Lose Weight the FAST Way

Guys, I’ve written on this topic before – but I feel it bears repeating, so stay with me if you think you’ve heard what I have to say about the “silver bullet” of weight loss (yep, it exists) called Intermittent Fasting.

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Intermittent Fasting (shortened to IF for the duration of this post) simply means not eating during a specific period of time throughout the day, then “feeding” (eating) during a small window of time.  The type of IF that I do is 8 hours on, 16 hours off, which means that I eat for 8 waking hours of each day, then do not eat again for 16 hours, save for coffee (legit) and beer (not so legit, but LAY OFF ME it’s my own body, ok?).

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During those eight hours, I eat relatively clean (mostly salads, sandwiches, rice-and-veg dishes, or tuna on avocado) but not impeccably so – I have been known to throw down some pizza, burgers, or cookies on occasion (and by “occasion” I mean “at least once every week I totally eat these foods”).

In addition, and again by personal choice, I eat low-carb for one week out of each month (typically the last week) to maintain my ideal body composition (ratio of fat: muscle).

In doing this, and only this (though truth be told, I am a personal trainer and so by necessity spend many, many active hours in and out of the gym every day), I managed to lose 22 pounds (10KG) from last September to present.  A lot of clients and friends have asked me how I did it, and I am being completely transparent when I say it was IF and not much else (my workout routine, sleep habits, and social life have all remained the same).

So why does IF work so well?

If you think about the “eating several small meals a day” thing, consider that the glycogen roller coaster – you eat food, your body uses the food for fuel, you eat food again, your body uses the food again.  Sure, you are continuously eating and burning (assuming you are a perfect human being whose caloric intake and output are in exact balance, cough cough), but you are never actually attacking your body’s fat stores – and never training your body about how to convert fat to energy.

Frequent Small Meals

See, by continuing to feed the body over all of your waking hours, you are only training your body to produce more and more insulin – which can lead to increased abdominal fat storage (yuck), insulin resistance (uh oh) and eventually even diabetes (NOPE) and metabolic syndrome (worst of them all).  By never giving your body a chance to actually mobilize and utilize fat (versus glucose) for energy, and so it never does, and this results in you thinking, “why am I eating these tiny tiny meals but NOT losing any weight?”

Frustrating.

Luckily, by feeding yourself larger meals in a smaller period, you give the body a) the lovely and wonderful feeling of satiety (no more 250-calorie “mini meals”), b) tons of fuel-based energy during the feeding hours, and c) a metabolic kick in the ass by waiting until your body actually needs fuel to feed it.  Not bad for something that takes little to no effort (other than, uh, watching the clock?), is completely free, and fits into a busy person’s lifestyle (and often makes healthy eating even easier, since you don’t really need to worry about that whole “breakfast” thing anymore) really well.

The last common question I get from clients is do I fast every single day – and the answer, dear readers, is yes.  I find that it makes more sense for me to stick to IF as part of a lifestyle, much like sticking to a bedtime or an exercise program or flossing or any other healthy habit, rather than treating it like a fad or a temporary “quick fix.”  I’ve been fasting fairly religiously (save one week traveling in Japan and a couple drunken late nights here and there) since January and I find that it is the easiest and most effective weight control strategy I have ever used or recommended – and you can quote me on that.

If you are looking for a ton more science behind why and how people fast, this article has it all laid out for you, and you can even download a free 5-page starter kit from James Clear here if you are confused about how to get started on IF.

Let me know if you’ve tried – or would try – IF, and how fasting worked for you!

IF You Want to Lose Weight

A couple of months ago I realized that I had a big race coming up – the Ragnar SoCal ULTRA, to be specific – and concurrently realized I’d done barely any real running training toward that goal.  Add to that the fact that I was hovering around 5 pounds heavier than my driver’s license weight, and you can imagine I was motivated to do something about it.

fatty

There are three distinct ways I’ve successfully lost weight in the past.  One is clean eating, the likes of which I detailed in my ROCKtober and GOALvember posts from late last year.  A second was a short but notable period of my early twenties where I began taking a diet pill that has since been pulled from the market for being highly dangerous (and did I mention I was highly stupid in my early twenties?  Weren’t we all?).

