In October of 2013, I was starting to backslide.
Thirteen months earlier, I had thrown myself headlong into a life-transforming whirlwind of fat loss. Despite not really knowing what I was doing, I worked my ass off, day after day. It started in the gym, with marathon sessions that hit muscle groups that I hadn’t even known existed. My nutrition was next on the agenda, and for months, I ate nothing but chicken breasts, eggs, cottage cheese and protein powder in such small quantities that I can scarcely believe that I retained any muscle at all. When all was said and done, I dropped 50 pounds in three months, from 240 down to 190. Utterly exhausted, I decided I was going to take it easier on myself for a little while.
By the time October of 2013 had rolled around though, my body fat percentage was creeping back up. I had gotten far stronger since the first of the year, mostly a result of lax dietary standards, more sporadic visits to the gym (allowing for better recovery), and lower-intensity sessions. When I headed in, my workouts certainly weren’t the three-hour sufferfests from 2012. I’d eat a burger here and there, as nothing was really being regulated or monitored. The size medium shirts (after ten solid years of being an XL) I had bought in January and February were starting to seem a bit small around my mid-section.
Prior to this, I had taken the bulk of my fitness advice from my friend Dave. A former Marine officer, I had known Dave for going on twenty years at this point. He has a great understanding of the mechanics, the nutrition, the supplementation, and the methods with which to put it all together. With some guidance from him, I certainly got stronger and more rounded, learning to both squat and deadlift with proper form. Where I hesitated in applying his advice, unfortunately, was in taking a highly regulated approach towards my nutrition.
For those who have known me for a long time, it goes without saying that I’m noticeably more bull-headed than the average person, although this has (with some work) softened with the passing of time. If I believe I have something figured out, I tend to stick with it, not necessarily dismissing the advice of others, but rather preferring to test my own theories first. In this case, I wisely chose to take one look at my slowly expanding waistline before deciding that I should probably hear him out.
Intermittent Fasting Explained
- Pick a 4-8 hour window each day where you will eat. The most common window is something like 12-8 PM.
- Eat or drink no calories outside of that window.
You can have black coffee, unsweetened tea, water, BCAA mix, or any other calorie-free beverage outside of the window, but no food, period.
Design, Implementation, and Results
The whole concept of Intermittent Fasting was completely foreign to me. When I had dropped 50 pounds a year or so earlier, I was eating different foods than I was used to, in smaller quantities, but my attitude towards eating was still the same: If I’m hungry, I’m going to put food in my mouth. Of course, the food choices were better, and the portions were small. A hard boiled egg, a chicken breast, a bowl of cottage cheese. The idea of determining when and how to eat these foods was simply the next step.
I sat down and designed my weekdays, which were remarkably simple, and operated (in terms of macro breakdown) along the lines of a fairly normal high protein, moderately high fat, low carb diet:
- 7:30 AM Wake up, coffee
- 9:00 AM Arrive at work, coffee, tea, and water
- 2:00 PM Weight training on my hour-long lunch break (we had a small gym in the building)
- 3:00 PM Drink whey protein and eat 4 oz. of chicken breast
- 6:00 PM Arrive at home, eat dinner (usually a large steak/egg/spinach salad served in a pie plate, followed by some cottage cheese with cinnamon and a splash of honey).
- 7:00 PM No more food, eating window closed.
- 11:00 PM Bedtime
The morning of my first day came. I was initially nervous about going to work on an empty stomach, but within a few hours and several cups of coffee, the nervousness had passed. It wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I expected it would be. Sure, I was thinking about the fact that I hadn’t eaten, but for the most part I was sitting around waiting for my hunger to descend into a sort of hellish misery, which never actually happened. Training on an empty stomach actually seemed to allow for a higher intensity session (At that point, I had no idea WHY this happened, just that it did). After the first week, I was shocked at how effortless IF really was.
A few weeks into IF, I started noticing that my clothes were fitting differently. My gut was shrinking, and my shoulders were beginning to get more defined. I didn’t have a scale at the time, but it became apparent that I was losing fat.
I am impatient by nature, and I wanted to see results even faster. I stopped bringing chicken to work with me, and only drank a protein shake after my short training sessions. When I got home, my evening meal was proportionally larger. Many of these meals would see me eat until I was completely full. But by limiting the time frame in which I was eating, I ensured that when all was said and done, I was operating at a caloric deficit each day, even if I absolutely stuffed myself. Add in the fact that I was waking up, walking around the office and visiting the gym on an empty stomach (meaning my body HAD to run on stored body fat) you can see how Intermittent Fasting gives you a significant advantage in the war on body fat.
I wasn’t lifting significantly heavier weight in the gym (and wasn’t building muscle, because I was at a caloric deficit, something I keep mentioning that we’ll get to in a moment) but within several months, I was far leaner, dropping quite a bit of body fat while still maintaining my strength. My energy level throughout the work day was always significantly higher than that of my sluggish co-workers, despite my having not eaten since 7:00 PM on the previous day.
