An Interview with Brad Pilon, the Bearded Guru of Fasting
About two years ago, I had just started to looking into intermittent fasting. Although it’s a mainstay of my dietary practice these days, it seemed new to me. So, I sought out one of top experts in the world to learn about it: Brad Pilon.
In addition to being the author of one of the definitive books on fasting–Eat Stop Eat–Brad is one of the few fitness professionals I would describe as truly open-minded. Because of that, he dislikes dogma and misinformation.
Brad became an indispensable resource to me, and through our conversations and the research he pointed me to (not to mention that research cited in ESE), I began to build a very high level of knowledge about fasting.
I interviewed Brad about a number of things, and it was one of my more popular posts at the time. Now, with the recent release of the 7th Edition of Eat Stop Eat, I thought it was more relevant than ever. Both Brad and I are busier than either of us could manage, so instead of conducting a second interview covering the same information, I’ve simply followed up.
What appears below is a combination of old and new questions. For the sake of maintaining a cohesive voice, the entire thing is written from the perspective of having been conducted today.
Read, enjoy, and share.
ROMAN: I’ll start by saying that some people may live under rocks, and may therefore not know you, or much about you. Let’s bring them up to speed: can you give us a brief introduction to who you are? Not in the existential kind of way–but just what you do, what you’ve written, who you help, and all that.
PILON: Sure thing. My name is Brad Pilon and I write about building muscle and losing fat. My background starts in sports supplements where I worked in Clinical Research and Product Development for over six years, before getting a little bored of that industry and deciding to go back to school for graduate work. This is where I started studying short term fasting. It was this graduate work in fasting that led to me writing Eat Stop Eat.
But, before you start thinking of tree-hugging yoga type stuff, let me assure you, I’m still a bodybuilder at heart – so when I say fasting I want to you think ‘getting lean’ instead of ‘getting skinny’. I also have an interest in the ‘controls’ of muscle mass…what makes us grow, what stops us from growing out of control – incredible hulk style. This is what led me to write both ‘How Much Protein‘ and ‘Anabolic Again‘. Other than that I’m your typical Canadian Family man.
ROMAN: Cool stuff—I think it’s fair to say that most people think of you more as a fat loss and nutrition guy than a bodybuilder, so it’s good to set the record straight. I want to talk more about those projects in a bit.
But first, some fun stuff. The first time I met our [now-]mutual friend Craig Ballantyne, he told me a bunch of lies about Canada, since I’d never been there. Having been there twice now, I have a bit more perspective. Since you’re also Canadian, riddle me this: is it true that everyone in Canada still wears jean jackets? I know Vince Del Monte is heavily influenced by Bryan Adams, but I’m not sure how much carryover there is.
Oh, and you guys are going to LOVE Bel Biv Devoe.
ROMAN: Ha! I did not realize that most trends were Canadian in origin…I’m going to get my fact checkers on that. Thanks for the BBD reference. Okay, next question: you are one of the only fitness professionals who opts to wear a beard year-round. Is this because you are Canadian, or because you are a hippie? Or, are you secretly a lumberjack, as Craig has tried to tell me?
PILON: True story – When I was working in the supplement industry my then employer wanted me to start appearing in those ads: you know the ones—6 pages long, lots of science terms and guys in white lab coats playing with beakers full of colored liquids? I grew the beard to get out of a photo shoot…and it just sort of stuck. I’ve shaved it once in the last decade…for my wedding, and I still regret that decision (my wedding pictures are basically a red-headed woman with some guy who looks like he’s about 17 years old).
Roman: Well, you’re not a hippie in the technical definition of the word, but you DO occasionally talk about being veggie and vegan and the benefits of that. What I like about you is that you don’t spend your time proselytizing about it and telling everyone else they suck.
PILON: I hate that as much as you do. Here’s the truth – I’m the farthest thing from a vegan, and I’m the farthest thing from a Paleo person. I consider myself a Diet Agnostic. There are so many cultures around the world and through our history… all with different diet beliefs and practices…and there are healthy and unhealthy people in all of these cultures…so how can we say that there is one perfect diet for everyone…or even suggest that the human body is so horrible at adapting that we have to eat ‘perfectly’ every day? So I talk about vegans like I talk about carnivores…because they all have something that we can learn…both good and bad.