The third way I first tried about a year and a half ago, called intermittent fasting (IF).  There are many different ways to try IF, and some strategies work better depending on your lifestyle, preferences, activity level, and general habits.  Some of the main ways to do it are as follows:

fasting

The eight-hour diet.  This is the method I use, which I find the easiest.  Basically, you choose which eight hours of the day in which to “feed” – and fast the remaining sixteen.  For my lifestyle, I allow beverages during the fast, including coconut water, soymilk lattes, and yes, beer and wine, but abstain from eating actual food outside the feeding hours (which for me are typically 11-7, but vary based on my dinner plans and workouts).

The 24-hour fast.  One day per week, abstain from eating.  Yep, that’s it.  Give your body a day without food, then return to normal (presumably healthy) eating habits.  Most people like to time the fast to coincide with the greatest number of sleeping hours, starting after dinner one and breaking fast with a slightly later dinner the next day.

One and done.  Also known as the “warrior diet,” this mimics the great hunters’ feasts of days gone by and requires the dieter to eat one (GIANT!) meal per night – and that’s it.  The timing and composition of the meal is more crucial here since it’s a one-time shot, so be prepared to focus on multiple servings of veggies, lots of protein, and a big dose of fat.

Fast cycling.  Combining elements of a few other IF methods, this one allows one complete and utter cheat day (woot!) along with a 36-hour fasting period (not-so-woot), plus another 4.5 days of regular clean eating (low-carb, high-protein, and lots of produce).  Supplements are also a focus of this program, especially during the 36-hour fast.

Day-on, day-off.  Also called alternate-day fasting, this variation alternates high-calorie or “normal” days (2000-2500 calories) with low-calorie or “fasting” days (400-500 calories).  The idea is that reducing calories on the fasting days actually provides health benefits similar to eating less on a daily basis, even if the foods are not clean.

I’m sure there are lots of way to do it, but as with exercise, the two most crucial points are consistency and adherence.  If you fast one day, binge the next, don’t eat for two days, and then have a couple normal days, your body gets confused.  What’s important in IF is choosing a strategy, planning for it, and sticking to it – which, again like exercise, is where most people fall short.

My strategy is pretty sound and it definitely works for me – I’ve lost 15 pounds over the past two months, 19 pounds overall since my highest weight reached here in Singapore, and I have more energy, better sleep, a more efficient digestive system, clearer skin, and my body fat is at 16 percent – all because of IF.  I am also running some of my fastest miles (but here, I’d definitely credit the training rather than the IF) and feeling stronger than ever during workouts.

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So what exactly does a day in the life of a semi-strict IF’er look like?  Here’s mine:

  • Wake up between 5:30-6:30.  Drink a bottle of water or coconut water, depending on how “festive” a night I had prior
  • Go about my morning business, which is either a starvation run, teaching group exercise class, or training clients
  • Grab a venti soy latte around 9:30-10am and bask in its blissful deliciousness
  • Eat lunch between 11-11:30, consisting of a can of water-packed tuna mixed with Greek yogurt (3 days per week) or a good part of a rotisserie chicken (4 days per week) and dou miou or salad
  • Take a 30-minute nap around 2pm to reset and recharge
  • Wake up and grab my fave snack, hummus and crackers, and a couple squares of my favorite Vietnamese dark chocolate, Marou
  • Make dinner around 6pm, focusing on whatever is healthy (like salmon and a sweet potato) or whatever is delicious (noodles! rice!) depending on whether I’m headed out drinking that night – either way, finishing up before 7pm
  • Either go to bed around 10pm like a wonderful and responsible human being, or:
  • Go out, enjoy 2-4 beers or glasses of wine, and feel no guilt.

Some of the benefits of this lifestyle for me are the fact that I can still enjoy normal food in normal amounts (my days total between 1500-1800 calories) and never feel lightheaded or hangry like I might with other diets (like juice cleanses).  I have my soy latte toward the end of the fast, when the hunger is most urgent, and it provides the “bump” I need to get through to lunch, at which point I bask in the fact that I have eight hours of glorious eating ahead of me.

Moreover, when I need the fuel the most – during the day, when I’m active – it’s there, and then my calorie intake wanes as my body prepares to shut down for sleep – just as nature intended.  Also, after not eating for 16 hours, you really have an acute understanding of what biological hunger symptoms feel like – and it has helped me kick the joint habits of a) boredom eating and b) drunk eating without feeling deprived or frustrated.

