Adopting a philosophy of self-experimentation can make a tremendous difference in your life. Choosing to experiment with new ideas can help you start a successful business. Choosing to experiment with sharing your work can launch your career as a writer or an artist. And choosing to experiment with different diets and workouts can help you discover a fitness and health strategy that works for you.
Image remixed from Skylines (Shutterstock).
This post originally appeared on James Clear's blog.
Of course, self-experimentation is exactly the opposite of how most of us want to approach things. We would prefer that someone hand us a one-page sheet with the answers to our problems and say "Do this and you'll be good to go." Furthermore, if someone shares an idea that seems outlandish or weird, most of us would rather dismiss it than experiment for six months to see if it can actually work for us.
Just to be clear, I've made my fair share of mistakes and have dismissed ideas without trying them in the past. But in the case of intermittent fasting, which I'll explain below, I'm glad that I decided to do some self-experimentation and see if it would work for me. I've been experimenting with intermittent fasting for more than two years and this is what I've learned.
Intermittent Fasting: What It Is and How I Do It
Here's a simple definition of intermittent fasting: you eat your normal amount of food in a smaller time frame. It's not a diet, it's just a pattern of eating that reduces your eating window each day to about 8 hours. For example, I usually eat my first meal around 12pm or 1pm and then I can continue eating until my final meal at 8pm. After that, I fast until the next day at 12pm. That breaks out to about 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating each day. I do this almost every day. (My guess would be that I do intermittent fasting 350 out of 365 days per year.)
I'm not going to dive into the details of intermittent fasting in this article. I have previously written a 3,000 word beginner's guide to intermittent fasting and a lengthy question and answer guide on intermittent fasting. If you have questions about how it works and the science behind it, read those articles. And if you want even more information, I was also interviewed on the Fat Burning Man podcast (here) and the Jimmy Moore's live show about intermittent fasting (mp3 download here).
The Biggest Benefit of Intermittent Fasting is Simplicity
In an interview with Vanity Fair, President Obama described an interesting strategy he uses to make his life simpler. "You'll see I wear only grey or blue suits," he said. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
What President Obama is referring to is a concept called "decision fatigue" and it can drastically impact your ability to make decisions throughout the day. I explained the science of decision fatigue in this article. For the President, simplifying his clothing choices is a way to make life simpler and improve his decision making abilities.
For me, intermittent fasting provides the same benefit. Eliminating breakfast and not thinking about food until 12pm each day has allowed me to reduce the number of decisions I make in the morning, thus reducing decision fatigue and increasing the willpower I have for the rest of the day. That means I have more energy to put toward doing work that is important to me. One of the best ways to find happiness and success in life is to strip away the unnecessary things and focus only on what is needed.
With intermittent fasting, I have been able to increase strength, reduce body fat, and maintain good health while spending less time eating each day. If you can get the same results by making life simpler and only eating twice per day, why would you make life more complex by eating three, four, or five times per day?
Intermittent Fasting is an Excellent Travel Strategy
I used to be annoyed by the lack of healthy food options in airports. This is especially true in my case because I'm looking bulk up and add good weight, so I need to eat a lot. Finding a sizable amount of healthy food is a tall task in most airports. The solution? Treat your travel days as a fasting day and then eat twice as much good food the following day.
As an example, last year when I was flying back from Thanksgiving with my family, I didn't eat that day. It ended up being about 32 hours between meals. That's the longest I've gone on a single fast, but things worked out just fine and I avoided the poor nutrition of the airport.
So Far, Intermittent Fasting has Not Hurt My Long-Term Health
I'm not interested in doing intermittent fasting if it sacrifices my long-term health for short-term improvements. And for that reason, I've kept a close eye on how I feel, how my body is responding, and whether my overall health is improving or declining. Thankfully, I'm in better shape than I was two years ago, which is proven by my strength numbers in the gym.
And more importantly, a recent checkup with my physician has revealed that my blood work, cholesterol, and hormones are in check as well. And remember, this is after two years of intermittent fasting. (If you're interested, my recent blood work results are here.)
Note: I think it's important to clarify that I can only speak from my experience and I can't promise anything with regards to how your body will respond to intermittent fasting. I know that, in some cases, women believe that intermittent fasting has thrown their hormones off balance. I don't have any data on this and so all I can offer is my own experience. As with most things in life, your mileage may vary.
Intermittent Fasting Isn't a Magic Pill
In the beginning, I hoped that intermittent fasting alone would be a secret weapon for health and fat loss. It seemed like all of the experts were saying that if I changed what time I ate, then I would lose fat and gain muscle easily. That sounded good to me. The reality, of course, is much different. I only started seeing the results I wanted when I combined intermittent fasting with a healthy diet of real, whole foods, and consistent weightlifting.
Intermittent fasting is just another tool in your toolbox. Just as eating a healthy diet of real, whole foods is another tool. And exercising regularly is another tool. And meditating or doing yoga to reduce stress is another tool. And sleeping at least 8 hours per night is another tool.
You can't live an unhealthy life in other areas and expect one thing to solve all of your problems, but you can slowly add a piece here or there, continue to self-experiment, and gradually develop a health strategy that works for you, your goals, and your lifestyle.
In fact, I'm convinced that you can reach your health goals without intermittent fasting at all (if you eat properly and train consistently). But I still think intermittent fasting is worthwhile because, as I said above, if you could get the same results while eating fewer meals and making life simpler, why would you add more meals and make life complex? On a related note, if you're looking for a simple way to eat healthier foods check out my "outer ring" strategy in this article.
I Have No Idea if Intermittent Fasting Will Work for You
I can't say whether intermittent fasting will work for you. All I know is that, as one piece of my overall strategy, it has worked for me. It works because it fits my lifestyle. It works because it is simple enough for me to not spend much energy thinking about it. And it works because it aligns well with my diet, which is mostly Paleo, and my training style, which is mostly Olympic weightlifting and other compound movements.
If you're eating poorly or if you're training for an Iron Man or if your job doesn't give you the flexibility to eat your meals in an 8-hour window, then intermittent fasting might not be for you. And that's fine. You can experiment with other ways to achieve your goals.
Where to Go From Here and What Actually Matters
No one will have the same experience as you — with intermittent fasting or with anything else — and that's why you have to experiment on your own. It might be easier to cite a study or follow the advice of some diet guru, but the only way to get results is to test, adjust, and repeat. As someone who often cites academic research in their articles, I have the utmost respect for science. But you can't let a research study make choices for you. They can inform you, sure. But the only way to make progress and change in your life is to make new choices, take action, and make adjustments based on the results.
Whether it's intermittent fasting or something entirely different, I hope you'll choose to run your own experiments and see what works for you.
James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behaviour science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter, or download his 38-page guide on Transforming Your Habits.