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!