Friday, February 6, 2009

Intermittent Fasting - Interview with Brad Pilon

I think I first came across the concept of intermittent fasting (IF) in some of Art Devaney's writings several years back and at about the same time I came across Ori Hofmekler's Warrior Diet.

The Eades also
wrote about the idea a couple of years ago and recently there have been several inspiring "transformation" stories on the internet of people who have adopted IF and seen some great changes in their physique: Richard and Keith (see photo to the right) are inspirational.

All this material led me to study the idea of IF and it is now something I often practice.
Martin Berkhan has taught me a lot, but the writer whose work I have found most helpful has been Brad Pilon.

His book Eat Stop Eat is an easy read but goes into a lot of detail examining the science behind IF and exploding some of the associated myths - e.g. it is not true that fasting will send your body into "starvation mode" and slow your metabolism.

This week Brad agreed to do an interview with me. I think his answers to my questions are really helpful and interesting and expand on some of the ideas in his book.

Can you tell us something about yourself. How did you first develop your interest in health and fitness and where did it lead?

I think to a degree I have always been interested in health and fitness. I had a subscriptions to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition when I was 16. I did my ‘tour of duty’ working in a supplement shop during high school. I’ve been a ‘gym rat’ since I was 8 or 9. Food, nutrition and weight training have always been an interest for as long as I can remember.

You have become particularly well known for your book "Eat Stop Eat" which looks at the science behind intermittent fasting. What initially prompted your interest in intermittent fasting? Where did you first come across the idea?

Originally I had no interest in fasting. It wasn’t until I started doing my master’s research that I ended up realizing there was merit in the concept. My intention was simply to study nutrition and weight I wanted to start with fasting as kind of my base point. Once I established all the bad things that would occur when someone fasted, I would build up from there...turns out that wasn’t the case..and once I started realizing that most of what we knew about fasting was incorrect, I was hooked.

A lot of writers on sports nutrition make a big deal about "peri-workout nutrition" - eating "correctly" in the pre and post workout periods? However lots of us work out fasted and seem to perform well. What is your take on this debate? Does it really matter?

I am very conflicted on post-workout nutrition. Firstly as I point out in my new book “How Much Protein?” there is actually very little DIRECT evidence for post workout nutrition that was not funded by either a supplement company or some form of a protein-food group (like the egg board). From my experience, research showing ‘remarkable’ muscle building effects of protein have never been reproduced in a study NOT funded by industry. Secondly, many of the surrogate endpoints that are studied (such as nitrogen balance and protein synthesis) have never been causally linked to muscle growth, so our actual true evidence that peri-workout nutrition effects muscle growth is very limited.

There is currently quite a movement towards eating and moving like our hunter gatherer ancestors - Evolutionary Fitness or the Primal Blueprint or whatever people like to call it. This template is interpreted differently by different people, but periods of fasting are often an element to mimic the intermittent food supply of hunters. I know you mention this briefly in the book but I'd be interested in more of your thoughts on IF as a "natural" eating pattern. Is this really how we evolved to eat?

Chris, I can tell you that I have absolutely NO opinion on this whole “we should eat as our ancestors ate” theory. My concern with this theory is that the data collection and proof of causation must be brutally difficult to do properly, but its too far outside of my area of expertise to form a true educated opinion.

There seem to be two elements to the way in which you present the benefits of fasting: a simple limiting of caloric intake but also the profound hormonal and "gene expression" mechanisms that are initiated by a fast. Which is the more important element in your view?

For the VAST MAJORITY of people, the biggest benefit will come from the caloric restriction and the weight loss, as this is the quickest and possibly most efficient way to improve many markers of health. So the metabolic, hormonal and even gene expression benefits come second in my eyes.

This does NOT mean they are not very important, just for a population that is growing increasingly obese at an alarming rate, this has to come second to simple caloric restriction and weight loss.

Is there a point of diminishing returns with a fast? You generally recommend a 24 hour fast. Is there any benefit to longer or shorter fasts?

24 hours was chosen because for me, it was the perfect compromise between scientific effectiveness and real-world effectiveness. I studied everything up to 72 hours of fasting, but I found that asking people to do anything that involved not-eating for an ENTIRE day became too intrusive to their lifestyle, thus setting them up for quick failure. I firmly believe that the effectiveness of a diet can be determined by its longevity – or how long a person can stay on the diet. And, it’s longevity is determined by its flexibility. With a 24 hour fast (e.g. fasting 6pm one day to 6pm the next), you get the benefits of fasting, while still eating every day.

Fasting seems to improve insulin sensitivity and induce ketosis. So can a low carb diet. Do carbs matter or as Martin Berkhan - another very able and helpful advocate of IF - recently wrote are carbs unfairly targeted for criticism?

There is just too much evidence with different styles of eating around the world to suggest that we should completely eliminate carbohydrates from our diet. There are hundreds if not thousands of cultures around the world, and all eat a little differently with varying amounts of carbs, proteins and fats in their diets.

And within each culture there are sick people and healthy people – a testament to the amazing adaptability of the human body and its ability to survive and even thrive off of many different styles of eating. Now, because carbs make up the largest portion of our calorie intake, and are the most readily available food calorie source, I believe we could all benefit from reducing our sugar intake A LITTLE BIT, but this is simply because I think we eat an over-abundance of this macronutrient right now. Too much of ANYTHING has its disadvantages. Carbs are no different.

Do some people need to approach this way of eating with care - I am thinking of those with previous eating disorders?

Absolutely, people with a history of eating disorders, or any diagnosed form of addiction should be very careful with ANY dietary customs or ‘rules’ that they choose to adopt.

