You know all those experts who told you that breakfast was the most important meal of your day? Well, sorry to break it to you, but that’s not entirely true. This taboo statement has been engraved in our thinking for a long time, even though it never really made sense. At least not to me.
We’ve all done it. We look at ourselves in the mirror, dislike what we see and go straight to the internet to search, “how to lose weight.” That’s when you get bombarded with website after site claiming that you should eat breakfast to rev your body’s metabolism for the entire day. “Never skip breakfast or you’ll gain more weight,” they warn you. Dun dun dun!!
And, it doesn’t stop there. To lose more weight, you’re also told that you must eat 5 to 6 small meals throughout the day to keep from slowing down your metabolism. We are told to believe this because it’s backed by something we should trust: research.
So, if all this is so great and “easy-to-follow,” why is it that over 50% of the population is still struggling to lose weight?
Take this research: studies have shown that skipping meals like breakfast can actually improve your mental focus, increase your muscle strength, and decrease stored body fat.
Wait a minute….what did you say? That’s right! Turns out there’s research out there that proves otherwise than the common “don’t miss breakfast” scare.
We’ve been conditioned to eat breakfast since we were kids. For years, I bought into the trend and ate breakfast. The moment I stopped was when I shifted my thinking to a different eating pattern. In fact, I’ve been breakfast-free for almost 4 years!
Today, I am here to shatter all the misconceptions you have about skipping breakfast.
As controversial as it might be, skipping meals has some real bite to it (no pun intended). I’ve listed the research and sources to show you just that. Ready for it? Read on!
What You Should Know About Intermittent Fasting
I wouldn’t call intermittent fasting a diet, per se. Instead, I view it as more of a dieting pattern, meant to help me be more mindful of skipping meals by being intentional about my eating schedule.
When you fast, your food intake is limited to a very specific eating time-window within the day. The rest of the time, you’re not eating anything. Intermittent fasting can be practiced in a variety of ways, since there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all for anything, right?
16/8 followers fast for up to 16 hours and eating during the remaining 8 hours. Most 16/8 fasters will do so from noon to 8:00 p.m. So yes, this means that you skip breakfast. I personally like this method because it gives me a small window to eat and I can choose to either skip breakfast or dinner.
It is also flexible enough for you to switch around the starting fasting time and the eating time. Experiment a little and adjust your window to your liking. You can fast from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. or 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 a.m. Everyone has a preference and a schedule that works best for them, so play around with it until you find what’s right for you.
This method requires you to eat your meals normally one day and then take a full 24-hour break from eating. So you can eat your one meal at 7:00 p.m. then fast until 7:00 p.m. the next day.
Essentially, you would eat your regular 3 meals a day, then pick the day where you will fast for 24 hours afterward. You can also work your way up to 24 hours. Start with 18 hours and add more time as your body adjusts. Feel free to fast once or twice a week. Remember, it is about what works best for your body, not someone else’s.
16/8 and 24-hour fasts are the two most common methods for intermittent fasting. Of course, you can play around with both of them together, according to your own personal goals and needs. Some people do well with a 4-hour eating window while others do better in an 8-hour one. The nice part is that you can easily adjust and experiment until you find the right method that works for you.
How Intermittent Fasting Works in Your Body
Simply put, skipping meals means limiting your calorie intake. Calories coming in are, most of the time, the sole reason for weight gain and management. So, reducing the amount you ingest will help you lost weight. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, not all calories are the same. There are nutritional calories and calories that do nothing for your body. The timing of caloric intake can also make a difference: When you place your body on an intermittent fasting schedule, you force your body to adjust to the differences between fasting and eating times.
During the fasting period, your body spends time digesting and processing the food you ate. It works to burn it off naturally. Your body works to burn this consumption immediately into energy before it works to burn any stored fat. If you consume a good amount of high carbs or sugar, it will burn this before turning to another source.
During the fasting period, your body has no food to turn to in order to burn as energy. So, it looks for the next best source, stored body fat. Thus, your body is working to burn off excess fat. When you add physical activity to a fasting period, it has no choice but to look for stored fat to burn as energy. It can’t necessarily use glucose because your body will be depleted of those nutrients at this point.
Why does this matter? Your body needs energy to get you going each day. Usually, it’ll come from food, helping the production of insulin. Some people become insulin-resistant because they’re eating inflammation-causing foods. This resistance has often caused excessive and seemingly abnormal weight gain. Fasting has been proven to help lower insulin resistance and promote subsequent weight loss.
