The Twice-Weekly Fast: When Things Go Horribly Wrong
My first fasting experiment was a relative success, but at the 8-week mark, my fat/weight loss progress slowed down. I itched to try something new.
With a few very small modifications to my exercise plan (like spending an extra 30 minutes in the gym per week) or a few changes to my daily intake (like dropping my calories to 2,300 per day), I'm sure I could have continued with the current plan, losing about a pound of body weight per week right up until I reached my goal.
In fact, that would have been the right thing to do.
(It's certainly what I would have recommended to a client. I tell my clients that the best next step when hitting a fat-loss plateau is to make the smallest possible improvement.)
Yet I was in full-blown self-experimentation mode and feeling a little extreme. So I threw caution to the wind, skipped my own advice, and did something a little more aggressive.
I added an extra day of fasting.
For this next phase, I decided to fast both on Sundays and on Wednesdays. It certainly sounded like a good idea at the time.
Experiment 2: the Twice-Weekly Fast
Here's what the new approach looked like:
To make sure I was doing a decent job experimentally, I kept my exercise program the same (although I was using a progression model – working a little harder, but not longer – each week in the gym), and I kept the eating rules and meals fairly constant. The only real difference was the extra day of fasting.
The logic here was that since I had lost body weight and my weight loss was actually slowing, my body was reaching a lower energy balance point. (When you lose weight, your total daily calorie needs drop because you're lighter.)
If this were true, the additional fasting day would give me a new calorie deficit of about 2500 calories per week (or roughly 350 calories per day when averaged out). This, I figured, would kick-start additional fat loss.
What a great lesson in what not to do! Within two weeks of my new experiment, my morning weight had plummeted from 178 pounds to 171, with an estimated 4 additional pounds of fat lost… but 3 pounds of lean mass lost.
Yes, my plan worked… kind of. I was still losing weight and fat. But now I was feeling small and weak, losing too much weight too fast. People even started commenting on how “drawn and depleted” I was looking, especially in my face.
Worse yet, I was feeling really low in energy – much worse than during my historical fat loss approach. Training was becoming a struggle. Heck, getting off the couch was becoming a struggle, especially later in the day.
Of course, all these “side effects” are well-explained by science. But I didn't care. Research papers weren't making me feel any better when I had to peel my butt off the couch to take my daughter to the park.
Another major problem: I was becoming obsessively preoccupied by high fat, high sugar food. In fact, food was all I could think about. On my “eat what I want days” I went crazy and no longer ate what I wanted. Instead, I binged, made myself sick, and generally felt terrible.
Note from Krista: Do less
I had a similar experience to JB when I combined more frequent IF with heavy training for several months – another thing not to do.
In particular, people commented on how awful my face looked. (Thanks, guys.) I was lean (about 15%), but still a normal weight (110 lb at 5'0”). Family members worried that I had a terminal disease. One person even told me I looked like a prison camp inmate. Not exactly the look most us are striving for.
When it comes to fasting, do just enough to meet your goals. And maybe even a little bit less than you think you “need.” Don't overshoot your body's capacity to recover, unless you want to look (and feel) like the proverbial Death sucking on a cracker. More on that below.
The Twice-Weekly Fast, 2.0
Obviously, something had to change. I was still committed to the 2-day-a-week thing, so I decided to do an emergency revision. To help bump up my weekly calorie average, and to feed the crazy food-obsessed monster raging inside me, I added another “eat what I want day.”
Here's what the new plan looked like:
Fortunately, this revision turned things around.
Within 2 weeks, my weight stabilized at 171-172 pounds on my reference day, and I felt a little better. But my body was all over the place. After my higher calorie days I would weigh in at a full and bloated 177-178 pounds. After my fasting days I'd weigh in at a leaner but flat-looking 168-169 pounds.
I didn't like how I looked or felt with these sorts of weight fluctuations. And I was still preoccupied with food. It wasn't quite as bad as I felt during the previous two weeks, but I was still counting down the minutes to my high-calorie days. And when those days arrived, I would waste most of them thinking about and searching for high-calorie meals. My daughter loved the trips to Dairy Queen, but I wasn't having fun anymore.
So what do I think of twice-per-week fasting? Not productive. Not mentally healthy. Not for me.
I'm sure I could have tried additional tweaks to my non-fasting days, but after a month of experimenting, it was time for something new.
Note from Krista: Food cravings and obsessions
In 2008, I sent JB a sheepish email: Ever heard of fat cravings? Like, not fat plus carbs… but pure fat?
At the time, he hadn't, but he helpfully pointed me to some studies. What I didn't tell him then was that I was bingeing on straight-up fat like a woman possessed, spooning nut butter out of the jar like it was a bowl of soup. My body wanted fat – butter, nuts, cream, olive oil… heck, even beef tallow was looking good.
Later, I suspect JB got up close and personal with the wacky food cravings and binge eating that can accompany over-zealous fasting combined with low calories and intense training. In my case, I'd been training hard in BJJ and Olympic weightlifting, using IF to help cut weight for competitions and trying to stay lean.
My body's revenge for this foolishness was swift and decisive: Plop into the butter dish. Inhale 10,000 calories.
I tried harder. Fasted more often. Fasted longer. Which ended in more, and more epic, binges.
My first thought every morning, after I woke from a fitful, hormone-disrupted sleep at 4 am when my body dumped adrenaline into the system to free up blood sugar because cortisol wasn't working any more, was: How can I eat… or not eat… today?
Repeat until insane.
If you're considering IF as part of a fat loss program, use it wisely.
