Muscle, fasting, and health: a rant


Image from Hunger Fitness


Well, at least this fellow Mr. Ferentinos, a former rugby player and now a “nutritional consultant”, doesn’t deny that being in the fed state constantly may be bad for your health and shorten your life.

Furthermore, in what sense is intermittent fasting a “fad”? Paleo eating is an attempt to attain or recover health by eating in a style close to that of our paleolithic ancestors. But just as much attention should be given, in my opinion, to when you eat as to what. Ancestral peoples didn’t awake in the morning to a pot of coffee and a box of donuts, they had to hunt, gather, and then prepare their food. Sure, they may generally have had some leftovers around to munch on in the morning, but given lack of any means of preserving food, mostly they would have to go get it afresh daily. The pattern of eating of hunter-gatherer tribes usually seems to be that of a nearly all day fast, with a huge meal eaten at the end of the day when all was prepared and ready. In any case, long periods without food would likely have been the norm.

Our bodies and the cellular systems that constitute them are not adapted in evolutionary terms to being constantly fed. Our modern system of constant food availability, especially as that has come to be over the past few decades, bears a great deal of responsibility for the epidemic of diabetes and obesity. Our bodies are adapted to make use of stresses, among them the stress of going for periods of time without food, and this is the basis of hormesis.

Mark Mattson, one of the preeminent scientists in the study of aging, advocates a tripartite rule for good health and long life, and these include dietary phytochemicals, exercise, and intermittent fasting, all of which are hormetic.

So you can see that intermittent fasting is not only not a fad, but it conduces to health and life.

But what about Ferentinos’s charge that those items on his list won’t maximize or preserve muscle tissue optimally? What he is implying is that one must be in the fed state almost all the time, or else one loses muscle. But is that true? For one thing, fasting causes an increase in the secretion of growth hormone, likely with the purpose of preserving muscle mass. For another, numerous studies have found that protein timing is much less important than the amount of protein. Sure, you want to be in the fed state when working out – or very shortly thereafter – but this idea of constantly being in the fed state hearkens back to the discredited notion of some bodybuilders that you have to eat six meals a day to optimally gain muscle.

In short, if you fast intermittently, so long as you eat enough protein during the feeding window, muscle preservation and growth should be fine, more so if you lift weights during that time.

There’s another issue as well, and that is that being in the fed state constantly, as Mr. Ferentinos appears to advocate, abolishes autophagy, which is one leg of the optimal anti-aging strategy. Longer-lived humans and animals have elevated autophagy; genetically modified animals that have been engineered to have elevated autophagy can live up to ten times longer than their non-modified versions. There’s every reason to think that increasing autophagy in humans, whether through fasting, resveratrol, curcumin, exercise, or even drinking water at night, will result in better health and longer life. Being in the fed state all the time could help you look like a rugby player, but will not help you live longer.

Mr. Ferentinos says that he wants to leave a “pretty corpse”, and if that’s his goal, fine by me. But I want my body to both look good and be healthy, and to be on this earth a good while.

You see this kind of argument everywhere. Oh, you have to eat a big, protein-filled breakfast if you don’t want to get fat, for example. You have to eat six meals a day to be a real bodybuilder. Etc. No, you don’t.

End of rant.

Update: Dimitry Klokov, Russian weightlifter, does fasted training.



Leave a Comment:

Derek Wolf says February 5, 2015

Perhaps his comment came because he is biased towards his nutritional advice.

I agree that calling IF a fad is baseless. Combined with a paleo type diet it is technically the most tried and true protocol we have.

I looked at his pics on twitter… Let me just say, I refuse to take nutritional advice from someone who looks unhealthy. Likewise for fitness advice.

He’s a big boy and I respect that he’s probably as strong and tough as an ox. But if anything, he’d likely benefit tremendously from an IF protocol.

It’s easier to label things as unimportant fads, rather than admit your own shortcomings. He included bulletproof coffee as a fad… yes, some over-emphasize its role, and perhaps Dave Asprey is a bit cooky… but there is substantiated science behind saturated fats and MCTs regarding energy, satiety and more. If anything, such baseless comments would cause the educated reader to question his credibility.

    P. D. Mangan says February 5, 2015

    Thanks, Derek, perceptive comments. Bulletproof coffee isn’t a bad thing, as you say, and I think it can be useful for those trying to lose weight. I’ve tried it a few times and it has a kick and helps with getting the brain going. Though I bet Asprey would have an even bigger following if he put theanine in it. As for the rugby player, I really don’t think you need to choose between being muscular and being healthy, but that’s the bias out there.

Morgan says February 6, 2015

Question– I eat once a day and get what exercise I can, and I try to make my dinner as close to Atkins as possible whenever possible. But I don’t list like I should, and my main goal is health, ease of dieting, and being able to keep playing basketball, so for me it works great.

However, and maybe you all have covered this, but when I was sending a friend links about doing it they found this:

Not sure if those are valid concerns really, just curious.

    Morgan says February 6, 2015

    meant ‘lift’ not ‘list’ but only real question is if that SFGate article is exaggerating the negatives or something obvious like that

      P. D. Mangan says February 6, 2015

      I don’t want to be in the position of dismissing science that doesn’t fit with my views, and I’d have to take a closer look at each of those. For instance, blood pressure was higher: by how much? I doubt that it would be enough to raise it into pathological territory. Weaker immune system: the piece itself points out how that could be an advantage. Essentially what they’re saying is less inflammation (I believe), and they mention that asthma sufferers could benefit from it. Indeed, one study of alternate day fasting found that asthma decreased. (This was a case study with only a few participants.) One nutrition pundit I know of has been flogging a lot of studies lately that show that people who skip breakfast are more prone to being overweight.

      Contrast that with the known benefits of calorie restriction on lifespan, and the evidence that IF effectively mimics CR. Ultimately I think I’d need strong evidence that eating in a style more in line with how animals and paleo humans ate was harmful, and I don’t see that, I see almost entirely benefits.

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