“I’ll hold my hands up and admit it,” says Andy Vincent, Personal Trainer at Third Space and a specialist in nutrition and fat loss. “When I first read about Intermittent Fasting, I totally blanked the idea.”
Andy wasn’t alone in putting fingers in ears at the mention of this approach to eating. With an emphasis on changing when you eat rather than what, it’s a hard message to receive when you’ve been brought up on the traditional understanding that three-to-six equal-sized and balanced meals through the day is the best diet for you.
But as more and more people begin to give this new approach a go, the message is getting louder. Now, it feels like we can’t help but listen to what IF has to say. We asked Andy, who’s now been using IF methods for over four years and regularly employs the technique with his clients, to recount his experiences and recall the research he’s read up on around the tradition-defying fat-loss strategy.
“Put very simply, Intermittent Fasting is the practice of going for prolonged periods without food,” Andy says. “Thing is, there is no one hard and fast universal method to adhere to, and this can prove to be a little confusing. That said, over the past five years quite a few different protocols have emerged, and there are two definitive front runners to take a look at.”
To begin with an idea of what IF involves, here’s Andy’s guide to the most popular duo.
Eat Stop Eat (5:2)
“This system requires you to fast for a full 24 hours once or twice a week, and eat sensibly (meaning more protein and less processed food) for the rest. I like how flexible it is – you can choose which 24-hour period you want to fast through and fit it into your life schedule. This can be breakfast to breakfast, lunch to lunch or dinner to dinner, just choose a 24-hour period that suits you. Some schools of thought, that I found in a number of 5:2 diet books, allow for one 500kcal meal during your fasting. All the other rules stay the same, but it’s something to consider if going without for 24 hours seems too intense, or if you’re just starting out with this schedule.”
Lean Gains (16/8)
“This one will have you feeding through an eight-hour period, followed by 16 hours of fasting. Again, the beauty is that you can pick your fasting window to suit you. I do find this slightly more complicated to follow than the 5:2, though. You need to aim for a high protein diet, and eat more carbohydrates on days you train than on days of low or no exercise. The diet recommends you train fasted and then eat the bulk of your calories in the first solid meal after your workout. Essentially, make sure your training is always at the end of the fast, and break it with your first solid meal.”
Fasting isn’t exactly new news for humans. In fact, you’re already doing it without realising it.
“Unless you’re a midnight fridge raider,” Andy says, “you fast every night while you sleep, hopefully for 10-12 hours a day between dinner and breakfast – it’s the ‘breaking the fast’ in the morning that gives the first meal of the day its name. Fasting also makes an appearance for religious reasons, and through history we’ve had to put a temporary end to eating in times of food scarcity.”
What is new is the clinical research into the health benefits of Intermittent Fasting. And Andy, once a skeptic, is impressed with what he’s found throughout his experiences.
“According to reports, it appears to improve insulin sensitivity, lower cholesterol, reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, improve appetite control, increase fat burning, and a whole host of other cool things too. A lot of these benefits come from giving our digestive system a complete break from having to deal with food and allowing our body to reset, as well as the benefit of simple calorie reduction from reduced food intake.”
But, as expected, not everyone’s a believer. The biggest weapon in the critic’s arsenal at this stage, Andy says, is that the majority of research to date is purely anecdotal and has been carried out on animals, with only a limited amount of data coming from human testing. Even then, many of these human results come from obese subjects, leaving the question as to whether fasting is a viable option for athletes and those with lower levels of body fat, wide open.
On top of this, non-believers will be quick to raise an eyebrow over reports that suggest some subjects, particularly women, have developed issues such as binge eating and metabolic disruption as a result. Some women also reported lost menstrual periods and early onset menopause.
“What is well-recognised is that men and women respond differently to fasting,” Andy reports. “Sadly not a lot of research has gone into the effects of IF on human hormones. But while it may take another ten years before we really find out what the issues and benefits of IF really are, we can look at certain religious practices for some answers. Studies into women who fast during Ramadan show a level of alteration in the subjects’ menstrual cycles. This by no means proves that women shouldn’t fast, but it perhaps does need to be a consideration before trying.”
ANDY’S FINAL VERDICT
“I see IF as a tool rather than a diet,” Andy says, when we ask for his ultimate view. “It hasn’t got to be something you do weekly, it can just be something in your fat-loss arsenal – a method you pull out when you fancy a boost to your weight loss, or if you have just had a period of gluttony and fancy giving your digestive organs a rest.
“One of the biggest takeaways fasting has given me, across my experiences, is understanding that what we think of as hunger is actually, in most cases, just a response to the habit of eating. It’s amazing how easy fasting for 24 hours becomes after you’ve done it a number of times. Having food available 24/7 is a very modern luxury. Taking a break from eating for a period every now and then isn’t a bad idea.”
Andy is an Elite trainer at Third Space Soho and specialises in nutrition and hormone balance as well biomechanics and strength. Andy has over 16 years of experience as a PT and focuses on getting clients moving well, training smart, eating right and seeing results.