Hey you guys.
In the previous parts we talked about the discrepancies between the way we eat, and the way we evolved to eat. We looked at hyperpalatability, food engineering, the role of our hormones and the advantage of whole, unprocessed foods. We asked, and answered the question of whether very low-carb diets, like keto and carnivore are necessary for fat loss. Today we’re going to move on to exercise, sleep and stress-reduction. But first, let’s take a look at fasting, and ask whether that’s a good idea in this context.
The practice of abstaining from food is ingrained in our religious and cultural norms over thousands of years – and for good reason. We’re adapted to feast and famine, and when there’s too much of one or the other, we don’t do so well. As we increasingly moved away from our hunter gatherer origins, and began to take a more organised approach to our food supply, we developed ways of sidestepping the periods of scarcity that had historically balanced our energy intake. It fell largely to religion to re-establish a semblance of that scarcity – to ingrain the practice of fasting to the benefit of our physical, and spiritual health.
As we discussed back in Part 3, we’ve bought in to marketing strategies that convince us that we need three meals, interspersed with snacks throughout the day, without which we will surely perish.
The reality is rather different. Most people simply don’t need to eat more than twice a day, and some do well on one meal, provided they’re able to eat enough in that single sitting to satisfy their nutrient requirements. If we’re healthy, if our hormones are balanced, we find that we can leave far longer gaps between our meals without experiencing hunger. Our body fat does its job of sustaining us until we eat again. By leaving those longer gaps, by keeping insulin low more of the time, we give ourselves a larger window in which to burn fat. And the fewer meals we eat, the less we consume overall: Even if we eat as much as we possibly can in one meal, we’re unlikely to eat as much as we would in three meals, even if we were holding back to some degree.
As we cut processed food and excessive carbohydrates out of our diet, as our metabolic hormones and signalling regulate, as we begin to burn body fat more effectively, so our feeding window tends to shorten – we might not feel the need to eat until lunchtime. This is termed ‘intermittent fasting’ or ‘time-restricted feeding’. A typical strategy might be the ‘16:8’ approach – fasting for sixteen hours, and eating in an eight-hour window. Some reduce that to a four-hour window or even less. While studies show that shifting our meals earlier in the day – skipping dinner rather than breakfast – might hold some slight metabolic advantage, most of us find that a later window fits better with our lifestyle.
Some people skip entire days of eating, or use multi-day fasts, foregoing all food for say three days, or even a week. The idea is that this will encourage the process of autophagy, by which the body begins to recycle its own proteins, targeting dysfunctional cells first. It’s like a spring clean for the body.
So how might fasting affect our fat loss? Well, the danger is that by fasting too much, we negatively affect our old friends, metabolic rate, and lean mass. The last thing we want to do is to signal scarcity, or starvation. Prolonged fasting may be a great way to lose weight, but it’s also a great way to gain it back again.
But there’s an argument that says that despite the use of the term ‘intermittent fasting’, shortening our feeding window a little bit isn’t really fasting. We’re not starving, or necessarily even restricting our intake at all – we’re just eating only when we’re hungry, which seems pretty sensible.
There’s nothing wrong with chopping and changing on a daily basis, eating more or less frequently as we feel we need to. Women particularly might find that they need to adjust their meal frequency in different phases of their reproductive cycle – they might need to eat earlier during the luteal phase.
A related approach that can work very well for fat loss is the Protein Sparing Modified Fast, a term coined by Maria and Craig Emmerich. Again, it’s not really fasting. The idea here is that by focusing on very lean sources of protein, we cut as much energy as possible from our diet, while keeping nutrient intake very high. This encourages our body to take its energy from our fat stores. Now, we can’t live like this day in day out – over time we’d experience a sort of nitrogen toxicity called ‘rabbit starvation’, but we can certainly do it for short periods, and on a regular basis. The great advantage of this over traditional fasting, is that when we keep our protein intake high, we don’t break down our muscle mass.
So compressing our feeding window a bit is typically a good idea. But are there scenarios in which we do need to eat early, and often? Problems tend to arise when people become overzealous, combining one meal a day, brutal Crossfit workouts, calorie restriction and cold exposure. These compounding stressors can lead to a state of depletion that needs to be undone. Some people are already suffering from hormonal issues, like hypothyroid, and might need to be wary of any further stressors. And it’s also worth noting that if our only goal is to build as much muscle as humanly possible, we may choose to follow the body building approach of eating often throughout the day, hitting that crucial 3g of leucine at each meal in order to maximise muscle protein synthesis.
Talking of body building, what about exercise?
