Chris Moyles from I’m a Celeb might have brought intermittent fasting back into the news, but Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi’s been doing the 16:8 fast a go for a while – here’s why.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have come across lots of chatter around intermittent fasting. Why? Because one of the contestants on I’m a Celebrity… credits fasting for his health transformation. But while he’s been boasting the benefits, other studies and experts have come out against intermittent fasting (IF) in recent times. On Instagram, run coaches warn runners against skipping breakfast, while there has been research to suggest that the benefits of fasting for women aren’t quite as powerful as they are for men.
And worth it’s flagging that anyone with a history of disordered eating or who feels uncomfortable controlling habits around food should avoid fasting, I’ve tried (a very moderate form of) IF, and found that it can have a positive impact on energy and concentration.
As a morning runner, I’ve been brought up thinking that an early bowl of oats or pots of chia pudding are the way to gain speed, strength and health. But there are plenty of other runners, weight lifters, CrossFitters and athletes who swear by fasting for energy, concentration and metabolic health boosts.
While many intermittent fasting advocates enthuse about its ability to reverse type 2 diabetes, obesity and some symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome, is there anything to be gained from skipping breakfast if you’re not at risk from a metabolic disorder?
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What is intermittent fasting?
There are loads of different types of fasting, from 48-hour water fasts to OMAD (One Meal A Day) and the better-known 5:2. The less extreme yet equally beneficial fast that more people might be familiar with is the 16:8 fast, in which you eat during an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16. It might sound daunting but all it really means is skipping breakfast and finishing your dinner by 8pm.
As with any kind of fasting, the idea is to give your system a total break from digestion. It takes around 12 hours for your system to digest all the grub you consume, which means that if you’re grazing all day, your body is constantly working to process that energy. By giving yourself a 16-hour food-free period, you’re allowing the body to relax after finishing that cycle – reducing inflammation and stress. For people like me who suffer from acid reflux and bloating, fasting can be a way to grant us a reprieve and reduce our symptoms, which can wreak havoc on our workouts.
A review of past animal and human studies in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that intermittent fasting can reduce blood pressure, aid in weight loss and improve longevity. While many studies have concentrated on the benefits that fasting can have for diabetic people in stabilising blood sugar and losing weight, a 2016 study found that eight weeks of 16:8 fasting helped a group of men retain muscle while strength training – meaning that contrary to what some might believe, muscle fibres can grow or stabilise if you train without the omnipresence of protein shakes and meals.
However, there are downsides to fasting. Disordered eating habits aside, almost 40% of people who were assigned to a fasting diet dropped out of a 2017 JAMA study – suggesting that the majority of people find it really hard to stick with.
So, I decided to give it a go for four weeks to see just how easy it was to follow and whether it was worth the faff. Here’s how it impacted my health and fitness:
Benefits of intermittent fasting
More motivation to workout in the morning
In normal times, I’m a morning exerciser, but during lockdown, I’ve taken to working out at lunchtime. There’s something totally luxurious about taking 45 minutes to run in the sun – knowing that your shower and kitchen is a 20-second walk from your desk when you get home. But deciding to skip breakfast meant reverting back to morning workouts as I wasn’t sure how much energy I’d have by 1pm. However lovely it is to move at lunchtime, I remembered how accomplished and switched on I felt from sweating first thing.
Normally after a morning run, I’d refuel with breakfast so that took a bit of time to get used to. By 9am, I’d be sitting at my desk with a mug of black coffee and my vitamins and know that I’d have to wait another four hours before eating something solid – not the most comfortable of feelings. But, I couldn’t deny that I felt totally switched on and alert, thanks to my morning workout.
Increased energy before lunch
11am tends to be the first dip of the day but because I’ve not been having a sugar dip, there’s been no crashing. I only really became aware of the difference in energy and concentration in week three, when I had breakfast in anticipation of going on a long run one lunchtime.
