Wrap-up, Results, and Lessons On Self-Experimentation
About 6 months from the start of my IF journey, after my last round of 16/8 fasts, I wrapped up these experiments, considering them a success. For a quick visual recap of what I did (and when), see the following timeline:
I consider this project a success because I accomplished the following:
- I lost 20 lb: I dropped my body weight from 190 pounds to 170 pounds.
- I lost 6% body fat: I dropped my body fat % from 10% to 4% (as measured via ultrasound device).
- I lost minimal lean mass.
- I maintained my weight in the 170-175 pound range for almost 4 months.
- I found at least two different IF protocols that I could probably follow indefinitely – the one day per week fast and the 16/8 fasting.
In the end, this is pretty cool because the only mid-term body weight and nutrition goals I have left to accomplish are to:
- Refine my eating approach to accommodate my upcoming track workouts
- Maintain my current body weight indefinitely
For those of you who prefer visuals, here are some before and after photos, documenting the changes I made:
In addition, here’s my before and after blood work (the most significant changes have been bolded):
There weren’t large changes in my blood work, and I certainly didn’t get dramatically “healthier” by following the IF protocols. However, there were some alterations worth mentioning.
As you can see in the table above, my total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides all increased. While some might suggest this is a result of the high meat and high fat/low carb intake – and that this increase is a problem – many well informed physicians and physiologists would suggest otherwise. Well-respected naturopathic physician, Dr. Bryan Walsh, suggests that increased cholesterol levels – within certain limits – can actually be an indicator of better health; especially when the cholesterol/HDL ratios are lowered and the triglyceride/HDL ratios decrease, as they both did during my experiments. In his words: “When it comes to blood lipids, I’d much rather have those after results than the before results.”
Red and White Blood Cells
Moving in the opposite direction of my cholesterol levels, significant decreases in my haemoglobin, red blood cell, white blood cell, and platelet counts were observed. While this may indicate a nutrient deficiency (not good), it also could indicate a decrease in bone marrow cell production (due to the negative energy balance and the intermittent fasting) or even an increase in the efficiency of these cell lines (which could actually be a good thing). Again, after talking with Dr. Walsh, we concluded that my chronic negative energy balance probably lead to the decrease in cell production at the bone level. This probably contributed to some of the fatigue I experienced during my experiments. I’d be interested in measuring these values again after a few months of weight stability, a bit higher training volume, and a few more calories. Perhaps these will come back to my pre-testing values.
Thyroid Hormone and Testosterone
Both thyroid hormones and testosterone are sensitive to energy balance. In other words, when energy balance is negative, these tend to drop. Therefore, I expected this small decrease in hormone levels. However, I’m not worried about the reductions since they’re very small. In studies with more extreme energy deficits, testosterone and thyroid hormone levels drop to well below the reference range values. Since mine saw only small decreases, I didn’t suffer any testosterone or thyroid related problems, and I ended up preserving most of my muscle mass and strength while getting extremely lean. I’d say these drops aren’t anything to worry about. To the contrary, according to Dr Walsh, with intermittent fasting, these reduced values could mean that I was becoming more efficient at using these hormones, reducing my requirement for their production. While this is pure speculation, there may be some merit to the idea. In fact, if intermittent fasting does contribute to increased lifespan/longevity, this potential increase in physiological efficiency may contribute to the effect.
At this point you’re probably wondering what’s next for me. Will I continue intermittent fasting? Will I go back to more frequent meals? Will I try something else altogether? Although I can’t say what I’ll be doing a few months from now – outcome-based decision making will determine that – here are some of the important ideas I’ll carry with me.
I’ll increase my calorie intake when track workouts begin.
Adding track workouts to my training schedule will change things quite a bit. Even though I’ll be starting off slowly with only 1-2 sessions per week, I’ll be burning quite a few more calories each week. I’ll need more recovery, because of the demand that track work puts on my central nervous system. So I’ll definitely need to increase my food intake while incorporating additional recovery techniques. I’m not sure yet how many calories I’ll add. That’s where more self-experimentation will come into play.
I’ll keep calorie/carb cycling.
