I’ve been delaying writing this one for some time. Not because my perspective is unclear, but because it’s usually just a waste of time to cast aspersions or even legitimate critique to whatever diet is currently popular.
People don’t want to hear truth; they want reinforcement of their own version of it. Some people will nod their heads in agreement, their minds having not been changed. Others will read this post with disgust, their minds also having not been changed. But in between these two is the open-minded reader. I want to make some commentary on Intermittent Fasting for this person.
From what I can tell, IF has already substantially died down in popularity from where it was just a few years ago – and for very good reason.
The first thing anyone has to understand when commenting on any “diet du jour” is that diets gain traction; not from research but from marketing. Research is used in that ploy for sure but all diets become “vogue trends that absolutely work” because of the consumer market looking for “magic that makes sense:” Even when it flies in the face of common sense. People forget that every single diet of its time had massive consumer following proving that the diet-strategy “works.”
Take the “low-fat, to ultra-low fat” diet approach of the 80’s and early 90’s. It was supported by academics, researchers, food industry giants, and most importantly by consumers who could publicly claim “worked for me.” And people presently educated in nutrition and metabolism; laugh at this low-fat diet approach now; forgetting that it worked for hundreds of thousands of people. What am I getting at? – Simply this – that diet-strategies are and always have been about “fashion.” Consumers simply don’t know the difference between diet vogue trends and sound nutritional approaches that include considerations of metabolic wellness. Most people look at the current vogue diet trend and hop on its wagon for no other reason than to “appear to be” in the know. And more often than not; this always turns out to be untrue. What is new isn’t necessarily better. And what is more and more complicated is NEVER BETTER.
Moreover, the band-wagon affect exists in the academic and research world as well. One bit of sketchy research that “suggests” one thing is jumped on by other academics, and before you know it you have a “group think” mentality to the new “this is right and everything else before is wrong” approach. Paleo fits this depiction. People forget that the low and ultra-low fat diet approach lasted for years and years and had academic support at the highest levels, with various doctors who endorsed it (some still do actually). But because was IF founded by a doctor, it is supposedly superior; even though so many other diets were also founded by “doctors.”But let’s talk about living in the real-world beyond “research studies” shall we? A world where food is convenient, and abundant and enjoyable – biologically and socially.
But one more thing on research vs. reality first. Any diet-strategy that insinuates we should diet like our ancestors did, is a diet you should be skeptical of. Our ancestors lived in a world of food scarcity, not food abundance. They lived in a world with no modern convenience of food acquisition, preparation, and storage. And they lived in a world that didn’t have hyper-palatable foods that lit up the opiate reward centers of the brain, much like feel-good drugs do. The only commonality we share with our ancestors is that we are hard-wired to seek food, notice food, and want food. Our ancestors ate the way they did because of necessity; not because it was optimal – physically, metabolically, or psychologically! And I would also argue that in terms of human progress, it makes sense that we, as the smartest species on the planet – would find ways to make food more and more enjoyable, just as we did with shelter and sex, and the other things we are hardwired to seek and enjoy as a species. It is natural for us to enjoy food, and to want to enjoy food. It is UNNATURAL for you to deprive and deny yourself of it; as any kind of “fasting” approach dictates to you.
So in our day and age of food abundance; to pretend it is healthy to adapt a mindset of denial and deprivation – goes against your instinctual drives. And it is a mindset that puts you at odds not only with your instinctual drives – but puts you at odds with the modern world of food abundance and convenience we live in. I call this “The North American Diet Mentality.” And I discuss it in many of my books. When it comes to your perspective on food and diet-strategy, it’s just not healthy “mental politics” to play the deny and deprive game in the world we live in. Furthermore, to pretend that our ancestor’s nutritional diet-strategy was superior to our modern world of food abundance is pure fantasy.
Our ancestors had to live with restricted food options of whatever their seasonal and local environments provided. Food scarcity was a reality they lived with. We live in a world where we can eat healthy foods daily that come from thousands and thousands of miles away. Point made – moving on.
