IF, fasting for weight loss, Intermittent fasting, 16:8, alternate day, starvation zone — chances are you’ve heard one or more of these words in the recent past.
How do I know? Well, Google told me.
Here’s a trend of searches relating to Intermittent Fasting, worldwide, over the last 5 years. According to Google, Intermittent Fasting (or IF) is a breakout trend — not just in India, but across the world.
And just as with any fitness-fad, IF’s benefits have been praised and exaggerated to near magical proportions!
From being the most effective weight-loss technique to reversing aging to even curing cancer! IF, without a doubt, is the latest, most potent, silver bullet to come out of the fitness-industry factory.
And then there’s the fact that most ancient cultures actually have a periodic fasting ritual. From Ramzan, to Karva Chauth, Navratri, to Yom Kippur, all religions recommend fasting as a way to cleanse and reset.
So what’s the truth behind IF? Is it really the best, most implementable, weight-loss diet? Is it a divine reset button, pressed periodically by most ancient cultures? Does it also slow aging and cure cancer?
And if you chose to try out IF, which version should you try? 5:2 or 16/8 or 23:1 or alternate day?
That’s a LOT of questions. About a process that frankly, science hasn’t studied fully yet. So how do we answer it?
So before you fall prey to the marketing around it, lets get down to the basics.
Oh, and I’m not just going to give you second-hand gyaan. As I write this, I’m into Week 2 of my own, second attempt at IF. So I’ll share my experience with you too!
What is IF?
The very basic condition for weight-loss, is creating a caloric deficit. No matter what the latest, most-popular diet fads may peddle, if you are not eating less than your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) (Click to calculate your TDEE) it’s unlikely that you’ll lose weight.
Yes, keto might make the process faster and more efficient at fat burning. But eat 3000 calories a day on a keto diet and you will NOT lose weight.
Now fasting, at it’s very basic, is an excellent technique for calorie restriction. If you keep aside all the other claimed, miraculous benefits, this is one thing that it definitely does. It provides you with a very simple, implementable routine to reducing your calorie intake.
Intermittent Fasting for Calorie Restriction
Rather than count calories and be vigilant about every meal of the day — IF asks you to just divide the day into fasting and feasting periods. And this split comes in various forms:
- 5:2 — Where you eat normally 5 days a week and fast completely for 2 days
- 16/8 — Where you fast 16 hours everyday and consume all your food in an 8 hour window. Note: Sleep time counts as fasting time.
- Alternate day — Fast and Feast on alternate full days
There are many other Fast: Feast splits like 18:6 or 23:1 or 4:3. You name it.
Now, let’s say you’re on 16/8 (like me).
Research proves that no matter how hungry you feel during the fasting period, and no matter what pictures you draw in your head about how you’ll devour aloo paranthas and a big Mac and a shake and a big tub of fries as soon as the fast breaks — you most probably can’t eat enough calories in that small ‘feasting window’ as you would’ve in a full day of eating.
Let me be clear here — if you do choose to eat garbage like big mac and fries, IF won’t work too well for you.
Going through the pain of being hungry for many hours only to undo it by having such junk, to eventually lose a few grams of weight, would be a pretty bad deal. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re likely to be selling something.
But if you eat good, healthy foods during your feast period, and eat those to your heart’s content, chances are you’ll still create a caloric deficit. And hence lose weight.
Intermittent Fasting for Ketosis
Calorie restriction is the most basic, guaranteed benefit of IF. Many people find it tough to calculate calorie intake in every meal and then keep checking if they are below their daily calorie quota.
IF makes it simple. Because there are only 2 states. Eating and Not Eating.
But its (claimed) benefits don’t stop there.
The second big benefit of IF, is claimed to be it’s ability to put you into Ketosis.
Simply put, once our bodies run out of stored glycogen (the most immediately available energy source), it switches to stored fat as a fuel source. To do so (convert fat to energy), it produces ‘ketone bodies’. Hence, ketosis.