You can discipline your body to effectively utilize the food it consumes and burn fat as fuel with intermittent fasting. Rather than constantly feeding your body an abundance of calories, make it use fuel off of what it already has stored. Training it can be easier than pie…just don’t eat it.
Since the idea of changing your dietary habits through intermittent fasting can be scary and difficult, I created a guide to help you take your first steps in the right direction.
But What About The “6 Small Meals” Method?
The “six small meals” method is popular for a couple of reasons:
- Your body is burning calories when it processes your meals. That being said, if you are eating all day, the preconceived notion that your metabolism will be burning calories at an optimal rate is false.
Whether you eat a set amount of calories at once or you spread them out throughout the day, your body is going to process the same amount of food. Therefore it burns the same amount of calories. When all is said and done, whether you keep your metabolism going all day or allow it to halt for several hours every day, it really makes no difference in relation to how many calories you will burn.
- When you split your intake into six meals, you are less likely to overeat than when eating small portions. This is in comparison to eating three regular meals a day. To an extent, this is true and does help individuals who have a problem with overeating or limiting their portions.
On the other hand, it also makes sense that because of your smaller portions, you may be more inclined to snack and thus eat extra calories because you make yourself believe that you have not eaten enough. Not to mention that allotting the time both to prep and eating six meals is restrictive and difficult to keep up in the long-term. In my opinion, it can make eating seem laborious and kill my enjoyment of a good meal. Who wants that? I for sure don’t. I like my food too much.
There have been recent studies bashing the effectiveness of the “six meals a day” technique. The study concluded that “increasing meal frequency does not promote greater body weight loss.”
Why is intermittent fasting the answer?
You may be asking yourself, “why should I try intermittent fasting?” Here are a few answers to that question:
- It can help you achieve your goals. Caloric intake, or the lack thereof, plays a huge role in weight loss. Fasting adds a strict element to meeting your goal and makes for more consistent results on a regular basis.
- It makes your life easier. Forget about all the prepping, packing, and planning associated with multiple meals throughout the day. You only need to worry about food within your eating window. Less time cooking and prepping! And my experience is that less is more; I enjoy my meals more now that I’m eating less often throughout the day.
- Spend less time and money. Imagine the amount of time you would save if you didn’t have to prepare, pack, and find the time throughout your day to eat six meals. The difference is huge. Not to mention all the money you would save on ingredients and containers. You would only have to purchase 2 or 3 meals as opposed to six, meaning a third of the cost and a third of the dirty dishes to clean at the end of the day.
- Increase growth hormone secretion and strengthen insulin sensitivity. We’ve established that these are key components in weight loss. Why not enable your body to do so by following a diet known to promote muscular growth and calorie-burning?
- It helps fight conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Dementia. Mark Mattson, a Professor at Johns Hopkins and the Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences, has explained the benefits of intermittent fasting on degenerative neurological diseases in his studies. Check out his Ted Talk on the topic here.
The Downsides of Intermittent Fasting
There are a few negative side-effects of intermittent fasting that have been discovered over the last few years.
The biggest drawback associated with intermittent fasting is, however, the way most people feel when they begin fasting. Many believe it will cause low energy levels.
How to overcome this concern.
At first, making the large jump from eating all day to fasting will be tough. Your body isn’t used to being deprived and it will take time for it to adapt. However, while different individuals will react in different ways, it should only take a few days for your body to adjust.
Starting out your intermittent fasting journey, it may seem like your body is entering some kind of deprivation mode and can’t function effectively. However, a recent study discussing the effect of a 48- hour fast indicates that people’s mental performance, sleep, activities, and overall mood do not see any negative effects from a reduced caloric intake. Now, this is an extreme example, as intermittent fasting would never involve a 48 hour fast, but the exaggeration is very telling: Even in a 48-hour deprivation period, you remain as sharp as usual.
But then why do I get “hangry?”
Because your body is adjusting to a new routine. You got used to eating on a different schedule, and any disruption of that routine is confusing for your body. It will often translate as frustration or feeling “hangry” during the adjustment phase. Once your body stops expecting food all day every day, that confusion and feeling will dissipate. The same applies to hunger pangs. They are caused by a hormone called “ghrelin.” Ghrelin is at its lowest in the mornings and slowly goes away after a few hours of not eating. Just like other side effects, your body will get used to this new eating schedule and the hunger pangs will become less frequent and soon disappear altogether.
Fasting will not fix it all.
Just because you skipped breakfast doesn’t mean that you can overload your body with candy and junk food for your other meals. That’s not how you’ll be able to lose weight. Food needs to be nutritious and balanced. In fact, you need to be at a caloric deficit for fasting to have a weight loss effect.
