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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 07, 2009

Dear Mark: Feast or Famine Diet?

By Mark Sisson
64 Comments

Among the questions I get from MDA readers are those that ask about timely diet trends – you know, the latest regimens highlighted in the media or promoted by high profile stars and athletes. Some are bookstore blockbuster plans like The Zone, while others are the latest celebrity diet du jour. As my wife and – well, everyone who knows me – can tell you, I’m always up for talking, debating, deconstructing, and fully dissecting any version or concept of diet under the sun. (Thankfully, my wife at least finds it endearing after all these years.) But it’s a treat when a diet trend comes up I can actually find common ground with. Take this question from reader Jim.

Dear Mark,

I saw something this week about a “feast or famine” diet. From what I get, people alternate eating a small amount and eating as much as they want. I’m still kind of a newbie and wondered what you thought of it. Thanks! Love the PB!

The feast or famine diet (also called alternate day fasting) isn’t really a new idea (even discounting Grok’s experience), but it got recent press after the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published results of a small study this fall. Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago designed an alternate day regimen that restricted food on “famine” days to 25% of estimated energy needs. Sixteen obese participants went through a 10-week program: a 2-week control period, 4-week alternating day 25%/”controlled intake” period, and 4-week alternating day 25%/”self-selected intake” (albeit with diet counseling) period. The results? (Can you guess, IFers?) Subjects lost weight consistently in both 4 week periods and showed improvement in key blood markers (total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides and systolic blood pressure).

A few years ago a neuroscientist named Mark Mattson published study results supporting the same famine-feast regimen. In commentary for The Lancet, he questioned the conventional wisdom that supported “grazing” for calories throughout the day, citing humans’ evolutionary development within an intermittent fasting existence. Mattson, a central researcher in calorie restriction and intermittent fasting, has produced research demonstrating the benefits of both practices, benefits which include enhanced memory, reduction in neurological oxidative stress (with associated risk of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), neuron resilience, and an improved regulation of glucose and insulin levels.

As an intermittent fasting routine, the feast-famine diet promises to upregulate metabolic systems while decreasing the overall caloric intake and oxidative stress associated with food intake and digestion. In the Primal Blueprint model, I highly recommend it. As Mattson and other researchers have noted, our systems evolved to expect periods of scarcity. We weren’t designed for the constant eating (and associated physiological stress), couched as healthy “grazing,” that we’re told to practice today. Dr. William Davis of the Heart Scan Blog, a blogroll friend of mine, did a great sequence a few weeks ago on grazing, fasting and postprandial patterns. As he emphasizes, the postprandial (aka “after eating”) period is the most damaging for artery plaque buildup. In our society, we’re encouraged to be starting the next meal before the previous one has even been fully absorbed. Our systems rarely, if ever, have the chance to return to zero. Fasting allows for that resetting.

The common criticisms of the feast or famine routine (or any form of fasting) revolve around images of all-out gorging. Apparently, too many experts believe that anyone who fasts for even 24 hours will be found in a gluttonous mountain of pizza boxes and Snickers wrappers at the end of restriction time. There are people who might go this route, but I’ll bet you a nickel they won’t continue the alternating day routine. The practice takes a certain amount of discipline, yes. But it also takes energy. Gorging yourself on the worst foods will leave you so sluggish and miserable the next day that you’ll likely drop the program. That said, if you return to a diet (say, the PB) that keeps your glucose and insulin pretty steady, you’ll feel the best benefits of the fasting routine (lightness, focus, energy) instead of the carb hangover.

Finally, I want to stress that if you’re interested in the benefits of a feast-famine routine, you don’t need to commit to an alternating day diet. Nearly any form or degree of intermittent fasting provides benefit. Do what feels manageable in the beginning. Skip breakfast one day. Reduce your calories by half for a day. Every IFer I know (myself included) developed – and advanced – their routines over time and manage it with ease now.

As always, thanks for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

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64 Comments on "Dear Mark: Feast or Famine Diet?"

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PrimalK
6 years 9 months ago

That’s really very interesting. I know from having done a couple of 24 hour IFs and then doing 17 hour fasts by just missing breakfast, that it really does make me feel more alert, more productive and just more alive.

