Train Like a Man, Eat Like a Woman: Is Intermittent Fasting Dangerous for Women?
This is a response to an article written by Lauren Brooks for breakingmuscle.com (link below). While some may view this as an attack on the article and author, the following is not meant to be that. Please remember context. When discussing anything, we NEED to hear both positive and negative experiences, and I welcome that. What I do have a beef with is this: Consider that you are a female reading the article for informational purposes and looking to educate yourself about a diet style. You are not familiar with IF, or perhaps are only slightly familiar. To you, it might just be another fad roving around. Fair enough. As I posted on Dr. John Berardi’s Facebook when he linked the article, I have a big concern with this author’s presentation of the material. She presents her stance on IF (intermittent fasting) in extremes, specifically regarding potential negative effects on women. Even if the piece was mostly opinion and anecdote, it was not presented clearly as such. Disregarding my own personal bias in favor of IF (this does not mean I think everyone should run around trying it, but it is quite obvious to anyone that follows me that I find it useful as a personal diet style), what I hope to examine is the underlying issue in regards to ANY discussions going about about diet/nutrition.
In this rebuttal, I want to address the problem with the way this information was presented, especially by someone who is a professional and who others look to for guidance. I am not a doctor, I am not a huge fitness name, I am not the authority – but I aim to be. I also aim to be part of the solution when it comes to adding to the pool of knowledge through which we can reverse negative and damaging trends we see in the fitness industry. I don’t know the author personally, and in fact, we may be similar in our basic thinking. But, when I see articles like this, I feel it adds to the problem instead of adding to the solution. Dr. Berardi took the criticism on his page, I feel, rather personally. The issue is not personal per se, I quote:
“For starters, do some of you folks think I’d just post some nonsense not worth at least considering? I know that most of FB is a free-for-all. But this page certainly isn’t. You guys should know that by now.”
No. No, I didn’t think that, and I think the tone of the comments did not show that assumption either.
And again: “I feel like if we can start from that place, we can have an open and honest dialogue. If we can’t then there’s no constructive conversation we can have. You’ve already decided that IF is for everyone, always.”
Well, I didn’t see anyone make that claim in any of the comments. That was your assumption, not mine. Is asking questions about the process by which information is disseminated to an uninformed public a personal attack? No. I want to just break down sentences from this article from parts that I felt were presented in a highly biased way and with arguments and correlations that were not properly supported, but that could have a huge impact on a less knowledgeable reader. Some of the following quotes are from the author and others from the women she interviewed. Read the article before you read the following, and see what YOU think before reading what I thought. Here it is:
Train Like a Man, but Eat Like a Woman!
“We have unique nutritional requirements that keep us running efficiently. After the age of thirty it becomes imperative to feed those special needs.”
– And what are those “special needs”? I am asking, not attacking. No doubt there are subtleties and differences in diet needed, but don’t we know that? How are women so different any more than one person is different than another? It is not clear to me what is meant by the above assertion. Is there any clear science outlining the major differences in the nutritional needs of men and women? Disregarding emotional and psychological factors (which I think are a HUGE concern, though harder to study), what are these differences on a biological level? In order to understand concerns, I would need to know what the differences being touted are.
“I am neither a scientist nor a doctor, but I absorb information and approach eating with lots of thought. Including my years in college, I have been studying kinesiology and nutrition for a total of fifteen years, which compels me to thoroughly analyze every approach. Jumping on a bandwagon is not something I do easily. So let’s take a look at IF with an analytical eye.”
– Fair enough. Neither am I. I am not one to drop my panties the minute someone busts out a degree (God forbid!), but I think that at the core of making an informed decision is the process of critical thinking, balanced with both science and experience. Since YOU determined that you were looking at IF with an “analytical” eye, I will take you at your word, and I expect a certain level of dispassionate discussion (which must always include positive, negative, and neutral factors). For someone with 15 years experience in studying the topic, this should be a given even if the goal is to present an opinion piece, not necessarily a research piece.
“A study found by Stefani Ruper, who wrote an incredible review on her blog about fasting for women, showed that there are significant physiological changes for females that take place with calorie restriction and fasting.”
– Here you are using two separate terms interchangeably. Calorie restriction does not equal fasting. You can fast daily and be in a calorie surplus. Caloric restriction would mean that your total daily input is purposely less than your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). This is a HUGE distinction which you fail to make clear, and which promotes a nagging question in my mind for the rest of the article as you and various women share their experiences: “Was it IF or caloric restriction?”
