How Poker Players Can Benefit from Intermittent Fasting
For many people, it seems that eating and drinking is as much a part of the game of poker as betting and folding.
I’m not talking only about home games and low stakes cash games, by the way.
This is equally prevalent in the most expensive tournaments in the world. And even among the top pros.
At this moment, you might be asking: “Sure, and what’s the problem with that? Doesn’t everyone have to eat?”
I’m not here to say you should stop doing this altogether. But I’d be making you a disservice if I didn’t at least mention a better alternative.
It’s called intermittent fasting.
What Is Intermittent Fasting
There are different practices that go by the name of intermittent fasting, but most of them share one thing in common.
That thing is: restricting the periods of time in which you ingest your calories.
Let’s imagine that you eat three meals a day. Maybe you have breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at 6 p.m.
Let’s also consider that you don’t have any snacks before breakfast or after dinner.
In this hypothetical example, all your calories would be ingested during an 11-hour time frame (from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Which means that you’d habitually fast for 13 hours per day (from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.).
If you follow the so-called “standard American diet”, this would probably be difficult to pull off without any snacks between meals. But don’t worry about that now. We’ll get into your diet towards the end of this text.
I’m gonna consider that you’re well used to such an eating pattern. If that’s the case, you can experiment with skipping either breakfast or dinner now and then.
If you skipped breakfast, your first meal of the day would be at noon, and your last one, at 6 p.m.
You would then be following one of the most popular intermittent fasting protocols nowadays: the 16/8 method. This method is just what the name suggests: you fast for 16 hours, and eat during a time window of 8 hours.
Another very popular protocol was shared by nutrition professional and fitness expert Brad Pilon in his book Eat Stop Eat.
There, Pilon makes the case for a 24-hour fast one or two times per week. This means that, at least once a week, you’d eat at, say, noon.
From there, your next meal would be at around noon of the following day. Many people combine both protocols, by the way (including myself).
If you’ve never tried any kind of deliberate fasting before, even the 16/8 method might seem crazy to you (or suboptimal at best).
Before telling you why it isn’t so, I want to say why eating all the time might not be a great idea.
When Food Becomes a Trap
To begin with, you must have in mind that eating, as any pleasurable activity, activates the reward system in your brain.
One of the consequences of this is that, the more frequently you eat, the more you feel like you have to eat.
And not because you’re hungry.
This is especially true if you eat lots of processed foods. But we’ll talk about some of the effects they have on your body later on.
What I want to do is to mention some specific reasons to consider avoiding food during a poker session.
The Inconveniences of Food
As I said, eating all the time makes you feel liked you need to eat all the time.
But there are other undesirable consequences to be considered for poker players. One of them is that food can make you lethargic.
How many times, after having a meal, haven’t you felt like taking a nap?
Now, can you imagine having such a meal a little before entering a game? It’s unlikely you’ll be able to focus on what’s going on.
Even worse than that would be to eat after you started playing. Because then you’d be not only subject to the narcotic effects of food.
You’d also have to divide your attention between what you’re eating (even if it’s just a snack) and what’s happening at the table.
Do I also need to tell you about being careful not to stain your cards, the table, or yourself?
I hope not. Because I have yet to convince you of the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Eat, Pray and Play
Fasting, as a spiritual practice, has long been considered a way to reach higher levels of consciousness.
But it’s only recently that scientists have been more present to its benefits.
One of those benefits is what is called autophagy: the process by which your cells eat themselves.
Sounds crazy? Know that this is essential for your body to regenerate itself.
At least that’s what the experts about autophagy suggest. (One of them, Yoshinori Ohsumi, even won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2016.)
Another benefit of fasting is that it improves your odds of using fat as a source of energy. And, if you don’t eat too many calories, that fat is gonna be from your own body.
Am I recommending those longer fasts? Not necessarily. After all, food is not only a source of energy, but also of nutrients.
Still, it’s always good to know that such an option is available to you.
To finish this section, I’d like to mention another benefit of fasting. Do you remember that I said that food can make you lethargic? Well, fasting has the opposite effect on you.
Some of the hormones that it helps to release are adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Which, as you may already know, make you feel more alert than usual.
Some Tips (And Warnings) About Fasting
I hope the previous section was enough to convince you to at least consider experimenting with this practice.
But, before giving it a try, it’d be wise to take a look at what you’re eating.
Because, as I suggested in the beginning of this article, the standard American diet isn’t very conducive to fasting. In fact, this isn’t even a diet in the strict sense of the word.
It’s simply a derogatory term used to talk about a diet that consists of lots of processed foods.
And what’s the problem with those, you might ask?
There are many, but, since we’re talking about fasting, know that processed foods tend to be not very satiating.
For one reason, because most of them are poor in nutrients.
As a consequence, you may think your body is craving for more calories, when in fact it’s craving for vitamins, minerals, and so on.
Another thing about processed foods is that most of them are high in carbohydrates.
I’m not saying that carbohydrates are the devil, as some proponents of different forms of low-carb diets might make it seem.
The main problem with them is that they turn into sugar once they enter your bloodstream. And maybe you’ve already heard that your body doesn’t appreciate having too much sugar.
So, if you have lots of sugar in your blood, your body will use that as a source of energy. And it will do so at the expense of fat.
But minimizing your ingestion of carbs isn’t simply a matter of losing weight. (In fact, you can achieve that with any kind of diet, as long as you’re on a calorie deficit.)
Another problem is that sugar isn’t a sustainable source of energy.
Because, once again: your body doesn’t appreciate having too much sugar. It wants to get rid of it as soon as possible.
And when it does, you’ll feel hungry again. Because you didn’t give your body much opportunity to use fat as a source of energy.
What should you do, then?
What’s on Your Plate?
Most diets that work in the long run have at least one thing in common.
They all advocate a restriction of calories that come from processed foods.
That’s why the paleo diet is usually a safe bet for anyone.
Besides, I’d like to give you one specific advice.
That advice is: make sure you’re also eating enough protein.
How much is enough is controversial. But somewhere around 1 g of protein per pound of body weight is at least a good start.
The reason behind that advice is simple: protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Consequently, it will make your fasting much easier.
If you’re serious about your performance at a poker table, intermittent fasting should be at least taken into account.
There are not too many other things you can do that are certain to improve your focus and stamina.
And even fewer that are so simple, once you get used to it.
In any case, take it easy with yourself. Start by skipping one meal now and then, and see how you feel.
After you do this more than a few times, I bet the results will surprise you.
Check out our poker guide for more advice on the game itself.