ROMAN: I like that term—dietary Agnostic. We’ll talk more about that in a bit. Now, I’m a carnivore and I love steak almost as love as I love…actually I can’t think of anything to compare that to. Mainly because I love steak so much. Mmmm…steak. So, here is your opportunity: convince me why I should be vegan.
PILON: I’ll do one better: I think you should take vegan cooking classes. Ignore all the dogma and gospel, but learn how they prepare their food (because a lot of it is out-of-this-world awesome), then add some steak on top of whatever you make. Best of both worlds. The number one thing that we can ALL learn from vegans is how to make some amazing meals from just veggies.
ROMAN: Haha okay, I get it, you have no intention of trying to convert me. I appreciate your acceptance of my love of meat. Now, I know that both Craig and John Berardi have done successful experiments where they have gone vegan (or mostly vegan) for a few weeks or months at a time. In Craig’s case he was able to maintain his physique, and in JB’s case he was able to re-gain muscle and stay lean. So there is some merit, I’m not questioning that.
However, one of the things we see a lot in the industry is pro-Vegan people pointing to bodybuilder X or athlete Y being vegan and having a good physique.
In almost all cases that I can think of, though, those people haven’t been lifelong vegans. Now, I have trained 3 lifelong vegans and I have to tell you it’s hard as anything to pack mass on these guys. I’ve never seen someone with a truly well-developed physique that’s a life-long vegan.
Which brings us to the question: If I have twin sons (let’s say I name them Romulus and Remus, in honor of the old Roman legend) and decide to raise one as a vegan and one as a omnivore, and train them the same way, what happens?
Romulus eats meats and veggies, and Remus gets a comparable amount of protein and nutrition from a vegan only diet. They have identical genes and identical training programs.
This is actually a more than a thought experiment, because 1) I may genetically modify any and all of my offspring and 2) depending on your answer the outcome may be affected.
So, let’s hear it.
If they are on the same ‘doses’ there will be no difference. Protein just isn’t the rate limiter in muscle growth…it may effect the RATE in which we build muscle, but it doesn’t control the ‘end point.’ So if you had a bit of an ‘injected boost’ I’d say “no difference” Otherwise I’ll be honest…I have no clue. But since they’re going to be the offspring of you and Neghar, I’m guessing they’ll be genetic freaks, I’m sure they’d be fine either way.
ROMAN: Hahaha okay, well I wasn’t planning on making steroids part of the equation, but I guess once you admit to wanting to genetically engineer your kids, it’s a reasonable assumption. Good answer, though.
Let’s transition away from nutrition for a moment. I read an incredible piece on your blog that I really enjoyed called, “How to be Awesome.” The main thrust of it is basically being true to yourself and doing stuff you like, which will in turn make you happy and allow you to make others happy.
You give the example of a sort of bodybuilder vs. a crossfitter internet debate. I like that you said you should “own your LIKES” — which basically means that if (in this case) appearance is more important than performance to our bodybuilder, he should train in the way that makes him happy.
WOW. This flies in the face of most of the dogmatic bullshit you see on the interwebz. On a lot of the forums you have people from various camps spewing the most base, vitriolic inanity at each other because they don’t agree with someone’s goals–and that goes for a good number of “guru’s” or fitness pros. For example, I caught a lot of flack when I said I wasn’t going to back squat anymore.
I’ve always been intensely repulsed by dogmatism of any kind, so this really spoke to me–can you expand on your thoughts about just sort of letting people do their thing, and why it’s important to focus on what makes you happy?
PILON: Sure thing…the “awesome” line of posts came at a time when I was just sick of writing about nutrition, because everyone wanted me to attack the idea of being vegan or paleo or defend fasting against every naysayer with a keyboard. What I came to realize is that to some people these ways of eating are like the new religions. They are true, die-hard belief systems. Right and wrong. Black and white. I also realized that a large portion of health and fitness writing is more ‘belief system propaganda’ than it is education (and to be honest, I can be just as guilty at this as the next person…it’s hard to avoid)
To make matters worse, thanks to amazing marketing people are constantly jumping from belief to belief, based on what I like to call “goal hijacking”.
Here’s an example: you start off wanting big arms. So you go on-line and look up ‘how to get big arms.’ You get a basic workout program and start it. Pretty soon some ‘expert’ at your gym is telling you your workout sucks and you should go to website X to get ‘educated.’
