It has been a few years now since Martin and I did this interview. I am updating it for a few reasons:
1. There are some small additions and specifics Martin has released since the initial interview. I thought readers would enjoy that aspect of it.
2. It was lonely on the old site with outdated graphics. I don’t feel it did it justice.
3. I have a lot coming up in the future regarding my own approach to clients that involve fasting and cycling. It makes sense to have this here to point to in those articles.
One More Thing
I want to make something clear, and I don’t do this frequently in the area of nutrition. When Martin and I did this interview years ago, people scoffed at the idea of this protocol. They were caught up in their dogma of meal timing (5-6 meals per day) and how fasting ruins their metabolism. At the time, I remember looking into fasting on small levels and finding the results interesting, and what I found not supporting this general dogma. When Martin came along, I was extremely impressed with his level of knowledge on the subject and the depth he goes into in his research and anecdotal work.
I have since done a lot of research and anecdotal work myself on the subject. Fasting and their protocols can come in all shapes and sizes, but I do believe there are intelligent and educated methods of applying the application. It has been seen as a taboo in the past, but hopefully people are opening their eyes to critical thinking and following research on the subject instead of old wives’ tales or bad experiences from those lacking educated actions.
So, for those of you new to this or learning about it for the first time, keep an open mind on the science behind what has previously been ruined by fad propaganda.
Questions We Cover
1. What are your current credentials (education, certs, position, favorite late night TV program, you know the basics)? And what got you into this field in the first place?
2. What was it that drove you to intermittent fasting (IF)? Is this an idea you have been toying with for sometime?
3. What are the bare basic principals of your approach to IF?
4. Is there a specific recommendation you have for pre/post workout meals? Do you stick to any sort of carb/protein ratio?
5. Do calories matter on IF?
6. What are the biggest mistakes people make with IF? What makes your program different?
7. What do you feel IF offers that sets it apart from other methods of dieting? Where do you think it really shines?
8. Have you found a difference between men and women using this program?
9. Can IF work for nutrition for maintenance as well?
10. When will the book be released? Are you taking on clients?
Leigh Peele: What are your current credentials and what brought you into this field?
Martin Berkhan: I have a bachelor’s degree in Medical Sciences and Education and my major is in Public Health Sciences. While my background has helped me to separate facts from bullshit, of which there is plenty of in the fitness and bodybuilding community, my knowledge of nutrition and weight training is purely self-taught. I consider passion the best tutor and I have that in spades, when it comes to improving body composition through nutrition and weight training.
I got into the field by earning respect for my theoretical and practical knowledge, without any formal education in the matter, and ended up as a writer for a Swedish bodybuilding and fitness magazine (the only one we have here, called “Body”). This was about year ago and at the same time I started doing personal consultations and coaching on diet and training, working with regular joes, as well as the more hardcore fitness and bodybuilding crowd. Since then much has happened; I have finished university, started up my own website, and am looking to write a book on intermittent fasting. As of right now, I’m supporting myself as a writer and nutrition counselor.
*Author’s note: Do not ask Martin when the book is coming out. You have been warned.*
Leigh Peele: I agree with you 100% on passion being the best tutor. I consider myself a student of self-driven knowledge. What was it that drove you to intermittent fasting? Is this an idea you have been toying with for sometime?
Martin Berkhan: I have been doing intermittent fasting every day since June 2006, changing calorie intake, macros, and other variables depending on my goals during different time periods. I started doing it because of two things. First of all, I didn’t like how my life became centered around my diet, and I was starting to get fed up with my own behavior. The constant meal preparing, the obsessiveness about eating the perfect meals at the right time, and the way I sometimes made excuses not to participate in social gatherings in order to meet my calorie and macronutrient goals for the day. I’m sure some of the people reading this can relate. I wanted to stop this pattern cold turkey, so I started to question the need for regular feedings and the way it was constantly being pushed as the most optimal way to eat for physique conscious people.
