I started incorporating fasting about a year ago into my weekly health and fitness program. I had done a number of extended fasts over the years but the logic and practicality always escaped me. You would fast in order to cleanse and detoxify but then what happens? Invariably most people would go back to the same habits until the next New Years resolution or some other new fasting fad comes along.
I wanted to incorporate fasting in a manner that would provide consistent and proven health benefits in a practical way that was also sustainable; so that’s how I started practicing what is called “Intermittent Fasting” (IF).
For me the initial reasons I started IF reasons were fivefold:
- I have a genetic disposition to prostate cancer;
- I have a similar genetic predisposition to type II diabetes, so I needed to manage my blood sugar levels and keep them in a normal range;
- I’ve had high grade PIN (prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia) for the last 12 years, which studies show can progress to prostate cancer in 30% of men;
- I wanted something to help control IGF-1 (insulin growth factor 1), which is a marker for prostate cancer, aggressive prostate cancer progression, and other metabolic disease; and
- I have a genetic disposition to inflammatory disorders so managing inflammation is a key part of my exercise, lifestyle, and nutritional program. If you’ve read my book you’ll know that inflammation has had me in a coma with Encephalitis, nearly cost me my left leg with Osteomyelitis, and nearly killed me with chronic Pericarditis. See a theme here? “..itis = inflammation” – and inflammation is bad.
I was also fascinated with the anti-cancer benefits of fasting; especially through denying cancer cells one of the key ingredients they need for surviving and thriving – sugar. If you are interested in this, you can learn more watching William Li’s TED talk which has over 4 million views.
Through Dr. Li’s talks and other research I became convinced that if you were at risk for prostate or other cancers, then IF should be a fundamental part of a nutritional and cancer prevention program.
Fasting for me has nothing to do with weight loss. In fact that’s the least of the benefits I’m personally looking for – although fasting does have weight management benefits by activating fat burning over carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel/energy. Leptin, the hormone that regulates fat storage as well as hunger signals, and ghrelin, another hormone that tells your brain the body is hungry, are also normalized by routine fasting, so that’s an additional benefit for those looking to lose weight.
So what is Intermittent Fasting?
IF is nothing revolutionary. It basically involves fasting once or twice a week – on a consistent basis where you don’t eat anything for a defined period (which varies depending on the type of fast).
There are dozens of fasting methods online involving all forms of juicing, cayenne cleanses, detox shakes, lemon drinks – but mine is pretty simple – I don’t eat for 24 hours once or twice a week – from evening meal to evening meal. IF is easier to do on a consistent basis and its health benefits outweigh the extremes of the longer-term fasts that leave you in a completely deflated, irritable, and completely unnourished state.
Hundreds of health studies, clinical studies, and research have been undertaken on the benefits of IF (calorie restriction) including:
- Increased lifespan;
- Lowering bad cholesterol;
- Reduced inflammation;
- Build lean muscle mass while decreasing fat;
- Reduces brain aging;
- Reducing blood pressure;
- Slowing the aging process;
- Naturally increasing Human Growth Hormone (HGH) in men;
- Reducing the risk of chronic disease and stroke;
- Decreasing your risk of cancer;
- Reduced risk of diabetes;
- Positively affecting brain function in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
Contrary to popular opinion IF does not make you skinny, weak, give you brain fog, or reduce your energy or sex drive. To the contrary, after an IF you will feel stronger, think clearer, have more energy, and generally just feel better! This is alongside all the other health benefits listed above!
Professional athletes do IF alongside us normal people looking to get the same health benefits. Hugh Jackman, Michael Strahan, and Terry Crews all do it on a regular basis – and those guys don’t look like they are losing any physical strength or losing their edge right!
In the last 5 years since I’ve been fasting some of the key health benefit for me personally have included:
- My blood sugar has decreased to an average of 90 mg/dl from a previously pre-diabetic level which was consistently above 115 mg/dl (over 100 is considered pre-diabetic);
- My testosterone has naturally increased 36% to ~900 ng/dl which is at the high end for a 20 year old (I’m 54);
- My PSA has stabilized and I have still have no indications that my high grade PIN is progressing to becoming cancerous;
- My body fat is at ~11-12%;
- My C-reactive protein (CRP) and other inflammation markers are down to below normal range.
So with all the positive health benefits why don’t more people do IF?
Well people, we live in America, the land of the super-size! Not eating for a day is akin to asking people to give up their iPhone for a day – or Facebook! We love our food more than any other Nation so why would we not eat? That’s crazy talk! And isn’t fasting just for hippies and “alternative people”?
But in case you ARE inclined to join me and millions of others who are convinced of the proven health benefits of IF here are some tips to help get you through your first (of hopefully many) fasts.
Preparing for your fast
Chose a day that works for you on a consistent basis. For me that’s Tuesdays. It’s generally a less energetic day physically which I use for lighter exercise (active recovery) compared to my other training and exercise days.
