Why intermittent fasting isn’t for you

dsc_0574Having done intermittent fasting or IF as it is often shorted for probably close to 5 years I find myself quite capable of listing pros and cons and giving advice on whether it is a good idea or not. You could perhaps think that having followed it for 5 years I would recommend it to everyone as I must find it great and useful otherwise I would just have abandoned it, right!?

Well yes and no. I’m not bound by religion to fasting and I haven’t signed my life away to an employer legally keeping me from spending time on eating breakfast – so yes – I can abandon it anytime I see fit – which we will get to. But that does not thereby mean that I think everyone should adopt intermittent fasting. It is absolutely not for everyone. There are very good reasons for following a IF schedule, but there are as good reasons for not.

The primary reason for why you should keep away from IF is because you probably expect it to be some magic pill that suddenly will make you young, slim, muscular and energized.

Yes that is just some of the highlights from the almost mile long list of benefits of IF I have encountered from various sites. Of course if you are looking to make money of products relating to IF and you don’t care that much about your integrity, then you should by no means present a balanced view on IF shedding light on both sides of the arguments. But as I don’t stand to gain anything from your choosing of lifestyle I have no need to present anything else than what I have experienced and believe in myself.

Some of the things advertised as effects of IF are true. BUT if you are looking at doing if because of those, then for 9 out of 10 you are looking for a quick fix for a problem you don’t really want to face and you will not find it with IF either. A lot of the things ascribed to IF comes from “regular” fasting as research in this area has been more thorough than IF. Regular fasting where you fast for several days has been used quite a lot to help heal different types of ailments. But exactly how many of those benefits you can have by say fasting 16 hours out of each day isn’t really that well documented.

Perhaps it is a good idea to somewhat loosely define what constitutes intermittent fasting. The fasting part is quite easily defined – no calories. You can drink water, coffee or tea with nothing in it, that adds calories. There are some strong proponents of what they call “bulletproof” coffee fasting where you put like 5-700 kcal worth of butter in your coffee and still call it fasting because you aren’t eating anything. Well it might be good for your and fit your goals and schedule perfectly, but fasting – it is not. Intermittent implies cycling on and off. You could imply that over a long enough timeframe all fasting is intermittent, it is not like anyone keeps fasting and not gets back to eating – or if they do they won’t be redoing that experiment..

But exactly how you implement this “intermittent” part is up for debate. You could again argue that we already have some sort of intermittent fasting as we don’t eat from dinner till breakfast, which as the name implies breaks the nightly fast. But implementing anything that could be considered daily IF probably start at around a 16 hour fast window give or take. That’s the schedule I have been doing for the past 5 years. There are other implementations where you fast for 1 whole day each week or 2 days a week etc. Again there are many ways to do this, do your research and determine for yourself what you might want – or just ask, I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

The second reason why fasting isn’t for you is if you are considered a “hard-gainer” and are looking to put on weight. If you have problems eating enough by having 16 hours a day to eat, then it sure as hell won’t help to only have 8 hours to do the same. That is not to say that you cannot put on weight while doing IF – I have done it several times, but I am by no means considered a hard-gainer – I have the appetite of a full pack of grown up lions putting their teeth in a zebra after 6 weeks of licking salt from rocks in the baking sun.

I have seen way to many skinny guys wanting to do IF because they have seen guys doing IF that are very muscular and lean and want to look as them. The problem here is linking correlation with causation without taking all factors into play. Yes, they may look that way because of doing IF, but most likely they will have had a different starting point than a skinny kid. Most likely they will already have build quite a bit of muscle mass doing just regular bulking paradigms. Again not to say it is impossible for them or anyone to put on weight with IF, but have a honest look on yourself in the mirror and tell whether you have a hard time putting on weight or not. If you do, then IF probably isn’t the answer.

The final point I will bring in this post is probably one I will cover more in detail later on as I am not really totally settled on the answer myself to be honest, but still deserves a mention is what I will term environment. Not the one you try to save from global warming as I’m pretty sure IF has no play in that, but environment as in work, school, family etc. The environment you live in everyday.

The consequences/concerns here are somewhat split into two parts. One is explanation. Even though if you do 16/8 fasting you could probably time it to be when everyone else eats lunch and just not mention you don’t eat breakfast, unless of course you want to talk about it. But you will most likely end up in situations where you will have to explain why you aren’t eating breakfast and situations where you perhaps should consider breaking your fast and just eat. I have mentioned this before both in terms of competitions and in “family-situations” where for instance your grand mother has spend a lot of time on preparing a nice breakfast for you, then just break your fast and eat. Don’t be a over-religious prick.

