Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy? Read This Before Trying It.
When it comes to health and weight loss trends, Intermittent Fasting (IF) continues to grow in popularity. It seems simple enough, you restrict the hours that you eat and then, experience the benefits. Technically, you don’t even have to restrict or avoid any foods, and it can still work. Though, like most things in the health and weight loss industry, it's not a simple solution for everyone.
I support Intermittent Fasting for many people, which might be surprising since I don’t subscribe to most popular dieting concepts. I support it mainly because it’s an eating pattern that seems natural, that humans have followed out of necessity for thousands of years, and shows promising health benefits. We live in a society that is over fed. We don't need to eat all the time and doing so can have negative health consequences, like weight gain/obesity, heart disease, diabetes, increased inflammation, digestive issues and cancers.
In modern life (last 75 years), food has become both hyper-palatable and over-abundant. And our genes, which developed over thousands of years through food scarcity, still motivate us to overeat when food is available. But food is now abundantly available, especially unhealthy (intensely delicious) foods. This combination makes us eat high calorie and carbohydrate foods, that tend to be more processed and inflammatory, as opposed to real, nourishing (anti-inflammatory) foods. Intermittent Fasting is a way to bridge modern day eating habits with our genetics, to ultimately eat less (indulgent and processed) food and allow periods of rest.
The logic of fasting is interesting. Long term calorie and carbohydrate restriction can lead to a slowed metabolism, a weight loss plateau, easier weight gain and high blood sugar. Though, short term, fasting can aid in weight loss, boost energy, fight inflammation and improve health. These short bursts of 'restriction' mimic how humans evolved and thrived in conditions where food wasn’t available. It appears that during fasting the body becomes more efficient at healing, restoring and managing stress.
You can experience a lot of benefits from Intermittent Fasting, but it's important to understand its purpose, who and when it’s best for and how to do it well in our modern, everyday life.
Feel like you don’t know what to eat, and need meal ideas that don't feel like you're dieting, you'll love this guide. (It fits with IF too!)
How To Do Intermittent Fasting
To achieve intermittent fasting, simply reduce the hours in which you eat. There are a couple different approaches. You could restrict calories, to only about 500 calories a day (this is considered a fast) for 1-3 days a week. Though, the more popular approach is restricting your eating hours to 8-12 hours each day. The scheduling is flexible and you can move the eating window to fit your schedule and lifestyle.
It's similar logic to the dieting rule 'no eating after 6pm,' or skipping breakfast. You should follow your normal eating routine within your eating window (rather than fitting in your normal daily diet in a smaller time frame). During periods of fasting you technically shouldn't eat or drink anything but water and clear liquids, which can include herbal teas and bone broth.
Benefits Of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting can help you lose weight mainly due to reduced calorie intake. If you eat a healthy diet during your allotted eating window, your body will burn more body fat for energy during periods of fasting. This works best if you avoid overeating and consuming too many calories/carbohydrates during your eating hours. When you overeat, you store more fat in organs called glycogen, which your body burns through before burning body fat, which slows and prevents fat loss.
Cardiovascular & Blood Sugar Benefits
Other than weight loss, heart health is a much-talked about benefit of Intermittent Fasting. The heart benefits IF can deliver like lower cholesterol, inflammation and blood sugar, is due to eating less inflammatory foods and giving your body more time to heal damage.
Blood sugar (and cholesterol too, surprisingly) increase when you eat too many simple carbohydrates and/or sugars at once. High cholesterol also occurs when you eat too many low quality, processed or fried fats. If you eat less food in general, through Intermittent Fasting, you'd naturally reduce the amount of these foods in your diet, which can improve your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Inflammation, a major risk factor for heart disease, has countless causes and contributors. Reducing irritants is a crucial step, as well as allowing the body to flush out irritants and heal. Fasting can help reduce your intake of irritating foods while allowing the body time to efficiently heal damage and ultimately calm inflammation.
The digestive system takes a beating on a daily basis. It makes direct contact with every bite of food and sip of beverage that we take. The Typical American Diet is damaging and inflammatory (through low quality food, sugars, processed and fried foods as well as overeating).
The more inflammatory foods and drinks you have, the more you overeat and the less time you give your gut to heal, the more inflammation continues to build (hello, digestive symptoms and discomfort). The digestive system heals best when it isn't digesting food, so periods of fasting is a welcomed break. It can be especially useful in cases of SIBO, where there is too much bacteria in the digestive tract, (fasting essentially starves the bacterial and helps control overgrowth, which reduces bloating and discomfort).
Research suggests that during periods of fasting your body can reduce inflammation, heal, detox and regenerate more efficiently. Fasting also appears to enhance your body's ability to energize cells and improve the response to stress. These collectively can help you feel less weighed down and tired, and more energetic, focused and move easier.