It might seem surprising that I’ve come almost to the end of this series before delving into exercise. For most of us, the notion of fat loss conjures up two images. The first involves us morosely picking at a salad – one that consists mainly of lettuce and cucumber, and the second features the torture of daily runs, during which, if it would only allow us to stop, our death would be little more than a minor inconvenience.
But the reason I haven’t mentioned cardio exercise earlier is because it just isn’t that important. It isn’t necessary for fat loss, and actually I’d go further, and suggest that, to some extent, it should be avoided. Let me explain:
Large amounts of steady state cardio exercise requires a lot of calories. That’s why we’ve been told that it’s the best way to burn fat. The problem is that our bodies are frugal – they see a problem with this huge energy bill. Imagine the cost of your electricity suddenly increases by £1000 a month. Your savings are being eaten away, and you know that if you don’t do something, you will eventually run out of money. What do you do? Well, you reduce the amount of electricity you’re using – try to become as efficient as possible; you reduce your other domestic outgoings, saving money wherever you can; and you try to increase your income, to top up your bank account by looking for any extra sources of cash.
Your body does exactly the same: It adapts to the demand you’ve introduced to make you more efficient at steady state cardio – it minimises the amount of calories you require in order to perform that exercise. It also reduces your other outgoings by downregulating your metabolic rate, reducing the amount of metabolically expensive, heavy muscle mass that you’re carrying around. It shuts down other processes that aren’t needed in the short term – like the production of sex hormones. And because it’s on the hunt for more income, it makes you hungry – it asks for more fuel.
So here’s what happens – we get on the treadmill, and run for an hour or more until it says that we’ve burned a thousand calories. OK, firstly we haven’t burned a thousand calories, because the treadmill’s pants are on fire. We’ve probably burned half that, maybe a bit more, and in doing that on a regular basis, we push our body to become more efficient at it, and make savings elsewhere. Our true deficit is therefore less than five hundred calories, but we think it’s a thousand, and now we’re starving. So on the way out of the gym, we grab a granola bar and a latte, and all of a sudden, that hour of running might as well not have happened. We could have achieved the same result by not training at all. We are literally running to stand still.
But wait…maybe we’re more controlled than that. Maybe we’re counting calories pretty strictly, and we’re not gullible enough to believe the treadmill’s optimistic assessment of our endeavours. We skip the snacks, and we do lose weight – fast. But we’re going to wind up with less muscle, more energy efficiency, and a lower metabolic rate – we’re going to be smaller, but also weaker. We’re going to shrink, but we’re going to need far fewer calories to maintain our new weight. We’re going to drop clothing sizes, but we’re going to be hungry, and we’re going to need to run even more if we want to enjoy the same amount of food. We wind up in an unsustainable spiral of trying to buy food, with exercise. And when we ultimately regain that weight, we add fat far more easily than we add muscle. So in the end, we wind up at the same size, but now with less muscle, and a lower metabolic rate.
Let me paint a different picture:
If we focus our efforts on resistance training, on sending our bodies a message that they need to be stronger, our muscle mass will increase, our metabolic rate will rise, and we’ll become less efficient with our calories. Our body won’t see the need to make savings. We will maintain a calorie deficit more easily by virtue of our metabolically expensive muscle mass. We will get stronger and leaner, and we will be able to keep eating as we do so.
If we want to, we could also do some periodic high-intensity cardio exercise. Short, sharp sessions of just a few minutes, where we give our best effort sprinting, rowing or cycling. It’s going to make us fitter, and despite the intensity, it’s a lot easier to face a ten minute sprint session once a week, than an hour on the treadmill every day.
Around that we want to be as active as possible. We can gently increase our energy expenditure by walking, taking the stairs, being on our feet. We can look for opportunities to regularly increase our non-exercise activity throughout the day. It’s far better to be generally active than it is to run for six miles and then sit in front of a computer for ten hours.
Before we move on, it’s worth just reiterating that it’s extremely difficult to assign a specific number of calories to a given exercise session. If we are counting calories at times, we’re better off ignoring exercise in our calculations, and focusing instead on finding a daily calorie allowance that works overall.
So the takeaway point here is that in order to lose fat, we should focus on building muscle. Not only does it better suit our goals, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to be skinny and weak, we want to be lean and strong.