It’s good to get some more evidence that doing something that feels good is also actually a beneficial thing to do.

Adam Kayce
6 years 9 months ago

I can see my next experiment looming on the horizon…

I tried IF a while back, but it was before I had my Primal ways down, and it didn’t go so well. I’ve seen advice since to get your food quality dialed in for a while first before trying IF, because it’ll go a lot easier.

Now that I’m eating 95% Primal, it seems that it’s a good time to look more into this.

Martin Panorama
6 years 9 months ago

Feast Famine?

It’s hard to believe, but I do some form of IF everyday. I tend to eat one big meal during the day or in the evening (whatever’s convenient) and just cruise the rest of the 24 hrs.

It’s incredible once you realize you only have to eat once; One meal means more time!

Grok
6 years 9 months ago

Not hard for me to believe 🙂 Pretty easy actually, especially if you can keep yourself busy.

I’ve been a grazer since Thanksgiving corrupted me, but I usually do the one meal deal. About the only way to keep my daily calorie intake from from grasping at 5 digits.

Jeff
6 years 9 months ago

All of this info is so new and cool to me. I’m impatiently awaiting my copy of Primal Blueprint to hit my mailbox this week. Perhaps in honor of its arrival I’ll fast till it comes… Or smoke a pack of Marlboro 6-packs…

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[…] Original post by Mark Sisson […]

emmie
emmie
6 years 9 months ago
I have been doing this for about a year. I found it as JUDDD (Dr. Johnson’s alternate-day dieting) when I was stalled for a long, long time and unable to lose weight. Since I’m both post-menopausal and hypothyroid, I have to severely restrict calories, but that’s difficult on a daily basis. This program has been great. I don’t do true alternation (for convenience), but I do 350 cal on M, W, F. On Sat or Sunday to ‘balance’ things, I’ll do a ‘medium day” of about 1000 cal. The other days aren’t a gorging thing–I eat to satiety but primally… Read more »
Douglas
6 years 9 months ago
Intermittant Fasting is one of the most interesting fitness/weight loss niches. There are people who swear by this method and others who think it is the stupidest idea they have ever heard of. Unfortunately, most of the people who think that it’s a bad idea have never even tried it. Personally, I questioned it’s effectiveness for most “normal” people due to the likelihood of a post fast pig out on ice cream, candy, pizza ,etc… In an attempt to test that hypothesis, I had half a dozen of my clients test drive two different IF programs. Three of my guinea… Read more »
kongluirong
6 years 9 months ago
Douglas, that is amazing! Wow is all I have to say. Lately I haven’t felt the need to eat breakfast, so I haven’t. Yesterday I went for a longer period of time with no eating because the day before I had more carbs than I was used to. I ended up eating in the evening with bacon and sweet potatoes (cooked in the bacon grease). What I want to know, if anyone has done any experiments or has experience is if it is better to IF after a day of eating non-primal, i.e. if you’re at a friends house and… Read more »
FlyNavyWife
6 years 9 months ago

I’ve found that it’s “better” to just not have a non-primal day if you can avoid it. But sometimes if I do (hard to be perfect you know) fasting is one way to “reset” things, especially the carb cravings.

Otherwise I might have a few really high carb days in a row (even if they’re primal carbs like fruit). It’s not the end of the world, but … having a meat/eggs/cheese only day or IFing for 18-24 hours really does help me get off the carb cravings after a “slip up.”

Douglas
6 years 9 months ago

kongluirong

I don’t know if “better” is the right word.

My experience is that IF is easier when you are already eating healthy.

After a big holiday feast, odds are that your resultant blood sugar/insulin levels are going to make an IF pretty miserable.

You will be ravenous all day long.

That’s my experience anyway

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
6 years 9 months ago

Anyone care to comment on this?

Cutting your calorie intake by more than 15 percent makes your brain think you’re starving, so it shuts down testosterone production to wait out the famine. “There’s no need to reproduce if you’re starving,” explains Thomas Incledon of Human Performance Specialists in Plantation, Fla. Ironically, this dive in circulating testosterone stops you from burning body fat efficiently, so you’re actually thwarting your hard efforts to melt that tire off your gut.