“On the other hand, the male rats showed they didn’t have a brain chemistry change like the females.”
– Last I heard humans also didn’t have the same brain chemistry as rats. Not going to get into it anymore than that. Animal research can be helpful, but it’s still animal research at the end of the day (thanks Alan Aragon).
“Keira practiced IF for a four-month period. She had her blood work done prior to her IF as well as after. The blood work after IF showed that her blood sugar was lower, but her cortisol levels were high and adrenals were stressed.”
– So did you ask Keira what her macros were? Did she go into a caloric deficit? What style of IF did she use? Was the time of the blood testing scheduled to reduce any variables from outside stress that could have effected her cortisol levels? What was her diet before hand and why was she interested in changing it? As we well-know “normal” has a wide range of definitions depending on who you talk to.
“What happened to Keira appears to be very common in the majority of females going head first into IF.”
– I would be careful with the word majority. WHAT majority? How did you determine this majority? What are your numbers, who are you talking to? Did you run a poll or some type of controlled research, however basic? How many people did you interview? Majority is a great word for backing up any claims you want to make, but it doesn’t mean much at the end of the day unless you can define the numbers a bit better. It is also a “weighty” word. Claiming to KNOW what happens to the majority is pretty bold.
“Needing to get through the day with an excessive amount of caffeine is enough of a warning bell to run the other direction.”
– What do you define as excessive? I am one of those who loves my morning fasts with coffee, but despite that, I don’t think MY intake can be considered excessive. My coffee intake for the day is one large mason jar. I would say that amounts to 2 full cups with some coconut oil. That is all the coffee I drink for the day. Define excessive please, because you later go on to use the example (perhaps sarcastically?) of 10 cups. That is excessive, I can agree, but since I fit the profile for someone who loves coffee and fasting in the morning, what do you mean by excessive?
“If you didn’t have a coffee addiction before IF, you will after.”
– So no one on a “normal” diet has a coffee addiction? Here you are distracting from the main point; if you pick a diet style for the wrong reasons, it will still be THE WRONG REASONS. Guzzling coffee (again, what do you define as excessive?) to get through the day is not exclusive to IF, neither is it a good idea to use coffee as a crutch to support an ill-chosen diet style that leaves you depleted of energy (whatever style that may be). Thanks though, for telling me what will happen the minute I try IF. See my problem? You are telling me what will happen. How did you determine that?
“..to live on caffeine in order to suppress your appetite and get that high everyday can put you into adrenal fatigue very quickly.”
– HUGE assumptions going on here. Live on caffeine? Hmmmm, if you are LIVING on caffeine in any form, you have bigger problems.
“A disturbing trend I keep seeing, even from fellow female fitness professionals is the confession of some kind of binge or cheat quickly followed by IF. Back and forth, over and over,” said Adrienne. Ask yourself, does this seem like a healthy pattern?”
– Correlation does not equal causation. PERIOD. Using any diet style as a compensation for bad diet habits in the first place is a no-no. Come on? Really? IF is not the “cause” of binging. Poor diet habits and failing to account for personal preference, physiological, and psychological factors when embarking on a diet is the cause. A simple, healthy diet that you can stick to as a lifestyle, provides your macro and micro needs, and helps you reach your goals with the least amount of stress is the goal. You know what can also lead to unhealthy eating patterns? Any diet. People who stuff their face 903,939 times a day. People who are bulimic. People who are hypereaters. People who obsessively weigh and count each morsel. Blah blah blah. Stop using IF to toot the horn of overeating problems. Again, I am not saying you disregard that, but the tone of this article does not make that clear AT ALL.
“Splurge and then starve is an eating disorder waiting to happen.”
– This reminds me of the new IIFYM problem. IIFYM is accused of being the new way to eat any junk you want all day long because it fits your macros. You can f–k up any diet style/fad to suit your horrible habits if you like. IF’ing does not = splurge and starve. If it does, the problem isn’t IF!
“After seeing so many people talk about how IF is central to their fat loss, I wanted you to know that you can get and stay lean WITHOUT doing it, too. Choose foods that are natural and that nourish you and your activities.”
