From fat to sickeningly anorexic and all points between, Martin Berkhan has occupied all parts of the physique spectrum. Today, he lives and breathes the life of a natural albeit non-competitive bodybuilder, a feat made all the more laudable provided his unrepentant fondness for cheesecake.
He trains only two to three times in a given calendar week, eats all the ‘wrong’ foods, fasts for 16 hours a day, and takes in all of his carbohydrates at night, all at a bodyweight of 195 pounds and 5.5% body fat. Not bad, huh?
Martin’s desire to rid himself of the neuroses that accompanied his pursuit of bodybuilding sparked a revolution in the online fitness community. The public response to his intermittent fasting (also known as IF) experiment proved overwhelming, and it soon became apparent that he wasn’t alone in his struggle against bodybuilding’s nutritional dogma. His experimentation led to the development of the Leangains protocol, and that, folks, made him an internet fitness celebrity.
“Leangains was partly inspired by the Halberg et. al. study that came out just as I started researching intermittent fasting,” he told me, “but the protocol came first.” Like so many of us, prior to IF Martin had adhered to a diet strategy best described as ‘orthorexia-lite,’ euphemized in fitness circles as ‘clean eating.’
So what makes IF so successful, and why has it left such a lasting impact? IF is truly remarkable, a diet method in which the aspiring physique athlete can have his or her cheesecake and eat it too.
The Meal Frequency Fallacy
IF challenges the ubiquitous fitness rule that in order to stay lean, muscular, and healthy, one must eat small, protein-containing meals every two to three hours. I bring this up because to understand why IF works, we need to understand why the ‘eat every two to three hours’ maxim does not work.
Food costs the body energy to process with different foods costing the body different amounts of energy. This cost, known as the thermic effect of food, or TEF, negates roughly 10% of the calories of a mixed diet. That means in order for the body to process and utilize 2,000 calories across a given day, it will burn about 200 calories.
Researchers exploring the topic of meal frequency discovered that the consumption of a given meal raises the body’s metabolic rate for a short period of time. Part of the research community then wondered if human subjects could raise their total daily caloric burn by eating more frequently.
In the tight confines of theory, this sounds swell, but alas, the body’s physiological processes are working along a much lengthier timeline than such theorizing accounts for. What’s missing here is the fact that a given meal’s thermic effect is directly proportional to the size of said meal. In layspeak, a bigger meal merits a bigger thermic effect.
For example, if someone on a 1500 calorie-a-day diet eats three meals, that person will burn 50 calories at each meal for a total of 150 calories burned per day. Now, presume the same person eats six smaller meals for a total of 1500 calories. Each of these meals will burn 25 calories. 25 calories over six meals? 150 calories. Exactly the same as the three meals a day group.
At the end of the day, no measurable difference in fat loss can be had through manipulation of meal frequency.
Such evidence has done nothing to change the minds of the fitness gurus who cling desperately to decades-old, unsubstantiated hypothesizing. It makes sense: when you’re trying to make a buck as a fitness guru, you can’t exactly contradict yourself and your $99 e-product and still remain credible.
It recent years, this bogus reasoning seems to have taken on a life of its own. One of the more creative interpretations of the high meal frequency rule is premised on some armchair theorizing into the negative consequences of a low meal frequency. The argument goes like this: in absence of frequent feedings, the body turns to amino acids for fuel and burns off lean body mass, causing a supposed down-regulation of the metabolism, dubbed ‘starvation mode.’
This starvation mode has been blamed for the downfall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, giving you an idea as to my thoughts regarding its credibility.
Let’s be clear: this reasoning carries with it zero scientific support. Presuming adequate protein, long-term research shows no loss in lean body mass even under strict fasting conditions, so long as calories are kept at a maintenance level. In fact, studies investigating fasting or intermittent fasting show a slight increase in metabolic rate. This probably stems from the additional catecholamine release that accompanies an upregulation of norepinephrine in the brain.