Johnny at The Lean Saloon
6 years 9 months ago

There are data to back this up. But this drop in testosterone and suppression in metabolism doesn’t occur unless it is long-term continuous calorie reduction over a period of weeks. In IF or ADF, calories are not *continuously* reduced. Most studies show that fasting actually raises the metabolism and the levels of catecholamines forup to 72 hours. Which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: You’re hungry? Then you better get on your feet and go hunting and gathering.

Chris
Chris
6 years 9 months ago

Whey protein (no carb/fat) mixed with water two or three times a day constitutes my “fasting” days (35 grams protein per shake). I feel I get all of the benefit of a true fast without sacrificing hard-earned muscle or potentially diminishing T production.

Grok
6 years 9 months ago

“all of the benefit of a true fast”

Well not quite, for several reasons… but I’m a fan of the protein sparing fast with quality whey also. If you’re having a hard time for whatever reason on a water fast, a protein scoop is a nice way to compromise and still have great results 🙂

Cave Painter
Cave Painter
6 years 9 months ago
Guys I would just like to say I TOTALLY disagree with this! It makes no evolutionary sense that if Grok didn’t have any food for a day or two his body would start chewing up all his hard earned muscle, the very muscle he needs to get his next meal! Not to mention water+whey (pure protein no fat no carbs) being totally unnatural in an evolutionary point of view… Im also pretty read up on these matters, and I have come across NO evidence whatsoever that this protein-sparing idea has any legs. If it does I would love to see… Read more »
Martin Panorama
6 years 9 months ago

If you’re worried about losing because of IF, you don’t have much to worry about.

Intermittent fasting raises HGH (human growth hormone) levels, which protects muscle and even encourages muscle growth. Also, probably the best way to ensure you keep your muscle would be to do some INTERVALS or do some HEAVY LIFTING on your IF day. Just make sure that you get a good amount of protein in your next meal.

After all, the old saying truly does apply to muscle: If you don’t use it you lose it.

Grok
6 years 9 months ago
I agree you don’t need it, and feel it’s more beneficial if you DON’T use it. For body composition reasons, the shakes can help get through tough fasts rather than say… scrapping the whole thing. They are low-cal and provide good amino acids. Many people don’t resistance train to preserve muscle during fasting, so it may not be a bad idea for them. Depending on the brand, one 30g shake scoop has almost the same macro nutrient content as Grok eating a small squirrel or chunk of rabbit 😉 Unless you have squirrels and rabbits living in your house like… Read more »
Chris
Chris
6 years 9 months ago

Um, I run, mountain bike and weight train all pretty seriously. I find that if I don’t have at least a little protein each and every day my performance suffers (time and weight are absolute measures); just me sayin’ is all.

Johnny at The Lean Saloon
6 years 9 months ago

In the Varady study mentioned about, the subjects lost as much weight in the second 4-week period as in the first, implying the potential “momentum” for continual weight loss beyond the completion of the study.

I personally observed in friends and weight loss people I work with that IF and ADF are highly flexible and are incredibly compliant. I’ve been doing this for 3 years now, and I’m convinced that it can be a sustainable and permanent lifestyle.

Rahsaan
Rahsaan
6 years 9 months ago
Actually, my experience has been the opposite. I’ve lost fat with this kind of fasting, and my midsection is leaner and way more defined than ever before. As a 6 ft., 183lb. man, my waist is about a 29 or 30. I must admit though, I eat pretty paleo as it is, with mostly meat (including seafood and eggs)and leafy greens. I do cheat occasionally. In fact, I cheated pretty much every day with sweets for the last two weeks due to the holiday offerings, and have found my physique has stayed pretty constant (after the initial bloat from the… Read more »
Rahsaan
Rahsaan
6 years 9 months ago

I was answering this post with my last post:


Anyone care to comment on this?

Cutting your calorie intake by more than 15 percent makes your brain think you’re starving, so it shuts down testosterone production to wait out the famine. “There’s no need to reproduce if you’re starving,” explains Thomas Incledon of Human Performance Specialists in Plantation, Fla. Ironically, this dive in circulating testosterone stops you from burning body fat efficiently, so you’re actually thwarting your hard efforts to melt that tire off your gut.”

