Separating Health from Hype: Intermittent Fasting

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

It’s a sentiment that was engrained into most of us at a young age – wake up, fuel up, and get your day started. My entire childhood unfolded in that manner, and weekend breakfasts with my Dad were long-established as a sacred household regime.

And yet, as I’ve gotten older and become increasingly obsessed with topics of bio-hacking, health, fitness and general performance, the many hours of podcasts, studies and books have lead me to the same conclusion: Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day.

In fact, for the last 2 and a half years, I’ve skipped it entirely.

Don’t get me wrong – I love breakfast. I’m a self-proclaimed omelette, protein pancake and avocado toast master. But for me, ‘breakfast’ – that is, the actual act of breaking my fast – doesn’t happen until 12 – 2 PM most days, sometimes later. And with that, my friends, I welcome you to the world of intermittent fasting.

Let me preface this by noting that intermittent fasting has become something of a widespread craze over the last few years. Despite the growing literature available on the topic, and the many experts who can speak to it with great integrity, there also exists a wealth of misinformation. With that said, it’s important to clarify that I am not a nutritionist (nor would I ever claim to be) and any information I relay to you here has been accrued from qualified professionals and literature (experts and sources which I will link along the way), along with my own experience. As with any health practice, diet or habit, if there’s one thing I can urge you to remember it’s this:

Health is entirely individualized. What may work for me, your best friend, your significant other, your co-worker or your neighbour, might not work for you. Regardless of how compelling the research might be, you will have to determine what works for you – in a way that is long-term sustainable. And as it relates to social media and the age of influencers we live in, just remember – a wealth of followers does not necessarily equate to a wealth of knowledge. What is touted on social media is largely unregulated, which means you shouldn’t just ‘take someone’s word’ for something because you like their feed. Always do your own research/homework, consult your doctor/naturopath for a second opinion and don’t make too many drastic changes at once.

Alright then, let’s get to it.

To begin, ‘Intermittent Fasting’ is the process of restricting the window in which you eat, and extending the window in which you don’t eat. In layman’s terms, you are skipping certain meals (usually breakfast) to increase the time in which you remain ‘fasted’. Similar to the Paleo diet, this dietary format mimics what our ancestors would have experienced, as humans had to hunt and forage their food in order to eat. And as you might imagine, many of the large-scale health concerns we face as a population today (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases etc.) were far less prevalent, during that time.

Intermittent fasting can be achieved with a variety of eating/fasting ratios. A popular example of this is the 16:8 fast, in which an individual would fast (only consume water, black coffee or black tea) for 16 hours and eat within 8 hours. In this case, you could finish eating at 8 PM on Monday night and not eat again until 12 PM on Tuesday. For others, the fasting window may be more extreme – such as limiting your feeding window to 2-6 hours (or say, just eating at dinner time). Personally, I usually start eating between 1 – 3 PM and finish eating around 9 or 10 PM. This has become easy, if not entirely natural to me over time, but as with anything, fasting requires a (physiological and psychological) adjustment period and you have to find the fasting format that works for you. Don’t worry, I’ll get to those different fasting formats in Part II.

Now, let’s get to the ‘why’ behind all of this. There are two main schools of thought (beyond Religious practice, FYI) to support intermittent fasting.

1. Weight Loss

In one boat, you have individuals who are hoping to lose or better manage their weight. While intensive caloric restriction isn’t necessarily the best way to lose (and keep off) weight (see The Obesity Code), the act of intermittent fasting both makes it easier to remain within a caloric deficit and helps to regulate your body’s insulin resistance.

To super-simplify it, consider this:

Scenario A – You start eating at 6:30 AM (breakfast before commuting to work) and finish eating around 8:30 PM (Netflix and munchies, you feel me?). Feeding window = 14 hours.
Scenario B – You stick to black coffee before work, don’t start eating until 12 PM and finish eating around 8 PM. Feeding window = 8 hours.

In which scenario do you think you will consume more calories?

