Of all the relationships we have throughout our lifetime, the one we have with food will always be front and centre. Like any relationship, it will go through phases; sometimes it will be a healthy relationship, other times it won’t. Regardless of what each of our relationships with food looks like, one thing remains constant for all of us:
We can’t break up with food.
While I have always been an athletic person, it wasn’t until I started focusing more closely on fitness and wellness about seven years ago that I also started looking more closely at my diet. My decision to start visiting the gym wasn’t just about getting a nice body, either. Fitness for me was also about healing myself mentally.
Part of the reason fitness works so well to fend off things like depression and anxiety is because it causes you to start building your life around getting fit and being well. It especially brings your relationship with food to the table – because you can’t do well at the gym if you don’t first do well in the kitchen.
Rethinking how I would approach nutrition started with me taking a look at both what I will eat, and what I won’t eat. But as I began to dig around to learn more about nutrition, I came across information that pointed to a third consideration: when I eat.
What Is Fasted Exercise?
Fasted exercise – which essentially just means working out when your stomach is empty, like it is first thing in the morning – has risen to popularity in recent decades because of the supposed benefits to our health, like optimization of hormones like insulin, human growth hormone, and testosterone; training your body to adapt to burning fat for energy; as well as improved athletic performance.
After reading about the potential benefits of fasted exercise, I decided to give it a try, even though I was skeptical of the idea. The thought of working out without any food in my belly filled me with anxious questions and images:
Won’t I get low blood sugar and faint?
Won’t my body “eat” away at the muscle I’m trying to build?
Doesn’t a person need to eat before a workout to fuel that workout?
I was expecting to experience a lot of pain – but surprisingly I didn’t. Sure, it felt weird at first, and I was certainly hungry when I started the workout. But within 10 minutes I noticed the feeling of hunger passing – and it occurred to me that, Hey, I can actually do this.
So I suspended part of my judgment about fasted exercise and continued to workout on an empty stomach. I still wasn’t entirely convinced that I’d be able to keep it up and workout as hard as I did with food in my stomach. But over time, as I grew to become more aware of how my body performs during fasted exercise, I noticed that my hunger was not only vanishing during a workout, but that it was replaced by a different feeling: one of calmness and greater focus. Not only that, my energy remained consistent and my muscles in fact felt stronger than they did previously when I would eat a snack before my workout.
But of all the ways fasted exercise affected me, the one that resonates the strongest is that I learned that my body isn’t in constant need of food. In North America we have ingrained habits of eating – and those habits are detached from the actual purpose of eating as a source of fuel. We eat because we’re bored; we eat because that’s what you do at lunch; we eat without pausing to consider whether our body actually needs to be refueled.
There’s a Time to Eat, and a Time Not to Eat
We often approach hunger as something that must always be satiated by eating. We wake up in the morning and eat right away to rid ourselves of hunger; then we’re hungry again by lunch, so we eat again; then we have an afternoon snack to tide us over; then we’re “starving” by dinner, and we eat again; and sometimes we have a late-night snack because it pairs so well with relaxing at night.
Our day is built around satiating our hunger.
Eating all day means that, from the moment we wake up until the time we go to sleep, we’re in a constant state of digestion. When you start practicing fasting and/or fasted exercise, you begin to understand that your body isn’t just a vacuum of hunger that must be constantly filled with food. Instead, you develop an awareness that your body has two different states in relation to eating: the fasted state (empty stomach), and the fed state (full stomach).
Have you ever noticed that you get sleepy after eating a big, huge meal, like Thanksgiving dinner? This isn’t because turkey has some sleep-inducing drug in it; it’s because your body has dramatically shifted itself from fasted state, to fed (or digestive) state – a process that requires a lot of energy in itself.
Your body when it’s digesting after a big meal is like your computer while you download a large file: they both slow down considerably.
It’s Not About Starving Yourself
Fasting and fasted exercise is not about starving yourself; it’s about separating the times you eat from the times you don’t eat. You might worry that your body won’t get enough calories, which will result in it slowly digesting itself.
Don’t you need food to grow, especially if you’re working out?
Interestingly, according to some studies about fasted exercise, the percentage of human growth hormone (HGH) – the hormone your body creates to build muscle and repair itself – spikes in your body when you fast. But, as soon as you eat a meal and break your fast (like we do in the morning when we eat breakfast), your body stops producing HGH to shift focus from body repair and growth to digestion.
While I skip meals often, what I don’t do is eat less food than I normally would if I ate either 3 meals a day, or 5-6 small meals as some nutritionists still recommend to “keep your metabolism going” – whatever that means. When I eat, I eat a lot of food in one sitting, and it’s delicious food, too. I feel completely satiated, and part of what tastes so good about those meals is that eating has switched from a mindless habit to a mindful purpose.
Exercising more control over my body’s hungry impulses also means that I no longer need to look for ways to justify what I’m eating as a special “treat” or something I’ve “earned.” I don’t get food guilt as often. And I still do have a treat now and again, but when I do have a treat it actually is a treat because it’s an exception to my regular patterns of eating.
Should Everyone Practice Fasting and/or Fasted Exercise?
That’s something only you can decide for yourself. There are some studies that suggest fasting and/or fasted exercise might not be healthy for women, and others that say it only works for certain people. Like all nutritional studies, I read them with a healthy skepticism – because even the top science that the world follows can be wrong (as we’ve seen recently with the sugar controversy).
But if you do decide to try fasted exercise, I would recommend a few things:
- Be mindful that there is a transition period you’ll go through. If your body is used to constantly being in a fed state, that’s how it will want to remain. You won’t suddenly have an epiphany; what I’ve described experiencing is something I’ve learned from years of practice.
- Drink water, and drink more water. Hunger and dehydration can be confused in our mind. You’d be surprised how effectively a glass of water quells hunger.
- Tea or coffee with a little bit of cream or milk (dairy or non-dairy) is totally fine in a fasted state. Before my morning workouts I drink a mug of coffee and a pint of water. That’s all the fuel I need.
- Read about fasting and fasted exercise, and speak with others. Do so with an awareness that information about nutrition varies, and many people are extremely resistant and biased when it comes to nutritional approaches that differ from their core beliefs. This includes doctors, nutritionists, and (perhaps) even the author of this article. 😉
You’re Still Gonna Be Hungry, But That’s the Whole Point
Some people claim that hunger passes when you fast, but I don’t totally agree with that (except in the case of fasted exercise where the hunger truly does vanish, for me anyway). You’re still gonna be hunger, it’s more that your relationship to hunger changes. Part of embracing your body’s fasted state is about re-interpreting your hunger. In the same way we push ourselves through our limits when working out, we also push ourselves through hunger. When I’m doing a high-intensity workout at the gym, my body and mind are telling me to stop – and yet I push through (within reason, of course) because I want to become stronger.
Sometimes there’s a hunger inside us that can’t be satiated by eating. Fasting and fasted exercise is about pushing your mind and body through discomfort to get to a different place, one where you’re stronger, more focused, and filled with a sense of calm you didn’t think possible.