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Fasting, Alcohol, & How Our Body is Affected Overall

We are what we eat and drink. But we have far more control over this than most of us realize. Be informed and take control of your health.

Gabriel Sidwell
Gabriel Sidwell
17 min read
Fasting, Alcohol, Fitness and Exercise.
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Table of Contents

There are several ongoing studies related to health, wellness, and fitness. It feels like there are always new “ideal” diets and ways to diet. New ways to schedule when you eat. And several new, low-calorie options for beer and alcohol. As a foodie and beer connoisseur who also is working to remain relatively fit and maintain their weight, I’ve scoured several studies and articles, and traveled lands far and wide, looking for what makes the perfect nutritional game plan.

It turns out… the answer is far more complicated than most of us expect. Yet, incredibly simple. The human body works in mysterious ways. And while there are definitely patterns we can try to follow in order to have the body transform in our favor, the struggle comes from actually following those patterns. As with all things related to health, wellness, and fitness, consistency seems to be the biggest key factor in everything.

Health and Routine in Health
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Routine in Health

We are creatures of habit. Growing up, we become more and more accustomed to following a set schedule throughout the day. Go to school, come back home, do your homework, take your free time. This chronic use of scheduling only gets worse when we become adults, and have to factor in things such as work and paying bills. One thing that has slowly been phased out of our daily activities as early as childhood, though, is physical activity. There is a reduced emphasis on physical activity, health, and fitness in our school curriculums. I find it a travesty that class requirements nowadays include the bare minimum in physical education, and some schools have actually phased out recess and nutrition in the gutting of the curriculum. Unbelievable. It is no wonder that America faces an obesity crisis, with prevalence rates as high as 42.4%.

Trail running
Photo by Jenny Hill / Unsplash

I’m not really here to talk about how the school system is failing our children. Not today, anyway. What I wanted to discuss is why it's difficult to return to or, for some, start a routine that emphasizes health.

After graduating from highschool, I did not have the best health habits. I ate a lot of junk food, and did not remain as active compared to when I was running cross-country. My metabolism dropped, and I gained a lot of weight for someone who was barely 120 pounds prior to graduating. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year in college that I realized I was not treating my body as I should, and that if I did not get back into a good health routine, it would not take long before I developed some health issues. It took a large effort, but I got back into a somewhat decent health routine.

It was an uphill struggle. But after a couple of years of commitment to my health, I am back in the green with some extra muscle added on as a bonus. And if I looked back on my progress… I can safely say that I have come a long way. In that same retrospect, however, I realize that there are a lot of factors that work against people who, like myself, are looking to get back into that health routine. Let's discuss these factors to shed some light on what it really takes to get back into the routine, and some recommendations for those starting their journey.

Optimal Nutrition

Foremost, optimal nutrition remains the number one issue for many people trying to begin a new health routine. It should not come as a surprise that nutrition and diet accounts for about 90% of the battle for better health. You’ll hear the rare case of someone being able to eat anything they want and not have it affect their body, but not all of us are so lucky.

When we are especially busy, most of us won’t have time to cook our meals throughout the day. We have to resort to easier options for meals, such as snacks or fast food. On most occasions, this as an alternative does not provide for optimal nutrition. Looking back, I shocked myself with just how often I’ve opted to go to Wendy’s or Chick’fil’e for lunch because I didn’t take the time to prepare lunches to bring to my college classes.

Appropriate Nutrition for a Health Body
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Thankfully, this can be something we can fix, though the solution requires a bit of preparation. And a considerable amount of willpower. Meal planning. Meal planning has become essential for optimizing nutrition, and therefore why diets and meal services like Hello Fresh are so popular. Neither diets nor meal services are truly needed to eat healthy and research what you should eat in order to achieve your goals. In my case, I got into the habit of portioning the meals on my plate: One third vegetables, one quarter protein, and what’s left for carbohydrates (usually rice or some sort of starch). There are some wonderful resources out there for determining what you should eat to either lose weight or gain muscle. I would recommend starting with a simple calculator as a baseline for optimizing nutrition, such as Macro Calculator. Also, there are always nutritionists who you can see for a more tailored approach to optimizing nutrition. As far as the act of preparing meals goes… make the process fun. Listen to music on loud, or make it into a family activity where your spouse or kids are involved.

