How fasting helps lose fat, stay lean and get healthier
Throughout almost all of our history, food was scarce and humans had to work for it. Mankind evolved biologically to face hunger. But in the 20th century, with the progress of industrialization and the development of cheap sources of calories, obesity became the number one health problem in the US and in many other countries, making weight loss a priority for the developed world. Many diets try to tackle this problem, and can often become real social movements. Although there is a diversity of diets one can use to lose weight, very few people understand that the goal is not only to lose fat but also to stay lean. In fact, today there is an alarming 50% of people that will return to their initial weight within five years. The reasons may be diverse, but one thing is sure: if you don’t deeply change the way you behave with food and with your health, you won’t stick to your healthy weight.
Most of the time, overweight people who want to drop some weight and get in better shape will start by searching what diet is the most effective and the quickest for weight loss. Unfortunately, they will find countless diets promising quick and easy fixes: “30 days 6 pack summer programs”, and that often leads to unrealistic expectations. When you want to lose weight it’s understandable that the quicker you’ll begin to see the result the more motivated you are going to be. All this, however, fails to tackle the root cause: why are you in this condition in the first place?
When it comes to nutrition, as Dr. Peter Attia explains, you basically have three levers you can play with to achieve your goal, whether it’s health, performance, or weight loss.
These levers are:
• Caloric Restriction (CR) • Dietary Restriction (DR) • Time Restriction (TR)
In other words, you can change the number of calories you consume (CR), you can stop eating or start eating some macronutrients or types of food (DR), or you can restrict the time you allow yourself to eat (TR).
The problem with weight loss is that far too often people embark on a new diet that will leverage CR and DR without any understanding of their psychological relationship with food. They think that their great motivation to lose weight will enable them to restrict themselves and follow the hard diet they decided to follow. Many times they are indeed capable of following the diet. But it can become an even bigger problem and create an even more unhealthy relationship with food. If during the whole diet you are dreaming day and night of the next time you will indulge in a box of donuts, you are doing something wrong. Even if your weight is dropping.
If you are overweight today, you have to understand what got you there. If you don’t, you will most likely regain all the weight you lost, and potentially more. Today, most of the popular approaches to weight loss put an emphasis on caloric restriction and require counting calories. Understanding the rough amount of calories you consume on a daily basis is important for people with no background in nutrition. If you are a sedentary woman of 50 years old and you are consuming 3000 calories, there is most likely a problem. But weight loss shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be about counting calories.
The reasons that could explain excess weight are numerous. Among them:
• Eating junk & highly processed food • Eating too much sugar • A sedentary lifestyle • Stress/ Anxiety • Poor sleep patterns • Not eating enough whole foods
This is not an exhaustive list but it contains some of the most common reasons leading to weight gain. If you are trying to lose weight, the best thing you can do is to stop for a second and observe your lifestyle. You can, for example, keep a food diary for a week to see what kind of food you eat. Look at how active you are, how many times you exercise, how many steps you walk per day. It’s only after a period of observation that you can start your weight loss journey.
The thing most online coach & nutritionist won’t tell you is that you can’t fix your weight problem easily, quickly, and successfully in the long term. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach here, and there are no 6 days ab contest. You have to stop thinking that everything can be solved quickly and with no effort. You have to understand the basics of nutrition and health, you have to learn how your body reacts to certain types of foods. As Jocko Willink would say, you have to take ownership of the situation. But the good news is that once you understand that, your chances of losing weight, getting healthier and staying lean are much higher. You just can’t skip the learning part and delegate everything to an online weight loss program.
When you are looking for a way to lose weight, you have to find something that is going to be healthy and durable. Most people will get lost in the ocean of diet-related content claiming that the only thing that matters for weight loss can be reduced to:
Body Fat Gained = Calories in — Calories out
The problem is that in the long term this equation is false, because if you reduce your caloric intake, your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the energy your body needs to function at rest, will drop as well. This is what happens when you reduce your intake, you lose weight, and then you hit a plateau.
To target your body fat as a source of energy, you have to keep your insulin levels low because insulin blocks fat burning. To do that the quality of things you eat and the time during which you eat have the biggest importance. Following a diet that only leverage CR will make weight stabilization harder because at the end of the diet, it is likely that your BMR will below, and not synchronized with your appetite.
