When you paint topics with too broad of a brush typically that discredits the overall topic. This has not been the case for Lauren Brooks article on Intermittent Fasting (I will refer to it as IF for the rest of the article). In the article she compares IF to an eating disorder and suggests that literally “ALL” women that are fasting are opening themselves up to hormonal damage and uses one blog post as well as a few studies that anecdotally seem to make her point. The problems with the article are many but the basic problem is that IF is not one single system. She is not very specific about which version of IF she is critiquing and therefore the article does not really warrant serious consideration. Firstly though I think we need to have a discussion about why women turn to IF in the first place.
Here is the link to Lauren’s article http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/train-man-eat-woman
Losing fat is a hard endeavor
The majority of my clients are women, so I am keenly aware of the struggles and differences between the sexes. Evolution did not do women any favors either, mobilizing fat can be a real challenge. Which brings us to the real problem these women are having, dieting too extremely is usually a bad idea. If anyone has ever been on Weight Watchers you know what I mean. You start off reducing food intake and you lose a few pounds and then you stall, the obvious answer seems to be to reduce calories further and that is exactly what gets recommended. If you have more than a few pounds to lose the end of the journey has you extremely calorie restricted, hormonally damaged but yes, as a side result your fat cells are more emptied than they were.
So let’s be clear about what we are talking about here because the problem is not IF, the problem is extreme restriction. No one calls someone like me looking to lose 20 pounds over a years time, they typically want to know if it’s possible in a weeks time. If you have not had a discussion with someone that has literally tried everything but always ends up in failure I can tell you personally it is humbling. So I know that the article Lauren wrote comes from a good place but let’s be clear, if you are someone that helps people lose fat and one of your tools is IF it’s hard not to take her article a little personal.
One size rarely fits all
I will discuss three styles of IF that are very popular. There is Brad Pilon’s “Eat stop Eat” where you fast for 24 hours, Ori Hofmekler’s “Warrior Diet” where you eat one meal a day and last but not least is Martin Berkhan’s Leangains where you eat in a window. While Lauren mentioned the Warrior Diet specifically in her article it is the Leangains system that most people consider to be the most useful, especially women. As a standard recommendation Martin recommends that women eat in a fourteen hour window and not the sixteen hour window that he recommends for men. So already you see that there are concessions to account for the differences between men and women. If you have ever read a book on Intermittent Fasting what you basically get is a brief explanation of the system and then an extensive explanation on how to customize the diet for your needs. So it would be ludicrous to think that any of these authors or any IF proponent would subject their clients to extreme measures that would hurt them. How it actually works is that you have to be able to customize things for each client and in the end IF is not correct for everyone. That might seem to back up what she is saying but it really is the opposite. Also as you tweak and customize eating plans for people you need to have an alternative method, one was not really provided.
Let me provide an alternative for women struggling with IF
The reason why two of the authors recommend fasting throughout the day is simple. When you wake up your body has used many of your stored nutrients. So what you eat or do not eat when you wake up makes a very big difference as it relates to fat mobilization throughout the day. This is why I recommend avoiding eating when you first wake up (if you can, for some people this just is not an option and you simply need a strategy that works with their reality). So now we get into the debate of how long you should wait and that answer is person dependent but I can assure you that it’s your overall choices regarding restriction that are the real problems from a hormonal perspective. Let me also be clear that “skipping breakfast” is and never was the problem, for most people the real culprit is the choices they make as their first meal. Lauren uses as an example of a Paleo blogger that used Leangains and it led to poor food choices that caused various issues (acne and bingeing). That article actually does a great job of pointing out why you should not do IF without some guidance because it’s the small details that matter greatly. What people really want from IF is a system that allows them to make poor life and food choices without repercussions, I have bad news it does not do that.
There is another important point to the pitfalls of IF, you can not eat in an unrestricted way with any system and not have some consequences. The same can be said for the opposite which is the real problem that many of the women struggling with IF are having. A lot of it goes back to previous dieting experiences where a caloric deficit is used as a means of controlling weight. So rather than eating mostly whole foods people tend to start IF make poor food choices. Once they realize they are not getting results with those poor food choices they do what they have learned from previous diet experiences and start eating less of those poor food choices. Some people even take it further and start extending their eating window past the point of being comfortable. The basic idea being if the current hammer is not working maybe a bigger hammer will work better.
That is what ultimately leads to hormonal damage.
There are three tools I use when women struggle with a bigger fasting window. The first is simple, shorten the window (my current recommendations are actually closer to 12 hours as a general rule which means if you stop eating at 9pm and wake up at 6am you have breakfast at 9am). The second tool is to use a ketogenic approach to eating as a way to continue fat mobilization throughout the morning and sometimes throughout the day. Basically I have people eat fats and proteins for breakfast. The predominant food choices being whole foods. Lastly if clients continue to struggle we try a more balanced approach with all of their meals. None of this is magic, what works for some does not work for others. You simply tweak to find what works best.
You should treat your diet with more care than your exercise
I am both a personal trainer and a nutrition coach. My real interests lie in nutrition coaching because it’s just a more complex topic. It is also the best way to ensure results. We are coming up on the holiday season where people will over indulge and after the new year personal trainers will be in high demand. Nutrition coaches, not as much. For most people their approach will be the same strategy, try and eat less and move more. I would just like to put this out there, maybe that strategy is not working and you should talk to someone that knows what they are doing. Lauren Brooks clearly knows what she is doing and I suspect that when she works with clients she takes a different approach than she did in her IF article. She tries to find what works off of some baseline that she uses and tweaks from there. Her article would be similar to me writing an article about why kettlebell books and DVD’s are bad for people’s health. Not only would that not be true but it misses the greater point that topics related to diet and exercise need to be handled in a more encompassing manner and with extreme care.