Weight Loss Dieting: Unconventional Approaches
(DISCLAIMER: This is an older article in need of some minor editing. I've left it up on the site because it contains valuable insights and answers many important questions. While I still recommend reading it, this piece isn't representative of the refined quality of other posts)
The Best Diet Is The One You Can Stick To
Losing weight is kind of like running a marathon. The principle is simple, but it’s hard to do. For weight loss, the principle is to eat fewer calories than you burn every day. It’s calories in versus calories out. That’s it. But, if you’ve ever dieted to lose weight, you know how hard that can be. All too often, we get excited about a new diet, we overcommit to it, and we fall off the wagon. Usually, the reason we fall off because it’s very hard to make maintaining a long term, calorie deficit enjoyable.
If you’re serious about losing weight, you’ve probably tried most of the standard approaches. Approaches like eating smaller meals, doing cardio every day, going low carb, juice cleanses, and the list goes on. But if you still haven’t found a method that you can stick to, or if you’re bored with your current routine, you need to keep looking for a better way. If you’re not enjoying the process of losing weight, you’ll stop doing it.
Finding a protocol that you enjoy will probably require a little thinking outside the box. Lucky for you, this article will give you everything you need to look outside the box for a new, unconventional method. As you read the rest of this article, please keep yourself in mind. A major theme here is that finding an effective protocol usually requires ditching the dogma of dieting. Being flexible in your approach is the key to constructing an enjoyable and sustainable weight loss program. By exploring the underlying principles of one, particular, unconventional approach, intermittent fasting, you'll learn to see clearly where cultural convention leads us astray. Whether you decide to adopt intermittent fasting as a lifestyle, try something completely different, or you’re simply reading for information, the take home message is that dieting doesn’t have to be miserable and it’s your responsibility to creatively construct a protocol that you enjoy.
Intermittent Fasting: Tearing down cultural convention
There are a lot of different ways to do intermittent fasting but the underlying principle is always the same: Alternate between periods of fasting and periods of eating. So instead of spreading meals over the entire waking portion of the day, intermittent fasting requires breaking the day into two distinct “phases”, a fasting phase and a feeding phase.
Eating in this unconventional manner comes with a myriad of benefits that more conventional diets don’t provide. Perhaps the most logical and psychologically potent benefit is the dietary satisfaction that comes with eating all of your day’s food in a smaller window of time. There’s also a laundry list of more biologically rooted, physical benefits. Most of these benefits are the product of intermittent fasting’s ability to compliment the dual nature of our nervous system. Both the feeding and fasting phases created by intermittent fasting are uniquely complimentary to the parasympathetic and sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. You’ll see how that works in a minute, but first let’s address the concern that most people have about fasting…
You Don't Need to Be Constantly Eating
It runs counter to everything we've been taught, but the simple fact is that our biology was designed to handle prolonged periods of fasting.
Simply put, for the first few days, yes, fasting won’t be too pleasant. Fortunately, within a week, your body will adjust to this new feeding habit and you’ll be amazed with how effortless fasting can become. This effortlessness stems from our evolutionary roots. In fact, our biology evolved to work optimally in the fasted state. To make this clearer, lets take a quick look at the evolutionary history of humans. The thing to keep in mind is that evolutionary changes to our biology happen on the timescale of tens of thousands of years, not hundreds. As a result, you are virtually identical to your ancestors who lived in the times of ancient civilizations.
With that in mind, imagine you’re a Mongolian tribesperson living in the 1100s. Since evolutionary changes to human biology occur on the timescale of tens of thousands of years, your hypothetical biology in this imaginary situation is virtually identical to your current biology. You’ve been out on a hunt with members of your tribe for the past 3 days. You haven’t eaten since you left camp but you still need the physical power and mental alertness to hunt down and kill your tribes’ next meal. None of us would be here today if our ancestors’ bodies hadn’t been evolved to handle the stress of prolonged fasting.