The science certainly didn’t support the approach [eating ever few hours], so how come everyone was ranting about high meal frequency patterns being ideal? I already had my doubts, but I needed to have a closer look at the hard facts in order to convince myself to quit the meal pattern that started to become a burden on my life. Was eating every second or third hour important in order to “stoke the metabolic fire”? No, there was no scientific support for that idea and studies on the subject were carefully controlled, showing no correlation at all between meal frequency and metabolism. Perhaps a high meal frequency was needed in order to provide the body with a regular stream of nutrients, making sure that you had a constant supply of amino acids in order to stave off muscle catabolism and promote muscle growth? No, looking at how the body processes and digests meals, this wasn’t the case either. Digestion of a regular meal takes about 6-7 hours and during this time amino acids are being released into the bloodstream. 30 g’s of casein takes about 7 hours to get fully assimilated. Double that amount and you will have amino acids in the bloodstream most of your waking hours. Was a high meal frequency needed in order to keep hunger at bay and not overeat? This is the only point where a high meal frequency has some empirical backing – at least when you look at how inactive test subjects in lab settings rate hunger, on different meal patterns, while being fed a high carb diet compromised of calorie dense foods. Not really something that can be applied the physique conscious crowd, or the environment most people spend their waking hours in.
There are also some correlation studies showing a link between high meal frequency and lower bodyweight in the general population, but this is easily explained when you look at the behavioral aspects surrounding low meal frequencies among “regular” people. For example, your average low meal frequency eater is usually a spontaneous eater, snacks between meals and has no clue about proper nutrition (a Snickers bar on the go, maybe something from the vending machine after lunch, and so forth). Again, this is not something that can be applied to the health conscious crowd, which has a basic grasp on proper nutrition, and strives to improve his or hers body composition – the crowd reading this interview, for example.
Now, having cleared my mind of any doubts about the meal pattern I was about to embark on, I couldn’t believe how good I felt on my new “diet”. My head was clear and I didn’t spend any time thinking, or obsessing, about when, nor in what form, my next meal was going to arrive in. Worrying about such things had been my default behavior for a good amount of time since I started becoming more involved in my training and nutrition, and it was a relief not having to spend any mental energy on it anymore. I’m sure anyone that has “been in the game” for awhile can relate to what I mean when it comes to these kinds of thought patterns, since it is something that seems quite unique to people in the fitness and bodybuilding community. Besides liberating myself from my food obsessiveness, I noticed several other positive effects. I had lots of energy during the day, I made faster progress with my training and reduced my body fat simultaneously – at the same time, while being able to eat until satisfaction, after the 16 hour fast I employed. Since then, I have integrated the approach into my life and helped several others achieve great results in terms of body composition using the very same approach. For myself, I can honestly state that I will stick to this eating pattern for the rest of my life.
Leigh Peele: A majority of the population and my readers don’t understand the principals of “IF.” Can you give us a brief rundown of the basic principals? The quick and easy, if you will.
Martin Berkhan: Intermittent Fasting involves a longer period of no food intake followed by a relatively brief period of eating. There’s not really a clear cut definition of it, and studies looking at IF, and human subjects, have been using a wide range of fasting periods; 20 hours in a recent study and up to 48 hours in studies on ADF (Alternate Day Fasting). This is where it becomes a bit problematic with regards to weight training and diet adherence.
We know that we need proper pre-workout nutrition in order to maximize protein synthesis, in conjunction with weight training, and research supports the benefits of ingesting carbohydrates and protein prior to the workout. Not really doable with one meal per day. There’s also the issue of diet adherence – limiting the calorie intake to one big meal, once a day might not really be conductive to staying on track in the long term, and may even cause some gastrointestinal problems due to ingesting a day’s worth of calories in such a short time.
My take on IF shortens the fasting period down to 16 hours – in my opinion, an ideal compromise between getting the best out of the fasting, without the negatives that may follow with a longer fast. This leaves eight hours as your eating window, in which myself and most of my clients, eat three meals, leaving room for proper pre – and post workout nutrition. I should note that I cycle calorie intake depending on where the current priority lies (fat loss, recomposition or lean mass gain). However, regardless of goals, the absolute majority of the day’s calorie intake is to be ingested in the post workout window. In my experience, this may have a nutrient partitioning effect which makes it possible to gain, or maintain, muscle even on a weekly calorie deficit, or when dieting to very low bodyfat levels.