On website X you learn that training for big arms is stupid and you should really be doing the major compound lifts. So you get a bit deeper into training and really start getting into these ‘core lifts.’
Then one day you read about powerlifting and decide to give it ago because it’s cool. So you get into powerlifting and learn that the general powerlfiting consensus on this particular site is to get big at all costs…so you forsake your 6 pack and start putting on some mass.
After a while you find out that having a big bench press isn’t cool, and the squat is the coolest exercise in existence, so you decide to become a ‘squat specialist’
But you’re still not happy because one day you’re surfing the net and you see a pic of John Romaneillo and you think to yourself…man, I want arms like that guy. And end up right back where you started…you just wanted bigger arms.
You let you goals get hijacked over and over, by people telling you your goals aren’t cool. You can’t allow this. You have to own your goals. They are yours – no one else’s.
I decided long ago that I train for looks. My goal is to get a perfect Adonis Index, and I’m steadfast in this goal. When people ask me my squat or deadlift or bench numbers, I can confidently answer I don’t really care – that’s not my goal.
Or, take fasting – It fits my goals perfectly. I want to be as lean as possible while enjoying the foods I like to eat. I don’t care about what YOU like to eat, or whether or not you have a gluten or dairy allergy…my goal was to eat what I want to eat while being lean. I’m proud to say I own this goal.
That’s a large part of being awesome. Not letting people attack your goals. You need to own the things that make you happy.
ROMAN: That is really, really quality stuff. Basically, being awesome means, “be you” and “don’t hate.” And actually it sort of relates to my next question.
You’re one of the intermittent fasting dudes–and the IF guys have come to be known for being…well, a bit aggressive, going to the point of lambasting anyone who preaches any other sort of nutritional approach. In your “Awesome” piece, you said, “[t]o me, fasting is awesome. I hope you like it too, but it’s not going to bother me if you’re not a fan.” That sets you a bit apart (and, if I may be frank, above) some of your fellows–and I don’t doubt such openness is one reason why your book has become so successful.
So, before we talk more about the differences between some specific IF-ers, let’s get a definition. Can you first give us a general definition of what Intermittent Fasting is? Then, can you tell us specifically about your approach.
PILON: Easy – The purposeful abstinence from food for a predetermined amount of time, typically between 12 and 72 hours, used intermittently with periods of eating. Basically it’s the concept that it’s OK to take the occasional break from eating now and again.
ROMAN: Cool, I like that definition: nice and simple. Now, a LOT of people are seeing great results with IF, but there is more than one way to
starve skin a cat. How does your method differ from other variations?
PILON: Eat Stop Eat is what I like to call a flexible form of intermittent fasting. You fast once or twice a week for a 24 hour period spread over two days…and you keep it FLEXIBLE. So if you were planning on fasting on Monday at 3 PM, but all of a sudden you get called to a lunch meeting, it’s not a big deal, just move your fast.
Eat Stop Eat is also about being flexible in general. While it is completely possible to get really lean by eating SUPER clean, my goal is to help people get lean while eating ‘So-So’ clean. Lots of Fruits, Veggies and the occasional Cinnabon. That sorta thing.
Think along the lines of a long term strategy to get lean and stay lean, while still eating the foods you like…that’s ESE.
ROMAN: That fits in well with your overall personality.
Okay, back to Canadian questions: is it true that in Canadian Football, the punter can actually run downfield, pick up the ball and run it back after he has punted it?
PILON: Yep, it’s called a rouge. The bigger difference is that we’ve got 12 men on the field, which itself is both longer and wider. We’ve only got 3 downs, so it’s a lot of passing. AND, our balls are bigger too. Send me your address and I’ll mail you Canadian Football…you’ll love it.
[[Roman’s note: since the time of this interview, Brad did send me a Canadian football. It’s smaller than a rugby ball, bigger than an American football. Hard to throw if you have small hands.]]
ROMAN: That’s…that’s just messed up. I think I want to play this kooky Canuck version, if only to really confuse myself. Okay, next question. Before we return to IF stuff, general nutrition. I know this is simple shit, but people still don’t get it. Do you count calories? If so, why/why not?
