Fasting, Ketosis, Carbs, and Time-Restricted Feeding Tweaks with Vanessa Spina

Content By: Ari Whitten

In this episode, I am speaking with Vanessa Spina also known as the Ketogenicgirl. We will talk about fasting, time-restricted feeding, ketosis, and carbs and how you can improve your body composition using these tools.

Table of Contents

In this podcast, Vanessa and I discuss:

  • The benefits of mastering your body composition
  • The risks of carrying a large amount of excess body fat
  • Why focusing on your scale weight is far less helpful than a focus on body composition
  • Why it is critical to maintaining muscle mass as we age
  • 3 key principles for optimizing body composition

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Ari: Welcome to the show, Vanessa. Such a pleasure to have you.

Vanessa: Thank you so much for having me. I’m truly honored to get to chat with you today.

The importance of body-composition

Ari: Okay, so let’s jump straight into it. The focus of your work is very much centered around body composition. Tell me why. Why is body composition so important? Is it just for vanity, for aesthetics, or is there something beyond that?

Vanessa: I think so many of the things that we do in life to overall improve our health, it really can improve so many different areas. For example, with body composition, I tend to equate it back to metabolic health. The reason I’m really passionate about people improving their body composition is that if you do so, you will naturally improve your metabolic health. For that reason, you will naturally live a more a fuller life, a more active life, a more energized life, and be stronger so that you can pursue all your dreams and also maybe be able to do more of the things that you want to do later in life. I’m really passionate about that entire topic.

Ari: Okay. There is a group of people, including some obesity scientists but it’s certainly not the dominant position, who say that being overweight doesn’t relate to one’s metabolic health very strongly and that it’s possible to be a metabolically healthy obese person or overweight person. What are your thoughts on that school of thought?

Vanessa: [chuckles] That’s a fiery question [laughs] we’re starting off with. For me, it [unintelligible 00:01:52] [crosstalk]

Ari: You’re not going to offend me, just so you know. There might be some people out there that could be offended depending on how you answer it but [laughs] I won’t be offended.

Vanessa: I think it goes back primarily to body composition again. I’m not sure if you’re asking about body composition or just about weight because I think that what we have to rewrite is the whole way that we look at and assess people’s weight versus their body composition. This is one of the topics that I am the most passionate about is that everyone should basically throw away their home scales and stop defining their selves by that number and instead get at least annual DEXA body scan because that’s how to truly assess what your body is actually made of.

Once you know your body composition, that really is the main indicator of whether you are actually obese or not or even morbidly obese. It’s a better perspective to look at how much muscle to fat you have in your body because someone could be technically defined as obese or morbidly obese because of their BMI because their weight is high. If they’re just pure muscle then it doesn’t really make much sense because their metabolic health will be quite high. Their overall health will also be quite high. Their mitochondrial health will be quite high. It really goes back to changing the way that we assess obesity, and body composition really needs to become a prime lens that we look through weight and BMI and all of that. I [chuckles] danced around your question a little bit [laughs] but I–

Ari: I’m going to ask it more assertively then.

Vanessa: Okay. [laughs]

Excess body fat is harmful to your metabolic health

Ari: Is it harmful to one’s metabolic health to have a large excess of body fat? If so, how?

Vanessa: I think that I would say yes. There’s actually quite a bit of scientific basis behind that. Some of the basis behind it is that our fat tissue is actually an endocrine organ. There’s a lot more going on with our fat than we realize. There’s actually really interesting research done I think out of UC Davis, where they found that fat actually secretes abnormal proteins.

It’s actually not just the fat around the abdominal region that’s always pinpointed as the bad fat. If you have belly fat, then that’s the dangerous fat that’s secreting abnormal proteins. It’s also the fat that women tend to carry a lot around our legs and the hip region. I think a lot of people have the idea that you can carry more fat, maybe if you’re carrying it in a certain place in your body and it won’t be harmful or detrimental to your metabolic health or your overall health. I think that there is a big scientific body of evidence behind the fact that having too much– carrying an excess amount of weight for what your body can handle, especially with regards to the ratio of lean mass, muscle is really important to look at.

