Living Lean: An Interview with John Nguyen (Part One)

I’m on an Ab Quest.

That’s what I’ve been calling it lately, in honest recognition of my goal: a sweet, glorious six-pack, the kind this chubby kid has never seen. Is that vain? Probably. But I think it’s a health goal worth pursuing if done correctly (and safely), as the low percentage of body fat needed to even see your abs is usually a marker of a fit, well-functioning form.

And don’t deny it. You want to look better naked too.

My progress with Paleo eating has been nothing short of fantastic, but a few weeks back I stumbled on something new: the idea of Intermittent Fasting (IF), which is actually very, very old. John Nguyen over at the Lean Saloon was my gateway into the idea, and his blog quickly became one of my favorites for the simple, easy approach to health and food that he lives every day of the week.

An interview only seemed natural. John’s a busy man, but he graciously agreed to field my questions, the first of set of which you’ll find after the break. Read on!

Matt: What’s your story? You’re in fantastic form, now, but how did you get here? Were you always athletic?

John: I grew up an overweight kid, eating an inch of Miracle Whip between two slices of Wonder Bread. But in high school, social involvement distracted me and intermural sports distracted me from eating and I lost some weight. I stayed active through college (lacrosse, etc.) and ate to support my active lifestyle. But after college it went down hill — I was still eating big, as though I was still very active. I blew up to 205 pounds. I have the propensity to put on weight (maybe not obese, but definitely lots of weight).

Matt: Whatever you’re doing seems to be working really well. That begs the next question: what are you doing? Can you describe your approach to food and exercise?

John: Due to upbringing, past eating habits, and misguided dietary beliefs, I’ve always ate more than I needed to. So whenever I tried to bring my body fat down, it was always through extreme effort — killing myself in the gym and eating chicken breast and broccoli through 6 small teasing meals a day. You know the deal: eating an impossible, unrealistic, unsustainable diet that’s based on eating obsession.

Then sometime in 2006 I started the Paleo Diet. From that I lost an appreciable amount of body fat. And if Gary Taubes’ championing of the carbohydrate hypothesis can be proven (although still a hypothesis), then I think the Paleo Diet with its common restriction on most carbs might have helped; however, I think most of my weight loss while on the Paleo Diet was due to the replacement of processed food with more vegetables. Although I don’t deny the potential of the carbohydrate hypothesis, I don’t think it alone contributes to over-fatness.

A few years of strict Paleo, however, did not bring my bodyfat below 15% — that is, until March of 2009 when I started experimenting with intermittent fasting, after reading literature and available research on this age-old dietary practice.

What I had believed to be a religious practice in some circles, a cult practice in others, and in more popular practice a quack cleansing method, I started to realize there might be some physiological rational behind short-term fasting after all. It can’t be too far off to believe that there might be something positive about short-term fasting that’s encoded into our genes from over 2 million years of human evolution based on the evidence of hunting and gathering, of food scarcity, and of cyclical feast and famine.

When I started intermittent fasting, I was not really searching for a simpler, less-obsessive way to eat for leanness. It was through intermittent fasting I discovered my terrible obsession with diet. Until then I didn’t realize how obsessive dieting can be: eat this, don’t eat that; eat at this time, don’t eat after this time.

Intermittent fasting has liberated me from an obsession.

Over months my intermittent fasting evolved to what it is today: daily intermittent fasting (DIF), for periods of 15 to 20 hours. This evolution is the result of a slow removal of obsession over complication, isolationism, and nutritionism. Daily intermittent fasting just feels right — I don’t think about eating all the time, about which food I can and cannot eat. I don’t think about choice restriction. I’m liberated to enjoy everything I eat, without guilt, repression, regret, or fear. Yet I benefit from having a consistently lean physique as well as health.

Of course, there are many ways to do intermittent fasting — and it should be kept flexible with no hard rules. But I find that DIF is most adaptable to my lifestyle — and I’d imagine most convenient to people who live in a culture of long work days.

Essentially, intermittent fasting has allowed me to change not just my eating habit but also my approach to diet and exercise — to keep everything simple, realistic, and sustainable.

I want to make it perfectly clear that, in my mind, health and body obsession is different from eating obsession. In a world where aesthetics are valued, it’s impractical to ignore the former. The latter, eating obsession, is just plain silly.

