Intermittent Fasting: It Might Not Be Right For You…and That’s O.K.!

As many of you know, I’ve practiced various methods of Intermittent Fasting (IF) for the greater part of the last three years. I’ve used Ori Hofmekler’s The Warrior Diet, Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat, I was a client of Martin Berkhan’s, and eventually I created a few variations of my own.

Additionally, I’ve written about IF and its practicality in several previous works, the most popular of which focused on how I used it while training at Westside Barbell.

All in all, throughout my time spent Intermittent Fasting I’ve learned a great deal, experienced incredible results, and thoroughly enjoyed myself while doing it.

Recently, however, I gave it up.

(this is the part where you dramatically gasp…go!)

Before I delve into the reasoning behind why I stopped, it’s important for me to make one thing abundantly clear:

I wholeheartedly support Intermittent Fasting. I in no way, shape, or form think IF is inherently bad, wrong, or sub-optimal. Rather, I view IF as an equally valid alternative to helping individuals achieve and maintain their ultimate fitness based goals.

In short, I believe Intermittent Fasting is good for some people and not so good for others. If you do it and love it…great! If it doesn’t jibe with your current goals or eating habits, that’s fine too. As long as you’re happy, comfortable, and making consistent and long-term progress, meal frequency is irrelevant.

That being said, hoards of fitness enthusiasts have recently begun Intermittent Fasting as it allows them to, among other things, “eat big” while achieving and maintaining a lean physique. Unsurprisingly, this freedom to consistently partake in giant-sized portions is likely the most attractive component of IF as dieting is usually associated with moderation and hunger.

While some individuals function extraordinarily well and experience a multitude of health benefits as a result of Intermittent Fasting, other people do not. In fact, in many cases I’ve noticed that IF may actually exacerbate symptoms of disordered eating and intensify obsessive compulsive tendencies among dieters.

As such, this article will address a number of potential drawbacks related to Intermittent Fasting in an attempt to help you identify whether it coincides with your individual needs, preferences, and lifestyle.

Keep in mind, this piece is based entirely on anecdote with no scientific origin – it’s all my point of view. However, I’ve worked with a wide variety of clientele and gathered a solid amount of information so, while I encourage you to take this article with a grain of salt, I strongly recommend you analyze your habits and personality traits to determine if Intermittent Fasting is right for you.

Finally, before I begin, I would love to generate some intelligent discussion and hear about your individual experiences with IF, so please include your ideas/thoughts/recommendations at the end of the article. Likewise, if you haven’t tried IF, are interested in it, and would like to have your questions answered feel free to post your comments as well.

Enjoy!

-J

Making IF The End-All Be-All

Within the fitness industry it’s very easy to interpret various methods and systems as “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” As humans we tend to think in terms of black & white, often disregarding or forgetting the notion that there might be less obvious, but equally valid, shades of grey in between.

Along the same lines, perhaps the most common misinterpretation of IF is the tendency to believe that it is inherently better than all other meal frequencies; that for one reason or another, Intermittent Fasting is fundamentally superior and therefore must be used in order to attain all health and fitness related goals.

Several common examples which might be indicative of this thought process include:

  • Regularly becoming stressed and/or inconveniencing yourself to ensure that you never eat outside of your pre-designated feeding window.
  • Fasting for excessively long periods of time because you believe longer fasts are better/more advantageous than shorter fasts.
  • Assuming calories are no longer relevant simply because you’re Intermittent Fasting.
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, or failure if you were to stop Intermittent Fasting.
  • Continuing to practice IF even if you are aware that it may be causing habits related to disordered eating.
  • Assuming IF is right for everyone and believing that those who don’t function well with it are lazy or unwilling to try.

As I said before, while IF may provide a variety of benefits and help some people achieve and maintain their individual goals, it’s important to understand that Intermittent Fasting is not the end-all be-all of nutrition. It works well for some people and it doesn’t work well for others.

Of course feel free to try it, experiment with it, and, if you enjoy it, continue to use it; but don’t feel obligated to make it part of your lifestyle or allow it to dictate your thoughts, emotions, or day-to-day activities.

 

Assuming Calories Don’t Count

I think the most compelling aspect of Intermittent Fasting is that, relative to higher meal frequency diets, it allows individuals the opportunity to eat very large portions even while dieting.

In and of itself this component of IF is not bad, incorrect, or misleading. However, it tends to be misconstrued when various professionals or advocates of Intermittent Fasting make claims which lead people to believe that IF renders the energy balance equation irrelevant.

