Intermittent Fasting—to Feast or Not to Feast: An Interview with Martin Berkhan

If you’ve been in this game long enough, you’ve probably heard about a nutrition approach called intermittent fasting (IF). While the verdict is still out on whether it’s actually a superior approach to smaller, more frequent meals, there is no doubt that people are using IF with tons of success. I decided to contact Martin Berkhan, a guy who has been in the trenches utilizing IF for years, not only on his clients but on himself as well. I’ve been to his website and have read his various contributions on the EliteFTS site, but I wanted to get a little more in depth with it. If you’ve ever spoken to Martin, you’ll know that he doesn’t sugar coat things or beat around the bush. And that’s what I was hoping for.

TF: Tell us about yourself, Martin. Who are you? And for the sake of this being an interview on nutrition, what’s your favorite food?

MB: I’m a nutritional consultant, personal trainer, and writer. I have a blog at www.leangains.com, where I post client updates and various articles related to nutrition, research, training, and of course, intermittent fasting. I earned a bachelor’s degree in medical sciences and education with a major in public health sciences.

My favorite food is without a doubt cheesecake. Or maybe a big steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m a simple man with simple needs.

TF: I’m going to cut right to the chase and ask what I’m sure everyone is wondering—what the hell is intermittent fasting?

MB: Intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating where you alternate between periods of fasting and feeding. Fasting in this context basically means no calorie consumption. Water, coffee, and other non-caloric beverages are allowed in unlimited amounts. I’m also not the type to be too obsessive about this, so I use about 40–50 kcal worth of milk for my coffee. On my regimen, the fast is 16 hours and the feeding window is eight hours. Look around and you’ll find a few other approaches. Some suggest a 19-hour fast while others suggest two, 24-hour fasts twice weekly. The Leangains approach was developed with the athlete and weight trainer in mind. The eight-hour feeding window allows proper pre- and post-workout nutrition and it’s easy to adhere to. In practical terms, you might break the fast with a pre-workout meal at 1:00–2:00 p.m., train a few hours later, have a big post-workout meal, and then have a final meal at 9:00–10:00 p.m.

TF: How did you stumble upon this?

MB: Well I struggled for a long time trying to find a dietary regimen that I could maintain in the long term. The “six meals a day” approach just didn’t cut it for me. It made cutting a chore, and I found that a “nibbling” approach did more to trigger my appetite compared to not eating at all. On a diet, I would be miserable and on a bulk, I’d just get too fat too fast and start cutting again. So one day I just said fuck it, and I started eating according to my natural preferences, which was skipping breakfast and eating when I got hungry around noon. It worked surprisingly well, and I got very lean without any big effort. I also maintained strength and muscle very well, which I attributed to the particular pattern of the meals. The diet is set up to have the greatest caloric load in the post-workout window to aid in recovery and growth.

Because this worked so well, I started looking into the research behind many of the nutritional myths out there. The reason I ate every second to third hour before was because it was supposed to be good for you. It turned out that was a bunch of nonsense. For example, nothing indicates that a high meal frequency is better in terms of metabolism, anabolism, or any other of the touted benefits so common in the fitness media.

On the other hand, daily fasting seemed to have real benefits, which is what got me really hooked on the concept. So I started to experiment a bit, and I tried the approach with clients. Fast forward a few years and here I am. I’m now writing a book about the science behind intermittent fasting and my approach, and I’ve had numerous successful clients transform their physiques with daily fasting.

TF: What are some of the benefits of IF compared to high frequency meals?

MB: First of all, it’s very practical. You eat when you eat, and when you eat, you eat big. There isn’t any need to carry around protein shakes or Tupperware containers with food everywhere you go. It’s also a great way to diet without feeling constantly deprived because you get to eat large and satisfying meals. And contrary to what most people believe before trying it, fasting is very easy. Your appetite is blunted for most of the time, so it isn’t like you’re starving during the fast.

There’s also a range of mental and physiological benefits unique to fasting such as improved insulin sensitivity, increased growth hormone output, and increased mental alertness as well as cardiovascular and neuro-protective benefits. The nutrient partitioning benefits of eating most of your calories in the post-workout period should also be emphasized.

TF: Ok, this flies in the face of everything we’ve been told—breakfast is the most important meal; more frequent feedings “stoke the metabolic furnace;” your body can only handle so much food at once; large meals cause your body to store more fat. How do you respond to something like that?

MB: It’s a bunch of nonsense, but I’m frankly too tired to address those myths again at the moment. I’ve written about meal frequency, breakfast, and all those issues at my blog if anyone is interested in finding out how and why people came to believe all of that.

TF: Fair enough. And this is an approach you can use indefinitely?

MB: Of course. I’ve found that most people never go back to their old eating habits once they try intermittent fasting.

TF: I’ve seen the testimonials and case studies on your website, LeanGains.com, and I’ve got to say, the results are very impressive. Hell, everyone on there gets lean as hell, and from the sound of it, they also gain strength while losing fat. There’s a picture of you and your laser vision (literally) tearing through a massive cheesecake! Hey, I love cheesecake just as much as the next guy, but does it really have a place in a fat loss diet? I’m going to assume that you don’t recommend shit food, right?