Matt: Can you describe how your approach pans out in real life? What’s an average day like for John Nguyen, food and exercise-wise?

John: Someone not practicing the intermittent fasting lifestyle has difficulty understanding the freedom gained. I see people marching into crappy breakfast joints with their family because they’re imprisoned by the belief that eating breakfast is akin to breathing air — it’s a must. One of the benefits I realized from DIF is getting more time in the day to get work done, complete projects, or to spend more time with what I enjoy — like friends and family or reading.

My exercise routine is another area removed of obsession and complication. The fitness industry has snowballed into a state of specialization and snobbery. Universities conduct studies on young, white male athletes in their early 20s to observe how various exercise protocols affect their athletic development. The result is a perfusion of irrelevant data to the general population, convincing people that exercise is a highly technical endeavor that only those who are academic and pedantic enough need apply while the rest ought to cower in the confusion of magazine, journal, and internet wizardry.

If you want to simply achieve general health and a nice physique with low body fat, somehow the defaulted exercise routines are those used by bodybuilders on steroids or by football linebackers.

I’ve managed to keep my workouts really simple: Lift some weight and elevate the heart rate here and there, doing mostly stuff that I enjoy doing, without disrupting my entire day — or life. If I want more muscle, then I try to lift progressively heavier weight, or lift more in less time, and change things around a little to change the mechanical stimulus. If I want to lose body fat, it’s even easier — eat less.

My day starts with a cup of coffee, answering emails and perusing the newspaper. Then I go to work and stay busy and interact with people I work with on a professional and personal level — just doing what people generally do at work, grinding the stone and having a little fun. On rare occasions I go out to lunch with my colleagues, but on most occasions I just keep working, surf the internet, catch up on my reading, do personal stuff, or go out for a walk through downtown and enjoy another cup of coffee. In the afternoon I may do a workout (15 to 20 minutes). I generally eat my first meal around 4pm. I’ll have another around 8 and a final around 10 or so, listening to the need of my stomach (and not my head). I got used to this lifestyle, and imagine that with time anyone can. It’s really liberating.

Ultimately, intermittent fasting allows me to eat less without obsessing over eating less. And I spend as little time with formal exercising as possible, while moving around more throughout the day. My goal here is maximal returns with minimal investment. Simple as that.

Matt: Intermittent Fasting — or fasting in general, I think — has kind of a negative reputation for so many people. Even the idea of just skipping a meal is frowned upon. Where do you think this negativity comes from?

John: I would imagine intermittent fasting has a negative reputation as a fringe diet because many people viewed intermittent fasting in much the same way I used to view it as: a religious, cult, or quack practice. Various groups use some kind of fasting as part of their belief and/or mission. Except for religious reasons, many groups give a legitimate feeding pattern a bad reputation. In the hands of far-out claims, its image is that of a fringe diet.

Matt: Trying to convince people to give it a try, then, probably isn’t as easy as it should be. What would you say to someone who is interested but still concerned about what fasting could to do their body?

John: For those who are interested but are still worried about its effect on the body, a gentle referral to simple resources (such as wikipedia or a few studies done on humans) often entices enough interest for initial evaluation and for further investigation. Ultimately, I just write a blog about intermittent fasting and for the most part avoid forcing it on people who don’t ask for it. In fact, I rarely talk about with people in general. However, I do make a gentle point with a simple question: “Did your grandmother eat 6 small meals a day?” or “do you think your ancestors ate protein bars every 3 hours?” These rhetorical questions at least stimulate them to think in the right direction while they’re chewing on their Power Bars.


That’s all for Part One. Part Two will come along shortly and delve into topics like Paleo eating, the time needed to see the dramatic results IF can bring, etc. If you have any questions about this first part, please post them below!


  1. Joel says:

    Over-simplified question to a great interview:
    Does he have an ab routine he does or not?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Haha! I’ll have to ask him, but I don’t think he does. The abs get plenty of work from the basic core movements, so it’s really more about stripping away the layers of fat that keep them hidden underneath.

      But we’ll see if we can get John himself in here to field this. :)

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Joel,

      I haven’t done direct abdominal work for over 12 years or more. Lifting heavy stimulates all the abdominal development most people need. The Europeans laugh at Americans for having 1-hour ab classes, etc.