Calorie and carb cycling is something I’ve done for a long time. In fact, I think most exercisers, regardless of their goals, should use some method of nutrient cycling. So I’ll continue eating more food (by increasing the carbs) 2-3 times per week after my hardest workouts and less food (by keeping carbs low) the other 4-5 days of the week. Protein will stay high throughout. I’m not sure yet how many days I’ll “carb up.” Again, I’ll play around with a few different options and then make my decisions based on measured outcomes.
I’ll eat more food immediately after hard workouts and less food as the workout gets further away.
Nutrient timing – eating my largest meals after exercise – is something I’ve tried to do for a long time. However, I will say that this experiment forced me to get even better at it, and I think it made a difference. I’m going to be very conscientious about eating my biggest meal of each day post-exercise, regardless of when that workout occurs, and decreasing the size of my meals the further I get from a workout. This includes keeping any pre-workout meals I might eat small.
I’ll stick with a whole food approach, limiting bars, shakes, and workout drinks.
Eating mostly whole, unprocessed food has always been high on my list of nutritional priorities. However, I must admit, there are times where I get supplement-crazy and allow too many “bars,” “shakes,” and “workout drinks” to displace real food choices. For some of my hard-training Olympic and professional athletes, who train with high volume and intensity, these meal substitutes help them meet their energy needs or boost recovery. But neither I, nor most of my clients, need them. Eating plenty of meat, veggies, and high quality carbs – along with a few simple supplements like vitamin D, a multi-vitamin, BCAAs, and some fish oil – is good enough. So that’s probably what I’ll stick with from now on.
I’ll eat breakfast on some days, but not others.
These experiments taught me that any meal is negotiable. I skipped all kinds of meals – breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks – during these last 6 months. And as long as I didn’t pig out during my next meal and controlled my energy intake for the entire day, I didn’t notice a big difference. Now I no longer believe that skipping a meal can have disastrous consequences. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to swing in the opposite direction and always skip meals. I’ll probably eat breakfast some days and skip it on other days. I’ll probably choose based on how hungry I am, what activity I did the day before, and what my body weight has been doing for the last day or two. More fun with experimentation.
I’ll keep training around noon – sometimes fasted, sometimes not.
In the past, I trained every evening after work. I’ve grown to prefer training around noon. It breaks up my work day nicely. I’ll probably keep that up. On the days I skip breakfast, I’ll probably train in a fasted state. And on days I eat breakfast, I won’t. Again, I’ll use hunger, what I did the day before, and my current body weight to help me decide whether to train fasted.
I’ll fast for a full day occasionally.
When it’s a rigid thing I have to do every Sunday, I don’t love fasting all day. However, when it’s an occasional thing, it’s no problem. So, I’ll probably throw in a few full-day fasts each month, but they’ll likely be random and unscheduled. Maybe I’ll do one when I’m traveling all day. Or maybe I’ll do one when I’m working on a project and don’t want to be bothered to eat. Maybe I’ll do one if I see my body weight creeping up. I’m not sure yet how I’ll decide, but I’ll experiment with a few options and see what works out best.
I’ll keep weighing myself daily.
Some people use the scale as a judge of their past decisions, which is why they’re intimidated by it, and why it causes such crises of self-esteem. I don’t use my scale that way. In fact, I loved weighing in every day during these experiments because my scale doesn’t judge my past actions. Instead, it informs my future ones. Every day my scale gives me important information about what to do next. That’s why I’ll keep weighing in every day. Body weight measures help me make key decisions about my food intake and training. (Note: the scale works for me because body weight manipulation is an important goal of mine right now. Over time, body weight is a reflection of energy balance. However, if your goals are different from mine, you should choose different measures that better reflect what you want to accomplish.)
I’ll keep controlling my appetite with particular food choices.
Although body weight is largely determined by calorie balance, I learned that my food choices strongly affect my appetite and cravings. If I fill up on proteins, large portions of veggies, legumes, and mixed nuts, I’m satisfied for hours and eat less each day. If I drink a protein shake or eat a protein bar, I’m hungry within an hour and tend to eat a little more during later meals. And if I eat fast food, I’m craving more within minutes and the day gets rough. Thus, I’ll continue to eat lean proteins, healthy fats, veggies, legumes, and unprocessed carbs most of the time. When my appetite is under control, I’m less likely to overeat. That means I’ll control my intake and body weight better.
I’ll keep writing down what I eat.