Finding the Right Exercises

There are several exercises, of course, that will be good for health all around. Swimming, running, biking, these exercises involve using the entire body and, therefore, cover most of your needs. Did you know that amongst these full-body exercises, dead lifting is one of the best exercises for weightlifting and muscle gain? I didn’t, at first. If you are looking for exercises to fulfill a more specific goal, like improving a muscle group or the flexibility of your joints, you may be bombarded by the number of different options you have.

Coming up with a schedule of exercises to fulfill a goal can be difficult. It is also difficult to determine if what you are doing is actually helping you (and not causing more damage). To deal with this issue, I would recommend looking at different work out plans and programs from those who have been exercising for some time, or have an education in physical therapy and training, specific to your goals.

I remember wanting to lose both body fat and build muscle, so I looked at programs such as 930X, AthleanX, and even Julia Michaels (I am not lying). I ultimately went with AthleanX, but there are many professionals out there who have published their plans and recommendations on media, books (like Robin McKenzie’s exercises), and even free phone apps. You have a lot of options in this, so use anything that fits your needs.

Ticking clock
Photo by Thomas Bormans / Unsplash

Handling Time

It is easier to have a healthier routine when we are young. As we grow older, though, we become busier. Whether with families or with work, it gets to a point where you may have to sacrifice one activity for either meal planning or exercise. If you are following a more stringent program that requires exercising five or more times per week, you definitely have to be mentally prepared for just how much that program will eat in your free-time.

Which is why, for most people, I would recommend starting with a set number of days per week (or picking specific days out of the week where you are not as busy) when you exercise. You can always adjust the schedule, but when you are starting out, picking an hour out of the day to exercise or meal-prep, or at least one day in the week to meal prep / three days out of the week to exercise helps to ensure you do not burn out too early. When I first started, I picked an hour in the evening to dedicate to working out. I tried not to go over that hour, instead putting my best effort into the short time I’ve given myself.

Getting a handle on your health again can be a struggle. The most important thing to remember though about this effort is that it is a journey, not a race. Pacing yourself, setting small goals that will help you build towards something bigger, will ultimately help more than trying to jump into an alternative lifestyle. And incorporating a healthy routine back in your day to day is a lifestyle change. It will take effort. But in the end, it is almost always worth it.

Speaking of handling time efficiently, are there benefits to fasting from meals versus eating more frequently? Well, it depends on how much time is on your hands.

Intermittent Fasting versus High Small-Meal Frequency

These last few years has seen a rise in popularity between two distinct methods of meal scheduling: Intermittent Fasting (the act of reducing your number of meals per day down to one or two meals and not consuming any calories outside the few hours you permit yourself to eat), and High Small-Meal Frequency (the act of consuming approximately four or more small meals and snacks throughout the entire day). Health enthusiasts have been touting the health and fitness benefits of both methods of dieting, and we have a plethora of anecdotal evidence of success with both methods of meal scheduling. But is one method inherently better than the other?

Research has found that while both Intermittent Fasting and High Small-Meal Frequency have their own benefits, they have also found deficits. In this paper, we’ll be reviewing both the pros and cons of both from two perspectives: weight loss and athletic ability, as these aspects are directly tied to nutrition and caloric intake.

Silhouette man praying
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History of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting and the fasting state has always been a prevalent phenomenon in human history. Fasting has a place in various religious practices and cultures, and there has been a deep-seated belief that fasting is beneficial to health. The earliest written recordings of the health benefits of fasting date back as early as the mid-1800’s when scientists, such as E.H. Dewey, Tanner, Alexander Jacques, and F. Penny, M.D., published their research on health outcomes from fasting (Kerndt, 1982). Advocacy and research for fasting as a method of weight-loss occurred as early as the 1900s, when clinical trials of fasting as a method of combating obesity were released for public review (Kerndt, 1982).