      However, I don’t think some ab work hurts, but too much trunk flexion (and twisting) can cause the wear rate of the intervertebral discs to exceed the recovery rate, leading to disc problems.


  2. Turling says:

    I’ve been following John’s site for some time. I followed the Paleo diet for a while with great results, but it was difficult as my family didn’t want to follow it, so I ended up making a second type of meal for me. Now, I follow the intermittant fasting and eat the same with the rest of the family; however, I may skip certain things such as a roll or I may just eat the innards of a sandwich instead of the whole thing. It works great. A secondary benefit is I don’t feel the “funk” after lunch when I don’t eat. The amount of energy I have is astounding.

    Lastly, I think a lot of the push back to fasting is the whole “if you don’t eat every 38 seconds your metabolism will slow down and you won’t lose weight.” Which of course is complete bunk.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Funny, isn’t it, how not obsessing about meals every hour of the day can be so energizing? :)

      I think you’re right, too. The idea that you need to eat every few hours to keep your blood sugar stable and your metabolism high never made sense. How in the hell did humans survive, then, before they had steady access to food 24/7?

  3. Nina Yau says:

    I’m feeling great right now, Matt! These fasts are becoming easier and easier, much like training hardcore in a race or a Karate tournament. The first few times will be as painful as a root canal, but soon after, your body adjusts and you realize: you’re okay. :)

    To everyone else who’s reading this:

    Fasting is not merely trying to have flat, wash-board abs (though it can help aid the progress, as you can tell from Matt’s picture!). Fasting is a state of mind, a spiritual and physical detox from our everyday clutter-filled lives. Do it not just for vanity’s sake, but do it because you want to be more in tune with yourself.

    You realize, then, that your body and mind are amazing things. And when they work together? You can do anything.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Wait, wait. You’re saying people fast and lose weight for reasons *other* than vanity?

      Haha! That’s a fair point, Nina, and one I didn’t really consider. I don’t associate fasting with spirituality, admittedly, but I’m glad you reminded everyone that it definitely has that meaning too.

      And regarding the root canal comparison, I hope that doesn’t scare anyone off the idea. It’s never been painful to that level for me, but I might be weird. :)

  4. Susan says:

    Love it. I’ve tried this sort of fasting before, frequently waiting until about 6pm to eat and felt I had more energy than before. Lately I’m more into eating a big salad with hard-boiled egg white, chick-peas, walnuts, with leafy vegetables for lunch and maybe a few dates if I want something sweet. Otherwise I’m generally good to go until dinner. I haven’t been doing it that long, so haven’t noticed results, but am really just doing it for my overall health and to remove the obsession of meals and snacking.

    Can’t wait for more posts!

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, Susan! I’m hoping part two will come along next week.

      I believe John saw his body-fat percentage decrease over about a year, so you might not see results immediately. But that’s okay! It’s a good practice to implement, in any case, and one with immense health benefits as well.

  5. Hey Matt, I enjoyed hearing about the Intermittent Fasting. I read a little ol’ book called “Rational Fasting” that I really enjoyed, and along with Paul Nison’s “The Daylight Diet” we’ve kind of incorporated the DIF (without knowing that’s what you call it) but eat during the daytime.
    I do question whether our ancestors would have been eating late at night and going to bed with full tummies. Artificial lights have made huge changes, not necessarily all for the good.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I’ll have to get John here to discuss the late-night eating, but the (little) reading I’ve done suggests that it doesn’t have any negative effect on the body. There’s this idea that if we eat and then sleep all that food will turn straight into fat, but — like most of conventional wisdom — that’s incorrect at best.

      Artificial light, on the other hand, causes problems. I can’t find my source for it, but I’ve read somewhere on Mark’s Daily Apple that any light in an otherwise dark bedroom can delay the release of the sleep hormones that normally put us into a restful sleep.

      Maybe a big meal before bedtime would help! :)

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Karen,

      No strong evidence exists to indicate eating before sleep negatively impacts body and health.

      I would imagine that our ancestors (after the discovery of fire) might have gathered around the campfire and feast together. Or that they eat right before dark and once darkness approaches they go to sleep on full stomachs.

