One Meal a Day And Exercising: How Safe Is It?

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Intermittent fasting (IF) has definitely been a buzz phrase for the last couple of years in the booming wellness industry. Weight loss? Improved digestion? Faster cell regeneration? Boost of performance and focus? Eating one meal a day or practicing regular fasting days seem to have many benefits that are slowly revealed by many modern studies. But how about exercising when fasting: is it safe for you?

Intermittent fasting styles

The concept of intermittent fasting is far from being new. It actually has been around for centuries. Three main routines that define intermittent fasting are alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting (e.g. 24 hours fasting window), and time-restricted feeding (e.g. feeding window of 8 hours, so 16:8). The way you choose to do fasting will vary and most likely depend on your individual preference, lifestyle and routine.

A type of intermittent fasting method recently quite popular is one meal a day, or the OMAD diet. It aims for 23:1 fasting ratio, which means you fast for 23 hours a day and have 1 hour eating window. It may sound overwhelming or restricting, but the supporters of this way of eating all agree that it actually hugely simplifies their days: you eat once, buy less, cook less and spend less time thinking about the food. It’s also a more natural way of calorie restriction, as you simply consume less calories in a day. The timing of the one meal a day is up to you, but according to research the ideal time to eat seems to be between 3-7pm. This way, you’re giving yourself fuel and energy you need, but also allowing the proper digestion before bedtime.

One meal a day - how to do it properly?

one meal a day

It has been researched that intermittent fasting schedules, like the one meal a day diet, may support your body with better performance, faster cell regeneration, healthy blood sugar levels and beneficial metabolic changes. The OMAD fasting method also, in a way, mirrors ancient way of eating – going back to hunter gatherer days eating 3 times a day was rarely a thing. Our bodies needed to adapt to food scarce while still perform at its best to go about the day, look after the tribe or hunt for food. Today however, we are so used to eating around the clock and we rarely ask ourselves if we’re even hungry! 3 meals a day, 2 snacks, drinks packed with empty calories…all has just become a part of living.

The best advice on how to do OMAD is to start small. Have you tried any form of fasting before? How did you feel? Would you want to go cold turkey or prefer a slower, steady approach?

If you’re a total newbie in the IF world, before embarking on the one meal a day diet, try extending your fasting window up to 12 hours and then build it up to 16, 18, 20 hours. If you feel well, try to do a 24 hour fast once or twice a week and note how your body feels. Everyone reacts differently, so listening to your body is important.

When you eat one meal a day, it’s crucial to eat balanced and varied meals that provide maximum nutrition. That one meal a day you’re committing to should be full of macronutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates), vitamins and minerals. Be smart: remember, what you fill your plate with is all you get for the next 23 hours (take advantage of it!).

Can you exercise while eating one meal a day?

This is one of the most common questions. Generally, you can build a workout routine around OMAD, as long as you make sure your one meal is nutritionally balanced.

But, before you get too excited, let’s dig in a little more. It’s important to remember that a workout and so the benefits of it, will depend on your body goals, health level and the type of exercise. The benefits of fasted workouts may include higher aerobic capacity and burning more fat, as we use fat as fuel during exercising (since carbohydrates aren’t being delivered as food into the body).

On the flip side, while eating once a day and exercising supports weight and fat loss, it may be unhelpful when it comes to the growth of muscles. Protein is the main building block for our muscles, so when we don’t have enough of it, it may have an impact on the building process. But that’s not it: if you do a high intensity or strength session while on one meal a day, the body is likely to start breaking down muscle to use protein for fuel. This in return will increase the rate of the muscle mass loss, which is far from the desired effect you want to see!

Another, more practical, reason to be careful about intensity of your training while eating one meal a day is likelihood of you getting overtired and left with low energy. It can be hard to sustain it in a long run and your overall performance and food choices may be jeopardized.

So, what to do if you want to eat one meal a day and exercise? Take it slowly. Ask yourself if you’re someone that is able to exercise while fasted in the first place? Or do you need food to even head out for a stroll? Know your capabilities and listen to your body.

DOS of exercise on one meal a day:

  • Mainly cardio based sessions
  • Up to medium level intensity, steady pace
  • Keep it under 60 minutes, with 20-45 min being optimum
  • Hydrate appropriately 
  • Nourish your body during the 1 hour window
  • Eat your meal close to your workout
  • Some activities include jogging, walking, bike or elliptical, yoga, Pilates, stretching
  • Try the fast for a period of time before adding a workout to your day
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DONTS of exercise on one meal a day:

exercise on one meal a day
  • Strenuous weight sessions and high intensity workouts
  • Poor meal choices, i.e. processed food or meal low in nutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Medical conditions or feeling weak and dizzy
  • Sessions lasting beyond 80 minutes

Most likely your success (and enjoyment) of OMAD combined with exercise will depend on how safe and doable it’s for you to sustain it over time. If you push yourself too hard, you may face low energy and slower metabolism, which is opposite of what you want. You might also be more likely to reach for a quick, less nutritious food during your 1hour window. This in return may affect your health and nourishment. 

There’re a lot of studies that support one side or another, so it’s very likely you’ll always find someone advocating pros or cons of fasted exercise. While some of those are backed up by real serious studies, you must remember that the combination of one meal a day and exercising may work for some people, but not for others. And here’s where bio-individuality and listening to your body come to play and are so important.

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