Intermittent Fasting – Finding a New Middle Ground

Last week I went back and revisited all my old posts on Intermittent Fasting. Because of the concerns I discussed in Irresponsible Health Blogging, a few posts were edited and a few were deleted. I also completely rewrote my Best Of Intermittent Fasting page. My goal was to do two things. First I did not want to be seen as giving a blanket recommendation to IF. Second, I did not want to regurgitate the science explanations that I got from other sites, some of which I now have less confidence in.

Last month when I put out the post Intermittent Fasting – Context is Likely Important, I honestly thought it was a good way to end the series. I felt it was balanced and addressed both the fans and the critics of IF. But you can’t please everyone. Some of the fans discounted my concerns and a few people on a Ray Peat forum felt even with all my caveats and experience that I’d be making a big mistake to resume even a little IF.

It got me thinking if there might be a way to reconcile the two sides.

The Benefits and Criticisms of IF

I have an idea for a different approach to fasting that might work, but before I explain my plan I want to first go over the benefits and criticisms of IF first. I see three major cited benefits for IF. They are:

  1. Learning How to Deal with Hunger – In a 2012 post I talked about how following The Zone Diet basically trained my body to be hungry almost all the time. I was always thinking about food and meal planning. For me to resume a normal 3 meal a day habit, I first had to learn to be OK with hunger. IF was that teacher. Being OK with hunger made me calmer. It allowed me to spend more time preparing meals. I learned to cook. I no longer had to reach for a protein bar to immediately kill my hunger.
  2. Fat Loss – Fat loss is about creating a caloric deficit. You can try and manage this on a day by day, meal by meal basis, but that can be costly in both time and willpower. Creating a larger deficits once or twice a week and then eating normally the rest of the week both works and can be liberating. This is the basis for the Eat Stop Eat guide by Brad Pilon. I don’t believe there is anything magical about fasting, but for me it was a simple compelling strategy that worked far better than other diets.
  3. Autophagy / Life Extension – I’m not going to go into much this topic, so I’ll direct you to the excellent post Death Will Eat Itself by J.D. Moyer. The short version is when you deprive the cell of nutrients, it begins to self clean. Many people believe this can result in many health benefits including life extension.

Now for the criticisms.

  1. Reduced Metabolism – The body is smart and if one engages in too much fasting, it can reduce metabolism. How much is too much? This is highly debatable and will vary from person to person. I cover the case against triggering autophagy in the post Intermittent Fasting – What Paleo Didn’t Teach Me. The simple explanation is that by forcing autophagy and reducing metabolism, you are decreasing cell protection and slowing down repair, because now the cell is under stress.
  2. You Don’t Need to Become a “Fat Burner” to Burn Fat – Paleo has been big on pushing the message that one needs to access stored body fat directly via low carb or ketosis in order to lose weight. This is false, as the body is always burning fat. Thankfully this myth is going away. There are still people pushing ketosis as a magical way to lose fat. Although it may be easier, it is the stressful path and can lead to a lower metabolism.

What Diana Schwarzbein Said That Resonated With Me

After the Context post, I watched the Diana Schwarzbein Survival of the Smartest lecture twice. Took notes too. She discusses how on a hormonal level we are either using or building. When we fast, we are using. We we eat we are building. And our ability to rebuild hormones is greatly reduced as we age. For women age 35 and for men age 40.

So our ability to handle fasting can be diminished as we age. If we already have poor sleep, over exercise or abuse chemicals (caffeine, nicotine) then fasting would be even worse.

What I learned from Schwarzbein was the cascade of stress hormones can cause the metabolism to tank. This lines up with the Ray Peat people and their criticisms regarding forcefully triggering autophagy. She also talked about how hormonally breaking down can feel good. It is a survival technique for the species. However, repeatedly running on stress hormones is not good and can gradually lead to chronic health problems.