As I briefly mentioned above, our nervous systems have developed two complimentary branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic to support our need to be active and alert while searching for our next meal. The development of this dual system is also rooted in the daily alternation between night and day. The sympathetic branch supports daytime alertness and energy, while the parasympathetic branch supports nighttime restfulness and recovery. The sympathetic branch of our nervous system is activated during fasting. This activation enhances mental alertness and even accelerates the fat loss process via the increased activity of norepinephrine in the brain and body.
To return to our Mongolian tribesperson example, it’s this norepinephrine surge that allowed us to stay energetic and mentally sharp despite not having eaten in a few days. To put a happy end to our imaginary story, let’s say you and your tribe kill a massive antelope. Needless to say, you’ll devour this meal of antelope and you’ll prompt the activation of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous to trigger the “rest and digest” response. The relaxing and serene mood that food puts us in is complimentary to the energized and alert state that fasting puts us in. The activation of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is most recognizable by the onset of what has been dubbed “food coma”. Prolonged fasting has also been shown to enhance the satisfaction that comes with the food-mediated activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. To sum that up:
The food environment in which humans evolved created the necessity to be mentally sharp, physically energetic, and metabolically efficient for prolonged periods of fasting. If our biologically identical ancestors could fast for three, four, even ten days at a time, we can all certainly handle it for four to six hours after we wake up.
You’ll be amazed how easy it becomes to go about your day fasted. In fact, many people actually claim to be more productive when they fast than when they eat throughout the day. On top that, eating after a productive day of fasting proves to be extremely satisfying. There are tons of other benefits to intermittent fasting, but first let’s take a look at the most popular protocols so you can start to think about tailoring your own protocol.
Popular Intermittent Fasting Protocols
The Eating Window
Perhaps the simplest protocol for achieving an alternation between a fasting and feeding phase is the “Eating Window” approach. The concept here is that you pick a window of time during your day in which you consume all of your calories and you fast for the remaining hours of the day. The most common is an 8 hour eating window, which leaves the remaining 16 hours of your day as your fasting phase. However, you can choose a longer or shorter eating window as you see fit. The important thing is to limit your eating to a specific window of time during the day and fast for the remainder. This will ensure that you’re harnessing the power of fasting and the potentiation effect it has on dietary satisfaction.
A sample schedule for someone following the eating window approach looks like this: Let’s say you pick a 6 hour eating window that starts at 3pm. So you wake up at say, 8am, and you go about your day without eating until 3pm. You break your fast at 2pm and get all of your daily calories in before 9pm. Then you go to bed, wake up and repeat. The eating window can be made longer, shorter, earlier in the day or later in the day.
The beauty of this approach is that you get to eat a lot during the eating window. Since you have to hit your calorie target in such a condensed window, you can get away with eating more calorically dense foods and bigger meals during the eating window. This makes eating, even at a deficit, very enjoyable and satisfying. If you’re worried about being overly hungry or grumpy in the morning, skip ahead and take a look at the next sections of this article before you read about the other, popular approaches.
The Warrior Diet
Pioneered by Ori Hofmekler, the Warrior Diet is a twist on the simple principle of intermittent fasting. The Warrior Diet stresses keeping calories low during the earlier, active part of the day so that there’s a necessity for compensation at the end of the day. Unlike other protocols, the Warrior Diet does allow for eating during the underfeeding phase. However, there’s an emphasis on eating only easily digestible foods during this phase. These foods include: yogurt, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and protein shakes. As the nighttime approaches, it’s time to break the fast. The Warrior Diet emphasizes eating one or two massive meals to meet your calorie requirements for the day. Hofmekler suggests eating a large portion of vegetables first, then proceeding to more starchy carbohydrates and then to meats or protein.
Regardless of whether or not our warrior ancestors ate like this, eating light during the day and heavy at night is a great way to compliment an active lifestyle. Going about the day without being bogged down by digesting large meals allows for a more energetic day. After your energetic day, you compensate for your activity by going into “rest and digest” mode when you break your fast. Like the eating window, you can get away with eating big meals of calorically dense foods when you break your fast. This will obviously make eating more enjoyable, even at a deficit.
