Skipping meals was once fitness heresy. Throughout the 90s, it was a widely held belief that if you wanted to get into shape, then you had to eat 6 meals a day, at regular intervals, to keep the metabolism purring like a well-groomed feline. If you went without protein for longer than 3 hours, then unspeakable things would happen to your body as you enter the inner circle of catabolism and experience soul destroying loss of gains.
A man named Ori Hofmekler published his Warrior Diet, which rejected the notion that this was the correct approach. He built a pseudo-historical thesis on the idea that elite warriors, Roman centurions in particular, subsisted on meagre rations throughout the day and a hearty feast in the evening. He proposed a 4-hour feeding window.
After this, Martin Berkhan, the godfather of intermittent fasting, pioneered a 16/8 Leangains approach to dieting. More than anyone, he challenged the status quo of multiple meal feedings being superior to restricted feeding windows. Crucially, he did this by referencing scientific papers rather than referencing historical anecdote.
Brad Pilon, operating at roughly the same time as Berkhan, released his book Eat, Stop, Eat, a fasting manifesto which explored a lot of the data around fasting.
More recent incarnations of these approaches are the 5/2 diet where you eat normally for 5 days and then severely restrict your food for 2.
Most of the benefits associated with fasting seem to be centred on the process of autophagy. A fasting state triggers this cellular clean-up process and helps to optimize cellular repair and mitochondrial function.
The idea is that there are discrete benefits to fasting above and beyond the calorie restriction aspect.
Episodic periods of scarcity are more beneficial for the body than chronically low-calorie diets.
Should you consider fasting?
If you’re interested in weight loss, then intermittent fasting might be for you. You might be able to limit your eating window and not focus on calories or macros and still lose weight. However, this will still ultimately be because of a calorie deficit.
Indeed, so far, there is no proven advantage to intermittent fasting versus simply eating well and following a calorie deficit.
If anything, intermittent fasting could exacerbate an existing issue with food and legitimize disordered eating patterns.
At the same time, as a concept, it can be liberating for someone who has developed an orthorexic attachment to meals and tries to eat what seems like all hours of the day.
Context is everything.
Where you’ve come from when you encounter something like fasting will dictate whether it is a poison or a cure for you.
Most people need more structure with their diets and a better basic understanding of macronutrients and food quality.
If you’re a well-muscled athlete who trains hard multiple times per week, then you might struggle to fit in enough food in a shortened eating window. Just as it might accidentally place someone in a calorie deficit, so it might make it very difficult for a hard training athlete to consume sufficient calories to fuel their training.
The major advantage of fasting is not having to worry about food. It’s liberating. You can be more productive, as you’re not panicking about eating. Whilst most people benefit from more structure initially, for many people, this can become a source of stress.
So, what should your next steps be
Firstly, consider shortening your eating window- don’t jump in at 16/8, there will be a considerable benefit to practicing a 12/12 split or 14/10 split. For many people, setting some arbitrary time restrictions works well as a way of regulating and limiting calorie intake.
Secondly, match activity levels with intake. Add more food in around training and less on non-training days.
Finally, understand that meal frequency really comes down to preference and practicality. Do you like eating 6 meals a day? If you’d rather eat 3 larger meals, then do that.
Is it practical to consume 200 grams of protein in 2 meals per day? Maybe not, in which case you’ll probably benefit from more mealtimes.