In other words, eating large portions, eating late at night, and/or Intermittent Fasting are not inherently “bad” practices. That being said, it’s necessary to understand that regardless of one’s meal frequency (be it 17 tiny meals per day, 6 moderate-sized meals per day, or 1 giant meal per day) energy in vs. energy out will always, always, always be of critical importance.

I remember when I first began Intermittent Fasting, at 17 years old, I was under the impression that total energy intake was irrelevant. As long as I followed my eating schedule and ate foods which were “Warrior Diet approved,” I could eat as much as my heart desired.

Initially, it was exceedingly difficult to eat large amounts within my short 4-hour eating window; I would have a giant salad, a chicken breast or two, maybe a bowl of oatmeal and then call it quits.

Unsurprisingly, I saw rapid and incredible fat loss.

However, after several months of following this routine I became proficient in the sport of gorging myself and was soon eating truly disturbing amounts of food. Somewhat comedically, how much I was capable of eating at any one time promptly became a daily challenge; I would seek to impress my friends and family, placing bets on how much food I could shovel down my throat, and would regularly eat myself into a food-coma simply because I could.

Eventually, though, my fat loss came to a standstill. The more I was able to eat in that 4-hour window the less weight I lost. In fact, after several months of IFing my weight began to steadily creep back up.

Not only was I clueless as to why this was happening…but I was pissed! I was following the program to a “T,” strictly adhering to my feeding window, solely eating “clean” and organic foods, and even started cycling my carbohydrates and fats. The fact that I was gaining weight made no sense whatsoever.

After several months of troubleshooting and finally looking into the research, I realized the problem was stemming from the fact that I was eating between 3-4,000 calories on a nightly basis. It didn’t matter that I was Intermittent Fasting because at a bodyweight of 125lbs I was eating well above my maintenance caloric intake.

I tell this story because I was not an isolated incident. I’ve seen, heard, and spoken with others who have experienced the exact same difficulties time and time again.

Regardless of whether you practice Intermittent Fasting or not, you must keep your energy intake in line with your current set of goals or you will not make the progress you wish to achieve.

 

Unable to Experience Satiety

As noted above, perhaps the most popular aspect of Intermittent Fasting is that it provides people with the opportunity to enjoy large meals on a daily basis even while dieting.

In and of itself I think this component of IF has benefited an extraordinary number of people and helped them achieve and maintain their health, fitness, and physique related goals.

I think it’s interesting to note, however, that despite eating relatively colossal-sized portions, many IFers have a great deal of trouble getting full. Even after eating single meals containing an entire days worth of calories, it’s not uncommon to hear IFers discuss and question why they are incapable of experiencing any meaningful amount of satiety.

From an evolutionary perspective this adaptation makes sense in that, if our bodies know we only eat within a very short time frame each day, becoming full and subsequently incapable of providing it with energy and nutrients would not be in our best interest. As such, perhaps losing or blunting our sense of satiety is the body’s way of ensuring our continued survival.

While this specific adaptation may have been useful many, many years ago, nowadays being incapable of experiencing satiety could drastically increase one’s likelihood of over/binge eating tendencies.

Unfortunately, many IFers suffer from this very problem. A quick look at any Intermittent Fasting forum or discussion board will reveal a diverse group of people, many of whom exhibit the same unquenchable appetite.

Similarly, often times IFers discuss how, following their last meal of the day, they experience bizarre feelings of anxiety and can’t help but continue to eat, even well passed their daily caloric limit.

While I can only guess as to why this might I happen, I think in large part it has to do with the fact that, consciously or not, IFers are aware that they will not eat again for a considerably long period of time.

Unlike breakfast eaters who know they will eat a meal soon after waking, IFers need to wait another 12, 16, 20, or even 30+ hours. Not only can this be anxiety producing in and of itself but, extrapolating from Baumestier’s work, worrying about it (even on a subconscious level) may negatively impact our willpower which could potentially result in these late-night binges.

It’s important to be aware that each and every person who practices IF will not experience the same, or even similar, difficulties as outlined above. However, for those who do, please understand that IF is not your only option.

Isolation From Social Interactions

One of the major detriments I’ve found to be associated with Intermittent Fasting is that it may promote social anxiety and, as a result, chronic avoidance of social interactions.

I’d note social phobias have been linked to eating disorders regardless of meal frequency, so this may be a function of disordered eating in general rather than Intermittent Fasting per se.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that a program which may cause or exacerbate symptoms of social anxiety is in no way going to promote long-term adherence or success.