All of this is based on trial and error with regards to my own, and my clients, personal experiences. I feel that extreme measures, like confining the eating window to four hours or less, aren’t needed to in order to reap the benefits of intermittent fasting for those wishing to improve their body composition.
Leigh Peele: You brought up pre/post-workout nutrition. Is there a specific recommendation you have for these meals? Do you stick to any sort of carb/protein ratio? I am specifically curious as to the pre-workout guidelines.
Martin Berkhan: In an ideal situation, I’d like to place approximately 80% of the day’s total calorie intake in the post workout window. As a consequence, the pre-workout meal is often the “fast breaker” on workout days. For the pre-workout meal I usually recommend a meal consisting of an equal carb/protein ratio – for example, 50-60 g carbs, 40-50 g protein and some fat for taste (about 500 kcal total). The goal of this meal is to provide satisfaction, provide enough carbs to fuel the workout, and maximize protein synthesis for the workout (another reason for the high protein intake is to induce satiety).
One of my typical pre-workout meals may consist of 8 oz lean meat with veggies or potatoes and a large apple. A bit of fructose might mediate the effect of the post-workout feeding, since liver glycogen is beneficial to hormones involved in anabolism, therefore the fruit. Keep in mind that the pre-workout meal is dependent on training volume, but I’ve found that these general guidelines work for most people doing moderate volume resistance training (about 10-15 sets of 6-10 reps, per workout, in total). Athletes and others, subjecting themselves to a greater training load than the average weight trainer, require different pre-workout guidelines.
The post workout meal is, ideally, a high carb, moderate protein and low fat feeding. This is what I have found most beneficial in terms of maximizing growth, recovery and limiting whatever extra fat might get stored during hyper caloric conditions. The absolute majority of carbs should be starch based, since we want carbs that gets stored as muscle glycogen primarily, but as noted before, some fructose might also be beneficial to allow for muscle growth processes to occur. The post workout meal should be the largest of the day and you may split your remaining calorie intake as you see fit. I usually have two substantial meals post-workout; one directly following the workout and another one an hour before going to bed.
The exact amount of calories and macronutrients consumed in the post-workout window is largely dependent on the individual’s primary focus, be it fat loss, re-composition or lean mass gains, so this is nothing more than a quick summary of some general guidelines that I apply across the board.
*Authors note: Martin has also discussed fasted training sessions and workout nutrition. In regard to fasted workouts, he states, “Training is initiated on an empty stomach and after ingestion of 10 g BCAA or similar amino acid mixture. This “pre-workout” meal is not counted towards the feeding phase. Technically, training is not completely fasted – that would be detrimental.”
You can find his full take on workout nutrition here.
Leigh Peele: Do you think it is important to state that those utilizing the IF protocol need to understand that this isn’t some sort of free pass to binge? That they still need to fit it within their caloric need for daily energy? This would make “eating to your hearts content” mean more like “don’t be stupid and scarf down a box of doughnuts, correct?”
*Authors note: This excludes cheesecake day.*
Martin Berkhan: Exactly. I don’t make any claims whatsoever on calorie counting not being necessary on IF. Studies show that resting metabolism increases in fasting (again, quite contrary to popular belief), mediated by increases in catecholamines like noradrenalin, but this effect is quite insignificant when you’re talking about humans ability to eat boatloads of calories, when introduced to energy dense and palpable foods. As shown in empirical studies, recall that both humans and rats maintained their bodyweight on an ADF (Alternate Day Fasting) regimen, when encouraged to eat ad libitum in the feeding phase. If you let hunger and appetite dictate what and how much to eat, it’s quite easy to undo the energy deficit accumulated through 16, 20 or even 48 hours of fasting. That being said, you’ll discover that you can indulge quite a bit, while still dropping fat, if you limit the most energy dense foods. For example, I eat a lot of ice cream myself, but I make sure that the majority of my calories comes from meat, veggies, fruit and starch sources like potatoes, oatmeal and whole grain bread.
Leigh Peele: Can you tell me what makes your program different? I have noticed, for example, your “fast time” is different than other programmers. And what are some of the mistakes people or program designers might be making?