The Warrior Diet is perfect for the active person who doesn’t like to completely fast but can get away with only having a few small snacks during the day. If it sounds like the Warrior Diet is for you, check it out on Hofmekler’s website.
Eat, Stop, Eat/Alternate Day Fasting
These two methods are very similar. They’re perfect for the person who likes to go hard. Eat, Stop, Eat is simply incorporating one or two longer fasts into your week. The most common implementation of this protocol is to do a full 24 or 36-hour fast one or two times per week. After the fast, you go back to eating normally. Taking these “breaks from eating” will put you in a deeper caloric deficit by the end of the week. Likewise, the fasted state can prove very enjoyable and add some much needed variety for the determined dieter.
Alternate Day Fasting on the other hand, is a more manageable way to get some variety in your diet. This method requires the alternation between a higher calorie day and a lower calorie day. For example, if your daily calorie target to lose weight is 2200 calories, an Alternate Day Fasting protocol would take the two-day total of 4400 calories and split them up unevenly over two days. That could be 3000 calories one day, and 1400 calories the next. Again, those are just examples. As long as you’re maintaining a calorie deficit, you can spread those calories over your days as you please. Just remember, you’re always looking for an enjoyable way to maintain a calorie deficit.
My Approach: Skipping Breakfast and Staying Flexible
Over the years, I’ve found that a strategic combination of the approaches above is the best for me. With an emphasis on ditching dogma and sustainability, I’ve adopted a more flexible approach. By listening to my body and avoiding the strict guidelines that some protocols call for, I’m able to stay happy and satisfied with my diet, even while restricting calories. Hopefully seeing how I’ve made the principles of intermittent fasting fit into my lifestyle will spark your creative side as you work to build an enjoyable lifestyle that supports fat loss. The principles remain the same and boil down to the following:
· Delay The First Meal and Be Productive
· Use Tricks to Prolong The Fast
· Break The Fast and Relax
Here’s a quick rundown of what a day of eating looks like for me:
I wake up around 8:00am; I wash my face, brush my teeth, and get my backpack ready to go to the library, class or work. I drink at least 16oz of water right when I wake just to put something in my stomach and stay hydrated. About an hour after I wake up, I’ll have a cup of black coffee. No sugar, no cream, no milk, nothing, just black coffee. The coffee does two things. First, it blunts my hunger and gets me going with my day without thinking about eating, and second, the stimulant effect compliments the fasted state of mental clarity so I can be extremely productive in the morning. After a couple hours of getting work done, I implement trick number two for blunting hunger; I drink sparkling water. Again, zero calories, just sparkling water. The carbonation helps sooth my stomach and keeps being in the fasted state very pleasant as the afternoon hours approach.
In the afternoon I start feeling genuinely hungry. It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve adjusted to intermittent fasting, it’ll be easy to discern the feeling of genuine hunger from the benign, morning stomach grumbles. Usually around 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’ll break my fast with a piece of fruit. This is another trick to prolong the fasting period. The genuine feeling of hunger you’ll experience about four or five hours into fasting is the result of your liver’s glycogen stores being depleted. I’ll go into more detail in a minute, but the piece of fruit allows for a quick refill of that liver glycogen that’ll give you a few more hours of comfort before your first real meal.
After my piece of fruit, I usually go work out. Whether it’s a lifting day, a cardio day, or just a recovery/mobility day, I’ll spend somewhere between one and two hours at the gym. Yes, I workout fasted. After my workout is when the fun starts. Around 5 or 6pm I’ll have my first real meal. I like to start with a big salad with some type of meat on it. By the time I finish that meal, I’m at around 700 calories of total intake and it’s already almost 7pm. While that meal is being digested, I feel my parasympathetic nervous system kicking in as I’m put into a more relaxed, and happy mental state. After a couple more hours, usually around 9pm, I’ll go out to eat with some friends. I’ll eat a huge meal of anywhere between 1000 and 1500 calories. I make sure that this meal is satisfying on multiple levels. I always get a portion of starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, or even French fries with a decent serving of protein (usually meat) and a moderate amount of fat to create the perfect taste experience.
