Debunking Fasting Myths
The mainstream fitness and nutrition industry would have you believe that the best way to lose pounds or maintain a healthy weight is to eat many small meals throughout the day, ideally all of which are low in calories and fat. This method is incredibly painstaking and requires a lot of preparation, which is why many people ditch it completely and opt for meal-in-a-box programs like Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers. These diets follow the same small meal/low fat prescription, except with expensive, prepackaged, poor quality ingredients.
What’s unfortunate is that people go through all of the trouble to heed this type of diet advice when it really isn’t necessary to eat that frequently. Unless you’re trying to gain mass or you’re a world class athlete training most of every day, there’s no need to eat constantly. The following are a few myths which are continuously perpetuated regarding meal timing and fasting. Martin Berkhan over at Leangains does a tremendous job debunking them in this article.
- Eat frequently to stoke the metabolic fire
- Eat smaller meals for hunger control
- Eat smaller meals to keep blood sugar under control
- Fasting tricks the body into ’starvation mode’
- You need a steady supply of protein every 2-3 hours
- Fasting causes muscle loss
- Skipping breakfast will make you fat
- Fasting increases cortisol (the stress hormone)
Martin deftly shoots holes in all of these myths that are often thought of as stone cold facts by a lot of people. The truth is that we evolve from ancestors who never had a clear idea of when their next meal would arrive. While they could get by on berries and grubs, it may have been days between large feasts on hunted game. Our bodies have developed an excellent mechanism of controlling blood sugar and energy even in the absence of food. Through the process of gluconeogenesis, our bodies can synthesize glucose from protein and fat, so we’re able to maintain sustained energy even through long periods of fasting.
The key to making this process work effectively is by eating the right food and controlling your insulin levels. The reason most people need so many small meals throughout the day is because they’re addicted to sugar and grains, which wreaks havoc on their insulin sensitivity and hormones involved with hunger. They spike their insulin with large hits of carbohydrate and experience a crash a few hours later that is accompanied by pangs of hunger. If instead you base your meals around protein, vegetables, quality fat, and natural starches like sweet potato and rice, you’ll slowly improve your insulin sensitivity over time. By eating this way, you’ll be able to take more and more time between meals without feeling hungry or even thinking about food. This is a very freeing experience because you don’t need to always be concerned about where and when your next meal will be. You can have a large, healthy breakfast and potentially work all the way through lunch and not eat until dinner without much ill effect on your energy.
Structuring Meals Around Workouts
Once you’ve established the fact that the frequency of your meals is not the end all, be all for your health and energy levels, you can start structuring your diet more toward performance. If you CrossFit on a regular basis, it’s important to use your meals as a good recovery tool so you can repair your muscles and connective tissue after a workout. In the post workout window, the muscles are also very sensitive to glucose, so getting a good dose of carbohydrate will help fill them with glycogen, ensuring more adequate recovery.
Through trial and error, I’ve found that one of the best ways to maintain great health and performance is to take in a majority of my daily calories before and after training. A good meal of protein, carbs, and fat about 2-3 hours before a workout won’t leave you too full, but will give you a good dose of energy to tackle the WOD. Afterwards, try to get in some high quality protein and starch as quickly as you can, with a bit of fat. Steak and sweet potatoes is a great option, as is chicken and rice. Have either with a bit of olive oil or butter. A large protein filled salad with a few pieces of fruit will suffice too. If you’ve been eating the right way for a while, this meal should hold you over for a while and allow your body to recover the right way. As you get further from the workout, the meals can be more and more sparse, consisting of protein and veggies. Some paleo folks have gotten to the point where they eat about 80% of their carbohydrates either before or after their workout, having very little for the rest of the day. This can be a great way to maximize performance and recovery while also maintaining a very healthy diet.