Also, just with body fat, it’s not just the fact that it may appear a certain way or in some cases not because some people can actually be skinny, fat, or appear to be slim. I was one of those people for a long time until I had my body composition scan done and assessed, and I figured out that I wasn’t, as metabolically healthy as I thought I was. It’s really important to really assess and understand what body fat really is composed of.

I would say not all body fat is actually bad for you. You can actually have good body fat, you can have brown body fat or brown adipose tissue, which is more dense than mitochondria, but overall, to just answer your question, I don’t think that it’s possible to be very metabolically healthy if someone is morbidly obese. I think that it’s a strange notion that people are putting forward.

The harms of being under-muscled

Ari: I agree with you completely, just so you know. I think that there’s lots and lots of good evidence to suggest that excess body fat is very harmful to metabolic health, particularly in causing insulin resistance. What about being under-muscled? Do you have any thoughts on the metabolic harm from not having enough muscle mass on your body?

Vanessa: Yes. I think that typically in situations where body composition is going to be not optimal, it is more the case that we are under-muscled. A lot of people are under-muscled. I say we, because I’m talking about women in particular tend to be more under-muscled than men. In general, we have less lean mass. We’re just born with less lean mass.

One of the things that muscle gives us is not just strength but also gives us vitality. It also gives us the ability to have a higher metabolic rate. It also gives us the ability to have more mitochondria to do more, to have more energy. We have to think of lean mass and also bone mass as critically important in our health. There are a lot of things that we can do to increase our ratio of lean mass to body fat.

It’s not all about just losing fat or focusing on sort of the fat message all the time. I like to focus more on what can we do to generate more lean mass, become stronger, have stronger muscle, but also stronger bones. It shifts the focus a little bit away from just always cutting the fat because you can change your body composition and even your ratio or body fat percentage by just having more muscle, and not just– It doesn’t always have to be about losing fat.

Ari: What are your key strategies or your foundational approach, like a high-level overview, you don’t have to go into depth into each one just yet, but what are some of the key aspects of your approach to optimizing body composition?

Vanessa: I would say there’s a three-pronged approach. The first is focusing on optimizing your protein intake. You want to make sure that you are getting enough leucine content at each of your protein-prioritized meals to trigger the leucine threshold. That means that the blood level of leucine will increase by somewhere between two to three grams for the average person. That will trigger this process known as muscle protein synthesis. At the end of the day, you want to have more muscle protein synthesis than muscle protein breakdown, which is a process that’s always occurring.

Prioritizing protein at your meal meals is key because if you’re eating– I just did a rant the other day on the protein recommendations that are out there for adults. I put in my numbers and stats and it said that I should be eating, I think it was between 35-to-45 grams of protein a day. If I’m someone who’s eating two meals a day, there’s no way I’m even going to trigger muscle protein synthesis at either of those meals. A lot of people do sometimes eat two meals a day or even OMAD, so you’re really not going to be able to trigger muscle protein synthesis. You have to make sure that you’re getting enough–

Ari: Just for people listening, OMAD is one meal a day?

Vanessa: Yes. Sorry. [laughs] One meal a day.

Ari: For people unfamiliar with that acronym.

Vanessa: Yes. Prioritizing protein, making sure that you’re getting high-quality protein and you’re having it at– If you’re optimizing for having the best body composition possible, you want to make sure that you’re doing that every day. The second prong to the approach is to do resistance training at least somewhere between three to four times a week. If you’re not doing any, doing it once a week is phenomenal. If you’re doing it once a week, doing it twice a week is great. Just doing more resistance training than you are currently, but aiming for around three to four resistance training sessions per week and making sure that you have a program where you are progressively moving things forward, so you’re not just doing the same thing every week.

You have a progressive overload. There’s other concepts to the muscle growth that I won’t get into details here like you said, but just making sure that you’re doing resistance training activity is so important to maintain your muscle mass, but also to improve your body composition. The last thing is just a whole number or set of different lifestyle hacks that I like to do to focus on building more mitochondria. Because there’s things that you can do that don’t just involve moving your body and what you eat to also improve your body composition. It comes down to the level of the mitochondria.