      Certainly post-feeding hormones and blood redirection create a physiological state conducive to a good shut-eye.

      In any case, it’s all a guest what our ancestors actually did and we can certainly go by modern-day fact: that eating right before bed doesn’t appear to be harmful to body composition or health.

      All the best,

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  7. Chase Night says:

    When I was a kid, I was labeled a “picky eater” because I didn’t eat much. Not much in quantity and not much in variety. I would eat my meal – some meat with a bland side like plain fries or spaghetti without sauce – and when I was full, I would stop. No, no, no, clean your plate!!! they’d say. Well, I wouldn’t. I was full! My parents ended up taking me to a Dr. when I was 7 or 8 to figure out how to make me eat. I guess they were just being hyper but good parents, but it was so annoying. I didn’t understand why I should keep eating if I wasn’t hungry. Which was exactly what the Dr. told them. That I’d eat when I was hungry, and that I’d stop when I was full, and that that was fine.

    Well, no one fully believed him and I was harassed and accused of having an eating disorder all through high school and into college. An eating disorder! Because I stop eating when I’m full! This culture is absolutely insane!

    I don’t know all the details of the Paelo diet yet, but I do know the truth of not eating once you’re full and not eating three times a day. I mean, sometimes I eat real unhealthy, but I don’t eat very often and I don’t eat very much. And I don’t gain weight. It’s so incredibly simple that I guess people just can’t get their heads around it. Full stomach = end of meal.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      “Full stomach = end of meal.”

      And that’s all there is to it. :) It’s insane that your family thought you had an eating disorder, heh, but it’s also so very indicative of the times. When you live in a culture of convenience and excess, maybe it is a little strange when you push back from the table early and don’t stuff your face at every opportunity.

      Keep it weird, Chase. (I can say that because you’re in Austin and you’re ‘weird.’ Yes!)

      • Danny says:

        I rediscovered the importance of being 80% full which is a traditional rule of Okinawa
        The problem is that many people don’t understand what this means and they fear the idea of going hunger and forcing themselves away from the table even if they would still eat some more.

        To me 80% full means being satisfied, feeling light and ready to do anything, it means you think you enjoyed your meal and could even eat some more but why ruining the meal by making yourself sick?

        100% full if when you’re satisfied and stuffed and bloated and you think “why I ate so much? If I could turn back time I would just stop when I was satisfied and I had nothing to regret and just great food to remember” and you can’t move, feel like napping and the idea of doing anything (expecially walking) makes you unconfortable.

        I rarely eat everything I have put in my plate, because when I’m 80% full I stop.
        This trains my self-control and ability to say “no” to the food remaining in the plate and makes for great leftovers, which is what everyone, not on IF, should start eating for breakfast, ditching the milk and cereals.

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  10. Paula says:

    Loved the article and I love intermittent fasting!! I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting off and on for about 2 years. I’ve lost 40 lbs and gone from a size 14 to a 4. I feel great!

  11. Leo says:

    Can you please ask John how many calories he averages in a day.
    I know this is about making things simple and never counting but I think it would be nice to see just once how much food a certain amount of calories you need, just once, so you always know how much food, more or less, your needed caloric intake equates to.

    I’m always afraid I’m overeating or undereating and still have no idea how many calories I would need but I’m the same height and body type as John so…

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hey, Leo!

      Great question! :) And a valid one, I think, as this is definitely a case where it takes a little experimentation to puzzle out how many calories you actually need. I’ll pass the question on to Johnny and have him comment here, but here’s something you can read in the meantime: a typical day of meals (from a post on his blog).

      Someone in the comments calculated his caloric intake around 1300 calories, though Johnny estimated his own intake about 20% higher — about 1600 calories. That’s a decent amount under the ‘normal’ caloric intake for a physically active male, but that’s also the beauty of the approach: if you eat little one day, eat more the next (and vice versa).

      I know where you’re coming from, in any case. When I first started IF I was worried about undereating, so I experimented with a few different approaches. I tried getting three meals in during my eight-hour window, but that didn’t seem natural. I wouldn’t be hungry for the middle meal, but I’d force myself to eat it, and (since I’d just started the window) I’d still be hungry after the window closed. Now, though, my routine is much simpler. I eat a big(ish) meal around noon, a snack (sometimes) around 3 or 4pm, and then dinner at 6 or 7. I honestly don’t know how many calories I’m getting, but nor do I have to count. I’m losing weight and feeling great, so no need to overthink it!