It was in the 2000s however when Intermittent Fasting was highly popularized thanks to the TV documentary made by Dr. Michael Mosley, “Eat Fast, Live Longer” in 2012, and the subsequent publishing of the books “The 5:2 Diet” by Kate Harrison, and 2016’s “The Obesity Code” by Dr. Jason Fung (Tello, 2021).

How does Intermittent Fasting help? Changing the frequency of meals and meal timing is said to correlate with change to several body mechanics and how the body breaks down and distributes nutrients throughout the day. Specifically, the body’s circadian rhythm and glycaemic control. The body can benefit more from macronutrients during the day without keeping excess energy, than at night (Paoli, 2019). In preventing the body from storing an excess of energy at night, the likelihood of that energy turning into fat and body weight is reduced exponentially, and weight loss is more likely to occur. Concurrently, the prevalence of comorbidities, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and other diseases, is reduced.

The Idea of High Small-Meal Frequency

High Small-Meal Frequency is essentially the opposite of Intermittent Fasting: Eating much smaller meals throughout the entire day, also known as ‘snacking’ or ‘grazing’ throughout the day. This method of meal scheduling was popularized roughly around the 1900s as the common-man got busier during the day, making actual “meals” impractical.

High Small-Meal Frequency has also grown to become a common form of post-procedural rehabilitation, especially for post-GI surgeries, where you want to maintain caloric intake while minimizing stomach extension; and also functioned as a clinical treatment strategy for anorexia (Dashti, 2015). Overall, High Small-Meal Frequency seems to reduce hunger throughout the day and improve satiety from the meals that are consumed, and, like Intermittent Fasting, also increases glycaemic control (Papakonstantinou, 2018).

While historical accounts of High Small-Meal Frequency aren’t extensive, they are tied to treatments of various eating disorders and conditions where caloric intake is at risk. And such treatments date back as early as the mid-1800s. High Small-Meal Frequency treatments appear to focus on weight and energy maintenance, and provide individuals with a steady source of energy throughout the entire day, while functioning as an easy alternative to more restrictive meal plans for those who lose motivation easily (Papakonstantinou, 2018). Results for weight loss however seem mixed, however, and seem to depend on the macronutrients consumed over the twenty-four-hour cycle.

Weight Loss

For weight loss, we’ll look at the efficacy of Intermittent Fasting and High Small-Meal Frequency in terms of overall weight loss and prevention of long-term weight gain, and also assess ease of adherence to both of the programs. From our recounts of both these methods of meal scheduling, we already know that they have the potential to assist with weight loss, assuming macronutrient needs are being met throughout.

Measuring Tape - How to Measure Your Hips - Huha: Healthy Undies
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Intermittent Fasting for weight loss has a more extensive history than High Small-Meal Frequency, as written earlier. There are diets out there like the Mediterranean Diet that put a greater emphasis on making sure you are meeting your daily needs in the time you may eat. Studies also show that eating less over the twenty-four-hour period positively affects glucose tolerance and insulin resistance (Kahleova, 2017). When controlling for other factors such as age and activity level, those who follow an Intermittent Fasting routine experience a change of BMI of up to -3%, or roughly 12-15 pounds on average (Kahleavoa, 2017).

Intermittent Fasting, however, is more effective when meals comprise breakfast or lunch earlier in the day than eating meals later into the evening. In fact, some studies have suggested that consuming enormous meals in the afternoon or evening has a more negative impact on weight loss than consuming enormous meals in the morning or early afternoon (Hutchison, 2015). This has some issues when we’re looking at adherence to Intermittent Fasting for maximum effect, as the recommended schedule for the fasting period may not be convenient for those who work busy schedules during the morning and into the day. The ability to eat breakfast in the morning seems to provide a major advantage to those who’re Intermittent Fasting.

High Small-Meal Frequency also has the potential for weight loss. The margins, though, are smaller than Intermittent Fasting. High Small-Meal Frequency provides for greater control and leniency over energy intake, and additional benefits, including reduced fluctuations in glucose that can cause cellular stress tied to cardiovascular disease (Papakonstantinou, 2018). This meal schedule also has the added benefit of reducing overall hunger and increased satiety, which reduces the need to eat (Papakonstantinou, 2018). ‘Grazing’ throughout the day also has additional benefits for the elderly because it is better for ensuring more nutrient intake and recording (Dashti, 2015).