The top three ways to level up mitochondrial health

Ari: Let’s talk about that. Obviously, that’s my area of focus and I spend a lot of time on that. What are your thoughts on maybe the top three or top five ways to improve mitochondrial health and robustness of that system?

Vanessa: I’m talking to an expert [chuckles] on mitochondria right now, but I’ve started doing in the past year and a half a mitochondrial health series. I’ve had experts on my podcast every week talking about mitochondrial health, and I’m collecting little bits of information from all of them and doing my own research. I’ve distilled it into several key things that have been scientifically proven to improve or support the mitochondria in a different way.

The first one is doing fasted workouts that’s been scientifically proven to enhance mitochondrial biogenesis, which is the genesis of new mitochondria, which is a big part of maintaining good, healthy mitochondria while functioning mitochondria. It’s making sure that they’re able to replicate themselves. Because mitochondria have their own DNA that is separate, they can replicate themselves and make more of themselves within different tissues. Doing exercise, doing movement is probably one of the biggest factors on how much mitochondria you have, but doing faceted workouts has been shown to improve it even more.

One of the things that I really found interesting, and I’ve done a couple of podcasts about this, is there’s actually research showing that if you are in a ketogenic state, or you are eating a higher protein diet, that you actually can get mitochondrial biogenesis even if you are not completely fasted. There’s a few different reasons why I think that can potentially occur. For people who don’t necessarily want to do fasted exercise, there’s other ways to improve mitochondrial biogenesis.

Intermittent fasting is the second one because you’re able to do that fasted movement or fasted exercise if you want to within that window. For a lot of people, it also induces a state of ketogenesis or ketosis, and that has some effects on the mitochondria that we’ve identified. It can help the mitochondria uncouple, so the mitochondria can uncouple heat production from energy production. It also has certain signaling properties with regards to epigenetics that I won’t get into here.

Being in a mild state or a deeper state of ketosis can have some positive effects on the mitochondria. I think there’s probably other reasons that you probably know better than I do why intermittent fasting is good for the mitochondria. I think there’s probably an aspect of mitophagy there, or even doing longer extended fasting, that helps you to get rid of some of the mitochondria that are not functioning as well.

Doing a ketogenic diet, I know you’re not a huge fan of ketogenic diets. I’m not in a big nutrition dogma person. I like all different approaches as long as protein is prioritized. I tend to do more of a ketogenic style approach in the wintertime, it just aligns with where we live because I eat seasonally and locally, and I’m in Northern Europe, so it works out really well. In the summertime, I do more of a local seasonal approach, which has more carbohydrates in it. Keto is really interesting because, again, it’s a fasting mimetic, and it activates AMPK, a lot of different pathways that are similar to being fasted and so has similar potential effects. Autophagy, mitophagy, and also when you metabolized fat, there’s a couple of really interesting things. With regards to the mitochondria, the first is that fat generates way more ATP than glucose or amino acids. More than twice as much. I think you get like over 100 ATP from metabolizing fat and making in the TCA cycle–

Ari: Per gram.

Venessa: Per gram, yes. Then with pyruvate or with amino acids or with glucose, it’s like 40-ish. It’s more than double the amount of ATP. A really interesting thing as well is that you enter the electron transport chain one step ahead, and so the electron tunneling is more rapid as well. You’re producing ATP a little bit more efficiently as well as making more of it. I think it’s one of the reasons that it’s important to be metabolically flexible and be able to burn fat as well as glucose.

The last couple are red light therapy. I’m a huge fan of red light therapy because it supports our mitochondria in making ATP, also making metabolic water at cytochrome oxidase. These chromophores that absorb red light I think are absolutely fasting. There’s a lot of different mechanisms through which they’re supporting the mitochondria with regards to nitric oxide and other things, but I just think that everyone should be getting some red light therapy, whether it’s naturally through exposure to sunrise and sunset every day, or through owning some high-quality, high-powered red lights panels and doing it in the comfort of their home.

I think also sauna therapy, if it’s far infrared that’s been shown to have a lot of benefits as well. I don’t know as much about sauna therapy. I’m still learning. I do know that has an amazing impact on the exclusion zone water in our cells. The last couple things are cold therapy because you activate brown fats or you can make white adipose more beige or more brown. When they’re more beige or brown, they have higher number of mitochondria, so greater mitochondrial density.