Dozer
Dozer
6 years 9 months ago

Do you recommend the (IF)if you are training in a high intensity workout regiment (Crossfit)? I’ve found that the grazing is the only possible way I can get in the neighborhood of the amount of protein required to maintain muscle growth.

Johnny at The Lean Saloon
6 years 9 months ago

Hi Dozer,

Just curious: How much protein do you believe you need to maintain muscle?

Dozer
Dozer
6 years 9 months ago

Going by Mark’s recommendations I try to consume a gram of protein for pound of body weight. Approximately 200 grams per day.

Dozer
Dozer
6 years 9 months ago

Not to mention the fact that an IF will cause a decrease in the production and absorbtion of testosterone.

Chidi
Chidi
6 years 9 months ago
The decrease in absorption and production of testosterone would be after hunger for well more than 72 hours to the order of weeks. Unfortunately people have allowed semantics to cloud the issue. When we are hungry we say we are starving because we feel ravenous. In reality this is just somatic hunger which has little to do with our actual needs, just a time conditioned digestive tract trigger. The real hunger is limbic, real hunger effects energy production and has real noticeable physical costs other than grumbling stomachs (which are meant to be a conditioning response to make you eat.)… Read more »
Dozer
Dozer
6 years 9 months ago

That’s a very good point…

I’ve never read an article that clearly defined the time that had elapsed in the fasting mode to yield the production and absorption of testosterone.

What do you mean 2 x 24hrs fasts per week? That seems like a lot of fasting. I thought intermittent would literally be a sporatic fast over a given time period.

void_provocateur
void_provocateur
6 years 9 months ago
The most popular intermittent fasting program online is Eat Stop Eat. In it he advocates a 2 X 24 hour fast in which you eat normally on sunday and monday with your dinner at 8pm for example, then you eat nothing until 8pm dinner on tuesday (24 hours), followed by regular eating on wednesday, thursday, then maybe a fast on friday or saturday. however you want to do it. Another very popular way is the reduced eating window. For example giving yourself a 5 hour window to eat each day, say from noon to 5. Not an excuse to overeat,… Read more »
Johnny at The Lean Saloon
6 years 9 months ago

I haven’t been fortunate enough to see any study substantiating this. I would greatly be appreciative if you can share with me any study you might have seen to back up that Intermittent Fasting causes a decrease in testosterone and absorption.

Thank you!

Bonnie
6 years 9 months ago

Energetically I think many people have a tendency to over eat from time to time–the food just tastes good or you were really really hungry. Fasting for a meal or two or even a day helps move through the stagnant food sitting in your intestines and can make you feel better. My husband refuses to change his eating habits but he loved the alternate day “fasting”…

Rahsaan
Rahsaan
6 years 9 months ago

Not humans, but more evidence in favor of IF for mammals:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/science/27rat.html?_r=1

Daniel Merk
6 years 9 months ago
Mark, I am still confused on the whole concept of IF. I mean, I get what it’s supposed to do and all, but where I have problems is skipping a meal puts me in a danger zone to pig out (literally) the next meal. For instance, on Saturdays I forget to eat a late morning snack and then lunch. I eat a nice big 4 egg and 2 slice of pasture raised bacon along side with a 1/2 grapefruit. This meal fills me up but then by 3pm I am starving. I’ve been doing this for years and I believe… Read more »
Martin Panorama
6 years 9 months ago

I had this problem for a while.

I would cook up a big meal and be full and satisfied. Although within an hour’s time, I would get hungry again. Then when I went to bed, I would get really thirsty.

After some time I realized to drink a few cups of water with my meal. Turns out that since I was eating less frequently I was also drinking less water. I realized that the hunger that returned after the first meal was not hunger, it was thirst!

I hope this can help you out Daniel. Good luck!