After this relaxing meal with my friends, we’ll either hang out for a little while or I’ll go back to my place to get ready for the next day. Once I have everything squared away and I’m ready to go to bed, I’ll have my last meal of the day. I love chocolate and ice cream, so I’ll have some yogurt or a protein bar and then a chocolate bar, some ice cream, or even both. That leaves me feeling full, relaxed, happy, and most importantly, completely satisfied after eating less than 2500 calories.
Tricks For Comfortably Prolonging the Fast
· Use Coffee/Caffeine Strategically: Caffeine is well known for it’s appetite suppressing and stimulant qualities. Drinking caffeine during your fast will blunt your hunger, give you an energy boost and mimic the comforting routine of having breakfast. I find that I look forward to my first cup of coffee in a very similar to how I used to look forward to breakfast when I’d have breakfast every morning. Just remember, the whole point of fasting is to delay your calorie intake for later in the day so you shouldn’t be adding anything overly caloric to your coffee. If you’re not a coffee person, other sources of caffeine are perfectly acceptable as long as they don’t contain calories.
· Drink Sparkling Water: The carbonation of the sparkling water will soothe the stomach grumbles that can accompany the fasted state. Likewise, the fizziness will activate some of those stretch receptors on your stomach to send a signal to your hypothalamus that you’re full. Just like the coffee, zero calories is the goal here. I like to drink lemon Perrier, but there are plenty of other great options.
· Chew Gum: The simple act of chewing actually stimulates the secretion of stomach soothing fluids. By chewing gum, you temporarily trick your body into thinking that you’re eating so it preps the stomach for the food it thinks you’re about to swallow. Chewing gum is another way to sooth the stomach grumbles and to keep food cravings at bay.
· Use Fruit to Refill Liver Glycogen: Our bodies have two primary ways to store and use energy. The preferred method is by converting glucose into a glycogen, a starchy, storage form of carbohydrates that can be stored in your liver and muscle tissue. Your liver glycogen stores start running low about four to six hours into wakeful fasting. This triggers an intense and genuine hunger signal because your body desperately wants more glucose to use as fuel. You can tame that hunger by eating a piece of fruit. Fruits are rich in simple sugars that your body will immediately use to refill its liver glycogen stores. The result is another couple hours of comfortable fasting without the return of intense hunger.
Intermittent Fasting: The Benefits
First and foremost, remember that the best diet is one you can stick to. Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at why people who are easily bored or frustrated with dieting really enjoy intermittent fasting.
Benefit 1: Eating at a deficit becomes more enjoyable
It’s simple, if you’re not eating until later in the day, say your first meal is at 3pm, you only have time for 1 or 2 big meals and a couple of snacks. It’s very easy (and satisfying) to stay under your calorie limit with those parameters. For example, let’s say you wait until 3pm to eat your first meal and you need to stay within a 2000-calorie limit to maintain weight loss. You could choose to break your fast with a smaller, lets say 500 calorie meal, then eat a huge dinner of 1200 calories and you’d still have room for a 300 calorie snack before bed. By allowing yourself to eat big, satisfying meals on a daily basis, you’ll find that maintaining a calorie deficit can be extremely enjoyable.