Back in Part 3 we discussed the hormone cortisol, its relationship with poor sleep, and how insufficient sleep is enough to derail our fat loss all by itself. We need to be getting between seven and nine hours of restful sleep every night, and a great number of us are struggling to do so – I didn’t sleep more than an hour at a time for years. The topic of sleep is a series all of its own, but for now, let’s look at a few tips that can help us:
First and foremost, if we’re drinking any caffeine at all, at any time of day, it’s worth excluding it for a few weeks to see what happens. I have the utmost sympathy with anyone who loves their coffee as much as I did, but some of us don’t clear it quickly enough. After three years without coffee, I recently tried some delicious decaf beans that a friend recommended. I didn’t sleep for two days. We need to be wary of decaf, wary of pre-workout shakes, and wary of tea – particularly green tea, like matcha. We must assume that caffeine is a problem, until we can prove to ourselves that it isn’t. I know that isn’t going to be a popular suggestion.
We must avoid alcohol, and I know that isn’t going to be popular either. If there’s one thing that reliably interferes with sleep, it’s alcohol. By forcing our body to deal with that toxin, we delay the processes of rest and recovery. Again, I do understand why some people might be resistant to the suggestion, and why they seek solace in the narrative that alcohol is actually helping them drift off, but it is up there with caffeine as one of the most potent disruptors of restful sleep. You could also argue that the last thing we need on a fat loss journey is lack of inhibition and a source of empty calories.
We must try to avoid eating too close to bedtime. We don’t want our blood glucose to be rising as we go to bed, and we don’t want our digestive system to be running on overdrive as we try to sleep. Obviously this can be a challenge if we’re doing shift work, or if we live in a country where cultural norms dictate a very late evening meal, but if we can, it’s better to leave a few hours between our last meal and bedtime.
We want to keep our bedroom cool, dark and quiet. It’s surprising how light coming in around the curtains can interfere with our sleep.
Snoring, or some degree of obstructive sleep apnoea is an extremely common problem that affects not only our sleep, but that of any partner that might share our bed. If these problems are severe, they can be dangerous, and require medical intervention, but for most of us, there’s a simpler solution in the form of mouth taping: By sticking a small piece of micropore tape over our lips, we will breathe through our nose rather than through our mouth. It can take a little getting used to, but it’s quite safe, and can transform the quality of our sleep.
It’s also worth trying to sleep on our side rather than our back, because that encourages our lower jaw to sit forward, preventing it from receding and closing our airway. There are pillows that can make this position more comfortable. Some people sleep with a tennis ball fixed in the small of their back, so that they will always settle on their side as they move around during the night.
We need to be wary of too much blue light from backlit devices late in the evening. We can use night modes where possible, and avoid looking at our phones during the night – a bedside clock is a better way to check the time.
If I wake in the night, mind-racing, agonising about the past and worrying about the future, I use the following trick: I visualise a fast, reactive physical activity, one where I don’t have much time to think, but instead just automatically react. My favourites are a game of table tennis, or running, slightly out of control, down a rocky mountain path. What this does is to shut off that analytical prefrontal cortex, and often, the next thing I know, I’m waking several hours later.
In the same way that a lack of sleep negatively affects our fat loss, the excessive cortisol associated with chronic stress presents us with a stumbling block. It’s well worth using a regular meditation practice to protect us, both physically and mentally. I always struggled with any attempts to meditate, until I came across Emily Fletcher’s Ziva method. It’s meditation for people who don’t meditate, and it’s a life-changer.
I might also offer the suggestion that a great deal of stress can come from a preoccupation with global issues that are beyond our direct control. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to shrink my world. I stop reading the news, and focus on what’s happening today, to my family in our immediate bubble. By reducing the scope, and time frame that I’m allowing myself to worry about, life can suddenly seem a lot more manageable.
I had planned for this to be the last part of the series, but in writing it, I discovered that I had so many tips and tricks to share with you, that they required an episode all of their own. So next time, we’ll be talking about all those little things that can make all the difference to our success.
For now, keep cooking.
Disclaimer: I am not qualified to give any sort of medical or dietary advice, and nothing in this material should be considered as such. The opinions expressed here are my own, and for the purposes of discussion only. Please consult a qualified medical professional before undertaking changes to your diet.
Cardiovascular response to short-term fasting in menstrual phases in young women: An observational study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26311347/
Early time-restricted feeding improves 24-hour glucose levels and affects markers of the circadian clock, aging and autophagy in humans: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31151228/Autophagy: cellular and molecular mechanisms: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20225336/
Protein Sparing Modified Fast Cookbook, by Maria Emmerich: https://keto-adapted.com/product/protein-sparing-modified-fast-cookbook/
Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16424142/
Why is lifting weights better than doing cardio: https://www.mindpumpmedia.com/blog/why-is-lifting-weights-better-than-doing-cardio
Ecosafeter Contour Memory Foam Pillow: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07CK62SSQ/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Ziva Meditation Website: www.zivameditation.com
Alcohol And Sleep: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep