What is intermittent fasting?

The increased consumption of unhealthy food and the lack of training and discipline have made athletes gain weight.

Mayank Agarwal, the Indian cricketer, has actually lost 3kg in this lockdown by following a regimented diet.   -  N. Sudarshan

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone including athletes. During this period, stadiums, gyms and our own colonies stand shut, thus not allowing us much physical activity. Athletes have modified their training regimes to include home workouts, Zoom sessions with their trainers, and making do with limited workout space. Adventurous athletes prepared for the quarantine have kitted out their homes with the requisite training equipment.

But during this lockdown, we have seen many athletes’ sleep cycles disturbed by binge-watching TV and surfing the Internet as they no more have a wake-up call at 5am. In addition, food unavailability has haywired their meals. Meat supply has gone down. Eggs, which I endorse as safe for consumption during the outbreak, is also not being consumed. The increased consumption of unhealthy food and the lack of training and discipline have made athletes gain weight. Over the years, various types of diets have existed for athletes: high protein, high carbohydrate, high fat-keto, et cetera. As a sports nutritionist, I believe that one size doesn’t fit all. What is important to focus on is bio-individuality, where an athlete has to undergo blood and gene tests and is then given a proper schedule for training and energy expenditure. In addition, an athlete has to give the nutritionist the body fat and muscle mass percentages for accurate calculation of calorie input and expenditure. This altogether allows a customised planning of calories and macro-nutrients in a diet plan.

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Over the last few weeks, I have acquired many new clients who have come to me with concerns of not being able to follow “ghar ka khana” and want a tailor-made sports nutrition plan to follow at home. Mayank Agarwal, the Indian cricketer, has actually lost 3kg in this lockdown by following a regimented diet, and his entire family is amazed by his discipline. This has left him genuinely surprised that one does not need exotic fruits and vegetables and can instead rely on the foods available during the lockdown, proving that a nutritionist can get you results with whatever is available. The key point here is that nutrition coaching should not stop, but should rather focus on guiding athletes on how to eat during the lockdown.

Many of you may know I have worked with Aamir Khan during Dangal, Sushil Kumar and Abhishek Bachchan. Many celebrities have graced my Qua Nutrition Clinics and we have experimented with the intermittent-fasting regime. What is intermittent fasting? Should athletes do intermittent fasting? I recently put two athletes on this approach – Mayank Agarwal was one of them – the reason being that intermittent fasting runs on the principle that you have a feeding window and a fasting window wherein, for example, the last meal of the day is at 7pm and next is at 7am, maintaining a fasting window of 12 hours. Intermittent fasting, in my opinion, works best with 16 hours of fasting.

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The first point to note for athletes is that my recommendation of intermittent fasting is only for this lockdown period. Research has shown that it does not benefit athletes as there is a drop in strength, endurance and mitochondrial concentration in cells as well as loss of muscle. Intermittent fasting has, however, shown to help decrease the body-fat percentage. It is solely because of this that I am advising on a case-to-case basis whether athletes should approach intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is the optimal strategy for fat loss, but one must acknowledge that studies on athletes have been conducted during Ramadan and their performance evaluation for strength, stamina and recovery showed a drop during the intermittent-fasting period. My recommendation to try this is solely dependent on the fact that athletes are overeating, sleeping very late or not training enough. Adding a component of intermittent fasting to an athlete’s current lockdown schedule may enable better fat loss due to lower calorie consumption.

Intermittent fasting also helps by improving insulin sensitivity. Research has also focused on mitochondrial biogenesis, where intermittent fasting or a calorie deficit produces new mitochondrial cells to adapt and enhance the athlete’s performance. While training, endurance athletes release AMPK factors in low energy state. AMPK factors stimulate positive adaptation to exercise and promote mitochondrial biogenesis. However, in a lockdown, training is limited, making mitochondrial biogenesis difficult. Another caution for athletes is that when there is carbohydrate restriction, which is normally induced by intermittent fasting, there is muscle hypotrophy. This, coupled with longer training sessions, is not the idle combination to build muscle. Hence, intermittent fasting should be done with a 1-2 hour workout around 11am-12pm, preferably in the fasted state followed by the first meal of the day after the workout. The second workout of the day can be during the feeding window, which is between 4pm and 6pm. Finish that training with a solid high-protein meal at 7pm.

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It’s important for athletes to understand that my recommendation of intermittent fasting is not general for all athletes but on the basis of my analysis of the first 40 days of the lockdown where I observed most of my athletes struggling to maintain discipline because they felt that they have not worked out and therefore they do not need the discipline of eating right. Intermittent fasting is an approach to control calorie consumption during the day and bring about better fat loss. A caution should be inserted in the entire intermittent-fasting approach for the following: (1) Women’s menstruation cycle — weakness or iron, ferritin or vitamin B12 deficiency; (2) Diabetics or master/veteran athlete or coaches; and (3) People with eating disorders or athletes who are extremely underweight should not attempt this approach except under the guidance of a sports nutritionist or a dietitian.

If any athlete wishes to avail of an intermittent-fasting diet plan at my clinic, please contact me so that we can evaluate your body fat percentage and your total energy expenditure through the day, and accordingly design the calories and macros that you need to consume in your structured feeding window.

Ryan Fernando is an award-winning celebrity sports nutrition coach and chief nutritionist at Qua Nutrition Signature Clinics. Book an intermittent fasting diet plan at www.ryanfernando.in.

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