– The soothing voice caresses you with reason, and this IS a great sentence. But look how it is presented in context to the rest of the article? “It’s OK, IF is not the only way.” Yes. But where is other side? If the author believes the above paragraph, than the IF smear campaign would have to include the women who find IF a positive experience. The way I view the new focus on IF is similar to what Alan Aragon said about it: It just vindicates the science behind meal timing. Meal timing doesn’t matter that much, and the metabolism doesn’t need “stroking” like everyone used to think. Another tool in the box! She also says “Everyone will have some moment of weakness or splurge, but why follow it with a round of what really looks like some form of punishment?” What really looks like a form of punishment? Sorry, I got away from looking at food as reward, or the lack of it, as punishment and that is the overriding attitude I promote. I hope you and food can work out your differences. Seriously, I know what it’s like to be stuck in binge/compensation cycles. It sucks. Changing to an IF style helped with that for me.
“The lasting words that came out of Krista’s mouth regarding IF were these: ‘Fuck IF.’ “
– Bravo. Krista doesn’t like it. If you choose any style of dieting without taking your personal variables into account, you will run into trouble. Krista also collaborated with Dr Berardi on his book specifically about IF’ing, titled “Experiments with Intermittent Fasting,” of which one of the ending paragraphs summing up the overview of IF styles was: “Remember: IF is one of many nutrition styles that work. But it only ‘works’ when it’s intermittent, flexible, and part of your normal routine – not an obligation, and not a chronic source of physical and psychological stress.”
Has she changed her mind or is there just not enough research yet? Given the above declaration, maybe her name should be taken off the book and/or her stance needs to be revised. Nothing wrong with evolving and changing your mind on a topic, especially one that does not have the benefit of long-standing experimentation and study, but do you see the slight problem?
“Fasting for a few hours or a day here and there can teach you that you won’t dwindle away, that you will survive, and you will actually get a chance to experience real hunger. Krista explained some of the positives as, ‘cellular cleanup, enhancing insulin sensitivity, and reducing inflammation.’ Krista will do a partial fast on Sundays when she is relaxed, calm, well-rested, and just doesn’t want to bother making breakfast, but she said, “calling it a ‘fast’ is sort of glorifying it with a sense of purpose.” Then she will get around to eating in the mid-afternoon. “IF has helped me observe and more accurately understand my physical hunger signals, which has been very helpful.
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Get started now Before, I would just eat because some bodybuilder told me I had to. I wasn’t eating when I was actually hungry. I was afraid to be hungry. That’s not good either.”
– Again you are connecting IF with disordered eating, as if they are the same thing. A diet style versus a diet disorder. I use the word “fast” because it’s accurate. Would you like to call it abstinence or some other word so that you can feel like we’re not “glorifying it”?
“Unfortunately for Krista, doing IF to cut weight for a grappling competition actually put her in premature menopause at the age of 35. It also led her to what she calls ‘crazy brain’ and began a major eating disorder.”
– Was Krista in a caloric deficit? She says she was cutting weight. That means she was dieting to lose weight. So was it the fasting or the dieting as a whole? Going into a caloric deficit no matter HOW you do it can have negative and stressful effects. Were those effects enhanced because of IF, and not apparent on other diets tried during the same cutting phase? What about sleep and competition stress? Did she determine, as a professional, that an IF diet directly resulted in the premature menopause? It’s a weighty accusation to make against one factor.
“Krista clearly stated, ‘If you didn’t have an eating disorder before you started IF, you will afterwards.’ “
– Thanks for the prophecy. I will go die now in advance (again with the sarcasm, apologies). But look at that word “BEFORE” and therein lies a good point hidden amongst the overall bias tone.
“For me personally it was a train wreck. Some of the biggest issues that I noticed were mood swings and, most importantly, it was beginning to trigger a long dormant eating disorder tendency for me. That scared me.”
– Well then, there’s your problem. Any diet style can trigger personal weaknesses, so maybe IF isn’t for you. Should you demonize it then and hold it up as the cause of all disorders? No. Why? Because you are just perpetuating the cycle of fadishness (my own word) that infects the massive problem with these kinds of diet debates today.
“Gabby’s conclusion about her foray into IF was that it put her in too much of a vulnerable position. She has now gone back to a diet heavy in plants and healthy fats, and excludes dairy, wheat, grains, and most sugars (except honey and fruit) which works well for her.”
– Here’s a paragraph I can accept! Thank you. “Which works well for her….” being the key phrase.
“Most females, including myself, did experience the extra surge of wiry energy.”
– I’m glad you have the monopoly on who “most females” are. I don’t remember being contacted. I’m going to go cry into my coffee a little more.