That is a form of mitochondrial biogenesis as well doing cold therapy. I’m a huge fan of cold plunges and just embracing the cold like getting cold, not being afraid of getting cold, and understanding the value that it adds, especially when ancestrally perhaps you were meant to get cold at certain times of the year as opposed to trying to be warm and comfortable all the time which we tend to do in our modern environments.

The last is really prioritizing rest and recovery, and that’s something that I talk about often on the podcast is, we talk about fasted exercise and all these hormetic stressors and metabolic adaptations. It’s so important to do things like resistance training and things that challenge your body, but if you don’t rest and recuperate, you won’t get the metabolic adaptations. Really interesting research done by Dr. Mark Matson showed adaptations happen in the rest. They don’t happen during the stimulus. The stimulus happens, but you have to rest. You have to prioritize sleep and good quality sleep which is also when we get all of that amazing antioxidant, mitochondrial repair for melatonin.

You also have to nourish your body really well. There’s actually really interestingly, some foods and supplements that can help. I’ve found some foods like turmeric, goat cheese, goat milk, and MCT-containing products can signal to the mitochondria to uncouple dark chocolate, vitamin C, or a couple others that are less well known but have been shown to support the mitochondria. Those are the main components to the lifestyle and bio hacks that I like to do.

The ketogenic diet

Ari: Great. I think that’s a wonderful list. Let’s talk more about keto in particular. Let’s go into some of the nuances here. Don’t worry, I won’t be antagonistic. [laughter] Maybe I’ll play devil’s advocate a bit here and there. I’m not opposed to keto being done occasionally or cyclically or anything to that effect, or even for prolonged periods of time in certain contexts. Having said that, there are a number of anecdotes, many many anecdotes, particularly of women who have done long-term keto and experienced negative effects. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why or if you feel they’ve done something wrong or what’s going on there?

Vanessa: It would be so hard for me to speak to that because I’d have to know what they were doing exactly [chuckles]. I’m going to say that there’s just so many misconceptions about what keto is and also what the state of ketogenesis is. There’s not just one path to Rome to get to a state of ketogenesis. You can actually get there even with a high-carb diet [chuckles]. There’s actually studies shown with enough caloric restriction you can actually get there.

What I found through working with thousands of people in the past several years is that a lot of people think they’re doing keto when they’re not. There’s even research showing there was a paper that came out I think last week showing that keto was bad for cardiac health and they were using I think 150 grams of carb a day on a self-reported 24-hour assessment.

I think the definition of keto I’ve always said it has a bad branding because it was always associated with keto acidosis that a lot of people– It almost has this negative connotation where I like to think of it as a low carb prioritized protein approach with nutrient-dense food and selective carbohydrates. That to me is such better way to look at it. It would be really hard for me to opine on what was going on in those particular situations unless I could see exactly what they were eating and what the issues that they had were.

I can’t address the fact that some of the complaints that people have are typically related to thyroid and hair issues. What I’ve seen a lot of times what’s happening there is that it’s more a result of chronic dieting and just not eating enough calories. You can do that on a lot of different diets. If someone’s eating a 1,000 calories and they’re doing protein spraying modified fast because that gets you into ketogenesis and they’re doing it every day for months and months. I could see how that could probably cause some issues. It’s really hard for me to opine without seeing what they were actually doing.

A lot of the criticisms against keto are that it negatively affects the thyroid whereas I tend to think that it more has to do with making the body more sensitive to the thyroid in the same way that the body becomes more sensitive to insulin which is one of the things that keto is so great for. If it’s done well, it really helps overcome insulin resistance and there’s a lot of evidence showing that.

I don’t believe that it’s for everyone. I do think that ancestrally our bodies are designed to go into ketogenesis very easily. Many people wake up in the morning being in a mild ketotic state. I think there’s benefits to being in it. We were designed to be able to go into it. We definitely would’ve had periods of time where you couldn’t access food. I’ll never argue that it’s the number one diet in the world or that everyone should do it. I think that you have to experiment and find what works the best for you and what you can also sustain for a long period of time.