My weekends, though filled with cheeseburgers, burritos, and pizza, still adhered to the eating window I had laid out so many months before. I remember vividly one Saturday morning, biding my time and watching the clock until 2:00, when I would allow myself to visit a local Sheetz, and eat myself sick. Cheat days allowed my body to refuel itself on carbohydrates, but also helped me maintain my sanity. I would have seen greater results without them, but may have ended up institutionalized, negating anything positive about the experience.
By the time I took a break from IF in June of 2014, I was as lean as I had ever been in my adult life, dropping almost 10% of my body fat in eight months. I hadn’t made any strength gains, but then again, that wasn’t my goal. I wasn’t any weaker or smaller than I was when I started. I was far leaner, though.
Caloric Deficits and Surplus (in simple terms)
Everybody is different. Some of us are tall, some of us are short, some of us build muscle easily, and others pack on fat like a grizzly preparing for hibernation. It’s one of the most crucial reasons why having a training program custom built for you is so vital to your success or failure. Thankfully, there are tools to help all of us make sense of where we are at, and give us starting points for where we need to go.
We’ll start by using this tool, a basal metabolic rate calculator. Your basal metabolic rate is the amount of calories you need every day to maintain your current weight. (Enter your measurements, and click on the link labeled “Harris Benedict Equation” below this to determine your requirements based on your daily activity level)
Got your number? Great.
Consuming anything higher than this number is considered a Caloric Surplus and with a few exceptions (which we won’t get into in THIS article), the excess will be stored as body fat. There are 3500 calories in a pound, so if you eat a surplus of 500 calories (that is to say; 500 calories ABOVE the number you got from the Harris Benedict Equation) per day, in seven days, you will have put on one pound of fat. That’s four pounds per month, 36 pounds per year. Most people don’t eat this consistently, but it’s easy to see HOW one can pack on the pounds with a fairly modest daily surplus.
Consuming anything lower than this number is considered a Caloric Deficit. The same math applies, just in the opposite direction. Lower your intake by 500 calories per day, and in a month, you can easily lose four pounds. Thirty-six pounds in a year? If you have that much to lose, simple math shows how it can be done.
Keep in mind, though, as your weight goes down, your BMR is going to change. If you’re losing a pound every week at 1700 calories, eventually your deficit is going to “catch up” to your BMR, and caloric intake will need to be lowered again. I know it’s not fair, but neither is life. Get used to it.
The definitions of surplus and deficit are universal, but come into play significantly when it comes to IF. The simple mechanics of eating once, maybe twice a day, no matter how hungry you are, it’s far more difficult to enter a surplus. Glutton for punishment that I am, I’ve tested this theory, eating steaks larger than my head. Even though I’m quite hungry when I eat only once a day, I find it nearly impossible to cross the BMR threshold when I’m eating the right kinds of foods.
A Short Note on Macronutrients
Notice in the last sentence of that last paragraph where I mentioned “when I’m eating the right foods?” Yes, calories in versus calories out is the most important metric, but neglecting which macronutrients you’re pulling those calories from can come with consequences. I talked about it earlier, but I recommend a high protein, moderate to high fat, low carbohydrate breakdown on IF. You’ll retain muscle, feel fuller on less calories, and decrease insulin sensitivity (which determines how excess calories are stored).
Unfortunately for most of us who have acquired a taste for it, aside from the odd cheat day, this means saying goodbye to the crack cocaine of the food world, sugar. Sugar is purposely re-branded as “agave nectar” “corn syrup solids” and “golden syrup” but whatever food manufacturers want to disguise it as, the nutrition label does not lie. The best way to stay away from it is to simply avoid pre-packaged foods altogether. Bars, cereals, and frozen meals with “healthy” packaging are anything but. Stick to fresh meat, eggs, fish, poultry, green vegetables, and all will be well.
These sugars and high-GI carbs play quite a few nasty tricks on our body, one of which is making us think we aren’t full, causing us to slide right past our BMR and into the surplus range for the day. Hypothetically speaking (I really don’t suggest you do the latter of these two), if you were to put 1000 calories worth of steak and eggs into your stomach one day, then 1000 calories worth of pizza and ice cream into your stomach the next day. Determine how hungry you were an hour later and chances are on steak day, you’d likely still be satiated, whereas on garbage (pizza and ice cream) day, you’d be ready for more. Quality most certainly IS as important as quantity, but I’ll go much further in depth in a future article.
Intermittent fasting is, by and large, fairly simple. It’s like anything else in terms of fitness, though. On the surface, it certainly works, but it’s a seriously powerful tool if you understand it, design it to fit your life, and occasionally rework it the program so it can serve you best.
Thanks for reading