MB: Well, I don’t eat cheesecake every day, nor do I believe such foods should be a staple during a fat loss phase. However, including small treats now and then is certainly beneficial during cutting—mainly mental benefits because you won’t crave what isn’t forbidden. They can also be used favorably in the context of a post-workout meal. Here’s where I think intermittent fasting comes in handy because it’s easy to fit treats into your meal plan without breaking the calorie budget so to speak. Considering that a post-workout meal on my approach can reach 1500–2000 calories even during fat loss, it isn’t hard to include a piece of cheesecake, some ice cream, or any other treat you may crave.

TF: Are you more of a low fat/high carb or higher fat/low carb kind of a guy?

MB: Both. I cycle carbs and fat so that carbs are typically higher on training days while fat is kept low and vice versa for rest days. This will get you the best of both worlds because carbs are more beneficial before and after intense activity.

TF: Can a very overweight person utilize this approach? I mean isn’t this the way Americans typically eat? We’re fat as hell!

MB: I would say it works very well for the overweight. If you look at my clients, you’ll see that quite a few people with a high initial body fat percentage have used the approach to lean down. I’ve found that many overweight men and women have no problems going without food for prolonged periods of time, but when they eat, they like to eat big. Therefore, intermittent fasting tends to fit them very well indeed. It’s certainly not comparable to the way Americans eat. Skipping breakfast and eating junk for the rest of the day will get you fat. That’s a no brainer, so don’t even get me started on that.

TF: What about someone with diabetes?

MB: Absolutely. Look around the net and you’ll find tons of success stories from diabetics using intermittent fasting to improve their condition. I’ve had a few diabetic clients myself, and there’s a post on my blog detailing one diabetic guy’s experience with my protocol. It’s just an issue of the client/individual being able to know the proper insulin dosage for the feedings.

TF: Now you eat all of your calories in the eight-hour window following your workout, which falls later in the day, correct?

MB: Yes but you could work out any time during the day and then have your eight-hour feeding window after your workout.

TF: What about the person who needs to workout in the morning before work, kids, family, and traffic? Is this simply not the approach for them?

MB: Try it and you’ll soon figure that out by yourself. However, for clients working out in the early morning, I may approach the issue a bit differently. That is I might not go with an eight-hour feeding window directly post-workout. But what I’m doing more specifically, I’ll save for the book.

TF: Let’s talk fat loss versus muscle gain for a second. This thing obviously works very well for anyone interested in leaning up, losing weight, dropping fat, or whatever. What about the strength athlete—the guy or gal looking for a little muscle gain? Is this still something they can use?

MB: Of course. But people with very high calorie requirements and weak appetites should stay the hell away because they might find it hard to get the right amount of calories in the feeding window. That’s really the only issue I’ve encountered. However, besides that, it works very well for muscle gaining. It’s particularly well suited for folks who would prefer a slow and qualitative type of weight gain—lean gains (that is muscle and not much, if any, fat).

TF: Switching gears, what kind of training do you recommend for this type of diet? Tons of cardio? High volume routines?

MB: That’s way too general of a question to answer rightfully, but I’m no fan of excesses. My clients don’t really spend a lot of time on the treadmill or in the gym. Fat loss is mainly managed by diet, not cardio, and my weight training routines emphasize intensity over volume.

TF: I read that you’re experimenting with a high training frequency right now. Without letting too much out of the bag, can you tell us what you’re hoping to find? Are you attempting hypertrophy, fat loss, recomposition, or strength?

MB: Yes, I’m actually through with my experiment, and I’ve learned quite a few things that I’m now applying to my clients. The high frequency routine was a deviation from my regular low frequency/low volume/high intensity style of training, and it was very successful in that it managed to expand my thinking and take my lifts to a new level. I got a bit stronger and probably gained a few ounces of muscle, which I’m quite happy with considering my advanced training status and relatively slow rate of progress at this stage.

TF: I’m not going to lie. One of the benefits for me would be a psychological thing. I love to eat. Dieting sucks because you’re always hungry. That’s a major reason people fail, right?

MB: That’s true. That’s how I kept failing at the conventional “six meals a day” diets I used to do back in the days. For me, discovering intermittent fasting was truly the Holy Grail in that regard. You’ll still be hungry from time to time, but on the other hand, you get to eat until you’re satisfied when you eat. When I was constantly fixated on eating every second to third hour like I used to do on the diets I did back in the days, I was pretty much semi-hungry all the time. I was miserable and always waiting on my next meal.

TF: You mentioned that you’ve been working on a few books. Can you share any information about them or is it “top secret, hush hush” kind of stuff?

MB: I’m working on two books that will be out this year. The first book is about my approach to intermittent fasting, and the second book is a book that will feature me, Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon, and Borge Fagerli. I can’t say too much about the latter except that we’ll cover a bit about our different approaches to body recomposition.

TF: Where would someone go if they wanted to read more about you, Leangains, and intermittent fasting or if they simply wanted to try your approach?

MB: Check out my site at www.leangains.com.

TF: Thanks for taking the time to clarify some stuff for us.

MB: No problem, Tony.

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About the Author

Tony Falaro is the owner of AST Gym (authenticstg.blogspot.com), a small warehouse based gym in Santa Fe Springs, California. His clients range from high school athletes to working men and women who want to get strong and healthy but don’t have the patience for gimmicky programs and trainers in spandex. Tony received his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Cal State University, Fullerton.