Eat little and often has been the official mantra of the fitness industry for a long time. They claim it boosts the metabolism and that, if you go for a long time without eating, a starvation response will set in whereby the metabolism slows down, making your workouts less effective and causing you to gain fat, not lose it.
This, of course, is linked to the ‘calories in versus calories out’ theory of weight loss which most free thinkers in this area accept is not the whole story by any means. Indeed I was talking to a young scientist at the Oxford Science festival at the weekend, who was telling me that a lot of the science is now looking more at the role of various hormones in weight management – grehlin, leptin and others – these are hormones regulating appetite and feelings of fullness. Insulin and cortisone are also major players in this arena of course.
He also strongly agreed with me that intermittent or longer periods of fasting might well be a useful tool for fat loss, although much research on this remains to be done.
If, instead of looking to the tired old energy balance equation for results, we start to look at what’s going on with the hormones, then we start to realise that it’s a lot more complicated, as I always felt as a regular exerciser (and eater!). All kinds of things start to happen with regular intermittent fasting, especially if combined with a high fat low carb diet. At least that’s what I believe from my own experiences and the anecdotal evidence from others, This is not scientific proof so don’t bother to insist on that – but remember there’s no real scientific evidence that it’s not true either – ultimately it all depends upon what you believe and have tried for yourself.
So what happens? Firstly, the production of insulin is reduced to very low levels because it’s not needed to deal with carbohydrates and, to some extent, protein, in the system. In the absence of sugars, we eventually start to metabolise our fat stores for energy. Of course, this happens faster if we are already eating low carb. and also more accustomed therefore to burning fat for energy, instead of sugar. In my opinion, controlling insulin is the most important factor in weight management, which is why I recommend most overweight people to begin by minimising all the processed carbs in their diet and replacing them with healthy fats and moderate protein. Healthy fats have very little effect at all on insulin production, whilst protein has much less effect than carbs. Usually this in itself tends to reduce body fat, regardless of what type of exercise they perform or how many calories they are supposed to be burning.
Secondly, you become much much more aware of how little food you really require to fuel your body optimally. I would say that the vast majority of us probably eat at least twice what would be best for our health, longevity and even athletic performance. Food starts to become more sacred if you like – you sense its importance more and make better food choices. Although you do tend to eat slightly more when you do finally eat a meal, because you are cutting a lot of meals, obviously your intake overall is much less, you save time and money etc. I think that what you do eat is probably better assimilated, although this is pure conjecture. Certainly I suspect that you start to tune in better to the hunger and appetite signals and are able to know what distinguishes hunger from boredom, stress etc.
Thirdly, interestingly enough, human growth hormone actually increases after a certain period of fasting – I think it’s around 16-18 hours. Therefore fasting may actually improve performance, especially in sports requiring power and speed. Certainly my own experience of training while fasted for around this period is that I feel lighter and faster and certainly no decline in strength, probably the opposite in fact. Although this seems counter-intuitive, in fact it makes sense because, as cavemen we would have needed this extra strength and the improved mental clarity also reported whilst fasting, in order to better locate and manage our hunting for the next meal. Human growth hormone production also seems to aid in fat burning too, by the way.
Apart from reduced body fat and visceral fat, I have personally also noticed that my average resting heart rate (a possible marker of cardiovascular fitness) has also dropped from 65 a month or so ago before I began intermittent fasting, to its current rate of 59. I have more energy, not less and also sleep better because not digesting food during the night.
My conclusion? The advice of ‘eat little and often’ is, for those who don’t have serious medical or psychological concerns around food, completely misguided and probably more about selling product than serious health advice. Look at other animals – they hunt and eat when they are hungry, don’t count calories and don’t eat because it’s that time of day. Our ancestors would have frequently gone many days without eating and, if this had meant a decline in their mental and physical powers, they would not have survived. Indeed it is only in the past 50 years or so that food has been so plentiful to the majority of the population that we have the opportunity to choose how much we eat.
Oh and just one other thing. We are told that we need to eat within 20 minutes of workouts to maximise glucose replenishment in the muscles. Whilst this may or may not be true of elite athletes training multiple times a day, it really doesn’t apply to our average person. Your body will not be hungry immediately after training so why eat? Reckon this might be more about selling protein powders than helping us recover? You will normally feel hungry about an hour or two after training and that’s when you need to replenish.
The take home message? Listen to your body, eat when genuinely hungry, not when the food and supplement industry wants you to eat. The same may, incidentally, also be true of the ‘drink before you’re thirsty’ advice. Why would you be set up to need to drink before your body told you to? Is the body really that dumb that it needs you to tell it when to eat and drink? Do you think other animals drink before they’re thirsty? Think about all this advice, experiment for yourself and draw your own conclusions – these people are not worried about your health or fitness, just selling product.
Of course, the usual disclaimers apply – if you have any medical issues or are on medication then obviously check with your appropriately qualified medical practitioner before undertaking any particular way of eating, especially if you are diabetic, pregnant or have any eating disorder. Equally, it may not be right for children, especially young children and obviously babies.
If you’re following all the traditional advice then you are eating little and often, always eating a good breakfast (even if you’re not hungry!), counting your calories and burning more than you consume, eating most of your calories in the form of starchy carbohydrates! reducing saturated fat, blah blah, blah. If this is working really well for you, you feel fit and are in great shape, with no medical issues and managing your weight well, then you should ignore this post and carry on with what your doing. If you are in the less than one per cent of dieters that has succeeded in permanently keeping the weight off just by counting calories, then good luck.
If this is not you (i.e. you are part of the other more than 99% who have tried these methods and found them useless, then maybe just try only eating when you’re really very hungry and see how you react to it? Many people are using and have used fasting in various forms to improve health and fitness dramatically, so it’s really not crazy! But please don’t confuse fasting with simple calorie restriction because it has totally different effects when you don’t eat food at all for varying lengths of time.
Please let me have your thoughts.