If you are unable to control your portions, track your caloric intake. As stated earlier, because your body has been hungry all day, you may be inclined to overeat in an attempt to satisfy that hunger. The most important part about intermittent fasting is that you are eating less than you normally would. Keep note of what you ate and how much you ate to ensure that you’re doing exactly that. Keep your food intake at moderate levels.
Fasting can be more difficult for individuals who have hypoglycemia or diabetes and need to regulate their blood sugar throughout the day. Always check with your doctor to ensure that intermittent fasting is a sound and practical technique before making any changes to your eating habits.
Intermittent fasting also has different effects on women, which we will talk more about below.
Am I able to build muscle and gain weight while intermittent fasting?
The simple answer is: absolutely.
By eating the same number of calories as usual, but condensing it into an eight-hour window, you can gain the right kind of weight in the right way.
A sample schedule of how you could go about gaining weight and muscle while intermittent fasting would look something like this:
- 9 AM Heavy strength training
- 10 AM Consume ½ of your daily intake post-workout – eating soon after your workout is extremely important.
- 5 PM Consume the second half of your daily intake for dinner
- 6 PM – 10 AM the next day: Fast for 16 hours (until your next post-workout meal)
Benefits of gaining muscle while gaining weight (as opposed to the “bulk and cut” method):
- Less weight fluctuation. Putting on excessive weight just to cut most of it down can be taxing on the body. Then add in the component of gaining a few pounds of muscle and you’re putting your body through drastic variations in your weight. This will cause you to experience a lot of uneven definition, not to mention the annoyance of your clothes constantly fitting differently.
- Spend less money. Again, because you’re eating less, you’ll spend less money on food. Eating less also means that you’re steadily gaining muscle in a proportionate ratio to fat gain. This is more beneficial than putting on 5 pounds of fat in 2 weeks to gain a pound of muscle for example.
- Keep your summer body year-round. No more worrying about looking slim for that vacation that’s right around the corner! Because you’re staying lean while you’re gaining weight, you won’t have to drastically change your diet or workout routine when it comes time to cut down for a special event.
- It is easier to identify problems and make changes to your diet. Because you are not overeating, it becomes easier to dial in on what caused your body fat percentage to go up for a certain week and then make quick adjustments to cut back on carbs to get back on track the following week. This is all without affecting your muscle-building process.
Martin of LeanGains recommends Branched Chain Amino Acids to supplement and aid your muscles during fasted training. While this is not in any way necessary, it is a sound option if you feel that you are recovering well from training while fasting.
Remember that intermittent fasting is just a small part of a bigger picture of health and fitness.
Does intermittent fasting affect men and women differently?
Simply put, yes. A recent PubMed summary concluded that fasting is an effective method to use for dieting and can improve a woman’s life. In this summary, the studies cited are specific to calorie restriction and are not specific to fasting.
Some of the side-effects found in the PubMed study included:
- Slight impairment to a woman’s glucose response with an unchanged insulin response. (Men had no change in glucose response)
- Variances in expected metabolic response, such as increased cortisol and thrown off sleeping patterns.
Again, while every individual may react differently to intermittent fasting, the listed side effects presented from fasting experiments indicate that many weight loss benefits associated with intermittent fasting may have a positive effect on men, but the opposite effect on women.
Precision Nutrition would not recommend intermittent fasting if you are pregnant, have any eating disorders, suffer from chronic stress or insomnia, or if you are new to restrictive diet and exercise.
Unfortunately, there have not been enough studies with enough female specific samples directly linked with intermittent fasting to prove or disprove its effects. Some women, however, have talked about hormonal imbalance and early onset menopause after starting intermittent fasting.
To summarize, it is evident that men and women will experience different effects from intermittent fasting. From the studies provided, I would think twice as a woman considering intermittent fasting. I would consider alternate weight loss solutions such as focusing on the quality of the food you take in, regular exercise and healthy sleeping patterns.
As a woman, if you feel that intermittent fasting may still work for you and the listed side effects do not concern you, give it a try. At the end of the day, you know your body best and I cannot stress enough how everyone’s body may react to intermittent fasting differently. My advice would be to check with your doctor for any conditions that may prevent you from trying a fasting diet technique, then closely track your progress to determine if it is something that will help and work for you.
Frequently asked questions about intermittent fasting
Will I be constantly hungry?
