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

Read part one here.

Last week, I sat down with John Nguyen of the Lean Saloon to introduce the concept of daily Intermittent Fasting (DIF). Though there’s a certain stigma against intentionally skipping meals, the results are hard to ignore: reduced body fat. Improved relationship with food. A sense of spiritual connection with your body. Simplicity.

That last one is a huge perk, for me, and maybe the biggest reason why I’ve incorporated DIF into my routine. I’m even planning a future post to describe exactly how my day goes, food-wise, so you can see every wonderful benefit that comes when you rethink your relationship to food.

In the meantime, though, hit the jump for a few final words with John (and then just a few more about my 48-hour fast with Nina Yau!).

Matt: Likewise, do you have any recommendations for someone trying IF for the first time? My first week was interesting (to say the least) as I dealt with an unruly appetite, but it’s been smooth, effortless sailing ever since. Any advice you can offer?

John: The first time a person does intermittent fasting, there are physical and emotional factors to consider.

The physical: There will be the sensation of hunger. The hormone ghrelin is released from the stomach lining and acts on the brain to stimulate hunger. This hormonal signaling is believed to be an evolutionary mechanism for survival of the species — motivating us to seek and eat food to support life.

The release of ghrelin, in other words, is a good thing, because it reminds us that we need to eat. Unfortunately, the frequency of release depends on the frequency of eating: Eat once a day, ghrelin gets released once a day, usually about the same time; eat 6 times a day, and it gets released 6 times a day.

This makes it difficult for people new to intermittent fasting. But just understanding the physiological effect of ghrelin can help you tolerate hunger pangs. Ghrelin eventually adapts to the new eating schedule and the sensation of hunger eventually lessens until it may even diminish completely. Be patient while you establish a new meal schedule. Meanwhile I recommend drinking non-caloric liquids like water with lemon, tea, or coffee. The liquid may add weight and bulk to the stomach and stimulate the sensation of “fullness,” which may help while adjusting and adaptating to the intermittent fasting lifestyle.

The thing about the sensation of hunger — no matter how many times it strikes — is that it subsides after a few minutes. It just disappears. So when the sensation of hunger strikes, be patient and ride it out.

The psychological: If you’re like many people in modern culture, then you may feel panicky when you skip a meal, like you’re doing something wrong. Eating schedule is a very visceral matter — almost a religion. It’s a cultural meme equated with prayer, with wearing clothes in public, with opening doors for little old ladies. The belief that eating when it’s time to eat is so strong that it trumps sensibility. And so when you skip a meal, you have to contend with voices in your head telling you to eat something. You think constantly about food. Instead, find something else to think about, or do something to distract yourself.

The effort you take through the adjustment period is worth establishing a hassle-free, carefree intermittent fasting lifestyle that brings great health benefits and simpler weight management.

Matt: Yours is a brilliant approach, I think, for how simple it is. As I understand it, you don’t count macronutrients or calories — no carb counting, no food measuring, nothing. It’s a huge contrast to how most people operate, especially those on conventional diets. Is it the fasting that lets you do this? Or the actual food you eat?

John: Great question, Matt. I don’t count calories or worry too much about the ratio of macronutrients. Intermittent fasting allows me to ignore calorie-counting; eating mostly whole, real food allows me to ignore macronutrients.

Having said that, I would like to add:

I believe that food quality matters, for various reasons. I’ve always encouraged getting calories mostly from whole, real food that’s minimally processed. Whole, real food tend to provide more nutrients per calorie, is more satiating, prevents wildly fluctuating blood sugar, and prevents the stimulation of hunger. It also tends to be less aggressively flavored and textured and therefore minimizes supra-phsyiological stimulation to the brain’s reward center (the nucleus accumbens) that can lead to high food addiction.

But, contrary to what a lot of Paleo enthusiasts say, if you want to get lean, you still have to watch overall calorie intake.This is for a separate post, but I believe there might be genetic/epigenetic factors that contribute to energy regulation: some people naturally fidget to burn calories while others are naturally idle. Morphology (body types) may have a relationship, too — that is, naturally lean ectomorphics may tend to fidget more than naturally heavy endomorphics, etc.