I’m someone who loves it and I love understanding that there are benefits to ketones that are really interesting in terms of their signaling, their epigenetic effects, especially there’s potential signaling mitochondria to uncouple, I think that it’s really fascinating but, I’ll never argue that it’s the best thing for all people or all women or anyone.

Ari: Do you see the keto diet as a hormetic stressor? Since it’s for example as you said a fasting mimetic, and I think it’s pretty easy to argue that depleting or not including carbohydrates in the diet is essentially a form of metabolic stress and metabolic stress is a good word in this context, not a bad word. As you know Vanessa, my next book is on the subject of the benefits of metabolic stress. One of the characteristics that defines healthy metabolic stress is that it’s intermittent in nature and it’s not chronic. For example, exercise is profoundly enormously healthful. There’s a strong case that fasting is very helpful as well, and we could go on down the list of other types of hormetic stressors here as well. Hot and cold, for example, but when one of these becomes chronic rather than intermittent, it can become a form of harmful stress rather than helpful stress.

Now, obviously, the time durations probably differ between something like fasting versus high-intensity interval training. Interval training, we’re talking about minutes. Fasting or intermittent fasting, we might be talking about days, or weeks, or months or something like that. Do you think that the benefits of keto diets are likely to turn to harm if one does it chronically, systematically, all the time for months and months and months, and do you think that there needs to be an intermittent or cyclic nature to it?

Vanessa: It’s funny because when you first asked me the former question, my brain right away went hormesis because we just spent an hour talking about that right before this on my podcast. I was wondering if that’s how you viewed it, in terms of a hormetic stressor, so it’s really interesting. I don’t know if I could say that because we don’t have the scientific evidence yet to say which diet makes humans the healthiest and live the longest for everyone. We will just never have that information because so many of the things that we do, we won’t find out until the end of life. It’s really hard to say and answer some of those things, but I would say that it’s probably pretty rare that most people are doing keto 100% of the time because it is very restrictive for a lot of people. It’s one of the reasons that I’m more so personally, an advocate of a modified ketogenic approach with a higher protein intake. The traditional standard ketogenic diet actually does have some issues when it comes to children who were on ketogenic diets, strict ketogenic diets for epilepsy.

One of the main critiques of that approach is there were issues with growth. I think that that’s because childhood is one of the times that you need protein the most, you need more protein. There’s lots of different stages in life where we need to increase our protein consumption considerably. Like childhood, anytime you’re growing, that includes resistance training as an adult, if you’re pregnant, anytime you’re sick, and anytime you’re getting older, we need to eat more protein than average. That means most of life. [chuckles] You need to be eating more protein than average and our dietary protein recommendations are more in line with ketosis recommendations for protein for the standard ketogenic diet.

I prefer to personally promote a modified ketogenic diet, which is a higher protein approach because there’s a lot of research done actually by Eric Verdin, who was trying to find a way to make ketogenic approach more sustainable for families who have to do this kind of approach for their children because it’s very difficult. He wanted to see if while we increase the protein amounts, then can we sustain it longer, can we make it easier for the whole family, and also for the child who’s doing it? He found that ketones were not that altered especially the ketones that matter the most. That being breath acetone, which is the most associated with seizure reduction. He wrote–

Ari: This is by doing a higher protein intake?

Vanessa: Yes, a higher protein ketogenic diet. Modified ketogenic diet is how it’s typically referred to. I also I’m such a big believer in building muscle and doing resistance training that, to optimize for muscle accretion, you really have to make sure that you’re getting a little bit more protein for most people than you would on a traditional ketogenic diet. Because like myself, for example, I eat more protein than on a standard ketogenic diet, I also get bumped out of ketosis because of gluconeogenesis.

That’s just a natural part of the day and then there’s other times of the year when I’m eating more seasonally but most people that I talk to, are not doing. I only know one person actually who is a bodybuilder, a ketogenic bodybuilder that I really respect who is in ketosis like 99% of the time. I just don’t think that–

Ari: Is that Luis Villaseñor?

Vanessa: Luis might. No, I’m talking about Robert Sikes, Keto Savage.

Ari: Oh, okay.

