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Is it just a case of overlapping interests? Is it because when you stumble upon one big lie perpetrated by the experts—that cutting carbs will give you heart disease and leave your brain starving for energy/you must eat 6-8 small meals a day or else risk “starvation mode” and “slow metabolism”—you start questioning all the other advice they give?
It might be some of that. But a big reason why intermittent fasting and low-carb eating tend to converge is that they are synergistic. Doing one makes the other work better, and vice versa.
What are the benefits? What are the synergies?
Fasting is easier when you’re low-carb. Low-carb is easier when you fast.
Low-carb is easier when you fast.
Fasting is easier when you’re low-carb.
The two inputs support each other. Rather than a vicious cycle, it’s a virtuous one. Fasting promotes fat-adaptation by upregulating fat-burning mitochondria, spurring the creation of new mitochondria, and reducing your reliance on sugar. Fat-adaptation makes going low-carb easier, because you’re really good at burning body fat and don’t get so many sugar cravings. Going low-carb makes you even better at burning fat and builds even more mitochondria, which is a prerequisite for fasting for extended periods of time.
If low-carb is going to work, you have to do it. If fasting is going to work, you have to fast. Anything that makes those easier is going to be good for your health. That’s where it all starts.
You’ll burn more fat.
A 2013 study compared low-fat dieters on an alternate day fasting schedule with low-carb dieters on an alternate day fasting schedule. Both groups lost weight and improved metabolic health markers, but the low-carbers lost more body fat.
A more recent study putting low-carbers on a fasting schedule for six months saw their body fat drop, lean mass remain stable, and fasting insulin decrease. However, there was no control group and the low-carb diet was still 30% carbs. I think you’d see better results if you dropped those carbs down even lower.
You’ll lose less muscle.
One common criticism lobbed at intermittent fasting enthusiasts is that it has the potential to cause muscle loss. This is a valid point. If you are insufficiently fat-adapted, your glucose requirements will remain elevated when fasting, and you may break down muscle tissue for the amino acids to convert to glucose.
Luckily, ketones spare muscle tissue by reducing your need for glucose. It turns out that a fair number of tissues that would otherwise run on glucose can run on ketones. Being in a ketogenic or low-carb fat-burning state before you fast accentuates this effect. It’s no wonder that the studies mentioned in the last section found that weight loss via low-carb dieting and fasting was entirely from body fat.
Bump up the muscle-sparing effect even more by lifting heavy things (even during the fast).
You’ll forget to eat.
A major reason low-carb and keto diets work so well for weight loss is that they increase satiety and inadvertently reduce calories. Whereas your average calorie-counter is painstakingly tracking everything he or she eats and expends just to wrangle a few pounds lost, the low-carb dieter often just eats to satiety and lets the weight loss happen.
The average low-carber will fast without even thinking about it. They fast because they simply aren’t hungry and forget to eat. Someone on a higher-carb “regular” diet often must summon superhuman willpower to fast. They fast in spite of being ravenous and can think of nothing else but eating.
Forgetting to eat is a much easier way to fast than willing yourself to do it.
You’ll avoid harmful postprandial blood sugar spikes.
Eating a high-carb meal after fasting for two days will spike your postprandial blood sugar. Eating a low-carb meal after fasting for two days will likely not. Why?
Consider the problem of the long-term low-carber trying to pass a glucose tolerance test. It’s common for long-term low-carbers to “fail” glucose tolerance tests because they’re trying to handle 75 grams of pure glucose with a fat-based metabolism. The body is set up to burn fat and you suddenly introduce a bunch of glucose. It’s hard to do, and most people will fail that—even if they’re healthy.
When you’re coming off a fast, you’re burning fat. You may not have the glucose intolerance of a long-term low-carber, but you are running on fat, and that’s going to raise the chance of exaggerated postprandial blood sugar numbers.
If you do want to eat carbs after a fast, the best way to mitigate this issue is to break the fast with a hard workout and then eat the carbs. You’ll “simulate” glucose tolerance by clearing out glycogen and providing open storage depots for the incoming carbohydrates.
Or you could just be a low-carber to begin with and avoid the problem altogether.
You’re less likely to overdo the re-feeds.
Fasting is a great way to induce caloric deficits and thus lose weight. That’s pretty much why it works so well, as an artificial boundary to control our eating and snacking habits. However, people can tend to go a little wild on the re-feeds. They haven’t eaten all day, so of course they’re going to pig out when they break the fast and eat all sorts of foods they wouldn’t otherwise eat—and eat way more calories than they would have, thereby counteracting all the good they did not eating.
