It should come as no surprise that I’m a proponent of intermittent fasting. In fact, despite trying many other nutrition schemes, I was never able to gain muscle without getting fat before hopping on the intermittent fasting bandwagon.
Given that I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for quite some time now, I’m approached by eagar souls looking to dive in to a world of fasting and feasting without boundaries.
But beware: This could be costly. You have to set yourself up with realistic expectations, and avoid common newbie mistakes.
Here are some mistakes you probably are making, followed by some suggestions for improvement.
1. You Still Eat Garbage
“I struggle with fat loss.” That’s the most common email I get by far.
“Tell me about your nutrition.” That’s always my reply.
“Well…it could be better.” That’s the reply I get back…83.4% (precise estimate) of the time.
Now, I eat like Goku and build muscle without getting fat with Chaos Nutrition principles, but the fact remains: nothing (chaos, intermittent fasting) makes up for crappy nutrition. You have to have a decent idea of what to eat.
You don’t know what to eat. Am I right? What’s good? What’s bad?
It’s legitimately tough to consistently over eat on wholesome foods, and it’s no coincidence that those that complain about body composition often reach for overly processed foods, like chips, candy, cake, and crackers. An even greater faux pas is drinking a ton of calories through sweetened beverages, like sweet teas, soda, and other sugary madness.
If you’re eating pancakes and drinking chocolate milk for breakfast, you have work to do.
The best beginner heuristic: focus on game and ground, each of which in their most unprocessed state. (This might sound “paleo,” but I prefer the least processed game and ground label (albeit a long tongue twister), as the “paleo” mindset tends to neglect the reality of evolutionary biology.)
- Game being just about any and all meats and fish.
- Ground being things that pop out of the ground, like vegetables.
That’s not to say you have to eliminate processed stuff completely, or that it will kill you instantly. Fun fact: I ate bread when I first beat skinny-fat syndrome. (And I eat a lot of white rice now.) But the further backwards you work in the chain of food processing, the more chance the food has to become FUBAR. It’s like the old game of telephone. Tell one person who tells the next who tells the next, and by the time the message comes full circle, it doesn’t resemble the original message in the slightest.
Transfer this over to the beverage realm. If you’re drinking anything other than water, unsweetened teas, and unsweetened coffee, you have no business complaining about not being able to lose fat. And you shouldn’t be seeking anything more advanced.
2. You Don’t Keep Busy
What happens when someone tells you to keep a secret? You want to run off and tell a zillion people, right? What do you think happens when you think about not eating food? You want to eat everything in sight.
As I mentioned in How to Start Intermittent Fasting:
The day of my first ever 24+ hour fast went like this: I slept in, golfed, lifted, and then went to batting practice. It was 7:00PM before I even thought about food. A cup of herbal tea went down the hatch, a few episodes of The Office entertained my brain, my head hit the pillow, and food never glitched my radar.
When you’re just diving into fasting, you can’t have idle hands. Schedule something where you simply won’t be around food. If it’s not there, you won’t be tempted. Also, don’t hang out with others eating. Avoid the break room and the free donuts on the table.
3. You Abuse Stimulants
Intermittent fasters usually drink coffee in place of breakfast. The usual recommendation is to down a cup or two, as it helps fight hunger (and is also said to increase fat metabolism).
In other words, it’s not uncommon to turn the first part of the day into a caffeinated euphoria. A few cups of coffee are fine, but don’t get so hooked onto coffee that it becomes a food in itself. Personally, I think drinking coffee after 12:00PM is a bad idea for just about everyone. That’s just me though.
Coffee is common enough in the “real world” where people eat garbage, so don’t feel bad if you enjoy the sweet elixir on a regular basis. But don't abuse it.
4. You Start Too Ambitious
Right now, I eat one meal per day and abide by Chaos Nutrition principles. But it didn’t start like this. It took me a long time to be able to cope with hunger. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten into intermittent fasting if I didn’t break my foot and have to survive without a morning meal.
Don’t be too hard on yourself at first, and don’t be too ambitious. Going from frequent eating (especially junk food) to one meal per day is a relatively extreme drop. In fact, I don't really recommend one meal per day to anyone unless they only want to eat once per day. My progression took years:
- 6 meals per day – Summer 2006
- 4 meals per day – Summer 2010
- 3-4 meals, 2 snacks per day – Fall 2010
- 2-3 meals per day – Winter 2011 (broken foot)
- 2 meals per day – Fall 2011
- 2 meals per day, sometimes 1 meal per day – Winter 2011
- 1 meal per day – Late 2012
So this has been cultivating for years. And that’s how most of my knowledge blossoms: through years of trials, tribulations, and failures.