The Emotional Brain
Not only are we physiologically hardwired to seek food and enjoy it; our emotional brains are embedded in this physiology as well – as a source of survival. Food is enjoyable socially because as humans we are also hardwired to be emotionally connected to the eating experience – not to food per se, but to the eating experience itself. From the first moment of making eye contact with your mother feeding you as a baby; either by breast or by bottle this “emotional imprint” of a positive emotional experience connected to eating is established for a life time and handed down from generation to generation. And this is true for all mammals. Anything that puts you at odds with a positive emotional connection to the feeding experience and enjoyment of meals – is something that puts you at odds with your own instinctual evolved drives.
How do you think that is going to work out?
So, all the above is something to keep in mind when discussing any diet vogue trend. It can’t be about “eat this, not that” as outlined in my book The Anti-Diet Approach to Weight-Loss and Weight-Control. Fearing food and meals is unnatural. Oh, did I say that already? And now Intermittent Fasting comes along and the connotations of the term are brilliant. You have the term “fasting” which caters to the North American Diet-Mentality to deprive and deny – but you also add in the word “intermittent” so people can relate to the concept of “well, it’s not starving, because it’s only intermittent fasting – I can still “eat, stop eat.” And as an expert we’re all supposed to “buy in” because this is backed with research: Whatever. I’ll take what I know works and have seen working for decades over and over again – against any vogue trend that comes along and says “no, do the opposite.” That will work for consumers who don’t know the difference; but it won’t work for realists like me.
And now there are so many variations of IF that it all becomes muddled together. Some of these distinctions are completely ridiculous in regards to minute detail and the definitions of “fasting” used. I often joke that yes, I eat 5 X’s per day but you could call me an intermittent faster; because I fast between meals. So “yes” there are variations in IF. Some of them are ridiculous. None of them mean mean much if you understand the metabolic compensation system and the true biology of weight-control; as I wrote about in my book Understanding Metabolism and Beyond Metabolism.
As an expert in studying the history of fad diets and vogue diet trends over the decades as well; I can tell you this much: The ironic thing about Intermittent Fasting is that this is the exact way of the FAILED diet-strategy approach of the diet industry for decades; especially in the 60’s, 70’s. People were to eat one or two meals per day and told to deny and deprive in terms of eating windows. Putting the name Intermittent Fasting on it doesn’t change that this has been tried and has been a historical failure over and over again. I don’t care what you can handle “short-term” – and then go and rave about before the consequences show up – Show me something sustainable long-term like this that doesn’t have metabolic consequences.
Moreover, there are fitness industry nutrition “Guru’s” out there telling you that IF is also good because it allows you to practice diet and eating restraint. This is also faulty logic; although quite typical of the North American Diet Mentality to deprive and deny. Your inner psychology will always rebel against negatives like “denial” and “deprivation” and “have to.” But I can discuss diet-psychology another time.
Intermittent Fasting and Sumo Wrestlers
The best example we have of real-world lifestyle Intermittent Fasting is Sumo Wrestlers and their diet-strategy. Do you want to look like a Sumo Wrestler? Because they practice the exact diet-strategy outlined by the most popular form of IF. And they do so, precisely because it helps them gain the fat weight they seek; and gain it in the quickest amount of time. In terms of the biology of weight-control, you need to know that we are not just “what” we eat. We are also “how” we eat. Defenders of IF will say Sumo Wrestlers are not a good example because of the high calories they eat. That simply is NOT true! Forget about the number of calories Sumo Wrestler’s eat to look that way, I’ll get to that – but let’s focus on HOW Sumo Wrestlers eat; in other words, their diet-strategy.
The Sumo Wrestler Diet-Strategy is like this 1) Skip breakfast, 2) Workout on an Empty Stomach, 3) Eat only twice per day, 3) Eat a lot in a condensed window of time. 4) Try to eat one meal as late in the day as possible.