Benefit 2: Enhanced Alertness and Fat Burning In The Fasted State
It seems counterintuitive, but when while you’re fasting, you’ll find yourself in the energetic, mentally clear, and metabolically efficient fasted state. This energetic state of clarity is perfect for getting work done, running errands, and even most types of exercise. Let’s take a look at how this works:
In the morning, increasing concentrations of the hormone cortisol prompt you to transition from sleep to wakefulness. Cortisol concentrations peak early in the day as you’re waking up and slowly taper off as the day goes on. Increased cortisol concentrations are associated with alertness, energy, and metabolic efficiency. Cortisol is classified as a catabolic hormone, which means that it’s involved in processes that break down stored energy in the body. White adipose tissue, or body fat, is one of those energy stores. So, during the morning hours of the day, cortisol keeps your body primed to get its energy from energy stores, not food.
The fasted state also promotes activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This activation manifests itself in the increased activity of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is associated with attention, alertness, and physical stimulation. In fact, the amphetamine class of drugs, commonly known by brand names like Adderall, stimulates increased concentrations of norepinephrine and another neurotransmitter, dopamine, to enhance attention and cognition in patients with ADHD. This norepinephrine-induced state of alertness is what will keep you amazingly productive and energized during the fasted part of your day. Like cortisol, Increased levels of norepinephrine have also been shown to increase energy expenditure by stimulating the mobilization of fat stores via noradrenergic Beta-receptors. Norepinephrine is also commonly called noradrenaline and the Beta class of noradrenergic receptors is one of the primary receptor types expressed on adipose tissue, or fat.
By taking advantage of elevated cortisol levels and enhancing norepinephrine release by prolonging the fasted state, you create the perfect neurochemical profile for a productive morning full of energy while you’re burning that stubborn body fat.
Benefit 3: Getting in Touch With Your True Hunger
Fasting will inevitably put you face to face with true, physiological hunger. Being able to differentiate between this genuine drive to eat and the all too common desire to eat will be extremely useful for shaping healthy eating behavior. Ultimately, learning to discern hunger from appetite will help shape eating habits that compliment your body’s demand for nutrients.
Benefit 4: Insulin Sensitivity and Enhanced Growth Hormone Activity
A prolonged fasted phase has been shown to potentiate the response of the feeding phase. This means that fasting primes your body’s systems to use the food you give it when you break your fast. The insulin system is one such system. As you may know, insulin is released in response to the increased blood sugar concentrations that immediately follow eating food, specifically carbohydrates. When insulin is released from your pancreas, it acts on muscle cells, liver cells, and fat cells to make them able to take up glucose from the blood in order to bring blood sugar levels back down.
Insulin release has actually been shown to stop the activity of growth hormone. So keeping your bloodstream clear of insulin for hours on end by fasting dramatically increase growth hormone levels throughout the day. This increase in growth hormone insures that your muscle tissue is preserved during the fast. Likewise, insulin’s storage promoting properties also make fat burning impossible while high insulin concentrations are present in the blood. This means that the standard method of eating multiple meals over the entire day will prevent maximum fat burning. On the other hand, fasting keeps your blood clear of insulin for a majority of the day, which both enhances fat burning, and promotes growth hormone activity.
Piecing Together An Enjoyable Weight Loss Protocol
Now that you can see the individual “blocks” that make up the “tower of intermittent fasting”, I encourage you to take a look at your current lifestyle and see if there are any holes where those bricks might fit. You can choose to eat less during the day to save up for a more enjoyable meal at the end of the day. You can skip breakfast to take advantage of a short fast until lunch. Or you can go all in and try one of the popular protocols from this article.
Regardless of what you choose to do going forward, be mindful of how your current routine is treating you. The more aware you are of how your habits affect you, the more you’ll be able to find creative solutions to the problems that are holding you back from your goals. If nothing else, remember that your body is more resilient than you think and this resilience opens the door for unconventional approaches. Don’t be afraid to do it different, especially when conventional approaches have already failed.
Written By: Evan Shaulson
If you have further questions about intermittent fasting or the other unconventional approaches touched on here, check out my article "Intermittent Fasting: Frequently Asked Questions"
If you want to learn about the biology of fasting and get down with the nitty gritty details, check out my Comprehensive Guide to Intermittent Fasting article