I’m not a doctor, and I’m sure as heck not a dietitian (although both groups agree that there are myriad health benefits to IF), which is why I don’t “prescribe” IF to my clients.  However, I will talk anyone’s ear off about it that will listen, because it has worked so well for me and is just about the easiest thing to maintain no matter how busy your lifestyle, since you set your own “feeding” hours and eat your own preferred foods.

So for all of you out there that have seen me recently and wondered how and why I decided to get kinda ripped all of a sudden – there’s the long form answer!  I would love to hear from you if you give IF a try – or if you’re not so keen on the concept.

Would you ever fast in any capacity?  What’s your preferred healthy eating strategy?

 

 

ROCKTober Week 1 Results

Well, TFB readers, it’s been one full week of the ROCKtober mission (in case you missed it, this is what’s happening with my month-long lifestyle reboot).  Let’s revisit the goals, shall we?

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ROCKtober board in full effect

The junk food one was easy – I went through and did a full sweep before we even started ROCKing, and I haven’t brought anything “bad” in since.  I’ve been hitting it on yoga – went once on Friday and once on Monday, definitely averaging the 1X/week goal.

Salads were lunch every day, including a really tasty one from DEN (just next door to my work!) yesterday.  I’ve hit my water goal every day except one (and I got 88 ounces that day, so it wasn’t nothing).  And our dinners have been veggie-tastic (and home cooked!) each night.

I know you’re all wondering about the booze, what with my weekend party time at the Clarke Quay Oktoberfest – but again, I said I’d only be drinking 2X in the week, and I stuck to that – two glasses of white wine with the girls at dinner on Friday; a few (cough) beers at Oktoberfest on Saturday.  And not a lick of booze otherwise!

Prost!

Prost!

Check that salad bowl

Check that salad bowl

On the con side of things, Nick and I have yet to be together for a weekend swim, so we’re going to try and hit that this weekend in Bangkok (we specifically chose a hotel with a pool to make this one happen!).  The Singapore haze has made it near-impossible to run, so I had zero runs this week (sure, sure, I know what you’re thinking – you can make excuses or you can make it happen, get on a treadmill, yada yada) – but hopefully that too will be remedied in Bangkok.  Crossfit also happened zero times this week as well, although I was able to get into the gym and lift twice in a WOD-inspired fashion, so I won’t count this as a total loss.

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One of my WODs

And I’ll be completely honest – I’ve been 50/50 on the positive self-talk.  Some days I wake up and go, “yes!  you’re on track!  You rock!” and other days I wake up and say, “you’re not doing enough.  Get your a*s to 6:30am Crossfit class, you lump.” It’s a work in progress, as things like this always are.

On a final (and VERY positive!) note – I’m down three pounds on the week!  Just goes to show that this whole diet and exercise thing really does wonders on the scale.

Did you set a ROCKtober goal?  How has your progress been so far?

BMI vs. Body Fat Percentage: A Primer

[First of all, I heard the word “primer” on the radio today and the host pronounced it like “PRIMM-er” rather than “PRIME-r,” which is how I’d always imagined it was said.  Does anyone have the authoritative last word on this?]

Anyhoo, I had a client head over to my #AskAmanda page on Facebook today (every Wednesday, BTW) and ask me a great – and often confusing – question:

How is muscle tone accounted for in BMI readings?

BMI, for those of you who haven’t caught on to this medical buzzword, stands for Body Mass Index.  This measure is easily calculated using a formula with two variables – your height and weight.

BMI is useful in medical settings because it helps establish a range – an estimate, if you will – of categories that help medical professionals zero in on potential risk factors.  For example, a BMI of over 40 (this would look like a woman who is 5’2″ but weighs 220 pounds) means you are categorized as morbidly obese, which is correlated with several health problems including ventilatory disorders, circulatory congestion, and unexplained sudden death (!).

Here’s the problem with BMI, though – let’s say you’re a bodybuilder.  You are 5’7″ tall and weigh 200 pounds (completely possible on a frame with a lot of muscle!) – this puts your BMI at 31.3, which reads as “obese.”  That said, you may have so little body fat that you are not remotely at risk for excess-fat-related health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes – but on paper, you fall into that same unhealthy category due to your BMI.

This is why I am always harping on clients to get their body fat measured.