But in the end, eating less is a proven method to get lean. Of all the people who lose weight, only 17% remain lean for long term, because they’ve managed to find a way to eat less long term. It’s not because this 17% eat a Paleo/low-carb/high-protein/whatever diet. It’s because they’ve found a way to eat less permanently, while using different diets.

Whatever diet you select, intermittent fasting helps with eating less. While eating less, be sure to take in adequate nutrients from whole, real food.

Matt: Regarding the concept of “whole food,” what’s your take on it? I’m Paleo, so I avoid most grains, but I know you enjoy them on occasion. Do you think IF is as effective without whole foods, or do you need to eat Paleo-esque to see most of the benefits?

John: There are great examples of people eating all kinds of food while still enjoying the benefits of intermittent fasting, like weight loss and better health. I think that in most people, just eating less will automatically bring benefits.

However, whether you do intermittent fasting or not, I believe in eating wholesome food close to its natural state, because who wouldn’t benefit from eating more vegetables and quality meats? But also I believe that there are degrees of ease with intermittent fasting that’s dependent on not just psychology and personal types but also in food choices. Eating whole, real food may make it a little easier to do intermittent fasting… and the increased nutrients can’t hurt.

However, I believe that eating less and losing excess weight is the biggest promoter of health. The difference between intermittent fasting alone and intermittent fasting with Paleo diet may exist, but the question is what exactly is the degree of difference? Is the difference significant, and is it worth the stress of worrying all the time about avoiding this and eating only that? The great thing about IF is that it brings a macro-level of benefits, while the micro-level (if any) is left up to the user to decide on — IF with Paleo, or IF without.

Matt: Lastly, how long did it take to get to the shape you are now? (From when you first started fasting.)

John: I’ve been in good shape sporadically throughout my life, but mostly through the typical hard-core strict dieting routines that’s more debilitating than liberating. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this interview, I have the propensity to gain fat (especially around the stomach and waist), so I never held a lean condition for more than a few weeks at a time. But in March of 2009 I begun intermittent fasting, and within a few months (maybe 6? I seriously didn’t keep track) went from around 15% body fat to the current. This condition has been maintained since then, well over a year, without any conscious effort other than living a daily intermittent fasting lifestyle. It’s absolutely liberating.

Matt: Thanks, John!

***

“It’s absolutely liberating.”

I wanted to highlight that just once more, as it has been on my mind since reading this article in the New York Times: Weight Watchers Upends Its Point System. I’d heard that Weight Watchers had updated its system, but I hadn’t realized what that actually meant for some of the more dedicated followers of the program.

To quote the first paragraph of the article: “Their world had been rocked, and the questions came fast and furious: A 31-year-old teacher from Midtown Manhattan who had barely touched a banana in six years wanted to know if she could really consume them with impunity. A small-business owner from TriBeCa wondered whether she was being nudged to part with that second (or third) glass of wine.”

That blows my mind. No bananas in six years because of the point value? Isn’t that incredible? Imagine a life where food ceased to be food — where it becomes points instead, just a number to be accounted for on a daily spreadsheet. Imagine a life, then, where you could opt for a 100-calorie snack pack (processed!) versus something natural and feel that it was the healthier choice.

And imagine a life where you were suddenly told that was wrong.

I’m not saying Weight Watchers is an ineffectual program. Some of my family members lost weight on it, and while I don’t agree with a lot of its principles, I can’t deny that it has helped a lot of people. I also can’t deny how sad this is, though — the reactions to the new changes, for one, but just the reality of that life I described above.

It’s not simple. It’s not natural. And it isn’t, by any stretch of the means, absolutely liberating.

For that reason, I want to challenge you to do more than just read both parts of this interview. It’s easy, when you’re skimming through blogs, to take in new information, see the value in it, but never take any steps to alter your life. Don’t do that. If you’re unhappy with your weight, currently, and the idea of fasting has any appeal to you, give it a shot.

You don’t have to do it daily. You can try an eating window (noon to 8pm is a popular choice) just a few days a week for a month. You could even try a 24-hour fast once or twice a week, though that’s a bit more difficult to jump into if your body isn’t accustomed to fasting. In either case, I can guarantee you’ll see health benefits. I’ll be discussing more of those in a future post, but here are some great sources if you’d like to do further reading on fasting:

The Lean Saloon (naturally!)
Leangains
Mark’s Daily Apple

48 Hours Without Food

And, lastly, a small blurb about the 48-hour fast I recently completed with my great friend Nina from Castles in the Air.