Smaller meal
Photo by Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

The research also suggested that High Small-Meal Frequency also has the potential to promote increased fat loss and improve lean muscle retention while in a hypocaloric state, assuming macronutrient and exercise needs were being met (Hutchison, 2015). However, the research also shows that High Small-Meal Frequency can have a higher negative impact in the event the body is in a hyper-caloric state, more so than with Intermittent Fasting. This makes monitoring exactly what you are eating a must (Hutchison, 2015). So while High Small-Meal Frequency meal scheduling for weight loss is easier to adhere to than Intermittent Fasting, there are several additional factors to consider ensuring optimal weight loss.

Athletic Ability

Research on athletic ability and how it is affected by both Intermittent Fasting and High Small-Meal Frequency have been fairly mixed. Across multiple studies, some suggest that the frequency of meals throughout the twenty-four-hour period has no effect on energy expenditure in either men or women (Hutchison, 2015). Assuming efficient macronutrient intake and acclimation to the chosen meal schedule, neither Intermittent Fasting and High Small-Meal Frequency seems to have a distinct advantage over the other in terms of performance in athletic ability, sports, or exercise.

However, this is assuming sufficient nutrient intake and a proper diet. Different fields of athleticism heavily depend on the right diet to maintain good health and performance. In endurance exercise, for example, a sufficient intake of carbohydrates appears to be beneficial to performance in running (Ormsbee, 2014). As far as meal timing is concerned, there does not appear to be substantial evidence on how athletic performance is affected by when your last meal was.

Discussion Time
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Discussion

So what is a better meal schedule to follow? Intermittent Fasting or High Small-Meal Frequency? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer for which is better, and depends on several circumstances. Athletic ability and performance do not appear to be largely affected by either of the two schedules, so we are left with how the two schedules affect weight loss. Again, it depends. Intermittent Fasting has greater margins of potential for weight loss and BMI reduction than its counterpart, but it also has a very high barrier of entry as proper meal timing. That Intermittent Fasting works the best when the fasting period is in the evening, makes it difficult to adhere to for people whose schedules do not allow for easy access to healthy meals during the morning. It requires a good understanding of the body’s circadian rhythm, and an acknowledgement that eating in the evening has less of a beneficial effect than eating in the morning.

High Small-Meal Frequency, in contrast, is an easier meal schedule for people to follow because it is less restrictive in terms of meal timing. It is a good potential schedule to follow for people with low motivation to diet or follow stricter plans. However, weight loss results appear to be of a lower margin of potential than Intermittent Fasting. It is also much easier to ruin a diet under this meal schedule, as smaller meals can often come as easy to access and easy to consume snacks that are not good for you. Adherence to this meal schedule is a challenge in its own way as it will heavily depend on you to plan the snacks and meals you are to consume without going into a hyper-caloric and excess energy state.

Which meal schedule is better than the other? It depends on which one will be more accessible to you. For total success with either plan, different conditions, including age, work schedule, and accessibility to a sustainable source of healthy nutrients, will have to be considered. You may find that one meal schedule will overall be more accessible to you than the other, and sustainable. While the research that we have now does not provide a definitive answer, we hope this information can help you make an informed decision on which meal schedule is right for you.

We spoke for a while about food intake, and how scheduling meals can affect the body. There is one other thing we have yet to look at, though: alcohol. Anticipating that a majority of readers may be of legal drinking age, we should also look at how alcohol affects the body as well.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

It has been a long, long time since Americans last attempted the prohibition of alcohol in the United States. The ban was unpopular for many reasons, and the prohibition period effectively ended in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, mostly because it was simply too difficult to keep people away from alcohol. It also costs a lot of money to enforce the prohibition, and it was ultimately deemed not worth enforcing in the long run. Everyone likes their alcohol, plainly.