More important though is to not build up to your IF day as if you were training for the big event. By this I mean don’t overeat the day before thinking it will get you through your hunger the next day. I know people who have spent the week leading up to a long-term fast gorging themselves on as much food as possible. Don’t be that person. One of the other reasons I do Tuesdays is that it follows “Meatless Mondays” which is always 100% vegetarian in my house. So I have a lighter, more nutritious calorie load the day before that eases me in to the IF on Tuesdays.
You also don’t want to do IF on a day that is going to expose you to too many temptations. It’s hard enough not eating as it is so you don’t want to be surrounded by the office birthday party cake or some other function or social event. Try to be consistent, but of course, be flexible if need be on whatever day you choose that week.
Remember your last meal will be dinner the night before your IF day – and you won’t be eating again until that following evenings meal. Have a light dinner – preferably vegetarian – and try to avoid meat and animal protein (as remember, you are trying to decrease your IGF-1). Eat early in the evening (preferably before 6pm) and try and eat 25% less calories that you would otherwise have at a normal dinner. Oh, and skip the desert – you don’t want to load up on sugar when that’s exactly what you’re trying to manage during the fast.
Doing a fast
You’ve woken up the next morning and you’re already hungry. For me, one of my life mantras is “Always Wake Up Hungry” – hungry for life and for everything that the day brings – so waking up hungry is a good thing right? OK, waking up and actually really being hungry is a little bit different – but you get the drift.
You’ve only got 12 or so hours to go so “stay the course”! When you start feeling hungry my #1 trick is to just drink lots and lots of fluids; which gives me the feeling of fullness. I drink water and detox teas like “EveryDay Detox” but no caffeine or dairy. I also avoid all fruit juice (aka “sugar bombs”) as well as vegetable juices. Keep drinking lots of water and focus your mind on the tasks of the day – not the hungar.
The mental challenge is the hardest part. You need to positively reinforce the benefits of why you are doing IF. This becomes easier as you do more IF’s because you look forward to the benefits that come with the program; including more energy, a feeling of lightness, better mental clarity and more restful sleep. While you’re actually on the fast however this is hard to do and it takes practice. You go through waves of hunger and the trick is to get over these surges and push forward. Remember it’s only a day. Focus on the meal you have waiting for you that evening and the health benefits of IF. Whenever you get the urge to eat, have a cup of tea or drink a lot of water – and get busy – so as to focus your mind on something other than your stomach. Take a light walk or cycle or do some yoga/stretching, but don’t attempt to set a PR on a 10k run or do any other form of vigorous exercise.
Also, don’t take supplements on the day. Most supplements should be taken with food so taking them on an empty stomach could make you nauseous or give you gastric problems. Skip them for a day unless you are on medications in which case always consult with your health care provider.
Try and push the IF as late as you can and don’t use it as an excuse for an “early dinner”. Eat at the same time as you had dinner the previous night and eat light. Don’t have a big chunk of steak or processed foods. You’ve just given your body a one-day reprieve from the processed and manufactured foods that the majority of Americans eat. Think of it as if you were gassing up your imaginary Ferrari at the gas station. Would you put in 87 or 91 octane? Your body is craving highly nutritious foods so don’t load it up with wine and red meat. Also, try and eat 25% less than you normally would. Remember, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register you are full so eat slowly, eat less, and fuel your body with healthy and nutritious foods that your newly pure body craves! And skip the alcohol that evening. Some of the chemicals in wine in particular can give you a headache or other symptoms if you are coming off a fast.
Recovering from your fast
You’ve made it through your fast and it’s the day after. That wasn’t so bad was it? The focus here is very simple – don’t go back to your old habits. And experiment with eating less through the week and on an ongoing basis. As you age, and for men in particular, you lose muscle mass so lean proteins becomes a greater percentage of your daily calories. But don’t go gorging down red meat. Animal proteins can take days to digest so you don’t want to overload your digestive system. Start to think “light and clean” – less food, more vegetables, and more plant proteins and fish, which is high in omega-3. If you have to eat animal protein, make sure it’s always organic with no hormones.
Like me, I hope you’ll come to look forward to your IF. It’s never easy but it does get easier – and more so as you start to feel the health benefits of the program. At the end of the day, all these diets, programs and books are all selling you on the same thing – losing weight. But the key is how you ultimately feel. Do you feel lighter, healthier? Is your eyesight better? Do you have more mental clarity and are able to sleep better at night? And is it preventing or promoting disease? Losing weight is a small part of doing IF but it’s not a weight loss program. It’s a lifestyle program to help you feel better and help prevent chronic disease. And that’s worth a day a week any day of the week for me.
You can read more about staying strong and healthy in middle age in my book: “Your New Prime: 30 Days to Better Sex, Eternal Strength, and a Kick-Ass Life After 40“
And remember, I’m not a doctor, and the usual medical disclaimer applies – so if you have any questions or health concerns please discuss with your health professional before starting an IF program.