Unsurprisingly, a large feeding window allows for, well, more feeding. For those of us hoping to crack down on certain unsavory habits (mindless, unhealthy snacking or over-eating of the wrong foods), cutting down on the period of the day in which we are eating can make a big difference. Further to that, for those individuals who hate the idea of counting macronutrients or adhering to any strict diet, intermittent fasting (in theory) allows you to still have the meals you love at dinner, while remaining in a caloric deficit. However, it’s important to note that intermittent fasting should not  be interpreted as a license to eat whatever the hell you want. Crappy food is crappy food, and at the end of the day your focus should be on pumping quality fuel into your tank (majority of the time), kapish?

2. Cellular Health
+ Longevity

In the second boat, you have individuals who are interested in cellular autophagy and ‘bio-hacking’ their general health. Fasting (regardless of what type of fasting you do) boasts many benefits:

– Weight loss
– Improved cellular health
– Improved gut health
– Improved blood sugar and insulin resistance
– Reduced oxidative stress and inflammation
– Improved brain function (ie. Less ‘brain fog)
– Reduce risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
– Metabolic improvements
– Reduced all-cause mortality + anti-aging benefits
– Fasting ketosis

Not a bad list, right? We’ve already addressed the weight loss portion, but let’s dig into the rest of it.

Fasting and Cellular Repair

First and foremost, fasting is one of the best ways to ‘bio-hack’ your health on a cellular level. In a fasted state, your cells start to more readily recycle parts of themselves (mitochondria, pieces of protein etc.) that are damaged. Basically, your body adopts a hyper-efficient “out with the bad, in with the good” cellular process (referred to as cellular autophagy). Studies also indicate that this process lends to the activation of stem cells, growth hormone and the regeneration of new, healthy cells in the place of those damaged cells that were cleared away. This helps to slow the markers of aging, while preventing cellular dysfunction that can lead to disease.

Further, through the enhanced removal of damaged molecules and the stimulation of antioxidants, fasting helps to reduce oxidative stress in the brain which translates to improved brain performance (AKA less brain fog).

Fasting and Cancer

If you’ve read, or listened to, any of Dom D’agostino’s work, you are likely familiar with the associations between fasting and reduced cancer risk, or reduced toxicity of cancer treatments (chemotherapy). While there is a ton of information to be shared here, I’ll keep it simple:

Aside from basic cellular repair, fasting helps to slow down rapidly dividing cells whilst also making cancer cells selectively vulnerable to chemo and radiation, and reducing the toxicity (and symptoms) of treatment (Tools of Titans). Dom notes that 16 hours of fasting appears to be the best balance of autophagy and anabolism (muscle building) for this particular application.

Fasting and Insulin Resistance

When you eat, your body breaks down the glucose (sugar) from your food which then enters your bloodstream for transport to cells. Glucose acts as your fuel (unless you’re in ketosis), and insulin is the hormone that tells your cells to absorb glucose.

When you become more insulin resistant (a common cause of obesity today), your cells become unable to receive glucose, which means it remains in the bloodstream and stores as fat rather than being expended as energy. Basically, glucose is banging on the door, but no one is answering. This is often seen in individuals who initially lose weight following a caloric restriction, but struggle to keep it off. Why? Because their insulin resistance keeps insulin levels and their ‘body set weight’ high.

Fasting is noted as one of the most efficient ways to ‘reset’ your insulin sensitivity. It’s said that fasting periods of 18 – 24 hours is the ideal ‘sweet spot’ for seeing a drop in insulin (and subsequently, blood sugar) and an increase in lipolysis (the breakdown of fat). This brings me back to my earlier point that fasting is not a license to eat crappy food – If your diet is too high in refined sugars, your body will have a hard time making that desired switch from metabolizing glucose to fatty acids.

Personally, fasting has not only helped me to run a tight ship on a cellular level, but also enhanced my mental clarity. Rather than starting my day feeling lethargic and groggy post-breakfast, I drink water and a black coffee or americano, and feel clear and alert (as alert as a non-morning person can be, at least). Not only that, but as someone prone to inflammation and gut-related distress, fasting helps give my gut microbiome a much-needed break each day and helps to combat inflammation. I also prefer to train in a fasted state (personal preference) and not eating until later in the day also helps to free up my morning (one less meal to dedicate time to making).

This is only the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to fasting – we still have lot’s to cover. Stay tuned for Part II in which I’ll get into more benefits, the different ‘types’ of fasting, fasting + training protocol (men vs. women), the black coffee/amino acid debate and much, much more.