You have let me know that you have a new book in the pipeline on protein - again looking critically at some of the popular dogma which is often unsupported by science. I'm really looking forward to reading it. Are there any other "myths" out there in terms of diet and fitness that you would like to research and critically reassess ?

Eating for fat loss (Eat Stop Eat) and eating for muscle gain (How Much Protein?) were the two biggest issues that I just HAD to tackle. Once you understand the true science behind these two areas you are able to finally relax about food. It is such an awesome experience to finally know that you don’t need to obsess about nutrition in order to build muscle or lose fat.

Now that I believe I have accomplished this, my next step is to study how the entire world eats. The different habits and customs, their origins, their meanings! I want to really explore our profound relationship with food. A step away from pure science, but just as informative in my opinion.

Will IF ever go mainstream?

Unfortunately, my belief is that IF will go mainstream and then will be ‘burned at the stake’ by the mainstream diet-media. It’s just too different and too simple. Imagine how many people would be out of work if we all realised that simply eating less would help us lose weight? Or how the food industry would suffer financially if we all ate 20% fewer simply can’t happen!

Thanks very much for the interview Brad and thanks for the work you have put into researching and writing about intermittent fasting. I've really enjoyed learning from you and IF is something that has helped my own diet and lifestyle.

I've often recommended Brad's book Eat Stop Eat as a great study of this topic. Brad's blog is also well worth reading and he has recently been posting some good short videos on Youtube looking at IF and other related topics.

If you are interested in IF I also often post bits of pieces of news and research about it here.



fast weight loss said...

Thanks for sharing all the stuff.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, Chris. Thanks for putting this interview together.

If there is an opportunity for a follow-up session, I'd like to propose asking Brad if he's noticed an easier adherence to the IF protocol in those who follow a Paleo diet as opposed to those who don't. I know Brad isn't necessarily a proponent of the Paleo lifestyle (not that he's a detractor, either), but from what I've seen in others (and experienced myself), it's much easier to pull off IF'ing from an established Paleo base.

Chris said...

Thanks Keith - I'll pass that on to Brad.

By the way I'm really enjoying putting these interviews together. It gives me a chance to ask all the questions that I have bubbling around about these things. I might pick on you next!

Chris said...

Keith - by the way , I hope you didn't mind me using your photo?

Asclepius said...

"Unfortunately, my belief is that IF will go mainstream and then will be ‘burned at the stake’ by the mainstream diet-media"

As profound a statement as I have ever read on your blog.

Another fine interview Chris.

Chris said...

Asclepius - thanks. It is interesting. He is not very paleo but very much interested in the science rather than the dogma.

psp_playa said...

thanks for the different view

jake said...

definitely enjoyed this viewpoint as well thanks

Marc said...

Thank you!
Great read and I ordered his book.


Brad Pilon said...

"If there is an opportunity for a follow-up session, I'd like to propose asking Brad if he's noticed an easier adherence to the IF protocol in those who follow a Paleo diet as opposed to those who don't. I know Brad isn't necessarily a proponent of the Paleo lifestyle (not that he's a detractor, either), but from what I've seen in others (and experienced myself), it's much easier to pull off IF'ing from an established Paleo base."

My take on this is that I think followers of the Paleo diet are more inclined to find fasting easy because they don't have the mental blocks that most people do.

They are a group of people who already are open to an alternative way of eating, and have thrived in doing so.

From my experience the people who have the hardest time with fasting are the one's with that nagging voice in the back of their head telling them they are doing something wrong.

People following the Paleo diet have already conquered that little voice.


billy said...


Your comments around peri-workout nutrition focus primarily on protein, whereas most of what I've come across stresses the importance of quickly assimilated carbs and sugars, which are supposed to be absorbed by your muscles and improve their ability to store glycogen (or something like that) Any thoughts there?

Dave said...

I started using IF from Jan 1st this year,needing to lose 56lbs.I set myself the goal of doing that over 12 months. My own experience so far is that IF is a very easy way for me to reduce my weight. I was not following a Paleo diet, but I would say my diet was not that bad,I eat fruit, beans and pulses etc just I like too much a good thing !. I have not restricted any foods from my diet,my only change has been to add in the fasting days. After the first week, where I clearly lost water weight and I also started after the holiday season excess, I have lost 21lbs in 5 weeks, I now average a 2lb a week weight loss and expect it to continue between 1 and 2lbs per week from here on in. The big difference is I have not felt deprived.I also seem to have developed an understanding of true hunger, as opposed to habit.The fasting period I have found easy because I don't have to wonder what I should eat, or is this the right thing to eat, there is simply no decision to make. My family did not even realise I was trying to lose weight as I just ate the same evening meal as everyone else. It is still early days, but I would say this is something that works for me.

Chris said...

Interesting Dave - thanks

Anonymous said...

Hi all, IF really interests me. But a little background (I'd much appreciate some feedback from people that are in the same boat or have similar experiences like Dave's post from 2/9)
I have been using low carb (TNT Diet) for about 1 year with super results. I am down around 27 lbs to where I want to be. The catch: i feel like I belong to some cult or something like that, a food nazi if you will. I always think "are there carbs in that??" and I would love to have some variety in what I eat now (ie the occasional taco or dessert when eating out).
So my question is, if I switched to IF (I know I could do the 24 hr fast, if i can do low carb i can do anything...:)) and added some carbs or ate "normally" with the 2 fasts per week, would I gain weight? (I love working out, lifting and running and do so at least 5 times a week, more like 6-7 days a week to be honest).
As an experiment I am thinking about Brad P's book but was curious as to anyone else's experience or thoughts.

Thanks all--Chris C.