There has been a lot of talk going on lately about Intermittent Fasting and its use in the world of manipulating body composition. Though the idea has been around for sometime, the method and approach has much room for altering. Here enters Martin Berkhan, a writer and nutritional counselor from Sweden. Martin has designed his own version of Intermittent Fasting (IF) that he feels takes care of all the problems not previously addressed with this style of diet.
I am a pretty curious gal and when I got the chance to look into IF I wanted to take it one step further and get all the info from the man himself. The following is an interview with Martin on what Intermittent Fasting is, important factors of pre-post workout nutrition and the discussion of the physiological effects of the IF program. This is more than self posturing but truly a FAQ on Martin’s IF program so if you are looking to try it or dive in, you may want to take the time to read below.
LP: Alright Martin, first and foremost let’s get those formalities out of the way. What are your current credentials (education, certs, position, favorite late night TV program, you know the basics)? And what got you into this field in the first place?
MB: I have a bachelor’s degree in Medical Sciences and Education and my major is in Public Health Sciences. While my background has helped me to separate facts from bull****, of which there is plenty of in the fitness and bodybuilding community, my knowledge of nutrition and weight training is purely self-taught. I consider passion the best tutor and I have that in spades, when it comes to improving body composition through nutrition and weight training.
I got into the field by earning respect for my theoretical and practical knowledge, without any formal education in the matter, and ended up as a writer for a Swedish bodybuilding and fitness magazine (the only one we have here, called “Body”). This was about year ago and at the same time I started doing personal consultations and coaching on diet and training, working with regular joes, as well as the more hardcore fitness and bodybuilding crowd. Since then much has happened; I have finished university, started up my own website http://leangains.com
(well, as of right now it’s only a blog, but I’ll be having a “real” site up soon) and looking to write a book on intermittent fasting with nutrition guru Lyle McDonald. As of right now, I’m supporting myself as a writer and nutrition counselor.
LP: Martin I have to say I 100% agree with you on passion being the best tutor, I too am a student of self driven knowledge. What was it that drove you to intermittent fasting? Is this an idea you have been toying with for sometime?MB: I have been doing intermittent fasting every day since June 2006, changing calorie intake, macros, and other variables depending on my goals during different time periods. I started doing it because of two things. First of all, I didn’t like how my life became centered around my diet, and I was starting to get fed up with my own behavior. The constant meal preparing, the obsessiveness about eating the perfect meals at the right time, and the way I sometimes made excuses not to participate in social gatherings in order to meet my calorie and macronutrient goals for the day. I’m sure some of the people reading this can relate. I wanted to stop this pattern cold turkey, so I started to question the need for regular feedings and the way it was constantly being pushed as the most optimal way to eat for physique conscious people. The science certainly didn’t support the approach, so how come everyone was ranting about high meal frequency patterns being ideal? I already had my doubts, but I needed to have a closer look at the hard facts in order to convince myself to quit the meal pattern that started to become a burden on my life. Was eating every second or third hour important in order to “stoke the metabolic fire”? No, there was no scientific support for that idea and studies on the subject were carefully controlled, showing no correlation at all between meal frequency and metabolism. Perhaps a high meal frequency was needed in order to provide the body with a regular stream of nutrients, making sure that you had a constant supply of amino acids in order to stave off muscle catabolism and promote muscle growth? No, looking at how the body processes and digests meals, this wasn’t the case either. Digestion of a regular meal takes about 6-7 hours and during this time amino acids are being released into the bloodstream. 30 g’s of casein takes about 7 hours to get fully assimilated. Double that amount and you will have amino acids in the bloodstream most of your waking hours. Was a high meal frequency needed in order to keep hunger at bay and not overeat? This is the only point where a high meal frequency has some empirical backing - at least when you look at how inactive test subjects in lab settings rate hunger, on different meal patterns, while being fed a high carb diet compromised of calorie dense foods. Not really something that can be applied the physique conscious crowd, or the environment most people spend their waking hours in.
There are also some correlation studies showing a link between high meal frequency and lower bodyweight in the general population, but this is easily explained when you look at the behavioral aspects surrounding low meal frequencies among “regular” people. For example, your average low meal frequency eater is usually a spontaneous eater, snacks between meals and has no clue about proper nutrition (a snickers bar on the go, maybe something from the vending machine after lunch, and so forth). Again, this is not something that can be applied to the health conscious crowd, which has a basic grasp on proper nutrition, and strives to improve his or hers body composition – the crowd reading this interview, for example.
