Intermittent fasting (IF) is a hot topic. It’s been purported to help you lose body fat, improve metabolic health, and lower inflammation. Some people even find it enhances cognition and productivity.
Ever wonder if it’s a good choice for you?
New research shows that IF may be a viable option for active individuals and some athletes during lower volume training. For example, a study from Italy found that experienced bodybuilders were able to reduce body fat by 16.4 percent, losing 1.6 kg of fat, while improving strength and physical performance after 8 weeks of what is known as an 8:16 fasting protocol (they ate all their calories in an 8-hour window each day and fasted for the remaining 16 hours).
Subjects also had a slight increase in lean mass as well as major improvements in insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. Inflammation also dropped over the course of the study.
Still, there can be drawbacks to IF. Some people report insomnia, increased stress, low hormone levels, and extreme food cravings. For instance, the bodybuilders in the Italian study experienced a significant decrease in thyroid hormone, testosterone, and IGF-1. Interestingly, these reductions didn’t produce any visible negative effects such as a drop in strength or a decrease in metabolic rate.
Researchers think this may be due to the fact that the bodybuilders maintained their calorie intake and stayed active despite limiting their daily eating window. More research is needed, but this study indicates that with a little troubleshooting and individual experimentation, it may be possible to identify a fasting protocol that is right you. Based on the current research, here are ten tips for success with intermittent fasting.
#1: Use Longer Feeding Windows
If you read reports on the internet, you might get sucked into fasting for a whole 24 hours or even a few days. Four-hour fasting windows are also popular. These more extreme protocols may be appropriate for some individuals but they aren’t a good move for serious athletes who require more calories for recovery. Feeding windows ranging from 8 to 12 hours can convey the key benefits of longer fasts without some of the complications.
#2: Don’t Slash Calories
Something that stood out in the Italian body builder study is that subjects maintained their calories, eating over 2,700 a day despite having only an 8-hour eating window. This likely allowed them to maintain physical activity and recover optimally so that they maintained strength and athleticism, while experiencing more favorable changes in body composition.
#3: Monitor Blood Work
IF has both positive and negative effects on physiological markers: Most people see improvements in insulin sensitivity, a reduction in inflammation, and more favorable cholesterol ratios. But, they also experience a drop in thyroid hormone, testosterone, and IGF-1, which could be problematic if levels go too low. Monitoring your levels with quarterly blood draws and working with an experienced physician can help you assess your progress and head off hormonal imbalances.
#4: Strength Train
Strength training makes everything better, helping you to enhance body composition adaptations by triggering protein synthesis for improved lean mass. It also helps you make the transition to being able to burn fat for energy by improving levels of fat burning enzymes so that as blood sugar drops during your fasting periods, you maintain energy and mood.
#5: Get Your Protein In
Protein is a godsend for helping you manage hunger pangs as you transition to longer periods of fasting because it increases gut hormones that keep you satiated. Additionally, the amino acids in protein can improve focus and motivation so that you stay on point with your feeding/fasting schedule.
#6: Take Whey Protein Post-Workout
When utilizing a compressed eating window you want to take advantage of every chance to provide the body with what it needs to recover from intense training. Taking 20 to 30 grams of whey protein post-workout provides a nice dose of the amino acid leucine for greater muscle protein synthesis and better recovery.
#7: Stick With A Consistent Eating Schedule
Some people like IF because it allows them to eat only when convenient. This is not an ideal approach for athletes who need to optimize their circadian rhythms if they want to reach their potential. Another benefit of a steady eating schedule is balanced cortisol levels, which is essential for long-term success with fasting.
#8: Don’t Overload On Caffeine or Other Appetite Suppressants
Coffee or green tea can be useful to start your day when delaying your first meal until the afternoon. However, drinking huge volumes of caffeinated beverages throughout the day is bad news for the adrenals and may lead to excessive cortisol release.
#9: Avoid Fasting During High Volume Athletic Training
IF is probably most appropriate during lower volume training phases, such as in the off-season for competitive athletes or when training just 3 to 4 times a week for the general population. Combining the more severe IF protocols with two-a-day training simply won’t provide the body with the calories or nutrients necessary for peak performance and recovery.
#10: Eat Healthy
You might think that you can eat whatever you like after depriving yourself of food, but fasting and junk food really don’t go together all that well. Calorie intake is often reduced when fasting—more so with shorter eating windows (say 4 hours compared to 8 hours) and if you’re an athlete, you want to get all the high-quality nutrition you can out of the limited calories your giving your body. Amino acids, vitamin C, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, antioxidants, co-factors for enzymes, and cholesterol are just a few of the key players in enabling optimal athleticism.
Moro, T., et al. Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2016. 14(290).
Tinsley, G., et al. Time-restricted feeding in young men performing resistance training: A randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Sports Science. 2016. Published Ahead of Print.