The other concern is also to do with family. If you live with a girlfriend/boyfriend then he or she should be understanding even though you still can take some days off to serve breakfast in bed etc. but it gets more complicated if you have kids. Because on the one hand you could just keep up your lifestyle and don’t eat breakfast but my concern would be how would this impact the kids general view on food and eating. It could be possible but it could might as well be negative.

As said earlier I don’t have all the answers to this and won’t go into further detail, but just to say that there are some things you should consider before deciding upon IF as the answer to your dieting questions. But all in all it is a great protocol for the right types of people, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept it for all these years. It keeps me lean, sane and performing as I want so no complains here. But once I find myself in a family setting with kids I might take it up for consideration.

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Intermittent fasting – breaking fast, competition and grandmothers

In your daily training regimen, you have probably found a way to make it work, if you follow Intermittent Fasting (IF), whether this means training on an empty stomach(which for 90% of the time I would not recommend) or training after you have broken the fast with some food in the stomach.

But what do you do if you suddenly find yourself entering a competition that is on a different time of the day and maybe even before your normal “feeding window”?

Some people become so obsessed and religious with their approach to both dieting and training. Once they think they have “seen the light” they preach nothing but. In terms of IF this could mean that you under absolutely no circumstance break your fast! Whether your grandmother had been up early baking bread for her birthday breakfast or you are signed on for at high intensity competition – no matter – you will go through it with an empty stomach because all else is a sign of weakness. Utter bullshit!

In the former you are a disgrace to your grandmother in the latter you are a disgrace to your optimal performance. Yes you CAN probably get away with both – but that does not mean it is either optimal or the right thing to do.

Your muscles work optimally when burning carbs so give them carbs to operate at their best. If this means that on competition day you have to break your fast at 8am as opposed to 11am then so be it. Just be sure to have tried it some weeks ahead of actual competition day as explained in “Competition preparation do’s and don’ts” – you should not experiment on actual game day.

In my experience it makes no difference the subsequent days if I break the fast early. My stomach does not suddenly turn back to expecting breakfast at 7am after having followed IF and had my first meal at 11am for 4-5 years. Of course you can still experience some stomach upset depending on what you eat – but that’s why you should try it a few weeks before actual game day. Gather information on how you feel and act/change your approach accordingly.

The backsides of not having anything in your stomach on game day are so astronomically bigger than the downsides of breaking your fast. So break your fast or prolong your feeding window – whatever it takes for you to operate at your best on game day and then get back into the convenience of IF afterwards. IF is not a religion it’s a convenient way to time your eating.

Intermittent fasting and meal/macro periodization

As I have written many times before, I am a long time follower of intermittent fasting(IF). So long that I have even forgot when I actually started, but probably like 6 years ago. My take on IF is a 16/8 approach – 16 hours without any calories and only black coffee, tea and water, and then the 8 hour feeding window. I therefore eat my first meal at 11am and the last one at around 18-19pm. There are a lot of wild claims behind IF, but my main reason for sticking with it is that it really fits both my goal, my schedule and my appetite. In short it just works for me.

There are however a few areas where this approach is backed by science. First of all, when you wake after a long night’s sleep your body is generally in “fat-burning-mode”. In order for the body to get out of this mode all you need is some carbohydrates(carbs) – but this is not really what I or any other human being looking to stay lean wants. You can start your day with a meal consisting of only protein and fat to counter this “problem” or you can, as I have skip breakfast altogether and thereby your keep you body in “fat-burning-mode” for longer.

Taking this a step further my first meal at around 11am does not really include any carbs either. As long as I do not have to compete in sprinting or anything else where I need to perform at my best (in which case all this goes out the window – but I’ll cover this in a post about both meal, training and psychology leading up to competition) I do not need any carbs at around 11am in the morning. All the physical activity the next hours will be done primarily by my fingers and my brain anyway – the protein and fat will fuel that just fine.

Then moving on to my second meal at around 3pm. This will be the first time of day where I eat any significant amount of carbs as this meal will fuel my training, being either track & field sprinting or strength training. The carbs in this meal is to fuel my performance, but there are however exceptions. In my case I have a leisure/light running session on saturdays for instance. This is around 3 miles in relaxing tempo. Those days I would switch and have the running first – in order to burn fat, and then have the meal afterwards to fill up glycogen and help recover. In other words my carbs are very much ingested for two reasons:

  1. Before an intense workout where the goal is not to burn fat but to perform at my best.
  2. After workout to fill up glycogen and help recover.

The last point leads to my final meal of the day; dinner. This is probably highest in carbs of all meals or close to similar with second meal of the day. This could usually be 180g(before being cooked) of rice. If you are active and needs to perform in any high intensity sport, you need carbs. So dinner is usually where I’ll have most of them, it is also most often right after either sprint or strength training where I’ll have “earned” my carbs.

Periodization of meals or macro’s is not as important as having your diet dialed in, in the first place. But once you are comfortable with how much you need this might be a good second step. It sure has helped me be lean for the last 6 years year round. Whether you want to combine it with IF or not is entirely up to you, it works either way. It just takes advantage of the natural changing of hormones in your body throughout the day into account.

Diet as a budget

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I have for a long time looked for a way to describe how I go about maintaining low fat levels and attack the entire aspect of dieting. I wanted to describe it rather briefly because apart from the reference to the blog title, I actually do find my dieting rather simple. I have gone for the most bang for the buck. Not looking to be a super shredded bodybuilder or fitness athlete, but maintain high levels of muscle mass, low levels of bodyfat, performance and last but not least aesthetics.

What struck me last night as I lay in my bed, was the fact that I treat my diet somewhat as an economy or a budget. I think a bit ahead and looks at what to come in my calendar; will any of the coming days include dinner with friends, parties, weddings or any of the like, or will it be full of training and physical activity.

To create a budget, you have to get familiar with your income and your expenses. If you use more than you earn you will be setting yourself up for debt. On the other hand if you earn more than you spend you will be building up a buffer that can be helpful when your spendings get a bit out of control.

Then how is this useful in the context of dieting. First of; the root of my plan is somewhat strict diet for 5 days a week. I eat pretty much the same meals, do somewhat the same amount of workouts. This enables me to make tiny adjustments depending on morning weight and what I see in the mirror. This part is pretty simple, it is not about weighing food, just make assumptions and judge by mirror and weight. I eat more on days with heavy training – but all of the extra calories comes post workout – up until my workout; it is pretty much just a usual day. I then “earn” my calories and eats a lot.

Then one or two days a week, which will primarily be weekends, I will eat pretty normal during the day, but at night/evening I will just eat whatever is served. If I know there is going to be a lot of food, I would probably eat a little less during the day – again to give myself a little buffer. No need to try and hold myself back from eating at night in front of a lot of delicious food – I will fail at that! But as long as I am aware of that, I can plan ahead to counteract it.

The beauty of this type of budget, is that I can even set myself in a bit of a debt and deal with the consequences the day after. Now I use fasting as a pretty stable tool in my dieting – intermittent on a daily basis – but it can be extremely useful after a night or weekend full of delicious food. Having worked up quite a debt, of too many calories, I often fast for the entire day of sunday. Or that would be from saturday night to sunday evening, where I would have a “normal” meal consisting of perhaps ⅓ of my normal days consumption. This works wonders to counteract a day or two of enjoying great food, drinks and just having fun.

Therefore; earn your calories or pay’em off the day after.  Keep a little budget in your head about how much you have earned and how much you have spend – you’ll be amazed at how easy this get’s, and how good you actually are, at guessing whether you are a little on either side of the line.

What is beta alanine? The new creatine?

Beta alanine
Beta alanine

Having just written a “What is ..” on creatine, it was quite natural for me to transition into writing about the other supplement, I use regularly; beta alanine. This is also one of those, where if people asked what it does, I would end up giving them an explanation, that was complicated enough for them to say OK – but really just reflected my own lack of knowledge, about what it does.

I have always read that beta alanine should work well together with creatine, but my understanding of this fact, was that this was because it did something similar, as creatine – which in fact it does not. They work in quite different ways actually.

To understand what beta alanine does, we need to get familiar with carnosine. Not getting into too much detail, carnosine comes into play with anaerobic metabolism. During intense exercise, your body will use all the oxygen locally in your muscles to run the aerobic metabolism and then switch predominantly to anaerobic once the oxygen supply is used. The anaerobic turnover of carbohydrates, results in the release of lactate and hydrogen ions. Buildup of hydrogen ions, then leads to drop in muscle ph. All this quickly becomes a little scientific, but what you need to get from this is; drop in muscle ph = muscle fatigue.

Quite cleverly, our bodies have “buffers” in place, to help in high demand situations. In this case, it is carnosine that comes to the rescue. Carnosine binds the free hydrogen ions, thereby keeping them from building up inside the muscles and causing drop in ph. The higher the concentration of carnosine inside the muscles, the bigger this “buffer” is.