Now, having cleared my mind of any doubts about the meal pattern I was about to embark on, I couldn’t believe how good I felt on my new “diet”. My head was clear and I didn’t spend anytime thinking, or obsessing, about when, nor in what form, my next meal was going to arrive in. Worrying about such things had been my default behaviour for a good amount of time since I started becoming more involved in my training and nutrition, and being it was a relief not having to spend any mental energy on it anymore. I’m sure anyone that has “been in the game” for awhile can relate to what I mean when it comes to these kinds of thought patterns, since it is something that seems quite unique to people in the fitness and bodybuilding community. Besides liberating myself from my food obsessiveness, I noticed several other positive effects. I had lots of energy during the day, I made faster progress with my training and reduced my body fat simultaneously - at the same time, while being able to eat until satisfaction, after the 16 hour fast I employed. Since then, I have integrated the approach into my life and helped several others achieve great results in terms of body composition using the very same approach. For myself, I can honestly state that I will stick to this eating pattern for the rest of my life.
LP: Some of my readers are pretty unfamiliar with what IF even is. Can you give us a really brief rundown into the bare basic principals of your approach to IF? The quick and easy if you will.
MB: Intermittent Fasting involves a longer period of no food intake followed by a relatively brief period of eating. There’s not really a clear cut definition of it, and studies looking at IF, and human subjects, have been using a wide range of fasting periods; 20 hours in a recent study and up to 48 hours in studies on ADF (Alternate Day Fasting). This is where it becomes a bit problematic with regards to weight training and diet adherence
We know that we need proper pre-workout nutrition in order to maximize protein synthesis, in conjunction with weight training, and research supports the benefits of ingesting carbohydrates and protein prior to the workout. Not really doable with one meal per day. There’s also the issue of diet adherence - limiting the calorie intake to one big meal, once a day might not really be conductive to staying on track in the long term, and may even cause some gastrointestinal problems due to ingesting a day’s worth of calories in such a short time.
My take on IF shortens the fasting period down to 16 hours - in my opinion, an ideal compromise between getting the best out of the fasting, without the negatives that may follow with a longer fast. This leaves eight hours as your eating window, in which myself and most of my clients, eat three meals, leaving room for proper pre - and post workout nutrition. I should note that I cycle calorie intake depending on where the current priority lies (fat loss, recomposition or lean mass gain). However, regardless of goals, the absolute majority of the day’s calorie intake is to be ingested in the post workout window. In my experience, this may have a nutrient partitioning effect which makes it possible to gain, or maintain, muscle even on a weekly calorie deficit, or when dieting to very low bodyfat levels.
All of this is based on trial and error with regards to my own, and my clients, personal experiences. I feel that extreme measures, like confining the eating window to four hours or less, aren’t needed to in order to reap the benefits of intermittent fasting for those wishing to improve their body composition.
LP: You talked about pre-post workout nutrition, is there a specific recommendation you have for these meals? Do you stick to any sort of carb/protein ration? I am specifically curious as to the pre-workout guidelines you have.
MB: In an ideal situation, I’d like to place approximately 80% of the day’s total calorie intake in the post workout window. As a consequence, the pre-workout meal is often the “fast breaker” on workout days. For the pre-workout meal I usually recommend a meal consisting of an equal carb/protein ratio - for example, 50-60 g carbs, 40-50 g protein and some fat for taste (about 500 kcal total). The goal of this meal is to provide satisfaction, provide enough carbs to fuel the workout, and maximize protein synthesis for the workout (another reason for the high protein intake is to induce satiety). One of my typical pre-workout meals may consist of 8 oz lean meat with veggies or potatoes and a large apple. A bit of fructose might mediate the effect of the post-workout feeding, since liver glycogen is beneficial to hormones involved in anabolism, therefore the fruit. Keep in mind that the pre-workout meal is dependent on training volume, but I’ve found that these general guidelines work for most people doing moderate volume resistance training (about 10-15 sets of 6-10 reps, per workout, in total). Athletes and others, subjecting themselves to a greater training load than the average weight trainer, require different pre-workout guidelines.
The post workout meal is, ideally, a high carb, moderate protein and low fat feeding. This is what I have found most beneficial in terms of maximizing growth, recovery and limiting whatever extra fat might get stored during hyper caloric conditions. The absolute majority of carbs should be starch based, since we want carbs that gets stored as muscle glycogen primarily, but as noted before, some fructose might also be beneficial to allow for muscle growth processes to occur. The post workout meal should be the largest of the day and you may split your remaining calorie intake as you see fit. I usually have two substantial meals post-workout; one directly following the workout and another one an hour before going to bed.
The exact amount of calories and macronutrients consumed in the post-workout window is largely dependent on the individual’s primary focus, be it fat loss, re-composition or lean mass gains, so this is nothing more than a quick summary of some general guidelines that I apply across the board.
LP: When it comes to post workout consumption, we want those spikes, but what about non-training days? Added to that would the Pre-Workout Meal even be too much of a spike increase to encourage storage?
