We take a break from a wide range of things in life our lives: we sleep every night to rest, we spend weekends away from the office for a pause from work, and we go on vacations to rejuvenate. So, if and when should we take a break from eating? Many cultures and religions also exercise different approaches to fasting — allowing the body and mind a break from consumption e.g. Lent, Ramadan, and Yom Kippur to name a few. Food fasting may not be such a bad idea if you are already quite healthy, as evidenced by those age-old cultural practices.
Within the health and fitness world, fasting has steadily increased in popularity over the past few years, with intermittent fasting taking center stage. Intermittent fasting benefits the body in a variety of ways from insulin regulation and fat loss to overall reduction of inflammation and oxidative stress. However, before diving in headfirst, it’s important to establish if this is indeed a healthy option for your body or not.
Many of us have lost touch with our body and the signals it sends us — especially hunger signals. We’ve become unaware of what it really feels like to be hungry. Think: when’s the last time you confused stress, dehydration or boredom with hunger? Intermittent fasting is one way to give our body time to repair, allowing high insulin levels to go down and stabilize. Generally speaking, lower levels of insulin and weight loss are linked. But in the case of any diet or health plan, it’s all about the bigger picture. Not all approaches are created equal, nor are they suitable for everyone. Let’s look into intermittent fasting benefits and disadvantages in more detail.
What is intermittent fasting?
The basic premise of intermittent fasting is regulating the window of time during which you eat. It’s an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and consumption. There’s no specific food group or calorie limitation; the only ‘limitation’ is when you eat. This means that intermittent fasting is technically an eating pattern, not a diet — though, there are a few adaptions. This kind of fasting excludes any sweetened or caloric beverages (black coffee, tea, and water are fine). There are many different methods and approaches to intermittent fasting rooted in varying theories, practices, and the needs of the person fasting.
For the 16/8 method, you have a continuous 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating per day. Typically this method advises skipping breakfast and eating during the hours of noon and 8 pm or 1 pm and 9 pm.
This requires you to fast for 24 hours once or twice a week. For example, the 24 hour period begins by skipping dinner, then eating dinner as your first meal the following day.
Every week, two consecutive days of the week, you only eat 500-600 calories. The other five days of the week, you eat regularly. For instance, limiting calorie intake to 500-600 on Monday and Tuesday, then eating normally the rest of the week.
This daily fasting style restricts you to only eating fruits and vegetables during the day, with a well-rounded larger meal in the evening.
Fasting mimicking diet
This method of fasting includes following a “healthy protocol” for five consecutive days. This is repeated 2-12 months of the year. A “healthy protocol” is low in carbs, protein, and calories and high in fat with calories about 40% of regular intake followed by a modified fasting-type diet.
As you can imagine, the intermittent fasting benefits are many, yet they often aren’t realized as a result of some challenges and common mistakes:
- Underestimating calorie intake
- Not understanding what a “normal” day or regular eating should look like
- Binging during eating window times
- Medical safety issues such as low blood sugar (particularly on exercise days)
- Inadequate overall calories and nutrition
Intermittent fasting benefits
Georgette Schwartz, holistic nutritionist and intermittent fasting specialist, states that we take a break from everything, so it’s helpful to take a break from eating. She advises that fasting in short bouts can be healthy, but after 72 hours, we can end up damaging our metabolism and long-term fasting or calorie restriction may, in fact, hinder weight loss.
Intermittent fasting benefits you by aligning your eating with your circadian clock. Your natural biological rhythm actively helps regulate hormones (leptin and ghrelin, the hunger hormones) and metabolism, meaning your body is prepped to eat during waking hours, which aids your overall health including improving the quality of your sleep. If you’re a bonafide night snacker, a habit that’s linked to obesity and diabetes, the time restrictions imposed during intermittent fasting benefits your system by reprogramming it.
For those who don’t suffer from a medical condition and stick to a well-rounded, nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle, incorporating intermitting fasting can help:
- Improve insulin sensitivity: Your body will use insulin more effectively and therefore reduce your risk of insulin-related weight gain and blood sugar issues
- Lower blood pressure: Helps activate the parasympathetic system which regulates all body processes
- Slow down aging: Increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor which in layman’s speak is essential for brain signaling and function
- Decreases hunger hormones: Reduces ghrelin and leptin, which control our eating habits
- Curtails inflammation and oxidative stress: Gives the body time to rest, heal, detox, and reset
Intermittent fasting for weight loss
A handful of fasting styles do appear to support weight loss. According to a study, though intermittent fasting benefits weight loss, the science is still in its infancy when it comes to its effects on humans. However, if you want to give it a go, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone
Ask yourself this: at this stage in your life, will fasting bring you closer to your goal or instead put your mental and physical health at risk? If you have one of the following conditions, we strongly discourage you from taking on a fasting plan.
You are or have:
- Hypoglycemia: Bouts of low blood sugar or related symptoms
- Trying to conceive: It’s essential you have enough energy and adequate body fat
- Pregnant or breastfeeding: Your body needs extra calories and nutrition
- Low blood pressure: Intermittent fasting can lower blood pressure
- Taking medication: Some medications can impact blood sugar and metabolism
- Underweight: If you have a body mass index in the underweight category
- A history of eating disorders: Bulimia, anorexia, binging eating, etc
- A history of amenorrhea: Not getting your period
- Unmonitored diabetes: You have diabetes but aren’t working with a physician to correct your levels
- Poor sleep or chronic stress: Lack of sleep or continual stress negatively impacts the body; it’s best to correct your circadian rhythm first
Your work, workout, and social schedules might compromise any kind of intermittent fasting plan. For example, say you work night shifts or exercise in the evenings, you want to be sure to fuel your body. Similarly, if you have an event that goes on past the intermittent fasting eating period and choose not to attend, it can leave you feeling socially restricted and left out.
What you eat still matters
Regardless of when you choose to eat, what you eat is the driver on your journey to health. A study found that fasting participants compared to standard-reduced calorie diets, both lost and maintained the weight loss over the course of a year. The key to reaching your ideal weight comes down to eating whole foods and eating less than you use as energy or for metabolic processes.
All meals should be a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) with fresh, organic vegetables and fruit making up the majority of your food whenever possible. With restricted eating times, you’ll need focus even more intently on nutrient-dense foods to avoid malnutrition. Intermittent fasting isn’t an excuse to eat whatever you want during the eating window. Be mindful of what you eat and treat intermittent fasting as a piece of your overall health puzzle.
Easy does it
As we mentioned earlier, there’s some evidence that intermittent fasting benefits weight loss and disease prevention when combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle; but it’s best to use an eating approach that’s sustainable for you. If you don’t manage any medical conditions, then consider the 16:8 method or take it gradually and begin by trying not to eat right before bed. Let your body be your guide and don’t go too fast.