Daniel Merk
6 years 9 months ago

I need to remind myself to drink more water. I do not hydrate enough. I never over do it, but I need to at least honor it more. Thanks!

thecarla
thecarla
6 years 9 months ago

I have been experiencing steady weight loss due to eliminating dinner most of the time. I will eat a cup of soup for dinner or just skip it altogether and since I started doing that my weight has been dropping (albeit slowly) every week. On the weekends I only eat 2 meals per day and space them out at least 5-6 hours. I feel a lot better since doing that and have not had cravings or desire to nibble or graze.

Sue
Sue
6 years 9 months ago

Has anyone heard about the risk of gallstones when fasting?
I suppose the mechanism could be that the bile sits in the gallbladder for a long time as it doesn’t get emptied when fasting which can lead to development of gallstones.
I think the gallstones would occur more if you constantly ate low fat.
What are others thoughts on this.

Daniel Merk
6 years 9 months ago

Sue, Interesting you mention this. One of my co-workers was also in on reducing weight and started a tough working out routine. He lost over 60 lbs in 8 months and looks great. Yesterday he told he that he was having his gall bladder taken out. He said “Be careful of losing so much weight. You’ll damage your gall bladder.” This is making sense. He went all “low-fat” packaged foods and I’ve been doing it with healthy natural foods with fats.

Interesting…

onelasttime
onelasttime
6 years 9 months ago
I have always felt better IFing even before I knew that’s what it is called. Because I don’t get hungry until hours after I get up I would often skip meals and fast 15 hours or more. And when suffering from what was erroneously diagnosed as IBS and turned out to be gluten intolerance, fasting with warm water was the only thing to bring relief. When fasting for 24 hours or more I find the first day hard but I know it’s all in my head because it is triggered at “meal time” and it gets easier as time goes… Read more »
Michael Paladin
6 years 9 months ago

I’ve been doing the alternate day diet for a week, consuming three Atkins Advantage shakes on “down” days – about 20% of normal caloric intake. It’s been very easy so far. I’m not hungry on down days at all, and I eat normally on “up” days.

Doing two weeks of alternate 20 percent down days is supposed to switch on the a gene called the “skinny gene” or “rescue gene,” according to Dr. James Johnson, who developed the “UpDayDownDay Diet.”

Diana Renata
6 years 9 months ago
For the last few weeks I’ve found myself eating just one meal, mostly out of convenience. Working 2 jobs makes time for cooking pretty scarce. So I’ll generally get up, run out the door to work, work all day, and eat when I get home. I can eat until I’m full and not really worry about the details. Since I haven’t really been exercising either at least my weight has stayed pretty much constant. Hopefully when I squeeze in some workouts my body composition will improve. For now though, the benefits of eating just a single late meal is that… Read more »
David
6 years 9 months ago

Great topic!

I enjoy fasting for the self-discipline derived from this and, like it had been mentioned before, increased energy , etc.

My weight is a little on the light side and I am trying to gain muscle mass. Should I continue IF where I skip one meal twice a week on different days? I am 56 yrs. old and gaining muscle is a challenge. Just trying to regain 10 lbs. of atrophied muscle but wondering if IF is the wise thing to do. I enjoy IF but will it impede muscle growth at my young age?

John
6 years 9 months ago

More of the same
I’ve been fasting weekly (36hrs) for 6 months, added PB the last 3 months, and dropping lbs is effortless. Now it’s time to add muscle. I’m hoping I can continue to lose fat thru the fast, while overeating for muscle growth the rest of the week. Any thoughts? (51yrs old, primal workouts)

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[…] Excellent case for why you should consider incorporating some form of intermittent fasting. Give your body a […]

cenz
cenz
6 years 9 months ago
I think the key to avoiding a post-fast pig out session is maintaining a primal diet on days between fasts. Eating primal and reducing insulin sensitivity should preempt the ravenous feeling post-fast. I find that when am staying strict about avoiding non-primal foods, I feel well-conditioned to fast. If I’m craving anything post-fast, it’s more along the lines of strawberries and apples– not some food coma-inducing splurge. It is as if my body forgets about non-primal cheats or even primal treats. I’m a little surprised at how many commenters want to see a scientific study to support effects of IF.… Read more »
Douglas
6 years 9 months ago
I wasn’t too surprised when commenters starting requesting scientific back-up for IF This happens all the time on all sorts of health/fitness blogs. often the debate devolves into a “my study is better than your study” kind of argument. I prefer to use research as a signpost directing me towards a potential solution to a problem. If the research is decent, I am willing to use myself (or clients) as a guinea pig to test out the research findings. If they work for me…great If they don’t, they don’t No need to get all caught up in the dogma between… Read more »
Paul @ WorkoutBOX
6 years 9 months ago