“Stressing the crap out of the SNS, which is what IF does, along with your ample coffee intake, is what causes adrenal fatigue and, even worse, heart palpitations and extreme anxiety.”
– Where are the studies to back up these claims? Where are the studies showing that IF stresses “the crap out of” (I know that’s a highly scientific term for) the SNS. Personally, I would (non-sarcastically) be very interested to see. I am almost done reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, so the topic of the sympathetic nervous system and elevated glucocorticoid levels is super interesting to me. Granted, studies aren’t the all-in-all, but since you are throwing a lot of anecdote at me, and seem so sure, I would like a little more proof before my heart, hypothalamus, and adrenals are negatively affected. In fact, if these symptoms have been convincingly connected to styles of fasting, it would be excellent to be able to examine them.
“If you are looking to quickly age yourself ten or twenty years then by all means amp up your SNS.”
– And here you go connecting the dots again. IF + SNS fatigue = Aging yourself rapidly. Here, I feel, is an emotional appeal to women, since that dirty word AGE and getting older is a huge fear for us right? Kind of sneaky, but again an appeal to an emotional factor that may or may not have anything to do with an IF-style diet.
“I listen to my body and try to keep my portions in check, that way I don’t starve and binge which is what I did with IF. I stay away (or do best with staying away) from all gluten, dairy, and sugar. I can get mentally crazy about food, so I don’t track my calories, or starve myself. I feel much better, but it was a long road home.”
– Perfect. But maybe before embarking on a diet style, you should have done your homework and paid a bit more attention to your personal habits and weaknesses. Knowledge (about yourself) is power, wouldn’t you agree? For someone in the fitness field, this is essential, not only to guide others correctly but to recognize powerful factors that can influence success or failure with diets.
“She had a difficult time focusing throughout the day, was starving, experienced migraines, and was just plain miserable.”
– What kind of IF were you doing? What were your macros? Were you trying a new diet style for a particular goal? Were you in a caloric deficit? Why did you switch to IF? Were you just trying it out? A little honesty about the methods and circumstances for the individual experiences would go a long way.
“That was how it went both times I tried IF. The weight loss didn’t continue, the stress of being hungry did, and after the second attempt at IF both my boyfriend and I decided I just shouldn’t do it.”
– Why were you trying to lose weight? A common question throughout this article that keeps popping up in my mind over and over is: Do you guys know what happens when you go into a calorie deficit?
“The detrimental common effects of IF for the female population need to be put in the spotlight.”
– All factors should have their share in the sun so that we can examine them dispassionately. Again here, you use the word “common.” But what is common? It is very hard to get an accurate and large sample of women, so please don’t make across-the-board assumptions. Nothing wrong with criticism, negative experience, and the gathering of anecdote for a variety of sources, but to claim these effects are “common, is pushing it without anything to support your definition of that word.
“Fasting is the latest nutrition rage, and who everyone wants the latest and greatest magic pill, the easiest way to being lean all the time.”
– Agreed again. But then, with this article, you aren’t contributing to moderation, education, or critical thinking? This is just as extreme as a rabid IF’er who can’t see the forest for the trees. You claim, and I list, IF is the cause of, or highly related to:
– Excessive caffeine consumption
– Premature aging
– Premature menopause
– Bingeing habits
– Poor sleep
– Hormonal imbalances
– Disordered eating
– High cortisol levels
– Adrenal fatigue
“It will be interesting to see the long-term effects on the females who are adamant in continuing to practice this method for a sustainable amount of time. Conducting a study on their hormonal make-up when they approach their 40s and 50s should be helpful.”
– Totally agree! Yet, let me provide a thought of my own for you. Since America insists are making diet the craziest topic out there, what does the rest of the world do for diet STYLE, and what do their their health markers look like? Just a thought. Do the populations of the countries most comparable to the U.S. eat 3-6 meals a day or 1-2 larger ones? Do their biggest meals tend to be at night? Are others big breakfast eaters? How does the average meal timing of Americans compare to other similar countries? Perhaps stepping away from the U.S. and its microscope on diet styles might help you learn something.
“These are highly educated women who have no previous eating disorder history and they are confessing that they were either already there or in danger of going down the eating disorder path.”
– Well, there you have it. I suggest you bold this sentence and place it in your title. Perhaps a wiser approach to this article would have been the dangers of fasting style diets for those who have eating disorder tendencies.
“Let’s lead by example and demonstrate to women they can have healthy relationships with food and be strong, lean, and eat when their hunger cues tell them to eat. It’s time to focus on what’s healthy for each individuals lifestyle.”