As such, it’s important to examine the potential reasons for how Intermittent Fasting can promote these negative outcomes:

Health and fitness related goals aside, food and our daily eating habits are associated with a variety of social components which play a major role in most, if not all, cultures around the world.

While Intermittent Fasting does not innately keep people from enjoying the social aspects related to food, it can often times make people feel restricted in regard to when they are “allowed” to eat.

Taking into consideration that maintaining a “healthy” diet is a difficult task in and of itself, I’ve found that, for some individuals, adding another rule or restrictive component such as a pre-designated fasting/feeding window can be extraordinarily isolating.

To illustrate, many people are uncomfortable attending social events during the fasting phase. Whether it’s because they don’t want to be tempted by the food, questioned as to why they aren’t eating, or a variety of other possible reasons, some people would rather avoid the event altogether than risk breaking the fast too early.

While there is clearly nothing wrong with declining to go to a social outing, I think it becomes a problem when an individual consistently avoids social interactions simply because they do not coincide with their eating schedule.

Additionally, when a person feels like they can’t enjoy breakfast with their children, attend a work-related barbeque, or meet an old friend for an early-morning lunch, the likelihood of long-term diet adherence is, at best, slim to none.

And, unfortunately, for some who are capable of strictly adhering to a definitive fasting/feeding cycle, it can become an obsession. They often begin to associate breaking the fast early with cheating or sabotaging their diet and, as a result, shy away from social events in order to maintain the “perfect” meal frequency.

In regard to the feeding window, one might assume that Intermittent Fasters would be more willing to go out and socialize as they’re able to display the incredible amount of food they are capable of eating while maintaining a lean physique.

Interestingly, however, some IFers actually become more socially isolated during this time-frame. There are undoubtedly a host of possible reasons for why this could be, but below are the two most common ones of which I am aware:

  • One habit I’ve noticed among a variety of IFers is a tendency to “fantasize” about what, and how much, they will eat later that evening. They spend a huge portion of their day drawing up plans for the perfect meal, often times neglecting work and social interactions in order to do so. In fact, some individuals purposefully sleep during the day to make the fasting phase “go by more quickly.” As a result, when invited out for dinner, drinks, or to a party, many IFers decline because they’ve already planned the perfect meal and aren’t interested in anything else. For those IFers who count calories, they may have already set up the ideal calorie/macronutrient content and do not want to risk ruining their progress by not flawlessly hitting their daily requirements.
  • In an attempt to adhere to their feeding schedule, often times IFers will neglect to go out at night because their feeding window has already ended. For example, if an individual is set to stop eating at 9pm, they might not want to go out and be tempted by food and alcohol simply because they’re technically “supposed” to be fasting. As a result, they end up missing out on numerous social opportunities and become further isolated and alone.

Intermittent Fasting is unquestionably a valid and effective lifestyle of eating. That being said, some individuals have trouble practicing it in a flexible manner and subsequently allow it to become the limiting factor within their social life.

Conclusions

I think a great deal of people who practice Intermittent Fasting only continue to do so because they are under the impression that it is somehow better than other forms of eating.

Despite knowing that IF may not be the best choice for them, they continuously rearrange their life in an endless attempt to try and make it work.

In part I think this is due to Intermittent Fasting’s recent surge in popularity, but I also think it’s because some people associate their beliefs with who they are as a person. That being the case, they will often fight and struggle to incorporate a method (in this case Intermittent Fasting) for years on end because stopping would imply that they were wrong to begin with.

To avoid falling into this mindset, it’s important to understand that Intermittent Fasting is not the only or best form of eating. If it doesn’t work for you, that in no way, shape, or form suggests that you’re wrong, lazy or weak as a person.

It simply means that Intermittent Fasting isn’t the ideal method to help you achieve your individual goals.

That’s it 🙂

If you can only take one thing from this article, let it be this:

There is no “right” or “wrong” meal frequency. There is only what works best for you!

If you decide to Intermittent Fast, that’s great. If you decide to eat 6 small meals per day, that’s equally great.

In all honesty…it really doesn’t matter!

Regardless of the meal frequency you choose, remember to approach each and every day with an open and flexible mindset. Life is going to throw us curveballs and, for the sake of our sanity, health, and happiness, we can’t become too rigid or dogmatic in our beliefs or habits.

Be open-minded, flexible, and willing to try a variety of different methods. What works for you today might not be the best choice tomorrow and that’s O.K.!

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

-J