PILON: Yes and no…I have rough goals, and even rougher estimates. I read your calorie recommendations on your blog and mine are pretty similar. I like to AIM for about 10-12 x ideal body weight…so for me around 1,700 to about 2,000 calories as a ROLLING average. (This does NOT mean this is how much I eat, it’s just what I aim for)
Obviously, like everyone else I’m going to overshoot these numbers, but like I said they’re a rough goal. Next, I know the general calorie counts of my favorite foods, then I just work from there. I’m a realist; I know that if my weight is slowly creeping up then I’m eating more than I need to, so I just cut back a little.
Mean that I take a body-centric approach as opposed to a calorie-centric approach. I eat whatever amount of calories I need in order to maintain the weight I want, as opposed to the calorie-centric approach of trying to work around eating a specific number of calories with blind hope that this will end up giving you the body you want.
Overthink Calories or pretend like these things are exact measurements (which they are not) and you are going to A) hurt your weight loss efforts and B) drive yourself nuts measuring every aspect of your nutrition.
ROMAN: Interesting perspective, and one I share. I have said that ALL Calorie formulas are, at best, a crapshoot—at least in the sense that we have no idea about “exact” numbers. However, I always like to give people Calorie and macronutrient goals so that they have a way to measure food intake.
As people get more and more experience, they can use less and less dedicated structure. So I guess for the beginners and the very advance (fitness competitors) I thinks it’s necessary, but for other people I think it definitely helps but you can wing it. Cool.
And, again, nothing is exact, anyway.
ROMAN: Word. So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty and talk about fasting–specifically as it applies to the NEW Eat Stop Eat. As fasting has gotten more popular, we’re seeing the pendulum swing the other way–people are saying fasting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Specifically, for women. As a result, in the new version of ESE, you have a whole section on fasting for teh laydeez. Without giving too much away, can you give me your general opinion on that thought process?
PILON: You’re absolutely right, the pendulum has swung the other way. This is something I talk a lot about in the newest version of Eat Stop Eat. In 2007, I had to convince people that it was OK to fast, that it was worth giving it a try as an easier, simpler way to lose weight. Now, I have to convince people to not fast so much, that you do actually need to eat on occasion.
It really isn’t a man vs woman type of thing, either. People like extremes, and they like results, so when something is working the natural inclination is to do more. This happens with weight training, cardio, dieting and now fasting. The problem is there is always a sweet spot, and to make matters worse, that sweet spot changes over time.
My goal now is to help people understand that fasting is an incredible tool, but also that it is only a tool, to be used when needed. Basically I want people to have the freedom to take an occasional break from eating, without feeling like they’ve done something wrong EVERY time they eat.
ROMAN: That’s a worthy goal. And it sort of leads into the next question. You said people sometimes feel like they’ve done something wrong by eating. In one article specifically, it was stated that, “If you didn’t have an eating disorder before you started IF, you will afterwards.” What are your thoughts on that?
PILON: Wow. That’s a horrible statement, and a perfect example of why I try not to read too much internet stuff. Most likely it was written for shock-value and the author probably knows that the true etiology of eating disorders is far more serious and far more complex then simply being something that arises from taking an occasional break from eating, they are serious mental illnesses and are often symptoms of a more complicated underlying problem. We shouldn’t dismiss them as just ‘dieting gone wrong.’ People can be heartless in their pursuit of internet traffic and expert-status glory.
ROMAN: That was pretty much my thought. I know a lot of people who have struggled with eating disorders–and perhaps for people who have dealt with that issue, fasting should be approached cautiously. But to say that fasting is going to cause an easting disorder seems both extreme and unwarranted. But, I digress. Let’s move on.
Because ESE uses alternate day fasting (as opposed to a daily 16 hour fast), conceivably you could just fast on your off days, and eat on training days. What have you found in terms of the relationship between exercising and fasting–necessary, helpful, or useless?
PILON: Really, we’re talking about a 24 hour fast once or twice per week, and that fast is divided between two days, so that leaves between 5 and 6 days of normal eating, but you do eat every single day. Because of this You can arrange your workouts so that you are always ‘fed’ when working out by putting them in between fasts, or make sure you have 2-3 days of eating recovery by training shortly after a fast, the options are really limitless, so best bet is to play around with it and track how you feel. If you’re fasting twice a week and training 4 times per week and can’t make it ‘fit’ then I think you’re probably being either too inflexible with your fasts, or too inflexible with your workout schedule. It all comes down to what feels best.