If you’re sticking to low-carb or keto principles, the re-feed is safer. You’re less likely to overeat, because low-carb is so satiating. You’re less likely to eat junk, because the “rules” of the diet eliminate most of the offending foods like chips, sweets, and fried carbohydrates.
Your insulin will normalize.
When insulin is elevated, fat is locked away in our adipose tissue, making it very difficult to burn fat. Hyperinsulinemia, or chronically elevated insulin, also increases the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and elevated insulin levels are linked to atherosclerosis.
Intermittent fasting is a potent antidote to hyperinsulinemia. This recent study found that, despite causing similar reductions in body weight, alternate day fasting led to greater improvements in insulin and insulin resistance than regular caloric restriction.
Low-carb eating is also a potent antidote to hyperinsulinemia. As it turns out, avoiding carbohydrates reduces one’s insulin load.
I’m no enemy of insulin. It serves many valuable purposes, and we wouldn’t be alive without it. But too much insulin at the wrong time causes undeniable problems—and combining IF with low-carb can normalize it.
So, should you avoid fasting if you’re not low-carb?
Fasting while low-carb isn’t the only way to do it. Many people have great success combining high-carb dieting with fasting, provided they also lift weights. One popular (and effective) method is to go high-carb, low-fat on training days, with the workout coming at the tail end of the fast and the first meal coming after the workout. Then on rest days, you break the fast with low-carb, high-fat meals. The training stimulus increases insulin sensitivity and gives all those carbs a place to go (your muscle glycogen stores).
But combining low-carb and intermittent fasting really does increase and accentuate the benefits of both practices.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear about your experiences with intermittent fasting and low-carb eating. Do you find that the two go hand in hand, or have you also had success fasting with a higher-carb diet?
Klempel MC, Kroeger CM, Varady KA. Alternate day fasting (ADF) with a high-fat diet produces similar weight loss and cardio-protection as ADF with a low-fat diet. Metab Clin Exp. 2013;62(1):137-43.
Kalam F, Gabel K, Cienfuegos S, et al. Alternate day fasting combined with a low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss, weight maintenance, and metabolic disease risk reduction. Obes Sci Pract. 2019;5(6):531-539.
Mujaj B, Bos D, Kavousi M, et al. Serum insulin levels are associated with vulnerable plaque components in the carotid artery: the Rotterdam Study. Eur J Endocrinol. 2020;
Gabel K, Kroeger CM, Trepanowski JF, et al. Differential Effects of Alternate-Day Fasting Versus Daily Calorie Restriction on Insulin Resistance. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2019;27(9):1443-1450.
The post Benefits of Pairing Low-Carb Eating with Intermittent Fasting for Health and Weight Loss appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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It’s curious how not eating can spark so many questions and debates. A practice born out of necessity for our ancestors, fasting for long stretches happened when weather or circumstance hampered hunting and gathering, or for shorter periods while on the hunt or foraging.
As food has become readily available and abundant in many countries, our near-constant state of food arousal can dull the hormonal drivers that regulate appetite and, ironically, lead us to want to counteract the overabundance with some restriction. When we eat too much too often, we get the natural inclination to push back from the table and vow not to consume another bite for a (possibly long) while.
Fasting, particularly intermittent fasting, is gaining popularity now as a weight loss and weight management tool. As some celebrities proclaim that intermittent fasting is one of their “secrets” to their hard Hollywood-worthy bods, more and more people will be keen to latch on. We compiled a list of our greatest hits on fasting and intermittent fasting to provide education and context around how intermittent fasting works, reasons you may want to try it, reasons you may not want to try it, and considerations for athletes who want to fast.
First, let’s start with the basics. Before making any changes to your eating (or non-eating) habits, it’s important to understand:
- what it means to fast
- why people fast
- how long to fast
- what benefits or downfalls there could be to fasting
- whether all of the above can or should apply to you individually
Do the effects of fasting differ for men and women? What are the most common things people get wrong about fasting? Is fasting an effective tool for weight loss? We answer those questions, and more, in the following articles.
Fasting How to
How to Lose Weight with Intermittent Fasting
Fasting can be really beneficial to those who are trying to lose fat. Yes, that’s fat and not weight. Unlike some other kinds of weight-loss methods, which result in loss of water weight or muscle mass, fasting can effectively get rid of fat.