Body fat percentages are exactly what they sound like – a ratio of the fat you carry on your body relative to the lean mass (muscle, bone, and fluid).  They can be measured using hydrostatic weighing (the best choice – if you’re ballin’ and have access to a water displacement tank), calipers (available at most gyms, and very reliable), bioelectrical impedance (the quickest, easiest method), and even good old-fashioned measuring tape.

As you can imagine, two people can have the same BMI but vastly different body fat percentages and overall appearances – the pictures below make it clear that the number on the scale (and thus, the number in your BMI calculation) doesn’t matter at all if your body fat is in a healthy range – and for most people, they’d prefer a higher number if it means more lean mass.

The reason I get on such a soapbox about this is because clients come to me with either one or two numbers on their mind – their body weight, almost always, and their BMI, if they’ve been told it’s “high” or “obese” or “at risk” – and they lose focus on the actual changes that need to take place in their bodies for better health.

Long story short, whether you are someone worrying about your weight on the scale, or someone who has always had a “healthy” weight but lacks lean muscle (the “skinny fat” issue, which I’ve written a whole post about in the past), it’s time to put BMI behind you and get a solid measure of your body fat percentage (below is an example of a body fat chart so you can evaluate your progress) for a true, meaningful read of your physical fitness.

What’s your opinion on BMI*?  Is it useful at all or do you rely more on BF%?

*a quick note – I actually wrote my Master’s thesis using BMI as a central variable because it is useful in policy recommendation due to estimating power.  That said, for individual case-by-case clients, I broadly favor BF% for the reasons I outlined above.

Reflections on The Biggest Loser “Tell-All”

I know, I know – I should be using today to issue a full review of the SAG awards red carpet.  And believe me, that post is coming!  But for now, something that’s been on my mind since it was posted (and re-posted, and re-posted…) on my wall a couple weeks ago.

As some of you know, I love the TV reality competition show The Biggest Loser.  Caveat: I’m not saying the show is perfect, or realistic, or a model I use for my own training career, or anything of that sort.

I am just saying I am a fan, I watch the program, and I have watched every episode since Season 2 (cut me a break, I didn’t have a proper TV when Season 1 aired).

Lately, there’s been all this hubbub about the “extreme” methods used to lose weight on the show and the “fat shaming” aspect of the entire franchise.  Former contestants are claiming “abuse” and noting that they’re all “fat again anyway.”

So what do I think of it all?  Well, some of it’s bullshit, and some of it isn’t.  

Here’s what’s bullshit:

  • the “only things eaten” are foods sponsored by the show.  Not true.  What IS true is that they have to demonstrate ways to cook with the sponsors’ food, which is why you see so many Jennie-O turkey tacos on the show.  But the kitchens on the ranch are stocked with healthy, whole, real foods – not just sponsored products – and contestants learn to cook for themselves (there are no chefs/cooks at the ranch).
  • the trainers get pleasure from watching clients suffer.  This is offensive.  Personal trainers are health professionals that use a variety of tactics to help clients push through their self-imposed boundaries – tactics that vary by trainer, but are never intended to humiliate, hurt, or shame clients.  Reminding a client that she is susceptible to severe health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome is not “shaming” – it’s being upfront and realistic, which many of these folks aren’t getting from their enablers back home.
  • the contestants are “forced” to work out too much.  I work out about two hours a day (granted, because of my job) and I am not even overweight.  The contestants work out 4-6 hours per day, primarily walking or low-impact cardio like swimming, and learn to build a schedule that is consistent and well-balanced and includes weight training, high-intensity intervals, and stretching.  Sure, 4-6 hours daily is not sustainable in the long run – but as a kickstart tactic to lose weight over a period of five months, it is completely reasonable and manageable.
  • the contestants don’t address the underlying issues surrounding their weight.  All the contestants attend therapy sessions in addition to their workout sessions to help them get a grip on both their personal problems and the stress and fatigue of being on a show like BL.  I’m not saying they leave the ranch with their problems solved (and the “competition” part of the show means each contestant’s journey ends somewhat abruptly anyway), but it’s not like they’re being brought there, yelled at, and left for dead.