This could sound like the effect is somewhat similar to creatine. And you could perhaps say that creatine acts as a “buffer” as well, but where they really differ is in the energy systems they act upon. Creatine aids in short, max effort work; maximum deadlift, very short max effort sprints etc. Beta alanines effect does not kick in, before hydrogen ions starts to be released and it can act as a buffer. Therefore it is said that the “working window” of beta alanine is somewhere from 60-240 seconds.[1]

Now you would probably have noticed, that in the section about how it worked, all I wrote about was carnosine. This is because carnosine is what does the magic, but carnosine is made up by two amino acids – L-histidine and beta alanine. L-histidine is rather abundant in the muscles, so in order to bump up concentration of carnosine we need to add – you’ve guessed it – beta alanine.

But why not just take carnosine directly? It has been shown, that taking in carnosine directly causes very little of it to reach the actual muscles. It is broken down, or used elsewhere in the body before it actually reaches the muscles. Beta alanine on the other hand, have shown to go almost directly to the muscles, where we need it to produce the extra carnosine.[2]

We have now covered the performance aspect of beta alanine, but a few studies has shown rather interesting effects on muscle mass as well. One of them performed on wrestlers and football players, which are especially interesting, since we are people who already work out and not untrained individuals. They performed some HIIT and resistance training over a period of 8 weeks. The wrestlers all lost body weight, both placebo and beta alanine group, but the beta alanine group gained 1,1 lb lean muscle mass and the placebo group lost 1 lb  lean muscle mass – that’s a 2 lb net difference! The footballers all gained lean mass, the beta alanine group 2,1 lb and the placebo group 1,1 lb. Again quite significant net gain for the beta alanine group.[3]

These studies were however on a rather small group of individuals, 37 all together, so it cannot be considered as any real evidence of beta alanines effect. But still very interesting!

As with creatine, one of the great things about beta alanine is the rather low price. It is more expensive than creatine, but still very affordable. I tend to stick to powder, which enables me to mix it into morning coffee, shakes etc.

This is one of the cheapest offers I have been able to find on beta alanine: NOW Foods Beta Alanine Powder 500Gbut feel free to search around and find your own. Just stick to traditional beta alanine – to the best of my knowledge, there are not anything you can mix it with to increase absorption, so no need to buy any fancy products, just for the sake of beta alanine.

So to end of this post with answering my question from the title; Is beta alanine the new creatine? In some ways you could say it is. It is one of those rare supplements, that seems to back up its claims in studies. And perhaps even better, you can use it together with creatine and get the best of both of them.

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20479615
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17690198
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21659893

What is creatine?

The best way to learn, often is to teach. If you want to figure out just how thoroughly you know a subject – try explaining it to someone else. I was actually going to write a post about creatine and coffee, but after reading through a lot of studies I took a step back and thought about how I would explain what creatine was and what it does in a simple way. Unable to give any good explanation, I read into it, and will now try to give you a short, un-scientific, enables-you-to-explain-it-to-others description of what creatine is and does.

From Wiki:

Creatine is naturally produced in the human body from amino acids primarily in the kidney and liver. It is transported in the blood for use by muscles. Approximately 95% of the human body’s total creatine is located in skeletal muscle.

To get this one out of the way; never confuse creatine with creatinine as the latter is a waste product.

Creatine helps turn ADP back into ATP. If you have read some marketing material of creatine, you may have bumped into this statement. It is very true, but unless you have a medical degree you probably are pretty lost on what it actually means.

All of this is part of the krebs cycle, that is our body’s way of extracting energy from the food we ingest. If you want a really good and easily understandable explanation of this, then take a few minutes to see this presentation by Doug McGuff in the middle of his very long speech – it is the most easily understandable explanation I have ever come across. However if you are only interested in the short explanation, then skip the video.

I will try to be true to the name of my blog and keep it simple. Your muscles needs energy to function. This energy comes from the food you consume. When you are rested and start max effort work, your muscles will be provided with energy through ATP. ATP is short for Adenosine triphosphate, which is only interesting because; upon delivering energy to the muscle, it gives away one phosphate(the energy), and thereby ends up as Adenosine diphosphate(ADP).