How to: Intermittent Fasting
There is no one way to do IF. The only real guideline is that, as always, the food you eat should be healthy. (It’s pretty clear how we choose to characterize that.) In addition to the substantial health benefits, the simplicity and flexibility are what draw people to IF.
Dry fasting is going without both food and fluid. That means no coffee, no tea, no broth, and no water or liquid of any kind (except the saliva you manage to produce). It’s an extreme type of fast whose fans and practitioners are adamant that it can resolve serious health issues. But does it? Is it safe? And what kind of research is available on it?
Fasting vs. Carb Restriction
Both fasting and carb-restriction appear to operate along similar physiological pathways. Both lower carbs. Both increase fat-adaptation. Both have the potential to get you into ketosis. Both lower insulin and blood sugar. But is one better than the other?
Top 10 Fasting Mistakes
If you’re making fasting mistakes, you might never accomplish the benefits you were hoping for. Before you throw in the towel, I want to help you identify some possible fasting pitfalls you might not be aware of and also help you avoid them.
The Pros and Cons of Fasting
The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting is one way to have your cake and eat it too. Beyond the already proven benefits of a Primal Blueprint low-carb lifestyle, fasting once in a while seems to offer many of the same benefits of calorie restriction—you know, stuff like increased longevity, neuroprotection, increased insulin sensitivity, stronger resistance to stress, some cool effects on endogenous hormone production, increased mental clarity, plus more—but without the active, agonizing restriction.
Intermittent Fasting for Women
With fasting, perhaps the most important variable to consider is your biological sex. This really does make intuitive sense. Biology cares most about your fertility. Can you reproduce? Can you produce healthy offspring that survive to do the same? These things come first. And from that perspective, a woman’s situation is more precarious than a man’s.
Should You Try Fasting?
Primal folks who are losing weight or looking to lose a bit more, and getting the right lifestyle changes enacted (sleep, exercise, sex, leisure, rest, relaxation, mental stimulation) should definitely try fasting. They will likely flourish.
When Does Fasting Cross the Line?
How do you know if your fasting regimen may be slipping into the grey area of potential orthorexia or disordered eating? We can’t diagnose anyone in an article, of course, but there are signs to watch out for if you have personal concerns or worries about others.
14 Reasons to Fast
Anytime you attempt a “radical” health practice like not eating, it helps to have a good reason to do it. That will not only give you something to aim for, but it will ensure you actually have a physiological justification for your experiment. Never go in blind. What are some of the specific scenarios and conditions where fasting makes the most sense?
Long Fasts: Worth the Risk?
If fasting for more than three days sounds riskier than just skipping breakfast, you’re right. Long fasts can get you into trouble. They’re a big commitment. You shouldn’t just stumble into one because it sounds interesting or some guy on your Twitter feed wrote about it.
What Breaks a Fast?
It’s the nature of many beings—particularly those with weight-loss goals, it seems—to want to know what the “rules” are so they can look for the loopholes to bend them. It’s no surprise that the top-performing article last year on Mark’s Daily Apple was “Does Coffee Break a Fast?” Consequently, we followed up with an article about whether bone broth breaks a fast because we received additional questions. Then people wanted to know about supplements—should they be taken while fasting? We then created a definitive guide to what breaks a fast. If there’s any other liquid, leaf, pill, stone, or twig we neglected to examine, let us know in the comments section.
Does Bone Broth Break a Fast?
Most people aren’t fasting to be able to brag about eating no calories for X number of days. They fast for shorter (often intermittent) periods of time for specific health benefits. It’s entirely possible that bone broth “breaks a fast” but allows many of the benefits we associate with fasting to occur.
Does Coffee Break a Fast?
Does black coffee break a fast? Put another way… Does coffee interfere with the benefits we’re seeking from a fast? Depends on the benefits you’re seeking (and what you put in the coffee).
Let’s look at some of the most common benefits first and if/how coffee affects them.
Do Supplements Break a Fast?
Does fish oil break a fast? What about my multivitamin, protein powder, collagen, or melatonin? Mark delves into the research to provide definitive answers.
Definitive Guide to What Breaks a Fast
One of the most common questions I get is “Does [x] break a fast?”
What they’re really inquiring about is: “Does this interfere with, negate, or nullify the benefits of fasting?” Let’s go through the most popular queries one by one and figure out how each one affects an intermittent fast.
Does Intermittent Fasting Work for Athletes?
