In recent years, intermittent fasting has gained considerable attention for its potential health benefits and effectiveness in weight management. There have been various studies that have shed light on the positive impact of intermittent fasting on metabolic health and longevity. But for me, the most important study was one I conducted on myself. While I do (and always have) exercised regularly and watched my caloric intake (for the most part), nothing has moved the dial (AKA the scale) more significantly then when I began intermittent fasting. I tried it for the first time after turning 50, and found it was beginning to get harder and harder to maintain my weight.
Intermittent fasting is not for everyone, and yes, sometimes I do get ‘hangry’, but I only intermittent fast 5 days a week, and I allow 2 days to eat whatever, whenever, and this has worked so wonderfully for me and my lifestyle. I am not incredibly strict about it. That’s why I give myself 2 days off so I can enjoy date-night, or late-night cookies in bed with my daughter. Whenever I fall off the wagon and put on a few extra pounds (because well, LIFE!) I pick up my intermittent fasting routine and notice I get back on track very quickly, and my energy levels spike back up. For me, it’s a win-win, without having to count calories or deprive myself of all the things I love to eat.
Read on for an in-depth understanding of intermittent fasting, its different methods, benefits, and precautions, to help you make an informed decision about adopting this dietary practice.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IT) is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. Rather than focusing on what to eat, it emphasizes when to eat. There are several approaches to intermittent fasting, including the 16/8 method, alternate-day fasting, and the 5:2 diet. The 16/8 method involves fasting for 16 hours and restricting eating to an 8-hour window each day.
One of the primary benefits of intermittent fasting is weight loss, says Isaac Robertson, co-founder of Total Shape. By reducing the number of hours you spend eating during the day, you naturally consume fewer calories, he says, leading to a calorie deficit and potential weight loss. Additionally, intermittent fasting can help boost metabolism and fat burning, making it an effective strategy for shedding unwanted pounds.
Beyond weight loss, intermittent fasting offers a range of other advantages, explains Robertson. “It has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity, which can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes,” he explains. “Fasting also promotes autophagy, a cellular process that helps remove damaged cells and promotes cellular repair and regeneration.”
Not a Magic Bullet
It is important to note that intermittent fasting is not a magic bullet for weight loss, says Johna Burdeos, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert at Dietician Johna. “You will still need to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly in order to see results. You can’t for example eat cake and chips for the entirety of your eating window.”
By restricting the eating period to a smaller window, as opposed to grazing all day and late-night snacking, some people say they naturally eat less or decrease their calories without all the work of meticulous calorie continuing/tracking, she adds. Before beginning intermittent fasting, one very important caveat is to get clearance from your healthcare provider, says Burdeos.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting:
- Weight Loss: Intermittent fasting can be an effective tool for weight management. By limiting the eating window, it helps create a calorie deficit, leading to weight loss.
- Insulin Sensitivity: Intermittent fasting can enhance insulin sensitivity, which allows the body to utilize glucose more efficiently and may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Cellular Repair: Fasting triggers cellular repair processes such as autophagy, where the body eliminates damaged cells and proteins, promoting overall cellular health.
- Brain Function: Studies have suggested that intermittent fasting may enhance brain function, improve focus, and protect against age-related cognitive decline.
- Heart Health: Intermittent fasting has been associated with reduced blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation, all of which contribute to a healthier heart.
Different Approaches to Intermittent Fasting:
- 16/8 Method: This involves fasting for 16 hours and restricting eating to an 8-hour window each day.
- Alternate-Day Fasting: This method involves alternating between fasting days and non-fasting days.
- 5:2 Diet: With this approach, individuals consume a normal diet for five days of the week and restrict calorie intake to 500-600 calories on two non-consecutive days.
Precautions and Considerations
While intermittent fasting can offer numerous health benefits, it may not be suitable for everyone. It is important to consider the following factors:
- Individual Differences: People with certain medical conditions or who are under specific medications should consult their healthcare provider before starting intermittent fasting.
- Nutrient Adequacy: During the eating window, it is crucial to consume a balanced diet that provides essential nutrients to support overall health
- Hydration: Proper hydration is essential, especially during fasting periods, to maintain optimal bodily functions. “Water should be your primary source of hydration though,” explain Burdeos. She says other beneficial fluids include milk and antioxidant-rich regular tea like green or white tea. “You don’t need to drink fasting teas that make claims on the packages to promote weight loss. These aren’t always safe as they often contain more than just the tea leaves and flavorings.“
- Consistency: Consistency is key when practicing intermittent fasting to maximize its potential benefits.
Potential side effects: Some individuals may experience side effects like hunger, irritability, or difficulty concentrating, especially when first starting intermittent fasting, explains Robertson. These symptoms often subside as the body adjusts.
Check In with Yourself
Lastly, ask yourself from time to time if your mental health is any better with intermittent fasting, advises Burdeos. Do you find yourself rigidly following the schedule to a point where it causes stress and anxiety? Are you able to be flexible for social occasions, where food is typically a big part of connecting with others? Do you push through the side effects of IF because of a “no pain no gain” mentality? She says the answers to the above questions will reveal a lot and it’s important to seek professional help if you feel like IF is putting your mental health at risk.