Once upon a time the nutrition blogosphere I enjoyed participating in was lit with a debate on whether or not fasting was hurtful to your metabolism. The age old adage that eating six meals a day was better for your metabolism was spit on by the intermittent fasting (IF) enthusiasts. They argued that short term fasting had no effect on your metabolism, because in the long run you would be receiving the same amount of nutrition.
Theories are wonderful, but if they don’t hold up in practice, they are useless. Theories like these are rampant in the nutrition science world but real life practice will tell you what works best.
Maybe the theory is true. But what if there are other factors that lower metabolism that are affecting the intermittent fasting enthusiast? It is still useless to hope that the theory will work because those other confounding factors need to be sorted out.
Here’s a little bit of a backstory:
I swallowed the intermittent fasting bug whole. I started fasting for 18-22 hours (sometimes 24) five days a week. The successful IF trainers however seemed to advocate 16 hour fasts. By the 16 hour period, I decided that I could go longer. I had a lot of energy. This was because my body, young and fresh, had a lot of reserves, or yin. Whether or not you like the concept of yin and yang, it’s a nice model for what’s about to happen.
With time, I had less and less energy from fasting; my yin was being depleted. I talk about this in an old youtube video of mine (enjoy the ponytail look I am sporting).
I remember the FIRST DAY I tried intermittent fasting. I was apprehensive and honestly a little bit nervous (I know pretty innocent and cute back then). I was scared of not eating for so long.
After a few hours, working at the grocery store, I exclaimed in my head: “this is like crack!!!” (I was probably 18…me and my friends thought jokes like that were funny but I guess my sense of humor is much more refined now…I sound like a snob don’t I).
I felt so energized. Stimulated. Intense. Excited. Scattered but I felt focused. I never felt anything like it.
That feeling was my fresh young body, relatively unstressed, living a simple life under a steady roof, activating a healthy stress response to the stressor of fasting. This stress response serves to tap into existing energy stores (adipose tissue and glycogen) to raise blood sugar levels.
From an energetic perspective this makes a whole lot of sense. If you don’t have food at the moment, you need to find some or you will die of starvation eventually. Being able to have MORE energy from fasting is a pretty cool way to deal with not having food.
I regularly started fasting for 18-22 hours. The more the better I figured. But I didn’t want to fast for too long because I was afraid of losing muscle mass and strength. Unlike other IF’ers, I didn’t take any amino acid supplements to prevent muscle breakdown. I wanted to be all natural. My stubbornness taught me some important lessons about health and about myself.
Working Out While Fasting
My goal with IF was body recomposition, or getting shredded. I wanted abs and muscle. I also was intensely focused on improving my vertical jump and 100m dash times. My training involved low-rep strength training and explosive lifting emphasizing my lower body. Deadlifts, squats, lunges, and various plyometrics were my mainstay. For my upper body I just lifted everything heavy, including bicep curls which didn’t make my arms any bigger (my arms really don’t grow easy…my ideal physique is a well-built athletic look…basically Andy Whitfield in Spartacus).
After 16-20 hours I would
work out TRAIN. I released a lot of aggression in the gym in my college days. I looked forward to working out intensely and posting on this forum about my progress.
Eventually, the high from fasting faded. My workouts became less aggressive.
Energetically it felt like I was getting beat down from these workouts and the fasting whereas previously I felt like I was on TOP.
This little distinction may not make much sense scientifically, but that’s exactly what I felt. I would perform my deadlifts calmly and try to survive the weights more instead of destroying the workout metaphorically.
Fast-forward to the present day and heavy weight lifting sometimes makes me lightheaded. I am intolerant to the training regimen I had before that kept me at 10-11% body fat with decent abs and some impressive lifts.
The Stress Equation
The rigors of school, a part-time job with a commute, and some financial stress meant that I had a lot more stress than a full-time athlete. In addition I didn’t have regular massages or sports medicine doctors taking care of me. I did everything myself which takes more energy. I trained however very often and very intensely, and I would have trained even harder if I had more time. I had the drive of a champion, and this led to me burning out completely to the point where I literally became intolerant to intense exercise.
Even playing some tennis would make me lightheaded after a while. The mechanisms are beyond the scope of this post, but I can share some theories. When you lift heavy, your blood pressure rises a LOT. The systolic value gets to the 400s (reference definitely needed; I read it a while ago). Something in the nervous system is responsible for raising that blood pressure adequately. Without adequate recovery, that thing in the nervous system got tired. I was not able to raise blood pressure as much and started feeling light headed. I never came close to passing out but I had to sit down and sometimes I saw stars.
