy.
More studies need to be done on human populations engaging in intermittent fasting before a real conclusion can be drawn, but it’s looking promising.
Benefit 7: Intermittent fasting is a legitimate form of detox
I hate the word “detox” because it’s mostly used by snake oil salesman, marketers, idiots, and crappy personal trainers.
But at the risk of outing myself as a crappy personal trainer, intermittent fasting might actually be a legitimate way to detox.
There’s a process called autophagy that can happen in your body. Latin scholars might have already realised that the word itself means “self-eating”, and this describes the process very well: the body breaks down old and damaged cells into their constituent elements and reuses them.
Allowing damaged cells to build up too much can be toxic. Autophagy is a very beneficial process that we want to happen.
And, luckily for us, intermittent fasting can stimulate autophagy.
Going on one of those “cleanse” diets won’t do the same.
Summary: Intermittent Fasting Benefits
– Intermittent fasting is a great for fat loss, decreasing insulin levels and increasing testosterone.
– It minimises fat gain while you’re building muscle.
– Intermittent fasting reduces inflammation.
– It improves brain health.
– It’s time-saving.
– Intermittent fasting might increase your lifespan.
– It stimulates autophagy, a true form of detox.
Intermittent Fasting Preparation
Before you start intermittent fasting, there are a few things you need to do.
1. Change the way you think about hunger
Most of us think hunger is the trigger to eat. I feel hungry, therefore I will eat.
Or, to put it super simply:
Hunger → Eat
But I think we’re missing a step.
Think about lions. A lion wakes up, feels hunger, and then what does it instinctively do? It hunts. It uses its body, running around and chasing its prey, exerting energy before eating.
And it was the same with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They didn’t have refrigerators or other ways of storing food for breakfast the next day. If they felt hunger, they would have to hunt and gather, exerting energy before they could eat.
So let’s change the flow chart:
Hunger → Hunt/Gather → Eat
There’s our missing step: spending a few hours hunting/gathering before eating.
But in today’s world, that isn’t a realistic proposition. So what could we substitute? How about:
Hunger → Low-intensity movement → Eat
That low-intensity movement could be pretty much anything. Commuting to work. Going for a walk. Tidying up your house. Some light foam rolling and mobility work.
There are even people who like to do a full workout before they eat. I’m not such a big fan of that, and you’d have to experiment to see if fasted exercise is right for you.
The point is that you should exert energy, even in a low-intensity way, before eating. You don’t need to consume calories the second you wake up.
2. Follow a low carb diet first
Intermittent fasting is a lot easier if you’re already following a low-carb diet. The theory is that if you’re already used to burning fat for fuel, it’s a lot easier to switch to burning body fat for fuel during your daily fast.
And hunger feels different on a low carb diet. You basically feel “empty” instead of hungry. You don’t get that ravenous oh-my-God-I-need-to-eat-right-now kind of hunger.
I’ve tried intermittent fasting while following a higher carb diet. It sucks.
So instead of immediately switching to intermittent fasting, make it a slow transition. Stick to meals at “normal” times, but make them low carb meals.
As for lunch, a basic green salad with a protein source (e.g. chicken breast) and an olive-oil based dressing would work well.
Get used to this way of eating for 4-6 weeks before transitioning to an intermittent fasting protocol.
3. Make sure it’s right for you
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone…
– Pregnant? Don’t intermittent fast.
– Still a child/adolescent? Don’t intermittent fast. Look, if your kid occasionally insists they aren’t hungry, maybe you don’t need to force them to eat. But a period of daily fasting probably isn’t the best idea for a developing body.
– History of eating disorders? Talk to your therapist first.
– Diabetic or pre-diabetic? Talk to your doctor first.
– Any medical issue that requires medication? Talk to your doctor first.
– Female? It might be tougher for you.
Popular Intermittent Fasting Protocols
There isn’t just one way to intermittent fast. Here are the most common protocols.
The Leangains Protocol
This is the most common protocol and the one I usually follow when I’m intermittent fasting. It’s also the one I most frequently recommend to clients.
The “Leangains Protocol” was invented by trainer/nutritionist Martin Berkhan who runs the website there.
It’s my favourite protocol because it was specifically designed for people who are interested in losing body fat while also getting strong and jacked in the gym.
I’ve been using the Leangains Protocol ever since I came across Martin’s website back in 2011. It’s been a great resource over the years.
The basic idea here is you skip breakfast and have your first meal at lunchtime, say 1 pm. You finish your final meal of the day 9 pm.
That’s an 8-hour feeding window, starting at 1 pm, followed by a 16-hour fast, starting at 9 pm.
As for the number of meals you can have, most people just stick to two decent-sized meals. But three meals works too. Keeping your eating within the feeding window is way more important than the number of meals you consume during said window.
The Leangains protocol allows me to:
– Build lean muscle during my muscle-building cycles while minimising any body fat gain. I also follow the other guidelines on my “How to Build Muscle” blog post. As for my workouts, I started posting my full hypertrophy workouts to my Instagram page on August 21st, 2018.
– Maintain muscle and even build strength during my fat-loss cycles.
The Warrior Diet
The Warrior Diet is a little more difficult than the Leangains Protocol. You have a 4-hour feeding window, although you’re allowed to have small snacks of fruit and veggies during the day.
I’m not such a big fan of the Warrior Diet. A daily 20-hour fast is a little too much for most people. I’d guess compliance would be a lot lower than the Leangains Protocol.