I’ve heard of this before. Body Builders use a form of this type of restrictive fasting to help cut body fat called ‘Zig Zagging’

Victor
Victor
6 years 9 months ago
Back in the ‘old days’ about 20 years ago I was studying off-campus and attending weekend schools once a month where the available food was really bad. I started to fast those weekend – evening meal on Friday and nothing but warm water until breakfast on Monday. 18 years ago I remarried and. like all good things, the weekend fasts became a thing of the past and eating more became standard. I am now much heavier and would like to fast again but have been ‘warned off’ because of a near heart attack 9 years ago and a heart attack… Read more »
curtis
curtis
6 years 9 months ago
I have been doing a ~32hr, water-only fast 3 days a week (M,W,F) for the last 5 months. Basically, I stop eating in the evening before going to bed and then skip eating the entire next day. I find it extremely difficult to stop eating during the day once I get started, hence I stop when I go to bed as usual. Initially, my fasting required some mental energy to get over the psychological hurdle/habit of eating every few waking hours. I would liken it to conscientiously holding one’s breath when swimming under water. After a week or so, the… Read more »
Sigrunde
Sigrunde
6 years 9 months ago

Don’t you ever get headaches when you don’t eat regularly? If I skip lunch I’m sure to have a pounding headache by 3 p.m.

curtis
curtis
6 years 9 months ago

No, I don’t. Are you going cold turkey on caffeinated drinks, maybe?

Sigrunde
Sigrunde
6 years 9 months ago

No, I don’t. I drink one coffee per day, if at all. It seems to have something to do with my bloodsugar level. At least I can’t think of any other explanation.

Brandon
Brandon
6 years 8 months ago

Sometimes I get a headache around 36 hours without food which caffeine will not cure, but I am not experienced with fasting. I suspect it will go away as the body becomes more used to fasting.

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[…] IF’ing to decide what would be the best strategy for me. Some of the links were – Marks Daily Apple – Feast or Famine Diet,  Matt Metzgar – The Alternate Day Diet,  Conditioning Research – Intermittent […]

Sofia
Sofia
6 years 3 months ago
I am very interested in these topics. When I was in college I lost a lot of weight without really trying. I basically like most college students slept a lot during the day which meant I didnt eat until late and when I did eat again like a college student it was whatever I felt like. Late night trip to Denny’s or pizza def not the healthiest. I found it very strange that I was able to lose 30 lbs this way. As an adult I have put on a lot of weight. Im about 50lbs overweight and have tried… Read more »
Dean
Dean
5 years 9 months ago
I have fasted for many years, usually 3-5 days, also every other day for a few weeks (the hardest for me), and twice for 30 days. And I mean fasting as in only water; juice is high carb food and not really fasting.  Usually the pattern is 2-4 days of using up the body’s stored sugar; it’s during this time that most people will get headaches, especially if you do lots of carbs and caffeine Once the body kicks in to using fat for fuel, and making ketones, then hunger disappears and energy goes through the roof.  One effect is… Read more »
Noel Victor
Noel Victor
5 years 9 months ago
About 20 year ago I fasted one weekend a month – nothing except water on Saturday and Sunday. (Water every waking hour) In 1992 at the age of 51 I remarried and started a family (3 kids) and my dietry habits changed over time. 25 kg and a heart attack later I feel the need to reclaim my smaller healthier body. I found that if I had even a cup of tea then it was difficult to not eat – as long as I stuck to water only then not eating was not a problem. I have been reluctant to… Read more »
Noel Victor
Noel Victor
5 years 9 months ago

Sorry about the typos in my last post.

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[…] Feast or Famine diet […]

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[…] residing in a partially restricted state, drifting from paltry meal to paltry meal. There is no feast. It’s like lifting heavy and sprinting a few times a week versus jogging a 10k every day. […]

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