Performance nutritionist, coach, author and public speaker, Ben Coomber looks at whether fasting for fat loss works or could it just be starving you of training gains?
What is fasting for fat loss?
Fasting: ever done it? Maybe you’ve skipped a meal. Maybe you’ve forgone breakfast in a rush. This is essentially what fasting is: abstaining from food or skipping a meal, which is usually breakfast in the fitness world. In the pursuit of being lean and mean, people are always looking for easier ways to strip body fat.
Enter, fasting, or in its most popular form, intermittent fasting, aka ‘IF’.
People are successfully using IF as a way to ‘shred up’ in the health and fitness community. Such names as Martin Berkham, Brad Pilon and Robb Wolf have done a great job raising the awareness of fasting, which is a wonderful weapon to have in your nutrition arsenal.
Should you fast – what are the pro’s and con’s?
Benefits include upping your regulation of fat burning from stored fat tissue, greater detoxification effects, and better mental clarity. But while fasting has its place in some populations, does it have a place in sport or training?
Because fasting is relatively new to the fitness world people are always keen to know more, and how it can be applied to them, if at all. I often get questions from enthusiasts such as, ‘Ben, I want to get leaner but I’m struggling to lose body fat, so should I try this intermittent fasting protocol?’ Now, this seems like a reasonable question, right? Wrong.
In short, this is my advice: if you play sport or train a lot, don’t do intermittent fasting. If you are an athlete, or train like an athlete, meaning anything above five to six hours a week, don’t fast. In my opinion, people are turning to fasting to lean out because they are lazy and just want an easy way out, working on a simple semi-starvation model which is what IF is at its roots.
Women have been doing that for years, yo-yo dieting, and look where that leaves most of them.
What to be wary of when fasting?
One of the beauties of fasting for fat loss, and a key reason it works, is a process called hormesis, whereby the human body adapts to a stress. So if a body is healthy, sleeps well, trains well and eats well, then fasting is seen as a positive stress and adaptation occurs in a favorable way.
If someone is stressed, has a high training volume, can have bouts of poor sleep or inadequate sleep and is emotionally troubled, then this ‘hormetic’ stress just compounds the issue.
We don’t want stress; it is bad for fat loss, for health and for body composition. In the context of the dedicated trainer, the key stress we battle to overcome is training. Be it weights, field conditioning, pad work, cardio, HIIT, complexes or whatever, they are all stressors that need optimal recovery strategies. Throw too many stressors into the mix and you encounter the over-training dilemma.
I love training and get a kick from it but when you get carried away with it and don’t allow your body enough time to recover, over-training hits. This is due to you not recovering properly and you can’t do that when a third of the day is spent fasting.
And this under-recovery often comes from inadequate calories, macronutrients or micronutrients, which fasting will make worse. Optimal recovery comes from consistent feedings; fast for periods of the day and you’re not recovering optimally.
How to make fasting work
Fasting for fat loss is about managing the variables and making performance and recovery optimal. When working with clients I might use fasting as a tool in the box, but not if they have a high training load. Five to six hours a week is my cut-off point for someone to incorporate fasting into their regime. So if you train more than five hours a week, fasting is not for you.
You’ll likely feel great for two weeks, but it won’t continue. Enter into the third, fourth and fifth week and recovery slows down, your sleep suffers, your joints feel sore and then everything suffers.
So what’s the biggest flaw I see with most athletes’ or tough trainers’ diets? Well, it’s the over consumption of carbohydrates and not enough good fats. Learn to cycle your fats and carbohydrates in and out of your diet at the right time. This benefits weight, sleep, hormonal function and performance. Fasting isn’t the hidden answer to fat loss, it’s your current diet that needs work.
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