Seeking an Alternative Approach to Fasting

I first learned about autophagy from Art De Vany. He mentioned in his lecture how during the fasted state the cell consumes the damaged proteins first. Diana Schwarzbein said something similar in her lecture, stating that in the absence of glucose, amino acids are broken down to make sugar. The problem is the accompanying stress hormonal response.

All this made me ask the question: Can one get the benefits of fasting without the stress hormone response? Maybe you can. If carbs and salt can suppress stress hormones and protein suppresses autophagy, what would happen if one consumed just enough sugar/salt to shutdown the stress hormones?

I did some searching and discovered the online book The Protein Cycling Diet. This book is very pro-autophagy and goes into great detail on science. To trigger autophagy it recommends following a very low protein diet. How low? 5% of less of total calories.

The problem with this diet is that capping protein at 5% is going to be tough as most foods exceed 5% protein. Even foods you wouldn’t think had much protein are often greater than 5%. White rice is 8% protein. A potato is 7%. Once you start digging through the nutritional content of food, it looks almost impossible to construct a meal with 5% or less protein.

Unless, instead of constructing a very low protein diet one greatly reduces the amount of calories.

The Ray Peat people love salted orange juice as it shuts down stress hormones. Orange juice has a protein content of 5%. Good. Raw honey, which was discussed in the post In Defense of Sugar, has only trace amounts of protein.


Photo by mbeo

The Low Stress Intermittent Fast

Here is how I envision the plan working. Once or twice a week on days when I wake up with great sleep and I have no plans to exercise, I will begin the day with a small amount of either honey or salted OJ. Then if I feel anxious or stressed during that day, consume a little more until the 22 hour fast is complete. I’ll also have a small amount of honey or salted OJ prior to every caffeinated drink to blunt the stress response. At the end of the day, I will end the low stress IF and have a normal meal.

Will this method meet my goals? I think so. First, it will teach me to deal with hunger. Not as powerfully as a zero calorie fast, but I suspect it will still be effective. Second, it will create a caloric deficit for fat loss. Third, I think but have no way of knowing that will trigger autophagy, but do it in a way that lowers stress hormones and doesn’t compromise metabolism.

One criticism might be the very act of doing this could reduce metabolism via the reduction in calories. To reduce the chance of that happening, I would not do this fast on consecutive days. When I do eat, it will a carbohydrate friendly diet.

Am I on the right path here? One question I do not know is just how many grams of sugar (OJ or honey) will be needed to address stress hormones. I’ll guess for now. If I feel cold or anxious then I’ll up the sugar/salt, otherwise I’ll lower until that sweet spot is found.

My Top 11 Coffee Roasters in the SF Bay Area

I was interviewed last month as a coffee expert for an article listing the best coffee roasters in the San Francisco Bay Area. That article just went live.

The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters, According to Experts

This is how you do a TOP LIST article. You involve multiple judges and disclose their backgrounds. Then you use a weighted point system and add everything together. Most top coffee lists are the opinions of lazy or uneducated journalists that know little about coffee. Thrillist gets it right.

My Top 11

Anyway the article just discloses my top 3. Since I have a blog, I thought I’d share my top 11 and some thoughts on the roasters as well my analysis of the list itself.

  1. Chromatic Coffee – Santa Clara
  2. Devout Coffee – Fremont
  3. Front Cafe – Potrero Hill
  4. Ritual Coffee – Mission
  5. Counter Culture – Emeryville
  6. Verve – Santa Cruz (coming to Castro)
  7. Blue Bottle – Oakland
  8. Contraband – Nob Hill
  9. Andytown – Outer Sunset
  10. Four Barrel – Mission
  11. Peter James Coffee – San Leandro

Chromatic was #1 on my list and #1 for the entire list. Glad to see them get the credit they deserve. If they were located in the Mission District, everyone in specialty coffee would know about them.

I was the only one that gave points to Devout Coffee in the East Bay. It is hard to get there, but it is worth it. I invite my other judges to visit them. You will be hearing more from Devout.