I have done several 24-hour fasts, and I’ve felt good. But the idea of such a long fast every day isn’t at all appealing.
The 5:2 Diet
The 5:2 Diet involves 5 days of normal eating and 2 (non-consecutive) days of eating 500-600 calories.
I’ve never tried this way of eating, so I can’t comment much. Although I will say that this doesn’t really seem to be a good way of eating if you’re trying to build strength and/or muscle.
Intermittent Fasting: How to do it
Here’s a typical day in the life of an intermittent faster:
7 am: wake up
7.30 am: drink black coffee and water.
9 am – 1 pm: at work. Drink one more cup of coffee and a few cups of water.
1-1.30 pm: break the fast. Typically a large chicken salad.
2-5 pm: at work, drinking more water.
5.30 pm: pre-workout protein shake.
6-7 pm: lift weights.
7.15 pm: post-workout protein shake.
8.30-9 pm. dinner. The fast begins as soon as I’ve swallowed the last bite.
9-11 pm: watch TV, go to bed.
Intermittent Fasting: FAQs
What can you consume during the fast?
Water, black coffee, green tea, and herbal tea. In other words, zero-calorie drinks.
Does that mean I can drink zero-calorie diet sodas during the fast?
This is highly debatable and depends on the individual.
Here’s the problem with the sweeteners in diet sodas: there is some evidence that they can spike insulin levels, just like sugar does.
And if insulin levels get too high, fat loss becomes impossible.
To be clear: diet sodas won’t make you gain weight. But they might make it harder to get leaner.
My suggestion: try intermittent fasting without the diet sodas for a couple of weeks. Then reintroduce diet soda during the morning fast. If you continue dropping body fat, great, keep drinking the soda. But if your fat loss stalls after reintroducing the soda, you need to remove it from your diet again.
I heard a lot of people are drinking coffee with coconut oil and butter in the morning. Can I drink that during the fast?
“Bulletproof Coffee” is a term most commonly used to refer to coffee blended with coconut oil and grass-fed butter, popularised by biohacker Dave Asprey.
But can you drink it during the morning fast? This is a grey area. As long as you don’t go overboard, you can drink this “Bulletproof Coffee” and still experience the benefits of intermittent fasting.
But you have to bear in mind how calorie-dense it can be: 1 tablespoon of coconut oil contains 120 calories, and 1 tablespoon of butter contains 100 calories.
If you really want to drink this stuff, here’s my recommendation: maximum 2 cups, each containing half a tablespoon of coconut oil and half a tablespoon of butter.
What if I’m training in the morning? Don’t I need to consume protein immediately before and after my workout?
Martin Berkhan addresses this on his website. His solution: Branched-Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplements.
BCAAs are the specific amino acids that, among other things, trigger protein synthesis (muscle growth). You can buy BCAA powders that you just mix with your drinking water. They’re so low in calories that they don’t seem to interfere with the morning fast, but also allow you to build muscle at the same time.
The only kind I’ve tried and enjoyed is BCAA+ by Biosteel. They’re sweetened with stevia, which doesn’t seem to spike insulin like other sweeteners can.
Don’t worry if you can’t find this specific brand. Any kind that is sweetened with stevia will do.
Let’s say you train before work, at 7 am. Take one serving of BCAAs 10 minutes before your workout. Then sip another serving during your workout. And then take another serving immediately after your workout.
By now it’s 8 am. If you’re planning to break your fast at 1 pm, take a serving of BCAAs at 10 am and 12 pm. Eat your first meal at 1 pm.
I can only train late at night, around 9 pm. Should I wait until late afternoon or early evening to break my fast?
This is completely up to you. You could time your feeding window to end with your post-workout meal, or you could shift the feeding window to, for example, 4pm-midnight. Experiment and figure out what’s best for you.
Can I change my feeding window to [insert time]?
Probably. The only thing I wouldn’t suggest is a feeding window that starts at breakfast time. If your feeding window is 7am-3pm and you don’t go to bed until 10 pm, you’re going to be hungry in the evening.
Or maybe not. Just experiment and figure out what works best.
I feel lightheaded and/or get headaches during the morning fast. What should I do?
You probably aren’t getting enough sodium and/or potassium. Fasting decreases insulin levels, which means you’re going to retain less water. There will be an initial “flush” where your body lets go of water. But in that water will be essential minerals like sodium and potassium.
For sodium, try adding a small pinch of good quality sea salt to your morning drinking water. You can also use pink Himalayan salt.
For potassium, make sure you eat some avocado a few days a week.
And add salt to food.
This should be a quick fix. If you still have a headache or feel lightheaded 24 hours after making these changes, stop intermittent fasting and go see your doctor.
Can I eat whatever I want during the feeding window?
No. Intermittent fasting isn’t an excuse to binge-eat every evening. You still have to eat at a calorie deficit if you want to lose body fat.
And consuming sugar-filled junk food is going to make losing body fat tough, even if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re using.
Can I drink alcohol during the feeding window?
Sure. But not to excess, and you should probably avoid beer if you’re trying to drop body fat.
I drink a small glass of dry red wine (merlot, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, malbec etc.) on days of the week that contain the letter D.
There you go. My ultimate guide to intermittent fasting. Please share this blog post using the buttons below if you found it useful.
And leave a comment if you have any questions.