Take in more energy than you burn and you gain weight. Burn more energy than you take in and you lose weight. Duh. But finding your own energy balance point can be a pretty tricky thing, especially as your body weight and exercise program change. Although I didn’t try to count calories during my experiment, having a journal helped me notice how much food I was eating day-to-day. This meant that I’d have an actual reference point for eating more, less, or the same amount, based on what my body was doing. It also meant I could occasionally go back and tally up my calorie intake, just for the sake of curiosity.
I’ll turn these experiments into a larger trial.
These experiments have prompted me to do some additional IF experiments with larger numbers of men and women. In fact, as we wrapped this book, we started putting together a well-controlled IF study with 80 clients. To stay-up-to-date on the results of that study and other research we're doing, put your name on our newsletter list on the Summary page.
Intermittent fasting: a success … for me
I’ve become a fan of periodic intermittent fasting, for me. In particular, I liked the weekly fast (coupled with an “eat what I want” day). And I really benefited from the daily fast approach too. For my clients? As always, each person is different. Nutritional age (how much a person knows about nutrition, and how well they can apply that knowledge) plays a huge factor in my recommendations. I wouldn’t give a Level 1 client (who’s just learning the basics) the same advice I’d give to a Level 3 client like myself. (For more on nutritional age, see the references section at the end of the book.) My recommendations also depend heavily on lifestyle. In my own experiments, and in my work with clients, I’ve found that the dieting approaches outlined in this book are more successful when:
- you have a history of monitoring calorie and food intake (i.e. you’ve “dieted” before);
- you’re already an experienced exerciser;
- you’re single or you don’t have children;
- your partner (if you have one) is extremely supportive; and,
- your job allows you to have periods of low performance while you adapt to a new plan.
On the other hand, these programs seem to be much more challenging for those who:
- are new to diet and exercise;
- are married and have children;
- have performance oriented or client-facing jobs; and,
- compete in sport/athletics.
In addition, women seem to fare worse on the stricter forms of intermittent fasting than men do; for women, I recommend beginning with a very relaxed approach to fasting or avoiding it altogether.
IF and adherence
Most IF advocates will suggest that their approach drastically improves adherence. They claim that having few, larger meals per day tends to help them stick to the plan better than having more frequent, smaller meals per day. I won’t dispute that because they’re probably right… for them. On the other hand, I hear a lot of people saying the exact opposite as well; that fasting triggers a binge response, and so on. And they’re probably right too… for them. I suspect, however, that rigid adherence to any schedule – whether it’s a 4 meal per day schedule, a 6 meal per day schedule, a 16-hour fasting/8-hour feeding schedule, or a full day fast every Sunday – is what makes a lot of people drop out of any eating plan. Indeed, whenever you tell folks what they can’t do, they immediately obsess about it. Eventually that obsession becomes an all-out rebellion, leading to a “f*%! this” moment where you flip your diet the bird and soothe your fatigued willpower muscles with ice cream and self-pity. As for me, I’ve gotten great results on dozens of different eating systems over the years, including grazing methods and fasting methods, so I’m happy to consider these IF techniques as simply an interesting addition to my list of “what works.” Nothing more. That’s why with my current goals, I’ll probably keep doing some form of intermittent fasting. However, it’ll be less structured, more random, and driven by outcome-based decision making, rather than rigid adherence to a pre-determined plan. In essence, I’ll be an intermittent faster on some days, a grazer on others, a low carb/high fat eater on some days, and a high carb/low fat eater on others. Of course, what I’m doing isn’t as important as how I’m doing. So I’ll make sure my weekly calorie balance is on track and that my body weight is in check. I’m not sure what this approach makes me or what nutritional camp I fall into. Regardless, I strive to be as open-minded and evidence-based as possible. I do these self-experiments because I want to look, feel, and perform my best. Interestingly, as I get older, my definitions of “best” change as do the techniques I employ to achieve this “best.” I’m also learning that the only way to improve is to try new things, measure what happens when I do, and then change things when they need to be changed.
Self-experimentation: try this at home!
If you haven’t guessed it by now, this book isn’t about what I think you should do with your diet and exercise program. (Although if you read between the lines you’ll probably pick up some great pointers.) Rather, this book is about what I did with my diet and exercise program over the last few months. If you want to know where to start, I recommend you check out the free 5-day courses I link to in the resources section at the end of this book. They’ll give you a great baseline of habits to follow. But even these habits aren’t immutable. They’re a great foundation for improving your body weight, body composition, health, and energy levels, but you’ll eventually want to experiment on yourself. I wholly support that. I’ve found self-experiments to be great for many reasons. For instance:
Self-experiments inspire action.