– YES. And as I mentioned in a thread debating this article, I don’t try to “recommend” any particular diet style, especially to young girls (I work with high school athletes). Why? Because you have to understand the principles before you can understand the methods. And IF is a method like anything else. I am borrowing a comment posted (courtesy of Paul Nobles Jr.) that is at the core of my beef with this article:
“That’s the point though, each individual needs to be handled as such. Which is exactly why using the terms “all” and “catastrophic” have no place in relationship to advice for more than half of the people on the planet. Also the problem isn’t IF it’s severe restriction in general. This article could have been done about Weight Watchers, if you use the tool without some level of customization that is probably wrong. Don’t assume that because we might disagree on one point that we don’t agree on most points and I can assure you that the rest of us want the best for our clients as well.”
And another response from Dave Dellanave that I found extremely appropriate:
“I respect that you had a bad experience using Intermittent Fasting, but I think it should be left at that – your experience.
“I have a gym full of women, many of who have used an IF strategy at one point or another and none have reported the dramatic negative affects you all are. Here is what I think is different:
“1) From day 1, I teach my clients to work within their limits inside the gym and out. When we talk about IF, one of the first things we discuss are the things you can do (moving, drinking, taking your mind off it) before deciding to break a fast. If none of those work, break the fast. Simple as that. Whether it be 24 hour, or 16 hour style, very few of my clients jump right into going the full length of the intended fast. They just do what they can.
“2) I don’t disagree that IF places an additional burden of stress on the body, and I usually tell people that if they’re under a lot of stress, IF is probably not something to add on top. That said, whether or not it is good stress or excessive stress depends on the person and their response to it. It is exactly the type of biochemical eustress that some people need. Keira reported higher cortisol – well, yeah. What ELSE was going on? Did she add IF on top of an already excessive burden of stress? Is IF really to blame here? Is that the ONLY thing that was different? If so, I’d wonder if the high cortisol wasn’t going to catch up to her anyway. You can’t operate at red-line forever, as I know many of you ladies who are high functioning ass kickers tend to do.
“3) One of my over-arching goals for my clients is to increase their adaptability. I want them to be able to do more things. Squat, deadlift, sprint – and handle food better. One of the directions in which to increase adaptability is the length of time between meals. I want my clients to be ABLE to go 24 hours without food. I also want them to be able to eat 6 meals if they’re available. People who can do many things, and are highly adaptable, are more healthy. IF is a way to extend that adaptability window. If someone starts to fall about because they haven’t eaten in 4 hours, that is a problem.
“4) I look at people’s biochemical needs through a lens of what is missing. Craig Keaton, one of the smartest guys I know especially with regards to the unique need of women, said something to me and it was actually specifically in regard to IF. He pointed out that people often us Intermittent Fasting as a way to “stabilize” a something they’re doing too much of (a hyper function) instead of looking for what they’re not doing enough of (a hypo function.) What nutrients are you missing? What foods are you not eating? How are you not resolving stress? Why ARE you under so much stress? What is your training like? Are you making your training too hard, therefore too distressful?
“If you will look at things through this lens, you WILL do better, I promise it. Everyone pretty much knows what they’re doing too much of, but if you could do anything about that we be talking about it. What are you NOT doing enough of?
“5) I don’t treat any two clients the same. If I have a girl walk in who is 16% BF and a former Crossfitter who is busted up both physically and physiologically I am not going to tell her she needs to a stick Paleo + IF template. That is what messed her up to begin with. When a woman walks in who is 30% bodyfat and has never cooked a meal in her own kitchen in her life, maybe some whole foods and IF is exactly what she needs. My point is – you women are operating at a very high level, but you also have a different history. ‘It didn’t work for me, so it can’t work for you’ isn’t a very good message.
“I apologize in advance if anything I wrote sounds like a personal attack. That’s not my intention – but when Jen Sinkler, my very own beloved fire breather of a lady, pointed this article out to me I couldn’t help but present the counterpoint.”
Here is a good article from Dave about the information floating around in cyberspace, similar to what I wrote about getting “educated” on the Internet. It can be a blessing and a curse.
Be Careful What You Let Into Your Head
And last but not least, Brad Pilon of Eat Stop Eat (Intermittent Fasting demi-god, the other one being Martin Berkhan of course): “It’s a topic (IF) that should be addressed and discussed, but anecdotes and animal studies are not the way to do it.”