One of the main reasons people start practicing IF is to lose weight. All of the hundreds of articles already out there about IF seems to indicate that this is a popular topic and one where people are gobbling the info up.
So what am I doing writing yet another article on IF for weight loss? Well, I believe that many of the existing literature on IF for weight loss paints IF as some sort of magical solution that will cause you to shed pounds faster than you can gobble down twenty McNuggets.
I hope you don’t need me to tell you that that’s false. While you can get great results from fasting, you can also still get fat while doing IF, and here’s why:
Understand the concept of Calories In vs. Calories Out
There is an important concept people need to be aware of called calories in vs. calories out.
“Calories in” means how much calories you consume or take in over the course of a period of time (e.g. a day, a week, a month). “Calories out” means how much calories you expend over the course of a period of time (e.g. a day, a week, a month, etc.).
Understand that even without any exercise, your body will expend calories to maintain proper functioning of your organs and wellbeing. The amount that you expend is called your base metabolic rate (BMR). This number is part of your calories out.
If you exercise, more calories will be burned on top of your BMR. The combination of BMR + calories burned from exercise is your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This is the total calories out you will have if you’re still alive and also exercise.
Whether you lose weight or not depends on the offset between your calories in vs. calories out. If you consume more energy than what your body expends (called a caloric surplus), the excess calories leftover is stored as fat.
On the other hand, if you expend more calories than you consume (called a caloric deficit), then your body will have to get the calories (energy) from another source, namely the fat stored on your body. After all, that’s what fat is for!
And the final possibility: if you eat as much calories as your body uses up, then you will stay exactly the same. This is called maintenance, and is something that is totally okay to strive for if you are already satisfied with the way your body looks.
So, to recap: Weight gain or loss is largely due to calories in vs. calories out. Eating at a caloric surplus will make you fat. Eating at a deficit will cause you to lose weight. Eating at maintenance means you will remain exactly the same.
How much/little calories do I need to gain or lose a pound?
The magic number is 3500 calories, give or take a few hundred. Weight gain or loss can be as simple as doing basic arithmetic. Allow me demonstrate with an example.
Let’s say that through trial and error you’ve managed to figure out that your maintenance calories are at a flat 2000 calories a day based on activity level and BMR. You would say that your TDEE is 2000 calories.
In this case, if you ate 2000 calories a day you would not gain or lose any weight whatsoever. If you wanted to lose a pound, you would need to be at a caloric deficit of 3500 calories. Any calorie for this particular individual below 2000 is a deficit and starts the “counter” slowly downwards from 3500 calories.
“But”, you might be thinking, “How can I lose 3500 calories if I normally eat 2000 calories and can’t eat less than 0 calories (negative calories!)?
Fret not, the 3500 caloric deficit should probably be done over the course of one week (or longer, or slower, depending on how aggressive you are or not). That is to say, you should probably reduce calories by 500 every day for one week for a net deficit of 3500 calories.
For the individual normally eating 2000 calories, consuming 1500 calories each day for one week should net a one pound loss.
Another approach is to simply calculate the calories you would be consuming over a one week period. An individual consuming 2000 calories a day for 7 days would eat 14,000 calories a week. If this individual wants to lose one pound a week, he/she would need to consume 14,000 – 3500 calories for a total of 10,500 calories.
You can then distribute these 10,500 calories over the course of the week however you want to.
For weight gain, you can do the same steps as above but instead whenever I told you to subtract something, replace with addition instead.
How do I calculate calories?
Read the nutrition labels. It should say at the very top how many calories for however many servings. Again, this is all simple arithmetic.
If you are eating foods that don’t have nutrition labels on them, try to look online. Some good diet trackers to assist you with this are FitDay and MyFitnessPal.
If there really is no information about the amount of calories in the food that you’re eating, you’re playing with fire. That’s why most diets tell you not to eat out – because it is so difficult to keep track of your calories.