Self-experiments get you started now. Instead of action-less reading, theorizing, and debating – which can paralyze even the best of us – you can try new things right away, as soon as you learn about them or they occur to you. If they work, that’s great. You just added another effective strategy to your approach. If they don’t work, that’s great too. Not only did you eliminate an ineffective strategy, you practiced the most important habit you can develop: your ability to take action.
Self-experiments create self-awareness.
In coaching thousands of clients, I’ve learned that a client’s best friend is self-awareness – paying attention. When people stop paying attention in their lives, they don’t think clearly, act independently, or make positive changes. They become automatons who mindlessly react to life circumstances. Self-awareness and self-control grow through the deliberate process of self-experimentation. These skills can lead to powerful life changes.
Self-experiments give us confidence.
In our culture, we idolize experts. We’re trained to expect them to make important decisions for us. Although this is good sometimes, this also strips us of our power to think and decide. It’s a power we all have, and one that we must practice. By allowing us to make small, low-risk decisions, and to test the results of these decisions, self-experiments turn us into scientists. They turn us into experts on the one thing most important to us: ourselves.
Self-experiments help us start small.
We often make new habits and procedures far too big and, therefore, unsustainable. Then we fail to accomplish important goals. Self-experiments are powerful because they force us to narrow our scope. Scientists design their experiments by changing only one thing at a time, while other variables remain the same. Modelling this behaviour drastically increases the likelihood that we’ll learn something important about ourselves and achieve our goals.
Self-experiments keep us moving forward.
I recently did a survey of my staff, all folks who’ve exercised and eaten well for years. I asked them what helps them keep exercising when people all around them quit. They told me that trying new exercise programs and nutrition ideas is a regular part of their lives. Of course, they’re not just jumping around randomly, changing programs with the prevailing winds. Rather, they use a systematic approach and the best practices of self-experimentation. All across the internet, there’s a self-experimentation movement going on with a few key websites leading the charge. With this movement, budding self-scientists use small single-subject experiments to generate, test, and develop new ideas that might later lead to important scientific discoveries. People are doing one-person sleep experiments, brain imaging experiments, nutrition experiments, acne experiments, and experiments with psychoactive drugs. While that’s all really cool, it’s not exactly what I mean here. Rather, I mean developing a strategy exclusively for you. A strategy that’ll help you gather confidence, gain personal expertise, and find what really works in your life – all the while learning, practicing, taking action, and having fun.
How to do your own self-experiments
How do you do your own self-experiments? The steps are pretty simple.
What do you want to achieve? Do you want to lose body fat? Gain lean mass? Lower your cholesterol? Lift more weight? Have more energy between the hours of 4 PM and 9 PM? Take time to figure out what – exactly – you want to accomplish. (This is easier said than done. While some people say they want to lose weight, that’s not really what they want. Sometimes it takes a little deeper introspection to understand what they truly seek.) If you have a hard time narrowing down your many goals, edit ruthlessly. Figure out your most important one. With my IF experiments, I had several goals, but my most important one was to lose body weight. That’s what I focused on and defined success by.
You’ll need to measure something to know if your experiment is working. You could use an already established measure, or you could make something up. I wanted to lose body weight, so I bought a good, calibrated weigh scale and measured my weight every day. Some other goals might not have such clearly established measures. For example, if you want to improve your energy later in the day, you can’t just drop by the local pharmacy to pick up an “energy scale.” So you’ll have to come up with something on your own. Maybe you could create a 10-point scale with 0 being no energy and 10 being the most energy you’ve ever felt. Then you could rank your energy every day at the same critical time, by placing an X on the area of the scale that best represents how you feel. Regardless of the measure you choose, it’s important to start small and measure as few variables as possible. One or two outcome measures is perfect. Try to track more during the same experiment and you’ll either get overwhelmed or confused.