Vanessa: I think he’s in ketosis all the time. I don’t know if Luis is all the time. I spent time with him in Spain at a conference and I don’t remember looking at what he was eating or asking him about that, but I just think it’s a very small percentage of people who are not doing it for medical reasons who are in ketosis or ketogenic state all the time. I don’t think it’s a real huge concern because I think most people are either eating more than 20 grams of carb on a regular basis or if they’re doing a modified ketogenic approach they’re eating more protein. I much prefer even a protein spraying modified fast a total fast for the purposes of maintaining muscle mass and not losing too much muscle mass. That’s my answer. [laughs]

Ari: Speaking of protein, there are some keto advocates who as you’ve alluded to basically emphasize the importance of keeping it low protein to stay in nutritional ketosis, and other people such as yourself are speaking more to the modified ketogenic diet with higher protein intake.

Vanessa: Luis being one of them.

Ari: What is your take on the differences, the pros and cons of each side there?

Vanessa: Of the side of doing the traditional keto?

Ari: Yes. Do your best steel man of the people who are arguing in favor of lowering protein intake for the sake of maintaining nutritional ketosis more strongly versus the people in your school of thought. What do you perceive as the trade-offs there?

Vanessa: I think it would have to be in the context of a certain goal for me to– Is the goal improving body composition or getting more fat loss or improving longevity or is there or just overall health optimization?

Ari: Is there one that you feel that strict nutritional ketosis would be superior for?

Vanessa: That’s a really good question. There’s only really one I would say that’s probably being in a state of medical ketosis for a therapy. It’s not just epilepsy, there’s other therapeutic reasons for doing strict ketogenic that outweighs others. I think there’s a clinic in Hungary they used to be called Paleomedicina and they do a ketogenic carnivore treatment for cancer. They’ve had over four maybe five year now glioblastoma survivor doing this approach. I don’t think it’s necessarily only epilepsy that would benefit from that, but I’m not a medical expert or a doctor or anything like that.

With regards to fat loss, I think if you’re just focusing on weight loss, you could lose more weight potentially doing keto all the time but you wouldn’t necessarily be losing just fats, it may come at the expense of some lean mass because there is a period of proteolysis that happens when you go into ketosis. I think that potentially someone might just not be eating enough protein to again trigger muscle protein synthesis by getting enough leucine because they would be afraid of gluconeogenesis.

That’s something that I try to speak about a lot because you don’t need to fear this glucogenesis boogeyman that so many people fear that eating too much protein will somehow be detrimental to improving their body composition and we really have to focus on. It’s just the fat you want to lose not necessarily the lean mass. I’m not sure that it would have– Potentially I think if someone was optimizing for longevity, I think potentially it could have some effects because of the epigenetic effects, so acting as HDAC inhibitors, and there’s other epigenetic effects that are being discovered still, and perhaps the mitochondrial uncoupling of ketones.

The role itself of ketones we’re still understanding why ketones have all these amazing effects, and especially with regards to seizure reduction, we’re still understanding some of the mechanisms there. I am way more a fan of modified higher protein approaches. For most people who are just looking for improving body composition, for optimal overall energy and wellness, I’m not saying having to do that all the time, but just in comparison to standard ketogenic diet, unless there’s a real medical reason there, I’m not sure it has any other advantages. Although I will say, initially when people are first wanting to improve metabolic flexibility, it can be helpful to do either keto or a fast, for some people, not for everyone, to help them get into more of a fat-burning mode, but for others, it has to be a more gradual approach.

Intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding

Ari: Where does intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding fit into this equation, fit into your formula for improving metabolic health and body composition?

Vanessa: I’ve been a proponent of intermittent fasting because I like the fact that it does get some people into ketosis. I don’t think that it’s necessarily superior to a calorie-reduced diet. I think we’ve seen that a lot in the research that groups with a caloric reduction or who are just doing time-restricted eating don’t necessarily get any benefit. I’m a big fan of Dr. Satchin Panda’s work. His research has shown that eating earlier in the day is really beneficial, and having a breakfast and lunch intermittent fast, and maybe having a lighter, or even no dinner can be really beneficial.