I would also experience some lightheadedness from simply standing up. I knew I had a problem so I eventually lowered the intensity and frequency of my lifting and solved those problems. I haven’t attempted any heavy deadlifts in a while and don’t plan to still. I remember my resting blood pressure declined to 100/55 mmHg back in those days of adrenal fatigue. Now I’m back at around 120/80 and have more energy.
The point here is that the stresses of intense exercise training compounded the acute stresses of fasting. The amount of cortisol my body had to secrete to deal with that type of training while FASTED was probably very very high.
Not only did that high not feel as good, I felt worse from fasting. I would feel strangely calm, tired, and not as focused. If fasting is good for you why should you feel like shit?? I realized I needed to end my fasts when I started feeling these symptoms. I INSTANTLY felt better. The changes in my mood and energy levels were night and day when I ended those unhealthy fasts in a stressed state and ate some food, no matter what it was.
Fasting and strength training was supposed to be an acute stress. The blogosphere enjoyed this idea of acute stress. It was better than endurance training long term which in theory could evoke a chronic stress response. I swallowed the pill and realized this was a short-sighted view. Clearly for me dieting and very intense strength training became a chronic stress. I knew this wasn’t healthy but I kid you not, I did not know how to fucking stop. I use strong language because this was a very interesting period of my life.
Back to the Main Question: Do Regular Meals Improve Your Metabolism?
This post was supposed to be about regular meals and your metabolism. Unfortunately I am not the type of person that can keep things succinct but I’m working on it.
So, in the short term, not eating any food for a long time can lower your metabolism. At first your metabolism is increased, but after that high goes away, your body will slowly shut down. Then, you will die from starvation.
Similarly, going on a low calorie diet to lose weight also lowers your metabolism. This is manifested by cold hands and feet and a general decline in vitality. It’s a smart thing for your body to do in order to compensate for the reduction in calorie intake. Your libido also slows down because your body doesn’t want to raise a child if there isn’t much energy to do so.
Skipping one meal however probably won’t do much to slow down your metabolism. You will simply want to eat more later.
But if you do it all the time, maybe eating more later won’t be enough. Maybe that chronic stress (assuming that it does in fact become chronic) is NOT adequately balanced by simply eating the same amount of calories later. If you ate regularly, you’d receive the same amount of calories but would you have the same level of stress? I am not sure but I suspect that there would be more stress. I should look into the literature to find more answers to this.
I can tell you this though. I crave sugar after my first meal of the day when I fast. This won’t happen if I eat regularly. Who knows, maybe I eat the same amount of sugar overall in one day, but I crave an Izze or another kind of fruit soda usually after I fast. I’ll eat a meal but my stomach won’t be able to fit too much food so I become hungry quickly after. Then sometimes I need to take a nap.
Clearly something is going on that involves my body trying to undo the damage from the stress associated with fasting. Everyone is different, but my body is a bit stressed out too so maybe it’s more intense.
The Microcosm Within the Macrocosm
I believe that things that happen on a very small scale (the microcosm) resemble things that happen on a very large scale (macrocosm). Something a cell is experiencing may be analogous to something you are experiencing in your body.
Me skipping breakfast today in this example is the microcosm. Me starving to death is the macrocosm. The action of skipping one meal, versus every meal till death, is very different. But it resembles starvation quite a bit as well.
Thus, doesn’t it make sense that on a microcosm there are cellular changes occurring that directly resemble the changes occurring in starvation?
I think it does. It’s debatable for sure but it makes sense to me based on my experiences, which I trust more than the rabbit hole you can go down from trying to understand the literature.
My goal is to STOP skipping breakfast. I don’t want the microcosmic changes of skipping one meal anymore. I feel full but want sugar. I feel like there’s something missing. I am in graduate school and am recovering from years of intense lifting which caused adrenal stress. I need to make a concerted effort in healing my metabolism.
I don’t skip breakfast anymore to lose fat. I do it due to time constraints and because I know I can handle it and I’ll have a little high off of it. My body just needs more rest than stimulation, so for my metabolism’s sake, regular meals, including even a tasty cinnamon roll I snacked on for breakfast, is better than just the coffee I’d normally drink.
In addition, the regular meals will prevent the fatigue, distractibility, and stress I experience when the hunger from not eating does NOT lead to a seemingly healthy stress response. How can that be good for me? It’ll take a while to have the full answer on that, but for now I trust my instincts on that one.
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