Martin Berkhan: If I were to broadly generalize the most common mistakes IF’ers make, I’d break it down to two points; diet and nutrient timing. In this context, let’s classify a ‘mistake’ as a behavior that isn’t conducive to achieving a set goal. The first mistake is linked to diet, and I’ll outline a conversation between me and another IF’er to illustrate my point.
IF’er: I feel great on IF, but I’m not losing any weight. Please help!
Me: Very well then. Tell me about your diet.
IF’er: I fast 20 hours per day and I follow a strict low carb Paleo diet. I lost 10 lbs in two months and now my fat loss seems to have stalled. Do you think there’s anything wrong with my metabolism? Maybe I should try alternate day fasting instead. You know, to get a better growth hormone release and effectively mobilize the fat.
Me: But how about your calorie intake? What’s the macrocomposition of your diet?
IF’er: Like I told you, I keep a Paleo Diet. No processed foods. I eat meat, veggies, lots of fatty fish, whole eggs and nuts. I eat berries now and then, but I limit my fruit intake and I don’t eat any dairy. I don’t really know how many calories I’m eating.
This conversation took place just a few hours ago, and pretty much sums up what I think a large group of people is missing. Here, all the focus is on the method, not the process. While this individual had some success with a ‘lifestyle’ approach to dieting, by making dietary changes that brought about fat loss without actively paying attention to calorie intake, that style of dieting eventually stops working.
Recall that the body is extremely adept at making you stop losing fat, and by allowing spontaneous eating, even if restricted to select ‘ healthy’ food items, people are inviting plateaus. It’s actually pretty easy to undo hours of fasting with an uncontrolled food intake when the feeding phase starts – even with healthy, ‘clean’ foods. For example, nuts, typically consumed by low carbers and the paleo clique (which also tends to be the groups of people often experimenting with IF), is being pushed as the second coming of Christ and an ‘optimal’ snack, yet contains more calories than chocolate on a unit per unit basis. Chocolate is a big no no for many dieters, yet nuts are ok? Sure, nuts have a decent fatty acid profile, but they’re worthless as a protein source and there’s a lot better ways to get your essential fatty acids than snacking on nuts, especially if you want to lose weight. Rationalizing the consumption of nuts in favor for the exclusion of fruit and dairy is absurd, especially since the latter are less calorie dense and has shown to exert a positive effect on satiety and fat loss.
Simply put, people are missing the forest for the trees. Reality check: even if IF might have benefits not seen with other diet approaches, it doesn’t magically alter the human metabolism. Calories count, regardless of the method used, and people needs to learn that. I guess this scenario is just as common among followers of any other diet approach out there, but I’ll throw it out there just to make sure everyone understands that you can’t get away with an excessive calorie intake just because you’re doing IF. Some people reading this will go ‘no shit, Sherlock, I knew that’ but the same people don’t have the slightest clue about what the average dieter knows or doesn’t know. Trust me, I’ve had more than my share of clients that thought fat loss was all about watching your carbs and staying away from dairy.
My regime takes the guesswork out of the equation and doesn’t rely on special food restriction rules seen in other diet approaches. Since the diet is cyclic, rotating higher carb days with lower carb days, no foods are excluded from the diet if it’s taken into account calorie wise, and consumed on the right day. I also believe in a more or less optimal macrocomposition of the diet, a subject every IF regime out there ignores, but this is a complex topic and will be covered in greater detail when the time comes.
Another mistake I believe many IF’ers are doing, is fasted weight training. The research on pre- and post workout nutrition today is quite substantial and I don’t think anyone in their right mind should be lifting weights on an empty stomach – regardless of goals. I believe the protein synthesizing effect of the pre-workout meal overshadows any small benefit to be had from higher amounts of growth hormone that comes from fasted workouts and scientific evidence supports this. This doesn’t mean fasted workouts are a no go, but it means we should compromise a bit – which is why I suggest the ingestion of an adequate amount of essential amino acids or BCAA prior to the workout. This wouldn’t technically make it a fasted workout, but I believe the caloric impact of 10 g EAA/BCAA is so small that it would leave you with most of the benefits of a fasted workout, while at the same time getting many of the benefits of a solid pre-workout meal. My regime uses different pre- and post-workout meal setups depending on workout timing, and I just described the one I’ve successfully used with fasted workouts. As far as I know, pre-workout isn’t even mentioned in the context of the other IF regimes out there.
