Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eat "Whatever You Want" With Intermittent Fasting?

I mentioned previously that I got the idea to try alternate day fasting from reading about it on Dr. Michael Eades' blog. He presented it as a way to eat "whatever you want" on the eating days, and to just have water (he also mentioned zero calorie beverages) on the fasting days. This could be a ticket, he said, to all the benefits of calorie restriction, without the constant deprivation.

Similarly, Dr. James B. Johnson wrote a book called "The Alternate Day Diet," where he describes an every other day fasting regime where you can eat "whatever you want" on the "up" days, as he calls them. You then eat 20% to 50% of your maintenance calories on the down days.

Dr. Bert Herring wrote "Fast-5," an intermittent fasting plan where you fast for 19 hours every day, and eat during a 5 hour "window." He also says no foods are off limits.

I've heard others echo this same theme: "How would you like a diet where you can eat as much as you want of whatever you want, and still lose weight, improve your health, and even live longer?"

Are these claims legitimate?

When you read these programs more closely, of course, they hedge themselves. Eades says that it's really best to go low carb on your eating days. Johnson suggests a "healthy" diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, essential fats and adequate protein. Herring counsels you on how to keep from getting too many calories in your 5 hours a day of eating.

Common sense, and my admittedly brief foray into this way of eating, tells me that you should not eat anything and everything. Crap is still crap. As a matter of fact, I've even seen it called IFOC, which stands for "intermittent fasting on crap," or alternatively, "intermittent fasting on carbs."

If health is your goal, you still should be eating good healthy food. That means getting adequate amounts of the essential fats and amino acids (protein), as well as the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that keep us going. And since you're only eating half the time, it may be even more necessary to make sure you're getting what you need.

So where did this idea that you can eat whatever you want come from? I can only speculate, but I think it's primarily from two places: First, there could be some confusion in language. Some people say "whatever you want" when they really mean "as much as you want." And on intermittent fasting, you can have as much as you want on the feeding days, but I contend it should be of healthy food. "As much as you want" of ice cream, cookies, cake and beer, is not going to lead to good health.

Second, the animal studies have shown that alternate day fasting activates the SIRT1 gene, which is called the "survival gene" or "rescue gene." Many scientists believe this gene is responsible for the positive, life and health extending benefits of daily caloric restriction. And since the gene is also activated by IF, people believe you can eat whatever you want, and the SIRT1 gene will protect you from the ill effects of junk food.

That's a nice theory, but do you literally want to bet your life on it? I do believe the gene is activated by IF--that's one of the reasons I'm doing it in the first place. But eating junk food is only going to make your body work that much harder. And if you're not getting the nutrients you need, and if the junk food is attacking your cells while your survival genes are trying to protect them, how far ahead of the game are you likely to get?

And another thing: The mice and other animals in those IF studies are not eating junk food. They're eating the same Purina Mouse Chow (or whatever) that the control mice are eating. That chow has been formulated to provide the mice with all the nutrients they need, in the proportion they need them. So if you want similar results, you should primarily be eating food designed to make you healthy. What is that? Real, whole foods. Namely: Meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

In defense of the good doctors who wrote the aforementioned books and blogs, there could be a psychological component to their promise of eating "whatever you want." I mentioned in a previous post that I initially took the program as a license to eat junk. Fortunately, my tastes and preferences are changing, and I'm desiring less and less junk food. Maybe the doctors know this. So they lure you in with a very appealing concept: "Eat as much as you want of whatever you want--even junk food!" Then, when you actually get on the program, after an initial period of gorging on every decadent treat you can think of, your tastes and preferences change, and you end up eating a healthy diet after all. Maybe the doctors aren't as dumb as we think.


  1. you hit the nail on the head. i remember a video with ori hofmekler (warrior diet) who told his interviewer that you eat what you want, but want you want will change as your body is ignited with true somatic hunger, not the madison avenue corrupted limbic hunger.

    i have had a very fantastic journey the last six months learning to love veggies/fruits and learning to drop so many bad foods and beverages. so glad you are getting the same benefits so early and in such a profound way. great post tom! enjoyed it!

  2. I think you are so right with this post. Most of these diet gurus like the phrase "eat whatever you want", but when you get right down to it, that is not what they believe.

    I admire what you are doing so far. I have periodically implemented IF in my regiment, although I am not doing it to the degree you are. For me, a fast or two a week is about it. Honestly - I just love the fresh vegetables this time of year so much it is hard to fast.

    Keep up the good work - I am enjoying your blog so far.

  3. Rachel421,
    Thank you for reminding me about the Warrior Diet. I have posted a link to it.

    South Beach Steve,
    I have to admit I'm not that into vegetables. I know I should be, but they just don't taste good to me, so I eat very few. I vacilate between thinking I should eat them anyway, and thinking that maybe they're just not for me.

  4. You make a good point about intermittent fasting. Combining healthy eating (which to me means high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb) with intermittent fasting is the way I do it. I've documented my own intermittent fasting experience on my blog.

    Keep us updated on how you're doing.

    - JLL

  5. Hey Tom!

    I totally agree! For me IF only really works if I don't go overboard on processed foods so I stick to fruits, veg, lean protein & Ezekiel sprouted grain breads. And Tom, since u r not a fan of veggies, try juicing them with an apple! That way u get the nutrients in a way that tastes good to u :D

  6. I'm encouraged to hear that the initial cravings for junk food might dissipate over time.

    For the past few weeks I've been playing around with periodic 24 hour fasts, 2 or 3 times per week. So far it hasn't been quite as difficult as I thought, but I often cave in and eat around the 22 hour mark (hopefully the 2 hours isn't making a significant difference). And, though I've been fairly disciplined about eating healthy foods on my non-fast days and breaking the fast with normal portions (i.e., just one meal, not an entire day's worth of calories), I ended my last fast by bingeing on crap. This is the 2nd or 3rd time that's happened, sigh.

    I hope my long term experience will mirror Rachel's, and I'll learn to PREFER fruits, veggies, and more nourishing foods.