Only now in 2010 is the media (and note it’s the general and not fitness-specific media) beginning to challenge the high meal-frequency dogma. In a piece run by the New York Times, author Anahad O’Connor writes that “as long as total caloric and nutrient intake stays the same, then metabolism, at the end of the day, should stay the same as well.” The article goes on to cite a 2009 study performed by Cameron, et. al., titled “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet” that appeared in The British Journal of Nutrition.
Body composition changes are predicated entirely on what they always have been: total daily caloric intake and exercise modality. Eating more begets an increase in weight and eating less yields a decrease, regardless of meal frequency.
So why go so extreme? If meal frequency doesn’t matter, why pursue something as radical as intermittent fasting?
There’s no doubt about it – Martin Berkhan walk’s the walk
From Caloric Restriction to Intermittent Fasting
The use of caloric restriction (or CR) as a means toward life extension continues to grow in popularity. CR provides a host of benefits, including improvements in cognition, respiratory health, and inflammation biomarkers. Researchers have also observed increases in insulin sensitivity in CR subjects, meaning that participants showed improved tolerance and usage of dietary carbohydrates. For an athlete, this is ideal because the better an athlete can tolerate dietary carbohydrates, the more likely he or she is to maintain a leaner, more muscular physique.
The contribution of IF lies in its ability to replicate the bonuses offered with caloric restriction sans the starvation and compromise of athletic prowess. IF studies typically utilize a fasting period of anywhere from 20 to 48 hours and have been shown to provide greater improvement in exototic stress reduction, basal serum glucose levels, and lifespan when compared with CR interventions.
IF has also has promise when it comes to improving biomarkers in obese individuals. Decreases in oxidative stress and inflammation were observed in intermittent fasting studies that tested asthmatic patients, and IF appears to also enhance the neuroplasticity of the brain, allowing new neuronal connections to form more readily than might otherwise.
The most prescient piece of literature for the bodybuilding enthusiast would have to be the IF study performed by Stote, et. al. titled “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.” This was the first study to look at IF from a body composition perspective.
I co-authored a review that looked at this piece of research back in 2007. The study was a breakthrough in the sense that (1) it focused primarily on body composition, and (2) it was the first to control calories between groups. In the article, one study group ate one meal a day while another study group ate three regularly spaced meals a day. Without exercise, the first group lost more bodyweight and body fat and gained more lean muscle tissue than the three-meals–a-day group despite identical caloric intakes.
Crazy, right? Just by dropping meal frequency, one group magically lost body fat and gained muscle. No special pills, no exercise, no diet even…just fewer meals. The study is not without its limitations, but we can’t ignore this research simply because we don’t like it. It effectively adds to a growing body of fasting literature that indicates something is going on biochemically, we’re just not sure what.
IF captured the hearts of a many online bodybuilding community members. Research means nothing if it can’t be applied, and so we turn to a discussion of Martin’s Leangains system and how such research burnished its reputation.
Intermittent Fasting and Bodybuilding
Martin’s Leangains protocol made famous the 16-hour fast/8-hour feed strategy. Its most obvious antecedent would be Lyle McDonald’s Ultimate Diet 2.0 and the five-hour refeed protocol found in his book A Guide to Flexible Dieting.
Unlike most other intermittent fasting protocols, Leangains gives the user the ability to eat a full daily allotment of calories. Because a portion of the 16 hours are spent sleeping, many practitioners find the opportunity to skip breakfast a welcome one, leading to greater productivity in the morning hours.
Research indicates there may be some physiological benefit to consuming the majority of one’s daily calories before, during, and immediately after training. In sync with this research, the Leangains protocol has two phases: the fasting phase and the overfeeding phase. According to Martin, Leangains attempts to capitalize on the dramatic fat burning capacity of the 16-hour fasting phase while optimizing the nutrient partitioning effects of the short-term eight-hour overfeeding phase. The first meal comes 16 hours after the last meal on the night prior, so all eating occurs within an approximately eight-hour time frame.
