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.
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 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 creative interpretations on 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.
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.
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.
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.
Other options for body improvement:
If strict diets are not your thing and you are actually looking to gain weight to build up muscle then mass gainers with disciplined exercise regiment is the ideal solution. In fact, we have curated a list of the best mass gainers in the market to help you pick one that’s best for you!