It also helps to align with the circadian rhythm. I’ve really been intrigued by his work on that and that approach. It actually influenced me to change my personal pattern of intermittent fasting. For years I did the 16-8, lunch and dinner, and it always worked well for me because I was never hungry in the morning, but then, since learning more about circadian health and his work, I think it’s been about a year now that I started doing a breakfast and then dinner approach, and I intermittent fast between breakfast and dinner, and then the daily dinner, but I close my eating window early in the day, around 5:30 to 6:00.

Having that longer period of time in the day when you’re awake and fasted I found got me actually more deeply into ketosis, and that’s not extremely deep, but it got me more deeply into ketosis than when I was doing a lunch and dinner approach, and that was really interesting to me. Even more so than when I was just having dinner, and went and did a 24-hour fast. There’s something about that morning meal timing that really wakes up the metabolism I think, and also having a meal with a good amount of protein in there in the morning really provides the body with a lot potential substrates that it needs to make hormones, and pairing that with a light, something that can be really beneficial.

I think, if people want to add intermittent fasting in, they often if they’re doing keto, just naturally intermittent fast because it has a big appetite suppressing effect, especially the higher protein, and so a lot of people will naturally intermittent fast when they’re doing keto, but I think it’s an optional thing. All the different hacks that we were talking about at the beginning, certain things like doing a fasted workout that potentially could have more mitochondrial biogenesis than just that workout alone. I think it’s an optional thing that people can add in if they want to see if they feel better doing it.

The best dietary approach to a healthy body composition

Ari: What are your practical recommendations around the implementation of keto and how many carbs one should consume in the context of either men versus women, are there any differences in your recommendation there, and then let’s say the context of somebody who’s very overweight and largely sedentary versus somebody who’s an athlete, who’s lean and who’s doing a lot of physical activity?

Vanessa: If they wanted to do this approach for improving body composition and fat loss, that’s generally what I would recommend a higher protein keto approach for. Within that context, if the goal is to get into ketosis, or is the goal just being to get all the benefits of being in a state of ketosis at some point during the day temporarily,

Ari: What would you recommend? Do you think that this high protein keto diet is something that most people should be doing a large percentage of the time? Or is the context of your recommendation to do this specifically people who are looking to lose weight?

Vanessa: The context of the recommendation that I always make it in is improving body composition. It’s really for people who are wanting to gain some muscle, lose some body fat, and get to a goal that they have for themselves in terms of body composition. I personally found it to be very effective in terms of getting me into the athletically lean category of 21% body fat. I found it very effective for getting me there. I often share my story of how doing an optimal protein approach helped me also heal my relationship with food in a lot of ways. It helped me to be able to become more in touch with my sense of fullness and satiety because I think I was undereating protein for a long time.

Doing resistance training is a huge aspect and component of that. For someone who is wanting to improve their body composition and they want to try out this approach, again, it’s important to try out all different approaches to find the one that you feel the best at. I think most people going down either gradually, if that’s something more preferable to you, to about 20 grams of total carbohydrate is going to be the quickest way to get your body into ketosis. Not going above 20 grams of total carbohydrate is more likely to keep someone in ketosis, but it depends on other factors like how much intermittent fasting you’re also doing and also how active you are. Because someone can be in ketosis overnight and then get more deeply into ketosis by doing a little bit more intermittent fasting for a few hours, or they can get more deeply into ketosis by having breakfast and then fasting later.

The carb amount also depends on activity and amount of lean mass. Someone is higher in lean mass, has a lot of muscle, and just wants to cut fat, they probably can get away with a little bit more carbohydrate. For protein amounts and specific recommendations, I have a macro calculator on my website. It shows for different people’s activity level, for their height and weight, and their specific goals, what macros they could potentially start at if that’s something that they wanted to do.

Ari: Got it. Do you have a different dietary approach that you recommend for people who are lean and already at their ideal body composition? Is there another approach that you favor or what are your thoughts on that?

Vanessa: I personally like to eat seasonally and locally. I think one of the biggest issues that we have nowadays is we fly tropical foods in from all around the world no matter what time of the year it is. I’m not against tropical fruits, but in the dead of winter in Prague for example, like eating mangoes, I don’t think it necessarily aligns with how people potentially should be eating at this time of year. It adds to a lot of transportation costs and also a lot of pollution. I think if you are someone who is getting lots of light all day and you are able to be really active, then eating seasonally, eating locally is going to work out. If you’re someone who is not very active in a place that’s very cold and dark eating seasonally and locally is also going to make sense. I always advocate for whole foods and unprocessed foods is basically the main message that I have when it comes to that.