Does fasting before and during workouts confer any performance perks or additional fat-burning benefits? Should athletes fast before every session, or only specific types of workouts? What are the potential drawbacks to fasting for athletes? Let’s go.
Intermittent Fasting Tips for Athletes
What are my specific recommendations for athletes who wish to explore intermittent fasting? I’ve got 12… plus some details about my own fasting and workout routine.
Benefits & Concerns Fasting for Athletes
Sometimes, high stress is exactly what we need to progress—a few heavy sets of squats, some rounds on the Airdyne, a killer CrossFit workout—as long as you can recover from it. A major modulator of our stress is the amount of food we have coming in. At least in theory, exercising in a fasted state could provoke a powerful adaptive response that athletes would find helpful. So, does it stack up? What exactly can intermittent fasting offer athletes?
To some, the idea of working out without “carbing up” or doing the pre-workout protein shake is unthinkable. To others, fasted workouts are sacred tools, the perfect antidote to modern decrepitude. Where does the truth lie?
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading, take care, and leave a comment below if there are more questions you have about IF!
The post Intermittent Fasting: How It Works, Reasons to Try It & Considerations for Athletes appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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A little while back, Mark posted an article about 14 scenarios in which intermittent fasting (IF) might be just the ticket. We got some requests for a follow-up about times when IF might not be advised.
Mark has already written about cautions for women and athletes specifically. I’ll link those at the bottom. More generally, it’s important that anyone considering IF make sure that they are in a good place physically and mentally to handle the additional stress of IF.
As Mark said:
If you haven’t satisfied the usual IF “pre-reqs,” like being fat-adapted, getting good and sufficient sleep, minimizing or mitigating stress, and exercising well (not too much and not too little), you should not fast. These pre-reqs are absolutely crucial and non-negotiable, in my opinion—especially the fat-adaptation. In fact, I suspect that if an IF study was performed on sugar-burning women versus fat-adapted women, you’d see that the fat-burning beasts would perform better and suffer fewer (if any) maladaptations.
Fasting is generally healthy when done properly. The same goes for exercise and carb restriction. These behaviors help many people; but they can also be unhealthy for certain people or when used too much or in the wrong circumstances.
Today I’d like to wade into potentially controversial waters and talk about when fasting potentially crosses the line into disordered eating territory.
Before You Get Defensive…
If you find yourself feeling defensive already because you enjoy fasting and think that I’m going to suggest that you have a problem, please hold off commenting until the end.
To be clear: I do not think that fasting is inherently disordered. However, its popularity has skyrocketed so rapidly, and its proponents are so enthusiastic, that the potential downsides have been overshadowed. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I have seen plenty of people in mental health and disordered eating circles voice concerns. The ancestral community tends to be very rah-rah about fasting.
The goal for today is to shine a light on this issue so that we don’t go into fasting with a blind spot.
Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating
The prevalence of full-blown eating disorders (ED) is fairly low according to NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. Experts believe biological and/or psychological predispositions make certain individuals vulnerable. These predispositions probably interact with environmental factors to trigger ED.
That said, many more people engage in disordered eating behaviors. The behaviors and their effects are not problematic enough to qualify for diagnosis with ED, but they still negatively affect physical and/or mental health and quality of life. Depending on their severity, they might be considered suboptimal to truly unhealthy.
Before going any further, let me be clear: I’m not in any way trying to diagnose readers with ED or disordered eating. That is way beyond my pay grade. Nor should you self-diagnose. If you want to learn more or get help, the best place to start is with NEDA’s Help & Support center. They have an online screening tool and a helpline there.
As I said, I don’t think fasting is inherently bad. However, NEDA lists fasting among the behaviors that can be indicative of ED. Of course, professionals in the ED and mental health worlds are looking at fasting through the lens of restricting and exercising tight control over food intake. We in the ancestral health space tend to look at it through the lens of optimizing health.
Neither perspective is more correct. It’s all about context:
- why you’re fasting,
- how fasting makes you feel physically and mentally,
- whether it takes over your life,
- if you are using it in a way that is actually undermining your health,
- whether you are taking it “too far” (admittedly a nebulous metric)
As with so many things, deciding if you’ve crossed the line is highly personal. This applies to much more than food. When does worry become anxiety? When does fear become a phobia?
One criteria might be whether fasting causes you distress. Another is whether it interferes with your quality of life, social relationships, and work. This is called the criteria of clinical significance in the DSM-V, the diagnostic tool used by mental health professionals.