ROMAN: One of the questions I get most often is about the timing of the fast–I often recommend 16 hour fasts, usually breaking the fast post workout. But, let’s say that do to scheduling it was really only convenient for someone to feed from 6 or 7am for about 8 hours, then fast until bedtime. In other words, this person can’t fast upon rising. I addressed some of this in a post, but I’d like your opinion. Would you expect to a difference see there?
PILON: Really we are taking minutia for the vast majority of people. Here’s the best advice I can give…keep this stuff flexible so you can do it long term…if you get caught up in overanalyzing everything and you are going to burn out quickly.
You have to do what fits into your lifestyle, you simply cannot try to fit your lifestyle into your diet…that just doesn’t work long term.
ROMAN: You’re now in your 7th version of Eat Stop Eat. You’ve helped thousands of people with this book directly. Indirectly, you’ve helped thousands more, because you’ve helped to push the fasting movement forward, and been a great ambassador of both IF and common sense. What would you say about the book, looking back after all these years–either in general, or this version specifically?
PILON: Firstly, I’ve been incredibly pleased with the response to the book. The people that like Eat Stop Eat like it a lot. If you are looking for diet dogma, rules, and lists this is not the diet for you. So you really have to examine your goals – are you looking for a diet or a way to get lean. It’s for people who want to get lean.
The best thing about Eat Stop Eat is that it’s a long-term solution. I still hear from people who bought ESE more than 5 years ago and are still using it to this day. They used it to lose weight, then they used it to maintain their new weight. Not many diet programs can say that. I’ve been really proud of every version of the book, especially this one.
I think the fact that IF has become so popular has helped me make the book better–IF hitting the mainstream has brought up new questions, which has led me to do more research and new insights. The stuff about fasting and training, or fasting and women…that might not have happened if so many people weren’t trying IF, whether it’s ESE or another variation.
And because I’ve been able to answer those questions and address those concerns, I think the book is going to help even more people than previous versions.
ROMAN: You’re spitting the truth with that one. Personally, I would say that the new information makes the book not just important, but perhaps an essential addition to the library of anyone who is interested in fasting. Not to mention every single trainer/nutrition person in the world, because they are definitely going to get these questions, so they should be able to answer them.
Let’s wrap up with something fun. Final question: both you and Jason Ferruggia will be at my wedding this September. You’re both smart, you’re both jacked, you’re both into fasting. So, the obvious question is, which of you will eat more cake? Please cite examples supporting your answer.
PILON: Excellent question. I do have a sweet tooth, but I don’t really have a large appetite any more, and Jay can EAT. That being said, I have a large and growing afro to feed, whereas Jay is afro impaired. Jay has more tattoos, but I have more beard. I suspect those cancel each other out. Further, we’re both known to be Kings of the Dance Floor (I’m pretty sure we could have starred in one of those Step Up sequels), so we’ll both be working up quite an appetite.
If I had to guess, I’d say we’d both be perfect gentlemen and only have one small piece each so as to ensure that all your guests are able to enjoy the cake…. ‘Cause that’s how we roll, all gentlemenly-like.
ROMAN: Ha! Well, it just so happens we’ll have at least three cakes, so there is plenty to go around. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see–but know that I’ll be posting the results of that epic battle. Until then, thank you so much for your time and for giving us some great info.
PILON: Anytime, man. Thanks for a great interview.
Okay! Quite a long interview, but full of awesome information. Now, while there are a lot of great resources out there, I honestly believe that when it comes to understanding the science of IF, Eat Stop Eat is basically the top of the line.
As we touched on in the interview, the latest version–just released this week–answers all of the questions and concerns that have been voiced about fasting over the past year or so. ESE is a tremendous resource, and, I honestly believe an essential addition to the library of any fitness professional, or serious fitness enthusiast.
To celebrate the release of the 7th version of ESE, Brad is running a special, and giving a bonus coaching call for anyone who orders before midnight on July 19th.
Just to show you how much I personally believe in ESE, and Brad’s information, I’m going to sweeten the deal. Anyone who purchases Eat Stop Eat at any point before July 22nd is going to get MY intermittent fasting program, Fat Loss Forever, completely FREE. Just my little way of hooking you up.
Again, this is awesome, and makes MY life a lot easier since I don’t have to answer the questions all the time. It’ll do the same for you. You’re going to love when you pick it up–and when you do, you’ll be getting my program, for zero dollars.
For more info about Brad, check out his Blog.