The best exercise regimen for optimal body composition

Ari: Got it. In terms of exercise, what would you say is your ideal regimen? Maybe a better way of answering this is to talk about what you personally do. What does your exercise routine look like?

Vanessa: I try to be active every day. Some days it’s more intentional for the purpose of getting a workout. In other days, it’s more just active exercise being with my family. We usually do a walk every single day. My goal every week is to do three to four sessions of resistance training a week and it’s something that is really important to me, so I prioritize it above pretty much everything else and getting those resistance training workouts in is just really important for me. As I grow in life continue to get older, I want to be able to maintain my lean mass, maintain my mitochondria. I’m not looking to build huge muscles. I just want to resistant and train so that I can maintain what I have as long as possible.

I try to be as active as possible. I’m very energetic these days maybe from all these different biohacks and tools and things and I just find myself doing a lot of activity every single day and a lot of it is just out of the enjoyment of it.

Because I’m embracing the cold this year as well, I get outside a lot more often than I used to even though it’s wintertime. I incorporate other routines in there that also burn calories like cold exposure and shivering afterwards that are not necessarily exercise, but in a way, they sometimes feels like a physical exertion. Sauna and red light therapy goes in there as well. I know you were specifically asking about exercise. I try to just be as active as possible and make sure that feels fun as well.

Vanessa’s top three biohacks

Ari: You mentioned bio hacks there and how energetic you feeling. What would you say are your top three biohacks?

Venessa: Definitely the cold plunging is something that I’ve gotten into really heavily in the past year and it’s very addictive. As you notice yourself becoming more and more cold-adapted, it furthers your motivation to keep doing it because you find that you could withstand colder and colder temperatures so it’s a fun game in that way.

The second biggest one is probably red light therapy something I do every single day even if it’s like one minute [chuckles]. If I’m like about to fall asleep I just grabbed my portable one and do it like one minute. I guess the last one is probably sauna but it’s funny because we call it a biohack and in northern Europe, it’s not a biohack it’s just like living in the winter [laughs].

It’s definitely something that I used to do for a long time just because it felt good but now that I’ve learned more about exclusions on water and how it’s really expanded and charged up from infrared I’ve become recommitted to doing more of it. I think those are probably the top three.

Ari: Beautiful. Vanessa, are there any final thoughts you want to leave people with and tell people where they can follow you and learn more about your work?

Vanessa: I think the last thing that I would say is just make sure that when you are prioritizing protein that you do a little bit of research into figuring out the leucine content of your meal because it’s really important as we get older, you need in some cases double the amount of leucine when you’re older in life than you do when you’re younger. You can just eat a chicken breast when you’re 16, and you’re probably going to be optimizing for muscle protein synthesis. As we get older, it’s really important to make sure you’re getting enough leucine at those meals and don’t overdo extended fasting. It’s really trendy but it’s really bad for maintaining muscle mass. That’s probably my final thoughts.

You can find me at I have all of my different wellness products there. I have red light therapy panels that I recently launched. I have the tone breath ketone analyzer, and I also have meal plans and programs that are high protein keto. You can find all that at and you can listen to my interview with Ari on the optimal protein podcast as well.

Ari: Thank you so much, Vanessa for coming on the show. I really enjoyed this and I look forward to our next conversation.

Vanessa: Thank you so much for having me. It really was an honor to be on your show.

Show Notes

00:00 – Intro
00:40 – Guest Intro – Vanessa Spina
01:21 – The importance of body-composition
04:50 – Excess body fat is harmful to your metabolic health
07:15 – The harms of being under-muscled
12:14 – The top three ways to level up mitochondrial health
20:20 – The ketogenic diet
36:55 – Intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding
40:14 – The best dietary approach to a healthy body composition
45:30 – The best exercise regimen for optimal body composition
47:40 – Vanessa’s top three biohacks


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