To prepare, I had a good, carb-heavy breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and a piece of toast and then set to work for a few hours. For the first time in weeks, my mind was everywhere but my work – something that only got worse when my plans changed and I could no longer go on my run. Had I really been this all over the place before, when I used to eat this sort of breakfast as standard? I put it down to having an intense sugar surge and dip which is fine when you’re working hard but rubbish for rest days.
Fewer hunger pangs
You’d think that fasting would mean feeling more hungry, but actually, the reverse is true. Sometimes I’ve woken up feeling super hungry (the morning after a half marathon, for example), but the moment I start to move, the feeling goes away. I’m rarely hungry before lunch and if I am, I fill up on herbal teas or a warm turmeric milk (which isn’t strictly in the fasting rules but is a tasty anti-inflammatory). The one thing I have noticed is that having breakfast at the weekends has become a lot harder. I often have to eat my porridge around 7am if I want to be out on the road by 9am and it’s in recent weeks, I’ve really had to force myself to eat at that time.
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Less time faffing around
It’s obvious but one notable difference has been the time saved in the morning. It takes two minutes to make a coffee but about 15 minutes to make breakfast – which I used to eat while going through my emails. Now, I can just take a tray of drinks to my desk and take a proper food break at lunchtime where I eat my lunch away from my laptop. More quality time to enjoy meals, less time spent fiddling around in the morning.
Only good changes in terms of training
I’ve not noticed any negative difference in my strength or speed. In fact, I ran my fastest 5km for about three years during this challenge. For the past few months, I’ve been following a running programme on Garmin Connect which finished with a virtual 5km race. I’d tested myself a few weeks before (while eating breakfast) so that I could see how much I’d improved and knocked off over a minute, finishing in 23:29 minutes. I felt so good – which no doubt was down to the programme and training, but also the fact that I’d had a good pasta meal the night before and felt light on my toes that morning.
Negatives of intermittent fasting
The only real issue has been that it’s harder to eat breakfast when I need to. If I’m strength training, it’s usually for 40-50 minutes in the morning. Mid-week runs tend to be between 6-8km but on a Saturday, I run anywhere between 10 and 24km. It’s totally normal for me to workout and run in a fasted state for short periods of time but you need proper fuel to run a half marathon or over and so, I always try to have a bowl of oats at 7am – two hours ahead of setting out on the road.
That long-run breakfast tradition always served me well until I started intermittent fasting. These days, it feels so much harder to force down food that early in the day and I feel like it takes longer to digest properly. Perhaps it’s psychological but early breakfasts aren’t nearly as enjoyable as they used to be.
Is it worth sticking with intermittent fasting?
I’m sharper, faster and more concentrated during the day – and I’ve managed to cut back to one cup of coffee a day as a result. I’m less hungry if anything, and now enjoy my morning smoothie as a post-lunch dessert. As for my training, I find that working out in the morning is such a great habit because it sets my mind up for the day. I’ve only noticed good differences in how I perform over shorter distances, and I’m certainly no less strong for waiting a few hours to refuel.
Monday-Friday, 16:8 really suits me and the way I work out. Perhaps it also largely depends on what you eat, rather than the timings. I’m sure, for example, if you eat a protein-rich breakfast that is very low in sugar, you won’t experience huge hikes and hips in concentration but many of us do enjoy carb-heavy meals. But life is for the living and sometimes, there’s nothing like breakfast in bed on a Sunday morning. For me, it’s made me appreciate the power and enjoyment of food much more – particularly how it can transform my running potential.
The point here is that this doesn’t have to be restrictive. I may have stopped having breakfast but I’m eating the same number of calories a day and eating exactly the same kind of good – just in a different order. This isn’t a diet or a weight loss programme (necessarily) but in my case at least, is just a more functional way of eating to keep my energy high and mind focussed throughout the week.
Interested in picking up some simple and nutritious recipes? Make sure you check out the rest of our meal ideas in the SWTC library.
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