Now the Keto diet asks you to cut out all carbohydrates from your diet. Since it’s carbs that are converted to glycogen, prolonged exclusion of these from the diet slowly drains your glycogen reserves without re-filling them.
After 2–3 days of this carb-starvation, your body enters ketosis and starts burning fat. #Win.
IF tries to simulate the same outcome through a different process. It just cuts off all external fuel for a while. No carb, no protein, no fat — nothing. That forces the glycogen stores to deplete even faster. Hence, faster ketosis.
So the second benefit of IF, is that not only will it help you lose weight, most probably the weight you lose will be Fat. #WinWin
BUT... is IF Safe?
Once you’ve understood the basics of IF, it’s a given that a lot of questions will start popping into your head.
- Is it okay to skip breakfast?
- What about working out — should I exercise on an empty stomach?
- And I’ve heard that skipping food for long periods can put you into ‘Starvation Mode’? Is that true?
If you dig up the science, you’ll find enough research to prove both sides of the argument. IF might be an age-old practice, but the science around it is very nascent.
So the only way to find out what happens, is to try it for oneself. And yours truly is happy to be your guinea pig in this journey.
My IF Journey
20 days ago, as my own New Year Resolution, I started my second attempt at IF. The first time I’d tried it was in mid-2018, but had to stop 3 weeks into it (unforeseen personal reasons). This time though, I intend to do it for atleast 2 months.
The aim is to find 3 answers:
- Does IF really reduce fat? I’ve had a long history with weight loss (read my story here). And given the extreme fat I used to have (105 kg at peak), I find it very very tough to remove that last layer of belly fat and reveal my abs (*sigh*). With this attempt, I’m trying to see if IF can get me there.
- Is IF sustainable? I found Keto to be an extremely restrictive and tough diet to follow. You break the discipline one day and you’re out of Ketosis. IF, theoretically, seems much more doable, for long periods. I’m very intrigued to find out if that really is the case.
- Workouts: I want to find out what doing IF does to my ability to workout. Can I still do strength training? Does my power reduce?
My IF Schedule
- I’ve been at it for about 3 weeks now. My plan:
- I eat from 1pm to 9pm. Then I fast for the next 16 hours. And I do Yoga in the morning, on an empty stomach. I do this 5 days a week.
- On weekends, I eat normal. And then I do heavy, weight-lifting workouts.
The first week on IF was a bit tough. Around my usual breakfast time, I used to feel quite hungry and tempted. But I learnt that having a hot, zero-calorie beverage like green tea or black coffee helped me cope with those pangs.
Once I got through that time, it became quite easy. Even at 1pm, when I break my fast, I don’t feel desperate or starving or any such extreme feeling.
Over time, even the breakfast pangs have subsided. I’ve settled into a rhythm of having green-tea right after my Yoga session in the morning. And then a black coffee at around 11:30 am. That gets me through easily.
On the belly fat front, I am, after many years of trying, seeing some improvement. I don’t want to jinx it, but for once, I see that last bit of fat starting to fade away. It is very slow, and I’m relying entirely on visual (mirror) reference to claim this (because body-fat machines that we get in our gyms are very inaccurate and results can vary basis how much water you’ve had or activity levels or a hundred other variables), but something definitely seems to be changing.
In this last week, now that I’ve gotten used to the pattern, I’ve started experiencing some of the other claimed benefits too. But I’ll give it another 2 weeks before I quote these benefits. Plus, I’ll also talk a lot more about how and what to eat to get IF’s full benefits.
That’s it for this time. Your personal IF experimenter (me) shall keep at it and keep you posted. Watch this space and follow my column ‘FITShots’ for the latest in my journey.
(Shashank Mehta started his fitness journey at over 100 kgs, fifteen years ago. In the decade that followed, he taught himself fitness, lost 40 kgs, ran several marathons, and helped many friends and colleagues get onto the fitness bandwagon. An IIM graduate, he has self-experimented with every fitness-fad and quick-fix out there, and now writes a health blog that is read by thousands every week. You can read all his works at FITSHIT.IN)