If you must eat out, then hopefully you have some good food sense. Try not to eat too much greasy or fatty foods. Don’t add a whole bunch of dressing on your salad. Stop lathering your food with so much sauce, etc.
And also, just as a fail-safe, overestimate the amount of calories you think you’re consuming. This way, best case scenario you’re right on the money with how much calories you consumed. Worst case scenario, you’re at an even greater caloric deficit than before.
If you’re not a weightlifter or athlete who may need those calories to perform, this probably doesn’t even concern you. More weight loss for you, yay!
Dieting is the easiest way to lose weight, training is the hard way
What’s the easiest way to have more money? To get a promotion? To sell things on the side? To somehow get an increase in income? No. The easiest way is to simply reduce spending.
Similar principle here. What’s the best way to lose weight? Is it to do cardio? HIIT? Running, jogging, swimming, biking? No. The easiest way is to simply not eat so much damn food.
If you simply ate less, you wouldn’t even need to exercise to burn off calories. You would already be at a deficit!
So, instead of having to run an hour or several miles every day to burn a measly 500 calories, a lazy (smart) person would just reduce the amount of food they eat by 500 calories.
I’m not against exercising. Exercising is a great way to strengthen your body and keep healthy. What I am against is exercising for the sake of burning calories because it is one of the most inefficient ways to lose weight.
Exercise because you want to improve your cardiovascular health and strengthen your muscles, not because you want to lose weight.
What does all of this have to do with Intermittent Fasting?
Because no matter how much you fast, you will not lose weight (or at least not maximize the amount of potential weight loss) if you are eating at a caloric surplus.
Plus, you can still get fat doing IF. I will tell you my story below:
How I got fat while doing IF
I am and have always been a very lean individual. My somatotype is that of an ectomorph. My absolutely non-scientific definition of an ectomorph is an individual who is extremely skinny/thin, lacking in muscle, and has an insanely high metabolism.
Curious as to whether it was possible for me to get fat (and also because I am a weightlifter and wanted to bulk up considerably), I decided to go an entire year on a “dirty bulking” diet while doing IF.
A dirty bulk diet (as opposed to a “clean” diet) is one where anything goes; the goal is to consume as much calories as possible for maximum weight gain.
I ate all the fat, greasy, fried foods I wanted. McDonald’s, Chinese take-out, all-you-can-eat buffets; if it was going to cause you an early death, you bet I had some. I estimate that I was eating on average 4000-5000 calories a day.
I started at a bodyweight of 140lbs (63kg) lean at 5’8” (172cm), and after a year I weighed at 172lbs (78kg) for a total of 32 pounds (15kg) gained. Surprisingly, with the kinds of foods that I was eating, and in such ridiculous amounts, my weight gain is actually quite modest in my opinion. I have to thank my ridiculously fast metabolism for that.
(Note: I am actually still in the process of losing all of this weight at the moment, using – you guessed it – intermittent fasting to drop the pounds. It’s been about 3 months and I’ve already lost 20 pounds, down to 152 pounds. I will make a post about how I am doing this, along with pictures, hopefully in the next 1-2 months when my cut is complete).
So, is it possible to get fat while doing IF? Is IF a magical way to shed pounds? Answer: No, you can actually mess it up really badly if you wanted to or are ignorant of how weight loss actually works.
Intermittent fasting is not magic. It is not a way for you to continue eating eating a poor diet while magically getting shredded abs. You must still be cognizant of the foods you are putting into your body.
If you have a basic understanding of how weight loss occurs, and apply that knowledge with intermittent fasting, you will shed pounds. Fast.
But if you still think you can afford to eat McDonald’s every day while simultaneously dropping weight, you’re wrong* and need to re-evaluate your priorities.
I will be going more in-depth into the benefits of IF in a later post, so stay tuned.
* Well, you can actually lose weight eating McDonald’s everyday. Ever seen Fat Head? The narrator uses the concept of calories in vs. out that I describe here to lose weight while eating McDonald’s every day. But he also had to regularly check up with his doctor, and supplement with vitamin pills, so don’t be stupid about it.