Some explanation of the aforementioned is in order. Nutrient partitioning describes what happens to calories after they find their way into the body. High-intensity activity, especially high-intensity resistance training, puts the body into an optimal nutrient partitioning state. By demanding a lot of the body’s physiological systems, resistance training elevates key hormones and metabolic processes that encourage the body to build lean muscle and lose fat. Partitioning refers to how many of those ingested calories get stored as body fat and how many of those calories go toward replenishing muscle glycogen or building lean muscle tissue.
In the specific context of Leangains, the first meal of the day on a workout day comes right before training, is moderate in size, and provides adequate carbohydrate and protein. The post-workout meal resembles what is known in the bodybuilding as a refeed. Carbohydrates are high, protein is moderate to high, and fat stays relatively low. Including the pre-workout meal, the feeding window lasts for approximately eight hours.
The real beauty of what Martin has done comes not from his expertise, which while substantial, has yet to disseminate universally into the bodybuilding world. Rather, it is his exuberance that by inspiring others to experiment with the protocol on their own has created a community surrounding intermittent fasting that continues to probe the margins of contemporary research.
Dave Gerczak – An Intermittent Fasting transformation (230lbs+ to 162lbs) (see more)
The Community Response
In 2007, Lyle McDonald’s now private message board served as the epicenter for IF experimentation. It was there that Martin outlined an early iteration of the Leangains protocol. JC Deen, a fitness professional and college student (and Wannabebig writer) from Nashville, Tennessee, was one of the first to play with the protocol. He spoke to me recently about his experience with intermittent fasting.
“I’m quite fond of [Martin’s approach] because of the liberty it provides to the rigid and sometimes obsessive physique-conscious folk,” Deen told me. “While I don’t feel it yields any superior physiological advantages to a regular diet, I do believe it has psychological advantages.”
Skyler Tanner, a fitness professional who approached IF from the perspective of the once perennially underweight kid, first exhibited trepidation when it came to fasting for 16 hours. When you have clawed for every inch of muscle girth in the gym and quaffed a protein shake every two hours to stave off catabolism since time immemorial, the idea of going without food for 16 hours sounds like anabolic suicide.
But after witnessing Martin’s success, Skyler pinched his nose and took the plunge. “Intermittent fasting, as a protocol for athletes, is largely underappreciated,” he says. “No taking Tupperware with you everywhere you go, none of this ‘waking in the middle of the night to feed’ nonsense, being able to eat a large volume of food rather than bird-like portions, especially when increased positive nutrient partitioning is elevated post workout. It can help reduce the OCD tendencies of athletes, where some athletes are kept from getting lean because they have to eat every three hours.”
Matt Perryman, the New Zealand-based owner and operator of Impulse Fitness, has been a stalwart in the fight to disassemble the misguided bodybuilding establishment. IF meshed perfectly with his preferences and attitude. “For someone like me, it’s a huge benefit to not have to carry around meals and worry about eating every two hours, or force myself to eat when I’m just not hungry,” said Perryman. “For lifestyle reasons alone, it’s going to be a good fit for quite a few people. IF is a good way of free-form eating that controls calorie intake even if you don’t plan it out in advance. Limiting myself to an eight-hour window, it’s much harder to overeat, even with junk food.”
Alan Aragon, who co-authored the research review with me on IF in 2007, said the following: “I think [IF is] a great option for those who don’t particularly enjoy grazing or snacking. Those with a tendency to skip meals, or those with a tendency to not get ‘entertained’ by eating every two to three hours do very well on IF. There are individuals whose daily routine does not involve many eating occasions, and for these folks, IF is great.”
Aragon cautions would be adopters to first think critically about the research. “People with glucose control issues – especially those who experience hypoglycemic symptoms – might not fare optimally on the extremes of meal frequency reduction,” says Aragon. “Also, those who need to consume plenty of calories in order to gain weight might find it difficult to achieve this in less than three meals per day. Despite its limitations, one of the major things that IF has done is to validate the importance of going with personal preference when it comes to meal frequency and invalidate the longstanding more-is-better meal frequency dogma.”