MB: You have to put it into context. Storage, of fatty acids into adipose tissue and glucose into glycogen, is a process that occurs every time you eat. The net result is either weight gained or weight lost after a 24 hr period (using this time frame for simplicity’s sake), depending on the quantity of foods consumed in relation to your energy requirement. This is the short answer, and there are more complex issues involved, but it is just as true for IF, as for other diets or meal patterns.
LP: So then it is safe to say then that even with IF, just as any other fat loss plan, overall energy (in an out) is still just as important? That the users of IF need to understand that this isn’t some sort of free pass to binge on any and everything, they still need to fit it within their caloric needs for daily energy? This would make “eating to your hearts content” mean more like “don’t be a dumbass and scarf down a box of doughnuts correct?
MB: Exactly. I don’t make any claims whatsoever on calorie counting not being necessary on IF. Studies show that resting metabolism increases in fasting (again, quite contrary to popular belief), mediated by increases in catecholamines like noradrenalin, but this effect is quite insignificant when you’re talking about humans ability to eat boatloads of calories, when introduced to energy dense and palpable foods. As shown in empirical studies, recall that both humans and rats maintained their bodyweight on an ADF (Alternate Day Fasting) regimen, when encouraged to eat ad libitum in the feeding phase. If you let hunger and appetite dictate what and how much to eat, it’s quite easy to undo the energy deficit accumulated through 16, 20 or even 48 hours of fasting. That being said, you’ll discover that you can indulge quite a bit, while still dropping fat, if you limit the most energy dense foods. For example, I eat a lot of ice cream myself, but I make sure that the majority of my calories comes from meat, veggies, fruit and starch sources like potatoes, oatmeal and whole grain bread.
LP: Obviously there are many ways and methods one can go about fat loss. Low carb, caloric cycling, shakes only, etc. What do you feel that IF offers that sets it apart from other methods? Where do you think it really shines, not only in a scientific standpoint, but mentally as well?
MB: The answer to this question is best answered from different point of views. Bear with me and you’ll understand where I’m going here.
For the dieter, IF offers something very unique, in terms of enjoying physically and psychologically satisfying meals while losing weight. The absence of hunger and cravings are also a welcome feature when using IF for weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, the fasting phase has a suppressive effect on hunger. Hunger pangs may come, but they disappear quickly, to be replaced by a sense of well being and total absence of hunger.
This is my take on generic weight loss methods: I believe that the “nibbling” approach to dieting, which is so often encouraged by mainstream nutritionists and mass media, may aggravate hunger, rather than keeping it at bay. I can speak for myself, and several of my clients, when I’ll say that several small meals a day does more to potentate cravings, and subsequent hunger, rather than suppressing it. There’s also the psychological sense of hunger that must be taken into account, while discussing how dieters think and work. I honestly feel that the psychological form of deprivation, i.e. the absence of some favorite foods that you might not be able to enjoy on a generic high meal frequency plan, is much worse than any form of physical hunger. Some people will gladly trade constant cravings for the casual physical hunger that might occur during the fasted phase on IF. Notice that I’m saying “might”, since some people, including me, don’t get hungry at all during the fast (there’s probably an adaptive component to be taken into account here).
Now, obviously the above doesn’t hold true for everyone. Like every diet approach out there, there’s differences among individuals in what works and what doesn’t, but so far, in my experience, there seems to be a lot more “hits” than “misses”, when it comes to the success rates of people using IF for weight loss.
There’s also the nutrient partitioning effects I believe that IF may provide when combined with strength training - basically, I think that IF is a very flexible tool, that can be used in several ways, to improve body composition.
Others will enjoy the cognitive effects of IF. I’m mainly thinking about people with professions that require a high degree of focus and concentration; for example programmers and writers, that may want to increase their productivity during work hours. Due to the increase in catecholamines during the fast, productivity goes up and you’ll feel more involved in whatever you’re doing; the effect can be compared to a mild stimulant. Personally, that’s one of the benefits I really appreciate as a writer and online diet consultant. I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, reading, writing and corresponding back and forth. Having not to think about food, and feeling clear headed and focused, is something I find very useful when it comes to time management and productivity.
And then again, there are the health benefits not to be forgotten. Improving insulin sensitivity and other health indicators, such as cardiovascular health for example, is undoubtedly of interest to a large number of people, whose main priority is to stay healthy and reduce risk factors for different types of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. IF also offers neuroprotective benefits, which may protect from brain degenerative diseases like Alzheimers, for example. These benefits are unique to this diet approach and cannot be achieved, to the same degree, with traditional calorie restriction and exercise.
- You can tell from what Martin is saying about his program is that it isn’t a miracle, it isn’t anything that is going to change the face of body composition as we know it. It is merely a different method or approach to tailoring your body composition. For some it can be dreams come true and for others it may not be for them. It’s up to you to decide.
Regardless, there is certainly a place in all the craziness of body composition for Martin Berkhan’s IF program.
For more information on Martin and the IF program with testimonials, diaries and more you can head over to http://leangains.com