Leigh Peele: What do you feel that IF offers that sets it apart from other methods? Where do you think it really shines, not only from a scientific standpoint but mentally as well?
Martin Berkhan: The answer to this question is best answered from different point of views. Bear with me and you’ll understand where I’m going here.
For the dieter, IF offers something very unique, in terms of enjoying physically and psychologically satisfying meals while losing weight. The absence of hunger and cravings are also a welcome feature when using IF for weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, the fasting phase has a suppressive effect on hunger. Hunger pangs may come, but they disappear quickly, to be replaced by a sense of well being and total absence of hunger.
This is my take on generic weight loss methods: I believe that the “nibbling” approach to dieting, which is so often encouraged by mainstream nutritionists and mass media, may aggravate hunger, rather than keeping it at bay. I can speak for myself, and several of my clients, when I’ll say that several small meals a day does more to potentate cravings, and subsequent hunger, rather than suppressing it. There’s also the psychological sense of hunger that must be taken into account, while discussing how dieters think and work. I honestly feel that the psychological form of deprivation, i.e. the absence of some favorite foods that you might not be able to enjoy on a generic high meal frequency plan, is much worse than any form of physical hunger. Some people will gladly trade constant cravings for the casual physical hunger that might occur during the fasted phase on IF. Notice that I’m saying “might”, since some people, including me, don’t get hungry at all during the fast (there’s probably an adaptive component to be taken into account here).
Now, obviously the above doesn’t hold true for everyone. Like every diet approach out there, there’s differences among individuals in what works and what doesn’t, but so far, in my experience, there seems to be a lot more “hits” than “misses”, when it comes to the success rates of people using IF for weight loss.
There’s also the nutrient partitioning effects I believe that IF may provide when combined with strength training – basically, I think that IF is a very flexible tool, that can be used in several ways, to improve body composition.
Others will enjoy the cognitive effects of IF. I’m mainly thinking about people with professions that require a high degree of focus and concentration; for example programmers and writers, that may want to increase their productivity during work hours. Due to the increase in catecholamines during the fast, productivity goes up and you’ll feel more involved in whatever you’re doing; the effect can be compared to a mild stimulant. Personally, that’s one of the benefits I really appreciate as a writer and online diet consultant. I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, reading, writing and corresponding back and forth. Having not to think about food, and feeling clear headed and focused, is something I find very useful when it comes to time management and productivity.
And then again, there are the health benefits not to be forgotten. Improving insulin sensitivity and other health indicators, such as cardiovascular health for example, is undoubtedly of interest to a large number of people, whose main priority is to stay healthy and reduce risk factors for different types of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. IF also offers neuroprotective benefits, which may protect from brain degenerative diseases like Alzheimers, for example. These benefits are unique to this diet approach and cannot be achieved, to the same degree, with traditional calorie restriction and exercise.
Leigh Peele: Have you found a difference between men and women using this program?
Martin Berkhan: Due to differences in body weight, body composition and calorie needs, very few women, especially those already within a ‘normal’ weight range, get away with an unstructured approach to dieting. That goes for all diet approaches, not just IF. Sure, a lifestyle approach to IF will likely get a few pounds of you, but it won’t work all the way down to getting really lean for most women. The female body is very adept in protecting against fat loss below a certain body fat percentage and spontaneous eating without logging calories will often set people up for failure, unless they have a very solid track record of dieting in the past (i.e very attuned to their bodies caloric needs).
As we’re on the subject, I’ll also mention that I’ve revamped the diet guidelines I use for my female clients. For example, the fasted phase is now 14 hours by default, not 16 hours which is the case for men. This has brought about much greater diet compliance and less negative symptoms among women. The rationale for changing the guidlines makes a lot of sense based on the amount of feedback I’ve been getting, as well as my research on the topic. It turns out that women has lower plasma glucose concentrations than men after the same time spent fasting. In practical terms, this means that women in general are more likely to get moody and hungry if they go too long without feeding, while men can go longer without experiencing any negative effects, and this is exactly what I’ve been seeing. Men can do 16 hours quite easily, not so with women; for them, 14 hours is the sweet spot.