It was easy.

That’s all you get, I’m afraid, as I’m going to write about the experience in full for a post next week. I learned a few pretty valuable lessons from those two days, the kind that warrant a full post of their own, so you’ll have to be patient for just a bit longer.

In the meantime, please ask any and all questions about fasting in the comment section below. John himself popped in to field a few questions for part one, and I’m sure he’ll make another appearance here too.

***

Over 45 people have agreed to handle Christmas a little differently — a little better — this year. I’m aiming for 100. Ready to join in? (You might just make my birthday wish come true if you do!).

Thanks so much for reading! If you like what’s going on around here, then why not have free updates sent directly to your inbox or to your RSS reader? I really appreciate it! And you can follow me on Twitter, too. That always makes me smile. :)

11 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    It’d be interesting to see his take on the twinkie diet – http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/08/twinkie.diet.professor/index.html – in the “food quality” vs. “counting calories” debate.

    Interesting stuff Matt.

  2. Nina Yau says:

    Excellent, very useful interview, Matt!! I love how John says his previous strict-hardcore-calorie-counting-carb-counting dieting was debilitating, not liberating. Totally agree. If you can’t even eat a freakin’ banana, then what the hell are you doing to yourself?! Geez!!

    I’ve been fasting here and there in 2010 and have just recently implemented the DIF largely due because of you, Matt! I feel great, really. It’s simple, effective and very liberating. Great job and way to go on the 48-hour fast! *high five!*

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  4. joshua says:

    congrats on the progress, man! just dont get caught up in low carbing it so much…there are many benefits to having a substantial starch load in the diet (especially when dropping weight): leptin sensitivity, TSH levels, glycogen levels, glucose tolerance, digestive heatlh, and so on…) Believe me. I was there. From overweight to normal weight, low carb can do wonders. But the leaner you become, the more often you need to maintain leptin levels with adequate carbs (starch is best). Berkhan will say the same. Besides that, potatoes and other tubers have been around for longer than we have, so they are definitely paleolithic. The paleo crowd tends to disparage anything high carb/starch even if the food is legitimately paleo. Check out the modern day Kitavans. They eat 80% of their calories from carbs, are extremely lean and free of western disease.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, Joshua! And thanks for the advice, too. :)

      I definitely started in the ultra-low carb camp, avoiding starches like the plague. Thankfully I didn’t stop reading and researching, haha, or else I never would have discovered the same things you mentioned — the Kitavans, Martin Berkhan’s work, and the Perfect Health Diet, too, which is basically Paleo but emphasizes the inclusion of starch.

      And, of course, potatoes fried in bacon fat might be the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten. :) And sweet potato fries! And…now I’m hungry.

      The only thing I’m still debating is the issue of leptin. I understand how the carb refeeds can be a great way to restore it to equilibrium, but I’m never sure if my levels have dropped that low in the first place.

  5. BadjellyUK says:

    “My first week was interesting (to say the least) as I dealt with an unruly appetite” – would you be willing to expand on this as I’m sure it would be beneficial to us considering DIF? Or if I’ve missed a post about it, could you link to it? Many Thanks

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Sure!

      Here’s what I meant: during that first week, I was hungry just about all the time. That surprised me, honestly, since my stomach would growl and grumble from 10pm onwards even though I have never been a late-night snacker. I think my stomach was just rebelling against my plan to give it less food, haha.

      In about a week, though, the hunger pangs started to fade as my body adapted to the ‘restricted’ eating window. I still get the occasional hunger pangs, but they’re minor and mostly in advance of my window opening.

      Does that answer your question? Let me know if you need any more advice!

  6. Mia says:

    I actually came across fasting initially as a way to combat an inflammatory bowel disorder. Mr doctor suggested periods of not eating when I was symptomatic, so as to give the digestive system a “rest” to repair itself. Beats taking steroids and various other harsh drugs, which was his other suggestion! I can imagine anybody with Crohns’s, ulcerative collitis or other similar disorders would really benefit from an eating plan similar to this.

    I loved this interview though. I have never really thought about the mental implacations of fasting but am really looking forward to trying this on a more daily basis.

    Thank you Matt and John!!!

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