Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular fat loss and eating style that allows flexibility within ones diet. The research behind IF is also pretty impressive, with many studies showing it not only causes significant weight loss but also improves many important health and metabolic markers related to disease (REF). This article will discuss how to use intermittent fasting during the holiday period and before social events which inevitably will include a lot of calories or eating.
Intermittent fasting follows some pretty basic principles and there are several different fasting models. In short, you go for an extended amount of time without food, this normally sits around the sleeping period (either before sleeping or upon wakening) as you are already part fasted. One typical approach may be to stop eating early in the evening, say 5-6pm and then fast overnight till breakfast. Another more popular approach is skipping breakfast, following an overnight fast you may not eat for another 4-8 hours (REF). Other models of fasting include just one meal per day or one day with very little food and the next day eating normally.
In today’s article, we will discuss shorter duration fasting consisting of just a few hours either before bed or upon waking. As mentioned, one simple method is to just skip breakfast, although many people believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day and avoid IF for this reason, the science doesn't really support this. In fact, many breakfast studies find people who skip breakfast actually consume less total calories over the day, with no decline in cognitive performance (REF). The main caveat is what you habitually do, so if you have eaten breakfast all your life then if you were to skip it you may react badly at first, over eat and have poor cognitive function / fatigue. Like most changes, an adaptation period is required and personal preference is key. What works for some may not work for others.
That being said, if you aren't a religious breakfast eater and are willing to experiment with your diet, IF may be a great technique to allow flexibility over the holiday period. Many people who use IF do so because of this flexibility, if you skip food until 2pm you probably have around 1000 + calories in the bank compared to a typical day of eating. This allows much greater flexibility and food intake at social events and family gatherings happening in the afternoon / evening. This can be reversed as well; if you have a special breakfast or brunch event you could fast in the evening and consume most of your daily food within the morning and early afternoon. This reverse approach can actually be easier, as most people are full up for several hours after a massive feast.
Within the fitness and bodybuilding community people often freak out when the word fasting is mentioned. Although I'll be the first to point out, IF probably isn't optimal (not that it's bad, just not optimal) for bulking or extreme muscle gain, it can certainly be used without muscle loss, if programmed correctly. Research has shown fasting periods of up to 16-20 hours actually use a very small amount of protein from gluconeogenesis, it’s only prolonged fasting that can lead to muscle loss, even then this must be constant for weeks or months. Remember, as with most things diet or training related, it's what you do chronically for months and years that determines your body composition, 1-2 weeks of fasting over the holiday period is certainly not going to cause noticeable muscle loss. If you are extremely worried about muscle loss, you could follow the method described below with the addition of a protein shake for breakfast. It's not technically IF, but will still achieve the end goal, I like to call it "protein modified fasting”.
If you have an event in the evening, fast for the first few hours of waking. You can then have a high protein, low energy dense meal around 11am - 1pm. This could be a ton of vegetables, salad, lean meat / fish and zero or low calorie sauce, balsamic vinegar etc (maybe putting you at 20carb, 40protein, 2g fat and around 250 calories). If your event isn't until the late evening (5pm onwards) you can have a similar meal, maybe 400g of fat free, high protein yogurt with sweetener / Flavdrops (flavourings) or a protein shake etc around 3pm (another 200-250 calories). As you can see, by the time you get to the evening meal, you've only consumed around 500 calories. This allows ALOT of flexibility for the evening meal. Obviously it's still easy to go overboard here and consume 5000 calories; however this strategy focuses on damage limitation. If you are sensible and consume say 2000 calories; you will be in a stronger position than if you had consumed 2000 calories throughout the day, then ate a further 2000 calories.
It's important to point out I'm not recommending this small amount of food if you are 250lb and normally eat 5000 calories a day, the example above is for a typical person who eats 2000-2500 calories a day. If you do eat way more than this figure you should obviously tailor the approach and maybe have smaller meals amounting to 1500 calories in the day, which still gives you plenty of flexibility at night.
What happens if you want to train? I recommend training in the morning, before you get very hungry and possibly slightly tired or fatigued from the lower calorie day. If you do want to train later in the day that is fine, just have a 300-400 calorie meal pre workout along with some pre workout, this should get you through it. Will it be optimal? No, but remember this is damage limitation for a typical person who usually gain a ton of weight over the holidays, not for a pro bodybuilder or athlete.
It's also worth noting that you get better at this with practice, the first few times it may be pretty hard, especially if you normally eat 4-6 times a day. However, many IF'ers find it easy to go most of the day with a small amount of food. I personally use the approach described above when I have events in the evening and can easily go through the day with less than 700 calories, mainly from protein (~ 150g of protein). I often train before i go to these events as well, some carbs and protein along with caffeine and plenty of water works well for me, with only small declines in performance. Remember though, every individual is different, you may try this a few times and hate it. If that's the case you'll just need to skip the cake or be ready for a few weeks of dieting in the New Year, both of which are fine if that what suits you best.
IF is just one of many tools that may be used to limit fat gain over the holidays. Some people may wish to just eat moderately and have a good balance, which is great, however from my experience, many people in the fitness world struggle to achieve a middle ground or balance. Some people may wish to just take time off and not worry about their diet, if this is you and you can do it without binging constantly and feeling guilty then great. From my opinion, a week or two of relaxed eating can normally be rectified with a week or two of dieting, which is totally fine for people not on a deadline. Whatever route you decide to take, don’t let your eating habits spoil this special time with friends and family, unless you’re a professional bodybuilder or athlete, a week or two of relaxed, moderate eating is totally acceptable and may actually be beneficial for your body, mind and hormones!
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