      Long story short: wait for Johnny to respond, but read that post too. And don’t worry too much about it! Eat as much as you need to stay full during your window, and just be patient while your body adjusts to not eating outside of it. It’ll take a week or two, but after that it’ll be effortless. :)

      Hope this helps!

      • Leo says:

        Thanks for the reply.
        I’m a bit worried because I see myself fat (no definition) but I also see myself skinny, so I’m not sure whether I should eat less or more or alternate the two.
        Can you give me your opinion. I’m 5.7 and 142.
        This is a pic of me:

        • Fredrik says:

          Not that you asked me, but if I were in your clothes I would go with the paleo diet trying to keep protein intake on the higher side and combine that with heavy strenght training three times per week. Then I think you would see some interesting stuff happening.
          If you don´t have access to a gym you could try Matts approach with bodyweight training a couple of times per week. My personal opinion is that you need some sort of muscle stimuli to avoid what some people call a “skinny-fat” look.

          • Matt Madeiro says:

            Fredrik has the right idea here. :)

            I guess it depends, too, on your goals. If you want more definition (lower body fat), then a combination of Paleo, DIF, and some sort of muscle stimulation (with weights or just your body) can make for pretty exciting results.

            You can try HIIT stuff, alternatively (burpees tend to murder me in a good way), but Martin Berkhan over at Leangains has made the case that you’ll burn fat far more effectively through strength training.

            I’m hesitant to say “you should do exactly this!” given my background as a blogger (not a doctor!), but if you’re willing to give it a shot, Leo, then you might consider this:

            1. Eat Paleo as much as possible. Make your meals consist of meat and vegetables coupled with natural fats: olive oil, coconut oil, and butter if you decide to do dairy. Don’t be afraid of fruit, either, but you can also try limiting your intake to a piece or two per day during the initial fat-loss period.

            2. There’s compelling evidence that muscle growth (and fat loss, for that matter) is more dependent on stimulation than protein intake, but I’ve also seen studies that suggest a high-fat intake helps build muscle too. In any case, if you’re not looking specifically to add on muscle, you don’t need to stress about protein intake or anything like that. I’d still recommend you eat it for the satiating effect, especially if you’re trying to adjust to DIF.

            3. Eat two meals within an eight-hour eating window. I’m only a few inches taller than you (and about 15-20 pounds heavier, I think) and just focus on eating until I’m full, so don’t stress about calories too much. If you eat too much one day, then eat less the next. Listen to your body above all else.

            4. Move around. Walk an hour a day, if you can, and definitely try to either lift weights or do a bodyweight routine two to three times each week. You don’t need to spend a lot of time in the gym, either. You can get a lot accomplished in twenty-thirty minutes.

            Why not try it for a month? You’ll see nothing but benefits.

          • Leo says:

            Matt and Fredrik,

            thanks for the great tips!
            I will try that immediately and see what happens in a month.
            Matt, could you share your bodyweight routine? I’m actually more attracted to bodyweight stuff than weights, since I’d have to spend money on buying more plates or heavier dumbbells, or a gym merbership.


          • Matt Madeiro says:

            Hey Leo,

            Sure! I break lifting rule #1 in that I tend to vary what I do on a weekly basis. I’m not a fan of doing the same routine for weeks on end. :) I stave off boredom, but I also don’t have as easy a time at monitoring my progress, so you may want to stick with one routine for that first month.

            That being said, I vary between SimpleFit (which is pretty much just pushups, pullups and squats) and the Primal Fitness routine, which is those three core bodyweight exercises plus a few more. Sometimes I’ll do HIIT things like burpees and sprints too.

            This week I’ve kept it simple. On Monday I did a set of pushups to failure, a set of weighted chinups to failure, and then did both again. I’m experimenting with just how many exercises (and how often) I need to do in order to maintain my current level of fitness, as I’m not looking to pack on a lot more muscle. You’re coming at it from a different angle, I think, so here’s my recommendation: start with SimpleFit or the Primal routine and stick with it for the next few months. Having done both, I can vouch for their effectiveness.