On the other hand, here’s what I think is questionable and/or not so great about the show:

  • you rarely see the contestants cook or eat.  I think it’s important to watch these people prepare and consume their own food, so those watching at home can get a sense of what truly clean eating (NO processed food, NO carbs outside of fruit and veggies, NO alcohol, LOTS of protein on the plate) actually looks like – and what portions look like, both in the beginning and toward the end when their weight starts to stabilize and their muscle mass is significantly higher.
  • many of the contestants DO gain the weight back.  Why?  The same reason any of us would – there’s not $250,000 riding on your success anymore.  There are a lot of habits I could form (or break) in the short-term if someone was going to pay me for them – but true success comes from a lifetime of moderation, which many of the people on the show aren’t prepared for when the dollar signs aren’t backing them.  Again, are they bad people for it?  Nope.  Is the show bad to offer them money?  Nope.  But a paradigm shift and a lifestyle change is harder than it seems, and lots of people (on Biggest Loser and in real life) aren’t up for the challenge.
  • the level of exercise necessary to achieve fast results is not realistic.  Read this clearly: I am not saying that the methods to lose weight on the show are bad, I am saying they’re not sustainable.  No one has time to work out 4-6 hours per day, sure.  But that’s why this is a TV competition show and not a documentary series.  The thrill is in the results; the challenge is in maintaining them on a smaller scale with 1-2 hours of exercise per day and a consistently clean, well-portioned diet.

To the writers at Jezebel (should you be checking out small-time bloggers like myself) or the producers at The Biggest Loser (should you be looking for new trainer talent), I am not saying either one of you is entirely correct nor entirely blameless.  Weight loss is a sensitive, multifaceted issue, and one that tends to polarize even otherwise calm people.

But what I will not stand behind is criticism of the overarching concept of The Biggest Loser, which is that if you work out (intensely, consistently, and with a professional) and eat right (clean, low-sugar-and-sodium, with a focus on lean protein and vegetables), you will lose weight.  That’s the message that more people need to hear, and it’s the only one that will get Americans to reverse the pattern of sedentary behavior and processed junk food diets that have gotten us to the obesity epidemic we have today.

*drops the mic*

Do you watch The Biggest Loser or weight loss competition shows?  Why or why not?

Fast & Furious

I have a client whose partner is into intermittent fasting – and now she is, too.  She described their method as fairly simple – on the fasting days, they eat a max 500 calories (!), and on the non-fasting days, they basically eat whatever they want.  The cycle is 1-2 fasting days per “regular” day, and the payoff is supposed to be 2-2.5 pounds lost per week.

That said, I listen to a podcast by a trainer I trust and she is a proponent of the eight-hour diet, which is the concept that you confine all of your daily eating into an eight-hour period – for example, 11am-7pm – and then fast the rest of the day/night (approximately 16 hours, some waking, some asleep).  Apparently this, too, is intermittent fasting.

But wait!  There are a boatload of other ways to fastthe warrior diet (one large meal per day ONLY), 24 and 36-hour cyclical fasting, and even carb-cycling – technically a “fast” from carbohydrate intake on certain days of the week.  All of these fasts have one thing in common: they all rely on a restructuring of your mealtimes to maximize fast loss and minimize hunger.  But do they work?

Well, readers, I truly don’t know – the client I mentioned who fasts has noticed some progress in weight loss, but alongside some undesirable “side effects” like fatigue on fasting days, uncontrollable binges on eating days, and frustration over not being able to eat at certain events because they don’t fall properly on her eating days.  

That said, fellow trainer and model of physical perfection Melissa McAllister swears by the eight-hour diet and credits her rock-hard abs solely to her method of meal timing – she still eats carbs and sugars (albeit in moderate quantities) and is able to maintain a low-teens body fat percentage – no small feat at age 40 with two teenage kids!

So what simple steps should you take away from the complicated concept of intermittent fasting?  

Well, first of all, I recommend to all my clients that they stop eating by 7pm to make sure that they sleep soundly and aren’t stockpiling calories that aren’t burned during rest.  I also think that reducing carbohydrate intake in general is a great way to kick-start weight loss, and if alternating days of carbs is the only way to keep you honest, well, then give it a try.  And finally, per my post about reverse pyramid eating, there is definitely some credence to the idea of starting your day with a big meal and tapering off toward the end of the day – which can be seen as a kind of gradual one-day fasting.

I’m thinking of giving the eight-hour thing a try this week (although with my wakeup call – usually around 5am – I may need to adjust this to nine hours) – and I will make sure to report back in full how I feel!

Have you ever tried intermittent fasting of any kind?  Are you a three-square-meals person or do you like to graze?