First, let’s talk about the fact that Sumo Wrestlers follow this diet-strategy DELIBERATELY. That is, they do so for deliberate reasons. As I said this diet-strategy of the 4 points above helps them achieve higher bodyfat in the least amount of time. (Is that your goal?) They skip breakfast and eat only twice per day not to burn fat; but to store it more efficiently. Furthermore they eat this way as a means to WILDLY INCREASE HUNGER and appetite so they can eat more and deliberately keep metabolism slower as well. They follow this diet-strategy in order to be able to stomach even more food at a sitting. It is common dieter experience that skipping meals leads to eating more later. This isn’t a matter of discipline but of programming.
People talk about Sumo Wrestler’s fat percentage being mostly related to the # of calories they eat. This is not the real story. The Sumo Wrestler works out for about 3-4 hours per day which is more than most of you do, so they burn a lot of energy; a lot more than you do. Points 1 and 2 and 3 above are how to keep metabolism slow and sluggish which also ensures fat gain. It has metabolic and digestive consequences as well. Eating like this, 2 massive meals instead of smaller more frequent feedings throws hunger hormones and gut to brain/brain to gut biochemistry completely out of whack and more toward fat storage than usage! Yet, everything above about the Sumo Wrestler diet -> these are the exact same arguments used in Intermittent Fasting to control weight, hunger and bodyfat. Can both these things be true at the same time? I say NO WAY.
Now defenders of IF will tell you this is misleading because some, if not most IF advocate calories-control and portion control and choosing healthy whole foods. But doing all these things in a constantly deprived and denied body and mindset to accompany it, only increases hunger, appetite, and desire for food!
Like all diets, in terms of IF, the metabolic “context” is everything and must be considered. So let me discuss this a bit now. In terms of the metabolic compensation system a metabolism could be in any one of a number of states. It could be optimized, resilient, sluggish, damaged, depressed, or burned out. All of these metabolic “contexts” will have a direct effect and influence on any particular diet-strategy that is instituted.
This means some people may do fine on variations of IF. This doesn’t mean it’s the optimal metabolic approach. And some people may have the right mental and metabolic disposition where IF can work for them. But this is NOT representative of the majority of people. All things considered here, IF is still the main means to gain fat and slow down and depress metabolism. There, I said it! And for the tree-huggers out there who believe in “fasts” and “cleansing” and all the rest of it, let’s examine another fasting ritual here, just briefly; so I can make a point.
Ramadan and Fasting
Every year I have Muslim clients who must practice the fasting sacrifice of Ramadan. For those of you who may not know; Ramadan demands a fasting sacrifice of no eating or drinking from dawn until dusk. This serves as a good way to study fasting in general. If fasting is so great then why don’t those who practice Ramadan diet-restrictions, just do it all year long? Why is it considered a religious “sacrifice” to practice Ramadan Diet restrictions? Because it’s hard, that’s why! Because it is not natural to go all day and not eat, that’s why! Once again our basic instinctual drive as soon as we are awake is the drive for food. These are reasons why “fasting” from daylight to dusk is considered “a sacrifice” – because it goes against the natural biological drives and desires of the flesh.
I’ve Coached dozens of people over the years who had to practice Ramadan diet restrictions and it made them moody, weak, miserable and not themselves. So if fasting during the day is so great as a general concept and so healthy for us and our bodies – then why not do it all the time?
Furthermore, the elderly, sick, and mentally ill are exempt from the fasting during Ramadan. Also exempt are pregnant women, and women nursing their newborns. This should tell you then that the whole notion of fasting is considered risky in terms of health and well-being. Otherwise why identify populations that are “at risk” for extended fasting, even though these people still get to eat every single day? It’s “unhealthy and not natural” that’s why.
So, if you are already a person with a compromised metabolism in some form or another, what do you think the implications are if and when you do fasting, whether in the form of a cleanse, or a fast? What do you think the consequences will be for a more “intermittent” fasting approach?
Intermittent Fasting: The Diet-Strategy of Sumo Wrestlers.
As usual, some of you will get, some of you will not.