            (This does require some kind of bar for pullups and chinups, but those aren’t too expensive. You can also steal some time on the bar at a playground or find a sturdy branch!)

            Hope that helps!

        • Johnny says:

          Hi Leo,

          From what can be immediately observed in your picture, the most important thing you can do to meet your goal of improving your body composition is a focus on your strength training.

          Lift progressively heavier.
          Vary your routine periodically.

          Eat the way you’ve been eating, and it’s up to you to add IF. Adding IF or DIF may bring health benefits without disrupting your effort at improving your body composition.

          You have an excellent base to build a great physique. You only need time and consistency. Be patient. Do what you know you have to do — lift weight.

          All the best,
          Johnny from The Lean Saloon

          • Leo says:


            Thank a lot for your reply
            I will use DIF because I feel a lot better eating that way.
            When I have breakfast I become ravenously hungry for the rest of the day and when eat the whole day my energy is in a roller coaster and not level.

            Do you think I can increase my lean body mass and add muscle tone without using heavy weights and stiking to body weight exercises or in my case dumbbells or a gym membership are mandatory?


  12. TrailGrrl says:

    Great post! I just discovered the site via Lean Saloon which I rediscovered setting up my new iPad. I started IF unintentionally by not eating until I was hungry after doing a paleo/primal diet for some time. So I never plan to fast, I just really don’t eat until I’m hungry, which is well after noon some days and often not until 300pm. Other days I might be hungry around 1130am but this seems to be related to how much and what I ate the night before. I had lost several sizes before this, but never saw my midsection change until I was able to give up the idea that I would die without breakfast. I used to sugar out horribly and get crazy if I didn’t get food by a certain time. I also am a late dinner eater. I don’t always eat paleo, and tonight will have dark beers and maybe nachos or maybe ribs or chicken at BW3, and I am leaner and healthier at 46 than I was in my 30′s doing triathlons but eating a ton of carbs, protein drinks, and bars. I am getting ready to buy new jeans in a size 2 and I was wearing 14′s and 12′s at my heaviest at 5 feet tall. So IF and paleo work together, and even better when you simplify and free yourself from worrying about what you are eating every second. If you ate stuff that made you feel like crap, do an IF for most of the next day and then eat a good steak or other protein meal. It frees up a lot of time and energy for other things.

    Being a woman, we have a lot more trouble getting our midsections flat relative to a guy who follows the same eating plan, so this really does work well once you find out how to tweak it so that your body responds at its best. Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board, but once you figure out some things it’s very easy and not at all challenging when traveling because you aren’t looking for certain foods at a certain time of day.


    • Matt Madeiro says:

      That’s a fantastic story, TrailGrrl! I’m seriously impressed at how you’ve incorporated IF and Paleo into your life, and I’m even more impressed by your continuing success with it. Your method is one I’m considering, as with an eating window I still find myself eating when the window opens purely out of habit. I suspect it’d be better for my health — and maybe my midsection! — if I just waited until I were absolutely hungry. Your experience suggests that might be right!

      Best of luck with your lifestyle. Kudos, again, for having such a simple, effective approach.

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  21. Chris says:


    A quick question, I work out in the morning about 3- 5 days a week not because I feel like I have to but because it makes me feel good. I guess I like the endorphin buzz. Regardless what are your thoughts about my “eating window”, should I adjust my eating window to right after the workout and end it earlier in the day? I have to say I am STARVING after a 30 -45 minute mornign workout and do believe in post work out nutrition as a muscle saving process. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hey Chris!

      It’s up to you. :) Personally speaking, I’m not sold on the idea that post-workout nutrition is necessary, but I do know that eating right after intense exercise can be a pretty satisfying thing — especially if you’re starving! One thing to remember, though, is that closing your window earlier in the day will mean there’s a longer stretch of time between that last meal and your morning workout session, which might make that session a little bit harder in the beginning.

      Why not experiment? Try adjusting your eating window for a month and see if it fits both your schedule and your workouts. I keep mine pretty flexible due to social reasons, but for what it’s worth, I’ve stopped stressing about eating right before or after a workout and haven’t seen my performance suffer any. :)

      Hope this helps!

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