If strong food cravings and binge behaviours appear repeatedly (especially if you are using IF to compensate for binges, or as a means to control and restrict your food intake), treat them as a signal from your body. Pay attention.
The Twice-Weekly Fast: lessons learned
With another month under my belt – three months in and 18-19 pounds lost – what did I learn?
First, I can skip eating one day per week, compensating for the fasting with a higher calorie day and do pretty well as long as I didn't train on the fasting day and as long as I was mindful with friends and family.
However, under the same conditions, when I add another day of fasting, I lose weight much too quickly and feel terrible. Even if I try to compensate for the extra fasting day with another higher calorie day, my weight stabilizes, but something still feels terribly wrong.
So let this be a cautionary tale: Do as I say, not as I did. (I've learned my lesson.)
If your program has stopped working, make the smallest possible change that's likely to get you a measurable result.
Don't jump ship and try something radical or drastically different.
Note from Krista: More what NOT to do
This is generally a manual about what you should do, rather than what you shouldn't. However, our experiments demonstrate some clear rules about what not to do, which are worth sharing.
- If some is good, more is not better.
Whether cure or poison, the magic is in the dose. Remember that fasting is a physiological stress. Keep it short, manageable, and intermittent.
- Consider your overall stress load.
If you're dealing with a sick child, a demanding job, poor sleep, travel, etc., do not add extensive fasting to this list. Stress includes training.
- Do not train too much or too hard on a regular fasting program, especially if you are also cutting calories.
“Too much” will depend on you, but I'd say a good general guideline would be:
- no more than 3-4 hours a week of heavier resistance training
- no more than 2-3 weekly – and brief – sessions of metabolic conditioning (i.e. intervals, high-intensity cardio, circuit training)
- no more than 1-2 hours a week of moderate intensity cardio (if any)
Endurance athletes, get real about your mileage. I was cycling and running several hours a week, often while fasted. And hardcore Crossfitters, I'm looking at you too. You know you love to push those body boundaries and finish your workouts with the puke bucket.
I thought I was “getting fit” and being a badass. I was being stupid, and doing everything I'd tell clients not to do. (Apparently JB and I have the same problem.)
Whether it's total training time or intensity, overdoing it combined with fasting is a very, very bad idea. My experimental findings were painfully clear: Don't do this.
- However, low-intensity “rambling”-type exercise pairs nicely with IF.
Our ancestors didn't kill themselves with tough training sessions. In fact, they wanted to do the opposite: conserve valuable energy and stay uninjured as long as possible. Most of their “exercise” was simply low-intensity “rambling,” such as walking, which goes perfectly with fasting.
If you're looking for fat loss and overall health, try reducing your high-intensity training and adding more daily-life “rambling”-type movement.
Also, my experience may highlight the risk of restricting calories too much when exercising regularly and intensely.
If I wasn't exercising regularly, two days of fasting might have worked perfectly. However, with this fairly intense exercise effort, the stress of the exercise, plus the calorie restriction, it all may have been too much. Of course, this is just speculation.
Note from Krista: Hormonal Health
Had JB peeked inside his body during this twice-weekly fasting experiment, he might have found that his sex hormone production – e.g. his testosterone, DHEA, LH/FSH, etc. – was going down. For guys, this means mood swings, muscle loss, low energy, and a general absence of mojo. Luckily, with some refeeding and good food choices (including eating enough protein and fat), many men's sex hormones can be easily revived.
For women, the consequences can be somewhat more serious. Our hormonal systems seem to be much more sensitive to energy intake and fluctuations in food intake than men's. Unfortunately, we health- and body-conscious women are likely to do exactly the things we shouldn't: we exercise too much (especially endurance training and “cardio”) and eat too little (especially of the nutrients we need). Female vegetarians/vegans are particularly at risk.
Women, your menstrual cycle is the proverbial canary in the coal mine – it's an early indicator of hormonal disruption. When your period gets irregular and temperamental – or worse, disappears – you have a problem.
In my case, too-frequent fasting combined with too-heavy training as well as general life stress and an anxious temperament resulted in estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, LH/FSH and cortisol levels that were effectively zero. Nothing. Zilch. My hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, and ovaries closed up shop. Hormonally speaking, there was nothing left but dust and tumbleweeds. I was in my mid-30s and menopausal. I've seen this situation in many of my female clients – some as young as their mid-20s.
Obviously, if you're pregnant, long periods of fasting are a bad idea.
Both sexes can be affected by adrenal injury or thyroid problems from too much physiological stress for too long.
I still think IF is great stuff for improving many hormonal health indicators, particularly insulin sensitivity. This can have benefits for your sex hormones if you have conditions such as PCOS (in women) or over-conversion of testosterone to estrogen (in men).
But for hormonal health, you must apply IF cautiously, safely, and sanely. And if your body speaks, listen.
So to summarize the twice-weekly fasting experience:
- One day of fasting per week, good. Once a week is the sweet spot for me and my lifestyle.
- Two days of fasting per week, bad. Increasing to two separate fasting days, even with all the extra calories to compensate, was just too much for me to handle.
At this point, I even thought about wrapping this whole project up. After all, I was three months in and I had reached my goal weight and ideal body fat percentage.
I was also getting tired of planning and recording. Annoyed with the food preoccupation that began when I fasted twice per week. And upset at my lack of focus and irritation with friends and family.
Yet I was on a mission. I still wanted to take some of these shorter-duration fasting methods – the ones people claimed to be more physique-friendly – for a test drive. Maybe they'd work better?
I regrouped and started on my next experiment.