If you want to get started, I have two suggestions:
- Toy around with a Leangains inspired 16/8 scheme, breaking the fast at noon. In other words, “accidentally” set your alarm to intentionally wake up late. And then you can’t cook breakfast.
- Do one Brain Pilon inspired Eat Stop Eat 24 hour fast per week. It’s a tougher entry, being 24 hours long (that’s 5PM one day to 5PM the next, for example, so you never really go an entire day without food), but it's only once per week. In other words, “accidentally” set your alarm to be intentionally wake up late. And then “accidentally” forget to pack a lunch.
5. You’re Perpetually Afraid of Hunger
Hunger is a totally normal and natural part of life. Your muscles won't waste away. You will not die from fasting for 16-20 hours. You body can survive extreme conditions. Some studies even show that going through stints without food can benefit health.
Short term deprivation doesn’t cause the body to break down muscle and go into “freak out” mode and gobble up muscle tissue. Long term deprivation on the other hand…
I’m more muscular than I’ve ever been in my life, and I only eat once per day. My performance hasn’t dropped one bit (not surprising considering the evidence from Ramadan athletes). I’ve even fasted post workout—foregoing the fabled post workout window—in the name of self experimentation, as mentioned in 7 Senzu Bean Recovery Methods (not that I'd recommend this).
In short, don’t be afraid of casual hunger.
6. You Think That More = Better
Intermittent fasting is cool…why not fast for 48 hours? 72 hours?
Sadly, as Brad Pilon talks about in Eat Stop Eat, most fasting benefits dwindle after 20ish hours.
Rules can change here depending on how big your last meal before a fast actually is, but suffice to say, more isn’t always better. If you find yourself extending fasting beyond 20 hours on a regular basis, you should reconsider your direction. There’s a fine line between fasting and starving.
7. You’re Not Embracing the Chaos
Intermittent fasting is silently predicated on negative feedback loops, as Ori Hofmekler talks about in his wonderful book, Maximum Muscle, Minimum Fat.
Negative feedback loops, for all intents and purposes, are chaos incarnate. By making nutrient intake less predictable, you make nutrient intake more powerful.
In other words, part of its effectiveness comes from short term deprivation. For best results, you have to learn how to embrace this.
Simply by understanding that short term deprivation can be a very good thing…a very powerful thing — just like training. Fasting is a stress that the body must cope with.
8. You’re Obsessing Over the Clock
Even more than the clock: embrace a relaxed lifestyle. People get so strung up on things. One of the most popular articles on my site, 9 Things You Should Know Before Intermittent Fasting, depicts the way most people go about intermittent fasting.
They obsess over the clock and think that one minute is going to ruin the totality of their progress.
What’s totally ironic about this: the majority of intermittent fasters hark on the free lifestyle it affords, especially after jumping from the six-meal-per-day ship. Yet they are completely ruled by the clock via fasting windows.
I generally eat once meal most days. This is my “dinner.” Sometimes it comes at 3PM. Other times 8PM. I don’t worry. I eat when I’m ready to eat, and I eat when the time is most convenient. If I'm extremely hungry and it's not dinner time, I'll munch on raw vegetables. No stress. No hassle. All freedom. (If I’m in New York, this “dinner” might include a waffle ice cream sundae, or donut ice cream sandwich at 4AM…followed by feelings of euphoria and debauchery.)
9. You’re Focusing on the Sum of the Parts
If there’s one concept I’d wish most people would respect more, it’d be that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a complex dynamic system.
No matter how much you try to understand each individual piece, you’ll never understand how those pieces ultimately work when they’re all intertwined.
A lot of people want to focus on the pieces. They want to know whether one tablespoon of cream in their coffee is going to ruin their life. They want to know if 16/8 is going to be better than 16.1/7.9.
Yet, more often than not, there’s always something more pertinent to worry about. A bit of heavy cream in your coffee is the last thing I’d worry about.
- What about your food selection?
- What about your training?
- Are you eating the right amount for your goals?
- Are you getting enough protein?
- Enough veggies?
- Enough fats?
Here’s the sum of intermittent fasting: spend part of your day in an underfed/unfed state, then spend a small part of your day in a fed state. There's two pieces to this, each of which depends on you.
- The level of your “fed” state, which depends on your goals. More fed = more muscle. Less fed = less fat.
- The frequency in which you decide to fast: Daily. Weekly. Whatever.
That’s the sum. Do what you will with the parts. Just know that the more trivial your parts, the less they probably matter.