The NIH recently reported that up to 85% of adults 18 years and older have at least tried alcohol in their lifetime, while around 50% state that they have drunk alcohol in the last month. These numbers are not likely to decrease soon, if we had to be honest. But for those who are looking to exercise and lose weight, there are benefits to limit alcohol consumption that you should consider if fitness is your long-term goal.

Woman working out
Photo by Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

Of interesting note, there seems to be a correlation between higher fitness levels and higher alcohol consumption in both men and women. The more you exercise, the more likely you are to consume alcohol regularly. This is often because of these athletes substituting expenditure in calories lost with the filling sensation alcohol provides - alcoholic beverages contain calories after all. Does this negatively hamper your progress in weight loss? Not necessarily in those new to the journey.

Men and women in their first year of weight loss and life-changing intervention (I.E. eating healthier, exercising regularly, adopting better habits, etc.) do not have a negative effect on their progress when they are consuming alcohol. The benefits of other lifestyle changes brought on by the goal of weight loss is often enough to supersede the drawback of caloric intake via alcohol consumption.

The story however is a little different when progressing into year four of fitness, however, when the body becomes acclimated to your other lifestyle changes. Those who have abstained from alcohol are expected to have greater weight loss results compared to consistently heavy-drinkers, their weight loss almost twice that of those who consume alcohol regularly after year one of their fitness journey.

Does alcohol affect fitness? It depends on your goals. Alcohol contains various forms of sugars that need to be factored into your micronutrient intake when consumed. Different beverages contain different levels of sugars that measure out to different caloric levels. Cocktails with mixtures are expected to contain much more caloric content than lighter options, such as whiskies or seltzers. Every athlete has their own caloric intake requirements that they need to measure out to their specific needs.

Like everything else, moderation appears to be key. Those who control their alcohol intake can still enjoy the benefits of improved fitness and weight loss once they’re past their first year into exercise, long after their initial ‘newbie gains’. And in aspiring athletes, alcohol is one of those types of beverages that will have to be considered in your meal routine to avoid accidental excess that can bottleneck your progress toward the ideal physique.

Closing Notes

There are honestly several variables that everyone should consider when pursuing an ideal health goal, but they ultimately boil down to exactly what you consume and less of how things are consumed. Optimal nutrition will always be necessary for any goal you wish to get. You’ll have to be aware of what you drink too, and how you exercise (a topic that we can explore more in depth later).

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Content References

Kerndt, P. R., Naughton, J. L., Driscoll, C. E., & Loxterkamp, D. A. (1982). Fasting: The History, Pathophysiology and Complications. The Western Journal of Medicine, 137(5), 379–399. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1274154/

Tello, M., M.D., M.P.H., (2021). Intermittent Fasting: Surprising Update. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/intermittent-fasting-surprising-update-2018062914156

Paoli, A., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., & Moro, T. (2019). The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting. Nutrients, 11(4). doi: 10.3390/nu11040719

Dashti, H. (2015) Small, Frequent Meals. American Society of Nutrition. Retrieved from https://nutrition.org/small-frequent-meals/

Papakonstantinou, E., Kontogianni, M.D., Mitrou, P., et al. (2018). Effects of 6 vs 3 eucaloric meal patterns on glycaemic control and satiety in people with impaired glucose tolerance or overt type 2 diabetes: A randomized trial. Diabetes and Metabolism 44(3) 226-234. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.diabet.2018.03.008.

Kahleova, H., Lloren J.I., Mashchak, A., Hill, M., & Fraser, G.E. (2017). Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2. The Journal of Nutrition (147)9, 1722-1728. doi: https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.116.244749

Hutchison, A.T., Heilbronn, L.K. (2015). Metabolic impact of altering meal frequency and timing - Does when we eat matter? Biochimie 124. 187-197. doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2015.07.025

Ormsbee, M.J., Bach, C.W., Baur, D.A. (2014). Pre-Exercise Nutrition: The Role of Macronutrients, Modified Starches and Supplements on Metabolism and Endurance Performance. Nutrients 6. 1782-1808. doi:10.3390/nu6051782

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