Looks like my points for Counter Culture were not added. Maybe because they are based out of North Carolina? Darn. I would have added Linea to the list had I known Counter Culture was not eligible.

I also see Temple got some votes. I would have added them as well, but didn’t consider Sacramento to be part of the Bay Area.

All my picks were based on espresso, except for Peter James. It was one of the best darker roasted coffees I’ve ever had. I’m still not a fan of dark roasts, but it really impressed me.

3 That Disappointed

I did not care for Sightglass Coffee, which I refer to as Sourglass. Every espresso I had from them was under developed and sour. Wrecking Ball was another disappointment. Not only was their espresso bland, but so was their pour over. And almost every shot I had from Equator was just nasty. Ashy notes and no flavor.

New To Me

If I ever return to SF, I now have a few more places to try. Turning Point, Boot, Scarlet City, Sextant and Oudimentary. And I thought I covered it all in one year. 🙂

san francisco

King of the Road

Today I am Waze Royalty!

waze royalty

Driving sucks. I know. But if you need to drive, then why not get some points and a rank? I explained all this in the post Learning to Hate Driving Less. Waze may seem silly to many, but it not only made driving more pleasant (less painful), but gave me the idea to use gamification for something more beneficial.

That turned out to be the language learning application Duolingo, which I covered in the post 30 Días. Well 30 days is now 132 days. I’m on Level 14 and just hit the 6% Fluency level. Several of my friends have now joined me on Duolingo. My group the Coffee Club of Seattle now has eight members actively learning Spanish. A few are learning French and one Portuguese. It all started with the Waze scoreboard.

Duolingo 6%

We live in great times. A year ago I hated driving and was too unmotivated to even start the process of learning a foreign language. Today I drive around with Waze turned on while listening to Spanish lessons (Pimsleur). I feel like a King.

Are you using any educational applications that take advantage of points, ranking, streaks or competition with friends?

UPDATE January 2016: Having fun with the new Language Zen program.

Maybe HIT Isn’t Enough?

I am a big fan of High Intensity Training. Nothing is changing here, but in the last year I have lost some conditioning and it is probably my fault. Before I say where things went wrong, let me go back to my first true HIT workout. It was in February 2011 from legendary trainer Greg Anderson at Ideal Exercise.

Unlike the Glitter Gyms, the temperature at Ideal Exercise was a crisp 61-62 degrees. I love it. Back when I was in Queen Anne at Prorobics, I’d open the window even in the dead of winter to drop the temperature in the free weight room.

I later learned from an interview with Dr. McGuff that 61 degrees was ideal for generating the most intensity. Intensity is not about increasing your core temperature and sweating off calories. Intensity is about recruiting maximum muscle fibers in a brief and safe manner. Weight training will increase your core temperature, so starting from a cool temperatures will allow you to be comfortable and not hot when lifting. Therefore you can direct more attention and energy into the weights.

So I took what I learned from Greg Anderson and returned to my Glitter Gym. Glitter Gym is the term I use to describe all the big corporate gyms with lots of lights, mirrors and shiny equipment. Basically all modern gyms are now Glitter Gyms.

The problem I ran into was that I quickly got headaches at high levels of intensity, because my gym was warmer. Because the intensity comes on so quick in HIT and it comes on faster when it is warm, I would get sharp immediate headaches. Over the years, I have resolved this problem by dialing back the intensity and increasing the volume.

For me the secret sauce of HIT is not primarily about intensity, it is about safety. By not getting hurt, one could on a long enough time horizon make more gains even if the workout was less than optimal. I strongly believe that most brotards under estimate the risk and duration of injury, especially as we age and the weights get heavier.

Enough background. I believe I’ve underestimated the volume needed to compensate for reduced intensity. Because I’m not hitting that deep level of failure at the hot gyms, just bumping up the volume to additional set or additional day at the gym has turned out to not be enough. I noticed this recently when I tried out the endless rope machine. It humbled me on just how unconditioned I had become. As the average temperature in my gym went from 68F to 71F (20C to 21.7C), my level of effort went down, but my volume stayed constant.