Types of food to favor
The first thing to understand here is that nutrition science is the least accurate part of medical research today because to really understand the effect of a food or a diet on our bodies, we have to do randomized-controlled trials, considered as the “gold standard” to assess the risk or benefit of an intervention. These studies are very expensive, long and hard to do, especially for nutrition, because it would imply controlling all the food consumed by different groups for years.
Knowing that the good start for a successful diet is to understand the types of food you can have daily, which will keep you full, healthy and satisfied. The last part is actually very important because if you overlook the mental aspect of the diet you reduce your chances of long-term success. There are many types of food that are healthy and good for weight loss. People like to get into nutrition wars these days regarding this topic, but it’s safe to say that if you eat mostly whole foods and stop consuming processed foods and added sugar you are on the right path. Having a higher protein intake can also favor weight loss and stabilization. Then for the exact type of food to eat, the best is to test and learn what suits you best. It is also worth remembering here that you are doing this for the long term, so if you start eating in a certain way, Keto, for example, ask yourself honestly if you can sustain stop eating carbs. The last thing you want is getting in and out of diets.
Why Fasting helps with all this
Adopting a fasting routine can have many different motivations (longevity, convenience, health, weight loss), and in the case of weight loss and weight stabilization it can really be a game-changer for multiple reasons:
Regarding weight loss, fasting is extremely powerful because for most people, weight and food issues lie in the head. It can be so hard to resist the unhealthy breakfast they serve at work, then at lunch, the apple pie for dessert looks so good, during the afternoon a little piece of chocolate with the cup of coffee would definitely make your day better… Most of us could relate to some of these daily challenges. And chances are, if you are overweight today, you are not very good at resisting those temptations. When you fast, it removes all these little decisions you have to make, you take just one decision that manages most of the others. To fight the cravings, water, green tea, and black coffee help a lot, and replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one.
You can still have the feeling of eating a lot
If you are overweight today, it is likely that you enjoy food, a lot. Either you are constantly snacking and fasting will reduce those snacks as just mentioned, or you are having big meals. Here fasting is also great because instead of forcing yourself to have these ridiculously small meals most other diets will sell you, you can still have your big enjoyable meal and lose weight. As long as you have one or two meals per day or fast every other day, you will lose weight. As studies show (here and here) the appetite usually doesn’t compensate for the meal skipped. If you love the feeling of having a great and satisfying meal, how do you think a diet where you have only small portions will be? Do you see yourself sticking to this eating habit for years? Most of the “big meal” eaters just can’t and fasting can be a revolution for them.
Controlling your insulin
When losing weight, what you actually want is burning fat. When you eat, the food is broken down into sugar which is then used for energy. If there is excess energy, insulin is used to store sugar in our fat cells. Between meals, if you don’t snack, the insulin goes down and fat cells can release the stored sugar to be used as energy. Fasting is great because it helps lowering insulin and promotes fat burning.
Long term approach
The only good approach to any weight loss plan is a long term one that involves learning what works for you and how your body works. As opposed to a diet, fasting is different because it’s rather a way of eating that is sustainable in the long term, healthy and promotes longevity. It is also a skill: when you embark on your fasting journey, you will most likely start with a 16:8 Intermittent Fasting protocol, after a while, you will maybe want to increase it to 20:4 or alternate-day fasting. What is crucial here is to experiment with what fasting protocol works best for you.
Fasting is something that connects you to your health in a way that is enjoyable and where you can progress (I would highly recommend tracking your fasts on the Zero App to visualize your journey). If you enjoy fasting you will want to learn about extended fasts and their health benefits. When with most diets, people will only want to reach the finish line and stop it, fasting comes as a healthy way of life that help people own their health and weight.
Limitations of Fasting
Every great solution comes with limitations. For fasting, some meals can be an important social moment, so you have to choose your fasting window to best fit your social meals during feeding hours. Then some people get so hungry during a fast that they overcompensate and eat too much after. For compulsive eaters, fasting can be promoting an unhealthier relation with food. Generally, a good way to tackle overeating during the feeding window is to start with the most satiating foods (like oats, fruits, veggies, beans…) and eventually reduce the feeding window to 20:4 or to one meal a day, where it’s really hard to overeat.
The key to long-lasting results is to adopt a long term approach. For weight loss, even if the quick fix can look tempting it’s not the way great results will be obtained. People have to learn to understand their bodies and become aware of and connected to their health, most people can achieve that through fasting. Developing the fasting skill, more specifically longer fasts are also great for longevity purposes, and that will naturally come as a second step for people that initially embarked on their fasting journey for weight loss.