Now that you have a goal and an established metric, it’s time to collect a little data. I suggest about 2 weeks’ worth. You see, every metric has variability – body weight, intelligence scores, strength, speed, happiness, etc. In other words, if you do 100 measures over 100 days, even without any substantial changes in your life, the measures would vary by a few percent. We can’t always pin down why; they just do. That’s why you’ll need to collect at least 14 days worth of data before testing your first idea. This way you’ll know what your baseline and normal variability is, and you can understand what the day-to-day variations mean during your testing period. In my experiment, I had a suitable baseline because I already measured myself every day and knew the normal day-to-day variability. Thus, I’d know that if larger changes were happening, they were the result of my experiment.
Now, begin testing. Will you try a new dietary supplement? Will you try removing a food from your diet? Will you add a new type of exercise? Whatever you choose, stay with the “power of less” approach and make sure your manipulation is small and simple. I recommend this for a few reasons. First, it’ll help you understand what’s going on. If you try testing four nutritional supplements at once, you won’t be able to draw conclusions about whether any particular supplement is working (or not working). Likewise, if you try an entirely new diet, you won’t know if it’s the change in food type, amount, or schedule that made the difference. Second, a small, simple intervention ensures that you can actually complete the experiment. I hate to keep harping on this, but if you go too big, it’ll probably be more than you can handle, and you’ll quit. So stay small. Change only one variable at a time. And make sure the manipulation you choose is something sure you can do every day. In my experiments, you may recall that I kept my training consistent throughout. On the nutrition side, I typically kept weekly calorie intake the same, manipulating only one variable – when I fasted.
For the same reasons you collected two weeks’ worth of baseline information, follow your new plan for at least two weeks. That’s often enough to give your program a chance to produce a measurable result. Further, it’ll help you stick to the program even when the day-to-day variability starts freaking you out. To illustrate my point, here’s a sample 2-week block of body weight data from one phase of my experiments:
Notice that the two week trend indicates successful weight loss. (Remember, my reference day was Friday.) However, if you just looked at the day-to-day variation, you wouldn’t know if the protocol was working. As an example, check out week 1. It looks like I’m losing weight in a nice, steady way and then on Friday and Sunday my weight jumps, with Sunday’s weight being higher than at the start of the week. Pretty much the same for week two. Of course, if I didn’t understand how day-to-day variability worked I might have panicked, and perhaps done something drastic. Fortunately, I had the data and simply kept going. Follow your plan despite the ups and downs you’ll see in your measurement data. In other words, don’t freak out. If your two week data show that you’re moving in the right direction, even if the changes are small, that’s great news.
If what you’re doing is working – and by working I mean that you’re moving in the direction of your goals – simply keep doing it. Even if it “feels slow.” When you’re chasing an important goal, it always feels slow, and you’ll always consider trying something more drastic. Don’t do it. You’ll either get physically or mentally overwhelmed and either one will lead to a crash. In my very first fasting experiment, the program consistently brought me in the direction of my goals, so I kept doing it – for four blocks of two weeks each. You’ll notice the same pattern throughout. If the program was working, I kept going.
If after two weeks the plan doesn’t lead to any positive changes or, worse yet, produced negative changes, it’s time to try something new. But don’t forget the rules. Make sure the change is small, that you keep the other variables consistent, and that you choose something you’re sure you can do every day. Again, using my experiments as an example, I ended my first fasting experiment, planning something new, after two weeks of no additional weight loss. You’ll notice the same pattern throughout. If I didn’t move toward my goals – or I moved away from them – I made a change.
If you're feeling intimidated by the process, at any time, work with a coach. An experienced coach will be able to help you better set goals, decide upon metrics, and evaluate your results. This effectively turns "self-experimentation" into "guided experimentation," something many of us need from time to time.
This process is awesome because it’s based on the outcomes most important to you – your own data. You can use it to continually learn new things about yourself. There’s always a next step and never a dead end, since there are thousands of manipulations you can try. I reached my body weight goals through the process outlined in this book. However, things are about to change. I’ll be adding more training, and I’ll need to manipulate my diet to accommodate this. In addition, I’ll still be experimenting to find the perfect balance of body weight, calorie intake, and body fat to help me feel my best while staying lean and in the 170 pound weight range. Dozens of self-experiments right there. I can’t wait. This is a simple, powerful process. Apply it to all aspects of your life (one small piece at a time), and you’ll accomplish amazing things. But beyond the results, you’ll start feeling in control – of your decisions and your ability to revise and refine your own life. As Jews often say to one another before Yom Kippur, tzom kal: May you have an easy fast.