Dialing Up the Volume

The past few weeks, I’ve increased my volume from 2 sets to 5 sets for the major exercises. I’m still doing mostly machines at a slower tempo, but not the SuperSlow and not to failure. But this still might not be enough.

As much as I can complain to the gym, they will never lower the temperature. The temperature at the gym is not set for what is best for the patrons, but for the staff. It baffles me that a group of fit mostly 20 year olds need to wear layers of clothing in a 70F gym. I wear a tank top and get hot just doing warm up exercises.

Another View of Conditioning

I fully understand and appreciate the dismissive view of cardiovascular training from the HIT community. I’m on board with it, provided you can actually do true HIT at a cool temperature with a legit trainer. That is expensive and unrealistic for the vast majority of people wishing to get fit.

Regarding conditioning, I do believe there is a lot of differences in how conditioning is defined and how it differs from skill. I view skill in the context of a specific sport or recreation. By engaging in deliberate practice one can become “conditioned” to that sport. But if I am not a runner, why should I care to run? Or cycle? Or whatever your sport happens to be.

I am still a believer that if you don’t know what skills you will need, the best thing to do is to just show up with stronger muscles. My fitness mentor Greg Anderson wrote this:

Muscular strength is the single most trainable factor in endurance performance. It is the muscles that actually perform work. When strength increases, the relative intensity of any given task decreases.

If you don’t know if you will be called on to swim, hike, run, cycle, ski or climb, the best training course of action is to just get stronger. If however, you know what you need to do then it also makes sense to train that sport.

Dr. McGuff tells a story of two overweight soldiers that trained on a stationary cycle for a Physical Fitness test. While the rest of the unit was in better shape, when it came time for the test on the cycles, the overweight soldiers got the best times. Were they the best conditioned? Depends upon how you measure conditioned. Had these two been asked to run instead, they would have likely finished behind the rest of the unit who all had more general transferable levels of conditioning from being stronger. But on that day on those stationary bikes, those two soldiers demonstrated the highest level of conditioning.

General Transferable Conditioning

So recently I’ve been thinking about how to build a set of general transferable conditioning skills that don’t require the very high levels of intensity from HIT. And do it in a way that doesn’t compromise safety. My initial thought is to construct a higher volume, lower weight workout with low skill movements that match the 7 Primal Movement Patterns outlined in Paul Chek’s book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! They are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Push
  4. Pull
  5. Bend
  6. Twist
  7. Gait (Walk, Jog, Run)


The idea here would be the same in that I don’t know what skills I would need to demonstrate conditioning, as I have no sport, but whatever they happen to be these 7 movements would provide an additional foundation on top of weight training.

Maybe I am misguided here? Your thoughts?

Notes For the Survival of the Smartest Lecture by Diana Schwarzbein

Thanks to a comment by Diana, I was tipped off to the July 2014 Survival of the Smartest lecture (p1, p2). It fits in with the discussion on why Intermittent Fasting can feel good in the short term but can be stressful to one’s health as one ages.

In this post I am going to save you two hours. I watched the lecture twice and took notes. Prior to Diana’s comment, I was unaware of Dr. Schwarzbein, but I have since learned that she has influenced Matt Stone, an author who I’ve referenced a few times on this site. Schwarzbein shows up in Diet Recovery 2.

She states that running on adrenaline and wearing yourself out actually feels really good – whereas rebuilding feels kinda lousy.

This sentence sets the stage for understanding the lecture. What feels good and what is good for your body might be two different things, especially in the short term. When we push dietary habits such as low calorie, low carb or fasting that accelerate the usage of stress hormones we run the risk of running into health problems. Not at first, but later.


Diet Recovery 2 by Matt Stone

Lecture Notes

Some of these sentences are taken verbatim from slides or Dr. Schwarzbein and some are my summaries.

Building or Using

The starting premise of the talk is that our metabolism is either in a building or using state.

In order to stay healthy, you must replace or restore the hormones you have used or depleted. When you use at a greater rate than you build then you are breaking down. This is accelerated aging. It feels good to break down until it doesn’t. This is the body compensating for your survival. 

Breaking down at a rate greater than one can rebuild is inviting degenerative disease. Our ability to rebuild is reduced as we age.  At one point Dr. Schwarzbein states that breaking down triggers rebuilding until about age 35 in women and 40 in men. After this point, our body greatly loses its ability to rebuild. Breaking down becomes aging.

  • Insulin is major rebuilding hormone. “insulin is your best friend”
  • Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol are major using hormones.
  • Combined effects of these hormones determines whether building or using.
  • Can only be in building or using mode – not both.

Aging is losing the ability to rebuild and repair. Our diminished ability to process alcohol as we age is one example.

Blaming Insulin

If a body is in a highly using mode, where stress hormones are high, the body will try and compensate by making more insulin. This results in high levels of insulin in the blood stream. Then we see disease. And insulin gets blamed, when it is really adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that are killing you.

Hormones Are Regulated by Your Habits

As long as your hormones system is intact, you regulate your hormones. The five elements that dictate this regulation are:

  1. Nutrition – How you eat, when you eat, how much you eat, ratios of what you eat, and your demeanor when eating.
  2. Stress – Your response to stress
  3. Sleep – How much and how deep
  4. Chemicals – What you ingest, how much you ingest (caffeine, sugar, alcohol, medications, hard drugs)
  5. Movement and exercise – And how much.

Reaching for chemicals to feel better is a sign there is something wrong with your metabolism.

Fasting, Low Carb

You can deplete your glycogen stores at night depending on how much complex carbs you had that day. Reduced carbs and fasting can make one more prone to hypoglycemia at night, which is one thing that can wake you up. Symptoms can come on slowly. It may not happen the first time, but might happen gradually over the course of years.

After glycogen is depleted. Hormones are used to make sugar from amino acids. It can take 72 hours to get into fat stores. When fat is being broken down the body is still in using mode (not rebuilding proteins).

If the body goes into stored fat that means insulin has gone down and adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol have gone up. The body is in the using side of the physiology. Not a place to live. This is for emergencies.

You don’t want to go into ketosis. It is all about breaking down. And breaking down can feel good (nicotine, caffeine).

Low carb dieters are inducing diabetes. They are lowering their insulin and raising their adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. That drives gluconeogenesis and they start to become hyperglycemic. Eating carbs reverses the process.

When you go low-carb, cortisol goes up. Early tests will show this, but cortisol levels will drop if prolonged. Could lead to adrenal burnout.

Degenerative Diseases

All degenerative diseases of aging have:

  • higher blood sugar
  • higher blood pressure
  • excessive clotting
  • increased inflammation and oxidation

Chronic disease is your body’s way to keep you going. It does this by breaking down.

  • You do not survive with low blood sugar so the only viable disease is one with high blood sugar.
  • You do not survive with low blood pressure so the only viable disease is one with high blood pressure.
  • You do not survive without the ability to clot, so over clotting is the problem that survives.
  • You do not survive with inflammation so the inflammatory diseases “win”.

All autoimmune diseases live in the using side of metabolism.

Living Longer in a Healthy State

Dr. Schwarzbein states humans used to live to at most about 50 and if your goal is to live to 50 years old you can do whatever you want to do. However, if you want to live longer you’ve got to honor physiology and biochemistry.

Losing weight is not how you stay healthy. Being healthy is how you lose weight.

Last Words

These notes are just an overview. If you are really interested in the details, especially in regards to diabetes, watch Part 2. The lecture inspired me to seek out more information, so I’ve just started reading The Schwarzbein Principle II. As a male over 40 years old that consumes a fair amount of caffeine, Dr. Schwarzbein has got my attention.

The Schwarzbein Principle II, The “Transition”: A Regeneration Program to Prevent and Reverse Accelerated Aging by Diana Schwarzbein