Is Intermittent Fasting (IF) Bad For Me?

(Dehydration, constipation, liver problems, loss of muscle mass. My experience with Intermittent Fasting, the ‘miracle’ diet.)

Some would say I’m a health nut. I’m keen on being lean. I’ve been working out on and off since my teens, 20+ years ago and in that time I’ve tried a few different ways of eating. There has been much talk about various ways of intermittent fasting (IF) and I’ve given a few of them a try.

In 2011, I saw an advert that literally promised the ‘holy grail’ of bodybuilding, gaining muscle while losing fat at the same time. There were photos showing dramatic ‘before and after’ transformations and some aggressive sales techniques. Just pay $100 and the secret would be revealed. There were several of these secret systems for sale at the time. I didn’t pay that much for a book but I was highly intrigued. What was this amazing new method? The established knowledge is that you can lose weight and lose fat and if you work hard you can minimise muscle loss or you can gain weight and gain muscle whilst trying to minimise fat gain.

A few months later I found a free article on a new way of eating to lose fat and gain muscle. Was this the secret ‘miracle’? The plan was, instead of gaining for months and then cutting for weeks, you do a gain and cut cycle every week. Enthusiastically I gave it a try. I cut back on calories on weekdays, 2100 Cal per day for me and then eat 2700 cal or more on Sundays, like a ‘cheat day’ to let your muscles grow. In hindsight, I’m not sure if there is any proof that it would do any good. Instead of cutting down on food for weeks at a time you just did it a few days a week every week. I think the idea was the high calorie day would keep your metabolism high so you keep burning fat on the low calorie days. It felt like I was stuffing myself at the weekend as my stomach shrunk during the week. Was it supposed to boost some hormone or another? I don’t know. I think what mostly happened was that I lost muscle during the week and gained fat at the weekends. Not healthy.

intermittent fasting

Pea on a Plate by Angie on Flickr

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Last year I watched a TV program where Michael Mosley looked into IF and its’ possible health benefits. He spoke very highly of what is known as 5:2 fasting. 5 days of the week you eat normally and the other 2 days you either fast completely or eat a quarter of your normal Calories, 500 for women or 600 for men, which is one small meal. Here is the video:

Eat, Fast and Live Longer – Horizon

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I gave this a good try as I wanted those health benefits and I was approaching middle age and I wanted to have six pack abs at  age 40. It made sense for me to eat normally on weekdays and feel 100% normal at work. So that’s about 2500 Calories Monday to Friday and one 600 calorie meal on Saturday and Sunday.

I didn’t feel either good or bad during the long fasts between meals. My body was in a kind of suspended animation during that time. I did find it liberating to not have to worry about food during those periods. No need to carry lunches, no cooking, no finding places to eat. No thoughts of snacking as food was simply on hold. I trained in a fasted state and while I did feel increased motivation in the gym that did not lead to real strength or muscle gains.

However this wasn’t leading to the sort of radical body improvement I was hoping for. Maybe because I was already well below 20% body fat. Maybe 2 days fasting a week wasn’t enough? I also found some big downsides for comfort and health while fasting 2 days at a time.

    1. Constipation. When you’re not taking on food your digestive system stops working. It has nothing to do, nothing to work on, no fibre. Things get bunged up and that doesn’t feel good. Constipation can lead to piles.
    2. Dehydration. Even though I was drinking water, tea and coffee while fasting I still ended up feeling dry and dehydrated. We get much of the water we need daily in the food we eat so if you cut out the food you’re not getting enough water. Dehydration makes constipation worse.

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The prevention is simple when you think about it. If you’re missing a meal because of fasting, drink a pint of water instead. Plus you can take some pure fibre product with water. What I think is good is Psyllium, which is used in medicine to treat constipation. You can buy it in products called Fybogel, Metamucil or as a pure product much cheaper from somewhere like www.myprotein.com. If you use the code MP412357 I will get a few points as thanks.

So after trying that I gave ‘Alternate Day Fasting’ a try. Every other day I would have just tea and Psyllium fibre for breakfast, a normal lunch and just water in the evening and the other days I had three full meals. I found this fairly acceptable to do and over a period of several months I lost several kilos, down to 76kg, my lowest weight for many years and a body fat of about 7%. I’m not convinced that this works better for me than simply eating less calories per day. I didn’t keep more muscle or lose more fat by using IF this way. I definitely don’t think I gained muscle while losing fat. I definitely lost muscle mass, so while you could see my abs, I didn’t look amazing, just skinny! People said I looked gaunt and too thin. No miracles there, I simply eat less and got skinny. So, while alternate day fasting works as a way of reducing calorie intake, that’s all it does for me.

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I got too skinny and lost muscle.