I’ve also made some other dietary alterations that increased diet compliance for women, but I think I’ll save that part for the book. For now, I’ll just say that moving towards an isocaloric approach, with a healthy dose of carbs from fruit, has worked very well. Thus, I believe the optimal diet on this regime will depend on gender, which makes logical sense if you look at the differences in substrate metabolism between the sexes.
Leigh Peele: I know we have talked a lot about fat loss, but IF can also be a really great approach to maintenance as well, correct?
Martin Berkhan: My approach to IF is hands down the easiest approach to maintaining low body fat, while at the same time being able to eat liberally and enjoy life – at least in my view, but a lot of my clients and other IF practitioners would agree with that notion.
It wasn’t until I settled into the IF lifestyle that I was able to maintain low body fat with ease; in the past, I felt the constant focus on meals only made me crave more food, yet never left me fully satisfied. Based on feedback from numerous enthusiasts, I know that a lot of people are dealing with this issue.
Let me expand on this. For the great majority of people, maintenance is a lot harder than dieting or bulking – it’s a grey area, seemingly lacking purpose, where many seem to fall into a pattern of overeating one day and undereating the next day in order to make up for the ‘bad’ day. Been there, done that, and I know I’m not special in that regard. Unless your calorie needs are staggeringly high, you’re faced with the fact that you’ll be eating small, boring meals if you’re left with the ingrained habit of eating six times a day. It’s like dieting, except you’re more likely to go give yourself a pass some days and go ’screw this’ and overeat just because you’re sick of your monotonous meals.
Now, cut that meal frequency in half and what happens? You now have three substantial meals that will leave you fulfilled. And there’s even time for dessert or a treat – something I certainly think should be a part of a lifestyle approach to maintaining your physique once you’ve reached a condition you’re happy with. That just isn’t possible with six meals a day.
Another fact is that the constant meal preparing chores of a high meal frequency plan interferes with other things you should be doing; work, studies, social networking and leisure time takes a toll. Personally, I hated the mental distraction that my six-times-a-day eating habit brought about, and despised the fact that I allowed such a trivial issue take up so much of my time. Maintenance should be effortless, not a full time job where all your attention is devoted to your diet and what you’ll be eating next. My approach includes a 14-16 hour fast, which fits perfectly with most peoples work schedules; it isn’t extreme, nor is it hard to adapt to, but it lets people be more productive and get things done, without being distracted. The mental clarity triggered by the fasting is just an added bonus.
Adopting the IF approach has allowed me to maintain single digit body fat without the effort needed in the past and to be honest, I don’t think you can fully appreciate your physique until you’ve put your thoughts off your diet and eased into a pattern of training and eating that doesn’t take up a large part of your mental activity. When I eat, I eat big. When I don’t, I like to stay occupied with more important stuff, without having to think about when my next tupperware sized meal should come. That’s just not my style, and I think a lot of people involved in this game feels the same way – they’re just reluctant to change, as they keep rationalizing their behavior by believing it to be a superior or ‘optimal’ approach. These commonly held beliefs are either false or based on depraved interpretation of research, yet they are constantly propagated by supplement companies (which love the fact that you believe eating six times a day is good for you), mass media and the fitness/bodybuilding community. These institutions either have a financial interest in keeping these myths alive or are to lazy to think for themselves.
Leigh Peele: Do you have a set release date for your book? Are you still taking on clients to work with at all? Basically, if someone wanted to start adopting this style of eating, what can they do and where should they go?
Martin Berkhan: I dare not say when the book will be out, but I’m hoping to get it released some time later this year. I’m still taking online clients and if anyone wants to try the approach before the book is out they can find the contact details on my site.
*Authors note: Martin is still taking on clients, but currently has a waiting list. You can find more information here.
If you would like a book or product on the subject, I recommend Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat.
Martin’s Site – http://www.leangains.com
The Leangain’s Guide – http://www.leangains.com/2010/04/leangains-guide.html
Donations To Martin’s Site – http://www.leangains.com/2011/02/why-i-added-donation-button.html
If you would like a book or product on the subject, I recommend Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat.