Like the weird video of the lonely, hefty guy screaming out loud achieving Internet fame because of YouTube, Intermittent Fasting (IF) has become the next “big” thing in the bodybuilding and strength world due to countless forum posts on the topic. The word “fasting” however leads many people to think that they know what it’s all about without attempting to gain any knowledge on the topic. Few subjects have caused as passionate debates between old school bodybuilding fans, which fear that the magic muscle fairy will strip their body of hard earned muscle if they don’t eat every 2-3 hours, and new school 20 pound underweight egg heads who yell at the top of their lungs, “read more research than you need”. So I sat down with the author of the One Night Diet to discuss this new method.
Intermittent Fasting, Bodybuilding, Weight Loss
So in an effort to set the record straight, or at least provide a clear understanding on the topic, I sat down with one of the more well known advocates of IF, nutrition consultant, Brad Pilon.
Jimmy: Brad tell us who you are and how you got on this crazy intermittent fasting kick.
Brad:My name is Brad Pilon and I started studying the metabolic effects of fasting purely by accident. After graduating from University in 2000 with an honors degree in nutrition, I started working in the Research & Development department of a major sports supplement company.
In a few short years I had become the manager of research and development, overseeing clinical studies in the United States, Canada and Europe.
This was truly an amazing experience and I was thrust back into the academic world, exploring the molecular signaling pathways involved in muscle growth and fat loss and it renewed my interest in pursuing further education. So, in the spring of 2006 I left my job to go back to school to complete Graduate studies in Human Biology and Nutritional Science.
My original plan was to use my graduate research to develop my own rules of eating. I was planning on creating the typical multiple meals a day, high protein diet, or at least this is how I thought it would end up looking like. To tell you the truth I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to turn out, I was just going to let the research guide me to the answers.
It only made sense to start my research at the very beginning, which meant studying what happens to a person’s metabolism in the fasted state.
So I set out to explore the research examining the metabolic effects of fasting between 12 and 72 hours. I was sure I was going to find data showing massive muscle loss, a lowered metabolism and next to no fat loss, which is what the current opinion was in the fitness industry at the time and to a large extent still is.
This is when it all changed. I didn’t find anything in the research to support any of the things I had expected to see. I kept uncovering more and more research proving that these things just didn’t happen. It eventually got to the point where I had to make a decision. Ignore this research and just move along and write my papers, or admit that I, like many other nutritionists was wrong.
I decided to admit defeat and delve deeper in the research and fully uncover the science behind the metabolic effects of short periods of fasting.
Jimmy: Good stuff. Without getting too much into intermittent fasting, it seems like everywhere we look we’re told to eat every two to three hours for both size and fat loss. Now research by Taylor et al (1) has shown us that high frequency of meals has no advantage over low frequency when calories are controlled over 24 hours, but you’re telling us not to eat for an entire day? Is that the basic idea behind any intermittent fasting diet?
Brad: From what I can tell, the idea of eating every three hours comes from bodybuilding. It was an easy and effective method for guys to consume very large amounts of calories every day, and it worked for weight loss programs simply because the numbers worked out for big guys who needed to lose weight.
A large man who needs to eat 2,400 calories per day to lose weight can divide this into 6 small meals and still get to eat 400 Calories at every meal. A 400 calorie portion of food is still pretty satisfying and you get to do this 6 times per day and still lose weight! For most guys that is a good deal.
This concept of eating 6 small meals every day completely falls apart when it is applied to women. For example: A smaller woman who needs to eat 1,200 calories per day to lose weight only gets to eat 200 Calories at each meal if she were to follow a 6 meal per day program. In the real world, we can all see why this is doomed to fail. 200 calories can hardly be considered a meal, and there is no way it would be satisfying even for a small woman.
The question I ask is since there is no metabolic benefit to eating multiple meals per day, why bother with this style at all. There are easier ways to reduce calories.
Since intermittent fasting for a 24 hour period does not decrease metabolism or increase muscle loss, and two 24 hour fasts in a 7 day period can reduce calorie intake by as much as 20% over the course of the week (assuming all other variables are constant), why not just lump all of your calorie decreases into 2 easy to handle periods, rather than 7 full days of dieting? This is exactly what flexible Intermittent fasting allows you to do.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating taking an entire day off of eating, rather I am simply promoting 24 hours without food. For example you could start your 24 hour intermittent fast today at noon, and resume eating tomorrow at 1pm.
Intermittent Fast, Bodybuilding, Weight Loss
Jimmy: Breakfast is known as the most important meal of the day or so we are told, for cognitive function and performance. Protein researcher Donald Layman even talks about how protein synthesis is lowest in the am but intermittent fasting has people not eating breakfast.
Brad: I’ll be honest Jimmy, unless you are a child, I think Breakfast is the most overrated meal. Yes I have seen the research that supports the concept that children who eat breakfast do better in school. All of this research about breakfast being so important only shows benefits in children.
To be honest, I have had many people following my recommendations email to tell me that they are the most productive and energetic during the times they are fasting.
Getting back to the breakfast topic, I am of the opinion that no meal is any more important than the next.
If you are following a regular training program then every single meal you eat can be considered both post workout and pre workout (as the muscle building effects of a single workout have been suggested to last longer than 24 hours). I think many people get confused and misinterpret the protein synthesis research here. They can easily get caught up with complex pre and post workout meal timing when there really isn’t any reason to stress about this.
Remember, measures of protein synthesis using tracers or nitrogen balance data is considered a surrogate endpoint for changes in muscle mass. In other words muscle builds so incredibly slowly you can’t actually see any difference in muscle mass in short term research studies. So instead of studying actual muscle gain you have to study other things that might be indicators of muscle gain which scientists call “markers” such as amino acid flux. It is not an actual measurement of muscle loss or muscle gain, it is simply the researchers best guess at a sign that muscle gain or loss might be happening. The fact that protein synthesis is lowest in the morning has nothing to do with your ability to lose or gain muscle. If this were the case then we would never want to do a weight lifting workout either because muscle protein breakdown is highest during the weight training and immediately post work out as well based on these ‘marker’ studies. There is still intense debate in the scientific community over what these markers of protein synthesis mean as they relate to muscle gain or loss.
Bottom line, skipping breakfast once or twice a week is not going to make you look like a marathon runner.
Jimmy: Pro intermittent fasting people point to the Stoet (2) study where 1 meal vs 3 meals per day were assigned and the one meal group lost more body fat and added a small amount of muscle. So should people who want to be ripped and jacked stop eating all those meals?
Brad: I wouldn’t say people need to stop eating multiple meals per day because it’s not doing them any harm, I’d just add that they are most likely not getting any special benefit from it either, it really comes down to their personal preference and what patterns best fit into their life.
Research has shown us time and time again that it is our workouts, and the proper structure of our workouts that determine our ability to increase our muscle mass. I find it so surprising that we continually let other people take credit for our hard work. The 6 grams of BCAA’s you take every two hours did not make your arms massive, the hard work you did in the gym did that. Similarly, eating every 3 hours did not make you lean and muscular, you did that all by yourself with hard work and making sure your calorie intake is where it should be. We need to stop letting other people take credit for our hard work.
To put in another way, having more gas in your car, or toping the tank up every couple of hours isn’t going to make your car go any faster, unless you build a bigger engine. Same thing with your food, you need just enough to keep you going throughout the day, your ability to build muscle is largely determined by the number and quality of your workouts. Nutrition is permissive in the muscle building process. Your workouts initiate the process, and as long as certain nutritional minimums are met, your body will adapt with growth. With that being said, setting up your nutrition in the way that best allows you to reach these minimums without overeating and causing you to gain body fat is the best way to allow your workouts to cause you to get leaner and more muscular at the same time.
Now let me address the Stoet study you mentioned. When you state that the 1 meal per day group lost more fat and gained a small amount of ‘muscle’ more than the 3 meal per day group. There is no mention of ‘muscle mass gain’ in this study, rather they measured ‘fat free mass’ via bioelectrical impedance. There are two issues with this I’d like to point out, first of all ‘fat free mass’ does not equal ‘muscle mass’ as fat free mass includes organs, and bones, blood and water volume, basically everything in your body that’s not fat, even including undigested food in your GIT. Second, any scientist in this field will tell you that bioelectrical impedance is a notoriously inaccurate way of measuring body composition. They also use bioelectrical impedance to measure fat mass so I would be very skeptical of any body composition measurements that came from this paper. The amount of fat free mass gained was not significant, in other words no different than a matter of chance. The third and most important point about this study is that the researchers weighed the subjects every day and adjusted their calorie consumption up or down on a daily basis in an effort to make sure the subjects maintained the same bodyweight throughout the study. Therefore calorie content was not controlled from 1 meal per day vs 3 meal per day and because of this there is no way to make any accurate assumption about the difference 1 vs 3 meals per day has on body fat or muscle mass because total calories were not controlled, all of the differences noticed in this study could very easily and I suspect accurately be explained simply by a difference in number of calories consumed per day regardless of how many meals they were consumed over. It’s also worth noting that this was a crossover design which means the same subjects completed the 1 meal per day diet as well as the 3 meal per day diet, with an 11 week break in between.
What I would like to point out is that we should never base our opinions of what to do on the results of one study, as I have shown you how easy it is to misinterpret the results. While I would love to simply review the abstract of any study that proves meal timing isn’t important, its very important that as a scientist we carefully critique every study, even the ones that support our theories. We should always try to look at all the available research in a given field never just one study. This way we will get a more accurate picture of what is really happening. At this point we can make a much better educated decision on what is best for our own muscle gaining and fat burning mission without wasting time and effort doing the wrong things.
The bottom line is 1 meal per day isn’t going to make your muscles grow any better than 3 meals or 6 meals, but it may allow you to control your calorie intake in such a way that you can stay lean while putting on muscle.
Jimmy: On to intermittent fasting, weight loss, bodybuilding and training. Now I was with you when someone emailed you and said that they would try your program, but if they lost muscle mass they would punch you. Intermittent fasting flies in the face of every piece of training ad literature that’s out there so what’s the deal?
Brad: He actually didn’t say he was going to punch me, he said he would track me down and kill me…you meet all sorts of interesting people on the internet!
It doesn’t actually fly in the face of the majority of training research. While it may fly in the face of a lot of nutrition marketing, there are several different research paradigms that see tremendous muscle growth without any special meal frequency or timing, or the use of post workout supplementation.
Research on anabolic steroids and on creatine supplementation both consistently show measurable increases in muscle weight without the use of a calorie containing post-workout meal. This brings us right back to nutrition being permissive to the muscle building process. As long your workouts are stimulating muscle growth, and your nutritional needs are being met, and your recovery is adequate, you will grow. Just because your daily life works on a 24 hour clock, doesn’t mean that your nutrition does. When you go to bed at night nutrition does not “start over”. It is an on-going continuous process, just like muscle growth. So your nutritional needs are a chronic thing (getting back to my point that every meal can be considered both post workout and pre workout). If over the course of several days, (if not weeks) your nutrition is adequate to maintain muscle growth and yet low enough to not allow any appreciable increases in fat mass, you will gain muscle without gaining fat mass. The research also shows a host of hormonal changes that happen during fasting that favor the preservation of lean muscle mass.
This is why I am so confident that following my recommendations (which by the way is not to be confused with traditional intermittent fasting), people will not lose muscle, and will still be able to gain muscle mass. Fasting should be flexible. For example, you only fast for a 24 hour period once or twice a week. On the days you are not fasting, you can eat in any manner you want, 3 meal, 6 meals or 13 meals if you like. So I encourage people to look at nutrition over the course of a 7 day period. Even if you were to fast twice in a 7 day period it is still very easy to hit the nutritional requirements needed to gain muscle.
Jimmy: Intermittent fasting studies show increased insulin sensitivity but I’d think we can get those same benefits from metabolic training and proper low carb diets, no?
Brad: Yes, I believe you are correct Jimmy. Also for the record let me say again that I do not advise a traditional intermittent fasting approach per se. I say this because even I question the ability of someone to follow traditional IF long term. The lack of flexibility in the traditional IF paradigm will most likely set a lot of people up for failure.
With that said I agree with you that intermittent fasting is definitely not the only way to improve insulin sensitivity. In fact I believe that the combination of fasting with metabolic training and reduced sugar intake would actually have a long term additive effect on insulin sensitivity. This is why the exercise component in any fasting plan is so important. If you aren’t following a resistance training program then you aren’t following a proper intermittent fasting diet. In my opinion exercise is needed to ensure the optimal benefits of fasting, and we could all benefit from eating a little less sugar, so the combination of fasting, resistance training and a reduced sugar intake would be my best suggestion for improving insulin sensitivity.
Jimmy: Awesome stuff Brad. Thanks!
Brad Pilon,MS, is a nutrition professional with over seven years experience in the nutritional supplement industry. To learn how Intermittent Fasting can help you build muscle and burn fat, visit Brad’s website here
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