 

Having become too thin I found I didn’t like it. I added calories, ate 3 meals every day and put on muscle and fat for about six months. After adding some rapid Christmas weight I was up to about 90kg and I decided to try losing a little fat. I had been hearing about a better form of IF where you restrict your eating to 8 hours of the day. For me, that meant just water, tea and fibre for breakfast. No food until after 12, when I had an 800 Calorie lunch time (about 50g of protein and 30g fat or 30% fat by Calories plus carbs). 6 to 7pm I had a similar meal plus a piece of fruit at around 100 calories for a total of 1700 per day. No food after 7pm. I was working out every other day after work and I had 20g of whey protein after each workout. I lost about 2kg in 2 weeks and my body fat measurement improved slightly but I didn’t look or feel any better. This was probably the best form of IF for me and it feels much less unhealthy than the other ways. It’s still not the ‘holy grail’ of bodybuilding that some try and sell IF as. For me it’s still no better than simply reducing my daily calories in my meal plan to lose weight.

Here’s something from the NSFW Hodge Twins on YouTube.

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At this point I stopped fasting and weight loss. I had been for a regular check up including blood tests and afterwards my Doctor called me in because one of the tests showed abnormal levels showing liver inflammation. I was referred to the hospital for tests for Hepatitis (which means liver inflammation), which was all very scary. While this was going on I looked up what could be up with my liver and I read about Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease (NAFLD), fatty infiltrations in the liver not caused by alcohol. This was from the British Liver Trust website.

“Very rapid weight loss can also lead to fat building up in the liver. It is thought this may result from the sudden, massive release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream following the breakdown of fat stored in fat cells.

Fasting can cause Fatty Liver, which can be bad for your health. I have been wondering if Intermittent Fasting has caused this inflammation of my liver.

After an ultrasound scan of my liver and then a fibroscan I have been given the all clear. So, I’m OK, but it looks like IF could be could be bad for my health in the long term. I felt the need to write all of this down and make it public.  I did some research on the internet and came up with some articles indicating that IF might not be the miracle diet that you could be lead to think.

I found an article on Huffpost about 5 Reasons Intermittent Fasting Could Become a Bad Idea. There are some interesting points, broken down into 5 areas.

  1.  You can create or exacerbate eating disorders.
  2.  You might chronically elevate cortisol levels.
  3.  You can create an unhealthy obsession with food.
  4.  You might over-rely on coffee.
  5.  You could increase food intolerances and inflammation.

I didn’t know I was supposed to drink coffee or other caffeine drinks and supplements while fasting. Maybe that’s where I went wrong. Many ‘fat burner’ pills have very large amounts of caffeine as well as other powerful stimulants. I don’t think it is a good idea to take those in the long term. I’m living low caffeine as I think that’s best for health. Caffeine and other stimulants kill sleep and sleep is essential for good health and good looks.

With some internet searching I have found many articles about IF and here are some interesting ones:

NHS Choices: Does the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet work?

Compared to other types of weight loss programmes the evidence base of the safety and effectiveness of the 5:2 diet is limited.

How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life: Intermittent fasting might improve health, but clinical data are thin, Dec 18 2012, By David Stipp in Scientific American.

“Despite the growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials, and its long-term effects in people remain uncertain.

Intermittent Fasting – Healthy or Harmful? Mark Pieciak

“For the common person, intermittent fasting my cause be too much catabolic stress and quickly lead to diminishing returns.

T Nation: Intermittent Fasting Kills Muscle

“Proponents of IF like to think of it as the ‘science diet’ but the complete opposite is true. Intermittent fasting is the fad diet. There’s no logic to it, unless your goal is to lose muscle, slow down your metabolism, and have poor workouts.

Alternate-day fasting and chronic disease prevention: a review of human and animal trials

“The effect of ADF on chronic disease risk in normal-weight human subjects remains unclear, however, as do the mechanisms of action. Much work remains to be done to understand this dietary strategy fully.

 

I’ve given some types of IF for weight loss a try. So is IF good for me? I don’t think so, other than as a way of reducing calorie intake. It could be good for you. It’s definitely no miracle though. But is it bad for me? Are there reasons not to do it? Very possibly. Particularly if you have a problem with your liver or other medical conditions affecting your metabolism. I would suggest consulting a health professional before trying a diet involving fasting. The benefits or harm seem very unclear to me. The research I could find online is very limited.

 

 

Further reading:

 

The Leangains Guide

Dirty Secrets of Intermittent Fasting Exposed by Martin Berkhan (Leangains.com)

MyProtein Forums: Is Intermittent Fasting (IF) Bad for Me?

JJ Virgin; Fitness/Nutrition Expert, Author of NY Times Bestseller The Virgin Diet. 5 Reasons Intermittent Fasting Could Become a Bad Idea

BBC News: The power of intermittent fasting

British Liver Trust: Non-Alcohol Related Fatty Liver Disease

Wikipedia: Intermittent fasting

NCBI: Improvements in coronary heart disease risk indicators by alternate-day fasting involve adipose tissue modulations.

Nutritional hormesis. [Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007] – PubMed – NCBI

Is Intermittent Fasting Any Good? by Jake Kuyser

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