It’s often apparent, though not always easy to accept, when a behavior is no longer serving us. Unfortunately, though, it’s not always that simple. When it comes to fasting, it can cross over into problematic territory and still feel good.
Wouldn’t I Know If My Fasting Regime Was Too Much?
Maybe, maybe not. Restricting calories and fasting can lead to elevated mood, increased energy and motivation, and even feelings of euphoria. (Fasting that doesn’t result in a caloric deficit might be less prone to this.)
There are physiological reasons why this might be the case. First, scientists hypothesize that this is an adaptive response. If you were truly starving, this increased energy, drive, and focus would help you redouble your efforts to find food.
There is also some evidence that food restriction affects serotonin and dopamine pathways and can, for some individuals, reduce anxiety. Researchers believe that this is one way anorexic behaviors are reinforced in the brain. Again, fasting and anorexia nervosa are NOT the same animal, but they can share common features. The “high” associated with anorexia nervosa sounds not unlike the profound energy and cognitive benefits that some people report with fasting.
All this is to say, food restriction can feel good. For some people—or more accurately, for some brains—the withholding of food becomes inherently rewarding. In that case, you wouldn’t necessarily recognize when enough is enough.
How Do You Know If You’ve Crossed the Line?
I’m not going to be able to provide a definitive answer here. That said, these seem like potential red flags:
- Fasting makes you feel euphoric. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harmful by any means. Still, take a step back and evaluate whether you are always making healthy choices.
- Your fasting regimen causes distress or significantly interferes with your life.
- You feel like you have to fast or something bad will happen.
- When you eat after a fast, you feel out of control with your food intake or binge.
- You’re ignoring symptoms that might be related to too much fasting: adrenal or thyroid issues, fatigue, hair loss, weakness or inability to perform usual workouts, sleep disturbances, too much weight loss, etc.
Again, I am in no way diagnosing anyone here. If you think that perhaps your behavior has crossed into unhealthy territory, you should seek the counsel of someone trained in these issues.
The Bottom Line
Fasting, though it confers certain health benefits, is not good for every person. Experts recommend that individuals at risk for developing ED or with a history of ED refrain from fasting, including intermittent fasting, altogether. Even if you don’t think you’re at risk, it still might not be in your best interest.
Because fasting is so popular right now, some people think they have to fast for optimal health. They worry that they are missing out on tremendous health benefits if they can’t or don’t want to fast. The main reasons people fast are autophagy, glycemic control, and fat loss. You can achieve all of those goals through means other than fasting.
Remember, too, that you need not rigidly adhere to the same eating window every single day. It is fine to fast stochastically, to borrow from Paleo OG Art De Vany. You might also consider doing one longer fast a few times per year instead of daily intermittent fasting.
In any case, if fasting is wrong for you, it’s wrong for you, period. It doesn’t really matter if your neighbor loves it or the lady in the next cubicle lost 60 pounds with IF. If it negatively impacts your physical and/or mental well-being, it’s not worth it.
And in case this isn’t perfectly clear: Enjoying fasting DOES NOT MEAN that you are doing anything wrong. On the contrary, I hope you are enjoying fasting if it’s a tool you’re using regularly. Feeling great is the goal. If it’s not negatively affecting your physical health, psychological well-being, or social relationships, it’s not problematic. Likewise, if you are consuming enough calories when you do eat, and you’re able to be flexible with your fasting schedule when the situation calls for it, you likely don’t have to worry.
This issue can be hard to talk about because so many people feel passionately about defending their way of eating. Those who question whether fasting is always healthy, or who point out that a desire to eat healthfully can sometimes slip into orthorexia, are accused of “fit shaming.”
However, not talking about it isn’t the answer. Our goal should be to bring these issues into the light and try to better understand them. Then we can make informed decisions about which behaviors best serve us now and in the future.
Related Posts from MDA
- Intermittent Fasting for Women: What We Know Now
- Dear Mark: More on Women and Fasting
- Intermittent Fasting For Athletes: Benefits and Concerns
- 12 Intermittent Fasting Tips for Athletes
- Fasting versus Carb Restriction: Which Works Better for What Scenarios
Kaye, WH, Fudge, JL, Paulus, M. New insights into symptoms and neurocircuit function of anorexia nervosa. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009;10: 573–584.
Kaye WH, Wierenga CE, Bailer UF, Simmons AN, Bischoff-Grethe A. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels: the neurobiology of anorexia nervosa. Trends Neurosci. 2013 Feb;36(2):110-20.
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