Again, your hunger derives from a habit that you and your body have created. With eating about the same amount of food everyday at the same time, your body knows what to expect and naturally it will take a little bit of time for your body to adapt to that. Eventually, your body will only expect food in the allotted windows of your fast. The more you are used to eating or the more overweight you currently are, the more difficult the initial transition may be.
This is just a reminder that studies have proven that your cognitive and physical functions are not diminished by fasting.
Will I have enough energy for my workouts?
While a very valid concern, research actually indicates that training with limited carbohydrate availability can stimulate your muscles and enable energy production from fat. So, as it turns out, your body can burn more fat by using it as an energy source as opposed to using loaded carbs.
I want to try fasted training, but my hours are restricted and I can’t follow the same schedule. What do I do?
Because following to the best of your ability is better than 0% effort, adjust your fasting hours to match your schedule. Try to eat your post-workout meal sometime in the 8 hours following your workout so you can fast again before morning. Do what you can and adjust as needed throughout the day. The main purpose of the fast is to eat 2 meals a day. You can do what you need to in order to meet that goal.
Will fasting make me lose muscle?
Another valid concern. However, the idea that not having sufficient protein every few hours causes our muscles to break down and burn as energy is UNTRUE. Our bodies naturally adapt to preserve muscle, even when we are fasting. In fact, it can take several hours for our muscles to retain protein, so, in essence, it makes no difference if protein is consumed a couple of times a day or continuously throughout the day.
Will my body go into starvation from not eating?
We’ve been made to believe that when calories are not readily available for our body to feed on, our body will store the calories rather than burning them. Luckily, this is also false. While the starvation mode is real, it requires an extreme amount of fasting before the body begins to preserve calories. At most, for intermittent fasting, you’re looking at 16-24 hours of fasting. This amount of time is significantly shorter than what it would take for your body to kick into starvation mode.
How much should I eat while fasting?
This question is both simple and complex at the same time. Eat towards whatever your goal is. If you are trying to lose weight, you will need to consume fewer calories than you burn every day. If you’re bulking up, you’ll want to consume more than you burn. Again, one of the wonderful aspects of intermittent fasting is the ability to make adjustments to your diet depending on the goal you’re trying to reach. Start with a normal meal portion and go from there. If you are losing or gaining the amount of weight you want, keep it up! If you are not happy with your results, eat less or more depending. The best rule of thumb is to reduce or add to your caloric intake in 10% increments.
As mentioned earlier, intermittent fasting is just a small piece of a larger picture. If you are concerned about what you’re eating or feel you would like to know more about sound diet choices and portions, check out Manning’s guide here. This guide will answer all your questions and help you make the right choices.
Fasting Tips and Tricks
Don’t overthink it. Intermittent fasting isn’t black or white and if you end up fasting for 15 hours instead 16, you’re not going to ruin your progress or results. Your body will always adapt as needed.
If you want to eat breakfast one day and skip it the next, it will work out in the end. If you are an athlete or training for something in particular, you will obviously need to be more disciplined. But if this is for yourself, set your own pace and do the best you can.
Consider going for walks in the morning. Not only is this an excellent way to start your morning on a healthy note, it also allows you to clear your head and keeps you distracted from a lack of food in the early fasting phase, when your body is still adapting to your fast.
Pay attention to your body while working out. While fasting has been proven not to have an impact on your cognitive or physical ability, make sure that you are staying hydrated and eating correctly. If you start to feel funny or a little “off” during your workout, take a break. If you’re new to intermittent fasting, pay very close attention to your body’s reaction to exercise on an empty stomach.
Distract yourself from eating. If you spend your day thinking about how hungry you are, transitioning to intermittent fasting will be very difficult for you. Plan your fasting windows wisely. Especially in your transition period, as your body is getting used to fasting, it can help make the hours go by quicker.
Zero-calorie beverages are okay. Caffeine boosts like green tea or coffee can also help make fasting easier. Again, don’t overthink it. If you want to add milk to your coffee or drink a soda during your fast, it’s not going to ruin everything. Like any good habit, it takes time to build and you can ease your way into it. It’s better to be less strict about your diet and stick with it then to give up on it completely because it’s too strict from the get-go.
For anyone looking to lose weight or gain lean body mass, intermittent fasting has lots of positive benefits that can help you achieve your goals. While it can have a different effect on different individuals and may not be right for everyone, its benefits make it worth trying. You can work around your daily schedule and make adjustments to your fast so it fits your lifestyle. Once you’ve overcome a very temporary transition period, your body will perform just the same as it did before you decided to fast, if not better.
Drew Manning, an IF specialist, goes deeper in the topic of intermittent fasting here.Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.