I asked Roger Lawson, a Massachusetts-based personal trainer and all around hilarious guy, what he thought of Leangains intermittent fasting. “For starters, I get to eat larger meals that keep my hunger at bay, to the point where I rarely experience the ravenous hunger that causes many dieters to abandon ship and readjust their body composition goals,” said Lawson. “Secondly, it allows me to accomplish more during the day because I’m not stopping to eat all the time.”
No single method will work for all cases, so it’s best to move into something like IF with patience. Without question, IF’s emphasis on fewer, larger meals will provide some much needed mental and physical satiety for those accustomed to grazing on a high meal frequency regime. Many of the individuals quoted above struggled at one time with food-related neuroses and found IF to be a welcome respite from their obsessions.
While current research into IF leaves much to be desired, anecdotal evidence suggests the presence of both positive physiological and psychological adaptations. However effective the protocol may be, it would be wise to train a critical eye toward one’s goals. IF is no panacea. Calories count, and taking something like IF to illogical ends – thinking, for example, that since a 16-hour fast is good, a 36-hour fast must be even better – can do more harm than good. IF changes nothing when it comes to caloric requirements, so don’t start operating under the specious logic that since you’re fasting you can eat to the point of illness and still remain lean.
More research exploring the efficacy of the protocol would be welcome. Current interventions testing more extreme iterations of fasting than what Berkhan articulates rarely incorporate proper training methodology. For example, in a study testing fasting’s contribution to fat loss alongside a standard cardiovascular workout, the researchers made an egregious error by measuring acute biomarkers of fat loss instead of measuring a full 24-hour turnover of fat cells.
The fact that the academic and lay fitness communities are so divided boggles the mind. In this case, the researchers who cared about how much fat was burned during the fasted workout felt that the other 23 hours of the day weren’t worth looking at. These mistakes are inexcusable at this level, and so the community as a whole must approach performance-focused research with greater intellectual vigor and clarity.
I debated including an application segment on intermittent fasting. I’m of the opinion that typical bodybuilding articles do more harm than good in their presentation of diet and exercise modalities. All too often, authors put on airs, asserting that that their system is the one true way toward a great body.
I encourage readers to first monitor their own progress. Keep a food log and aim to consume at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. There are no good or bad foods, and trainees still adhering to misguided notions of clean eating would be best served to jettison them. Certainly some choices will provide greater nutrient density, but in terms of effect on body composition, all choices remain equal.
IF can be adapted to any diet. Martin’s Leangains closely follows the recommendations outlined by Alan Aragon and Lyle McDonald in their respective works. Those interested should look into these authors’ writings for more information on setting up a proper diet. Martin’s website, Leangains.com, contains a tremendous amount of information on intermittent fasting, and a simple Google search will pull up a huge number of links.
IF can add to your growing body of knowledge on diet and exercise. Remember that consistency and not novelty paves the road to physique success. It can serve as a particularly effective approach for those who have struggled in the past with more traditional approaches to bodybuilding nutrition. Additionally, former male models have used it to turn themselves into totally jacked bodybuilders.
Written by Ryan Zielonka
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Secrets of Intermittent Fasting discussion thread.
About Ryan Zielonka
Ryan Zielonka is a writer, a researcher, and a public speaker.
Ryan struggled with obesity in his adolescent and teen years and decided in his freshman year of college to exercise with regularity. As a result he lost 16 inches from his waistline and discarded his size 44 jeans for a size 28. Ever since, the world of exercise science and nutritional biochemistry has never ceased to capture his imagination.
Ryan is a regular contributing editor and columnist for Wannabebig and his work has been published in T-Muscle and the Alan Aragon Research Review, and you can find him blogging on anything that strikes his fancy at www.ryanzielonka.com.