Locally in the muscles working, there is a very clever, limited recycling system, that can turn ADP back into ATP. This extends the time your muscles can deliver max effort briefly, if the system is working overtime, as in max effort lifts or sprints. What enables this is phosphocreatine, that reacts together with the enzyme creatine kinase – forget the names but this is, as you may have guessed from the names – where creatine comes into play. Creatine kinase is relatively abundant in the muscles, or at least not the limiting factor. But phosphocreatine is where supplementation with creatine works it magic.

Your stores of phosphocreatine are limited, so given our max effort lift or sprint – when your supplies of phosphocreatine runs out, you are no longer able to produce the same amount of effort by recycling ADP into ATP. Your body will then switch to another energy system, which can run for longer, but not produce the same peak effect.

Therefore, what you do with creatine supplementation is make your phosphocreatine stores larger, which enables you to run your max-effort energy system, a little longer. Think of it as a bicycle with an electric motor, that recharges from your pedalling, and has it energy stored in a battery. When you activate it, you can cycle faster because of the joint effort of your legs and the electric motor, but only for as long as the battery holds power, then you are back to rely on only your legs, until the battery is recharged. Then what creatine does it giving you a larger battery along with a larger generator, so you can recharge as fast as before but run max effort longer.

This was the performance part of the equation, but creatine has even more positive effects up its sleeve. When it comes to building muscle, a lot of people, myself included, think of creatine as only pushing water into the muscles and not actually giving any real size gains. That the gains would only come from the increased ability to train harder. But a lot of studies actually point in another direction. Without going into too much detail, creatine should help decrease the breakdown of muscle and increase the growth of “fast twitch” muscle fibers – this was something that I did not know, before researching for this post.

Furthermore creatine helps your muscles absorb more glucose(carbohydrates) and carbohydrates actually helps your body store more creatine – so that should have you ingesting the two of them together, if you are not already.

What further surprised me, was that studies even have shown positive effects on both intelligence and longevity. Creatine is surely one of the most well known and well documented performance enhancers of all time.

I will not go into any details about how and when to ingest, since I during this research also found some rather interesting information about a slightly different approach, than the one preached for decades. My plan is to try it out and then get back with an evaluation.

One thing I however will do is answer a question that seems to be present in the comments of every article about creatine – what sort should we ingest? Stick to creatine monohydrate – that is the most researched form of creatine, that has been around as supplementation since the early nineties. The other fancy forms of creatine, has to the best of my knowledge not been able to prove any of their claims in studies, yet.

The great thing about creatine monohydrate, is that it is possible to find really cheap. Like this for instance; a great amount from a renowned brand: NOW Foods Creatine Powder, 2.2 Pounds

Eat, fast and live longer – a Michael Mosley documentary

Eat, Fast and Live Longer – Horizon from Steve Hartman on Vimeo.

I watched this documentary, close to it being released and stumbled upon it again today. Actually had a note somewhere, that I should share it on my blog along with some comments. As I have been following a form of intermittent fasting, for the last 2½ years, it always captures my interest when studies concerning this subject are released.

It is a documentary designed to keep the viewer interested, along with the dilemmas and tough realizations, the main character has to get through. But overall it is an interesting watch.

The following might be spoilers, but they are a few short comments on the content of the documentary.

He finds some quite interesting relations between calorie restriction and longevity. But in my opinion he needs to shed some more light on whether calorie restriction and longevity is related to overall lower body weight or is all the benefits related to the lower bodyfat levels. Meaning that, would a person with more muscle mass and thereby higher body weight have the same health markers as a lighter person with lower body weight as long as they had the same body fat levels?

Also somewhat related to the above – he mentions high intakes of protein as being bad, since this keeps our body in the “go-mode”, as he calls it. But will the offset of having fasting days counterbalance this and make for a healthy way of gaining muscle mass? It is of course very training specific, and this documentary is made more aimed at the general public, but still interesting.

What I also find really interesting, is towards the end of the documentary, where he finds the relation between fasting and mental health. Studies on mouse have found that when they fast, they generate new neural pathways in the brain and repair the old ones. This is not yet documented on humans, but as the scientist says; it would make rather good sense from an evolutionary standpoint, since when you are hungry, you would easier survive, if you could remember the good places to get food, or find new ways to get it.

All in all, there are some interesting theories on longevity and the factors that affect it. Not that many of them being positive in the light of athletes, since they will pretty much do the exact opposite. But this is also where I feel the documentary falls kind of short. It is clearly aimed at the general public, but the conclusions are still food for thought.

In the future I will write some posts on my implementation of intermittent fasting, since I by now have quite a lot of experience with it. Especially in the light of keeping and gaining muscle mass.