‘Rules’ To Follow
Most people struggle to control their eating habits when they don’t have a structure, plan or rules to follow. These aren’t always helpful, because flexibility is needed for eating habits to be sustainable. Intermittent Fasting provides some structure while allowing for adaptability and flexibility, so it’s not too strict or restrictive.
Why Intermittent Fasting Might Not Work For You
It’s important to remember that nothing replaces a healthy diet or lifestyle when it comes to improving your health and weight loss. IF is something that can boost your efforts, but doesn’t address all the factors in health and weight loss. It also comes with a few risks for some people.
If you fast for too long, it feels like forced restriction or you're often starving during fasting hours, it can make weight loss more difficult. Fasting for too long can slow down your metabolism, which doesn't accelerate during periods of eating, making it easier to gain weight.
When you're legitimately hungry for long periods of time and don't eat, you elicit the stress response (true with many restrictive diets). This ‘fight or flight’ response increases adrenaline and cortisol, which causes your appetite and hunger hormones to be off balance. This response slows your metabolism and worsens cravings, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it.
Hormones are responsible for much of our metabolism, hunger, appetite and overall vitality. When they are in balance, you feel good and find it easier to control your eating habits. When they’re imbalanced, you might retain water, gain more fat and feel like you want to eat all the time.
Restriction, including Intermittent Fasting, can interrupt hormone balance in some people. This is due to a potential increase in the stress response, low blood sugar and increased carb cravings (which often results in eating too many carbs, perpetuating the cycle). This response to IF is more expected if you experience a lot of daily stress and/or don't sleep well.
Doesn't Address Quality of Diet
In order for Intermittent Fasting to fully work its magic, it's important to also eat a healthy diet. IF alone might still work with less healthy food choices, but you'll get much more benefit eating clean and balanced. If you have inflammatory foods and beverages during eating hours, your body will have more to heal and detox during fasts, which will prevent you from fully experiencing the health benefits.
Intermittent Fasting itself doesn't address or improve your food choices or eating habits. It's important to avoid processed foods, fried foods, sweetened foods and beverage and choose real, nutrient dense foods.
If you struggle with restriction and binge cycles, Intermittent Fasting may aggravate it. Forced restriction in abundance can put extra pressure on your willpower, which often results in overindulging and feeling guilty after. This constant roller coaster is bad for your mental health and self image.
Instead, adopting a balanced and less restrictive diet might be more beneficial. Although, if you find you overindulge every night, you might actually benefit from the Intermittent Fasting structure to stop yourself from unnecessary night snacking.
When To Avoid Intermittent Fasting
The conditions below can cause undesirable results from Intermittent Fasting. The first step is to address stress and sleep. Balanced meals and eating smaller meals, more frequently through the day can be a good alternative. You can always try Intermittent Fasting once these have improved. If you experience anything from this list and still really want to try Intermittent Fasting, I recommend starting slow with longer eating periods, where you might only fast for 10-12 hours, or only do it a couple day a week.
You don’t sleep well consistently
You have a high daily stress level
You often experience low blood sugar
You struggle with restrictive diets (and end up overindulging with guilt or yo-yo dieting)
Tips To Get More Out of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent Fasting isn’t for everyone. Some people do really well with it, while others don’t. It helps to understand what your body needs and what works best for you. Some do best grazing, eating small amounts of food through the day, while others do better with more periods of fasting and restricted eating times. These tips below can help you maximize the benefits
Eat balanced meals- helps to stabilize blood sugar (prevent fat storage, boosts health) and make you feel energized and satisfied between meals, reduces overeating and eating when you're not actually hungry
Eat proper portions- you want to prevent fat storage during eating hours, so stick with proper portions, and add more veggies for meal volume.
Follow a healthy, clean diet- your body can benefit more from fasting when there aren't extra irritants like processed foods, food additives, inflammatory foods to detox and heal from. Choose more nutrient dense and anti-inflammatory foods to prevent added irritation. This step also supplies your body with crucial nutrients needed to detox and heal.
Don’t Starve yourself - if your body is really, truly hungry, then eat something. We live in a time where we don’t have to starve, so it’s ok to embrace it.
Don't overeat or eat a heavy meal for your last meal, especially if you digest slowly (this decreases the hours you're actually fasting).
Ease into it to see what makes you feel the best and gives results. Start with a couple days a week with wider eating times, then get more aggressive if you respond well.
Personally, I used intermittent fasting when I was losing weight, well before it was popular or I even knew I was doing it, so I didn't use a set structure. During this time I followed close to 14-15 hour fast 5 days a week. Now, I generally follow a 12 hour fast (eat 8am-7:30pm) most days.
Intermittent Fasting helped me learn what my body actually needed. When you’re in a cycle of overeating and eating when you’re not hungry, it helps to take fasting breaks. Intermittent Fasting can be a good option to clear out the clutter (excess food/temptation) and realize when your body feels hungry and low little food you actually need to feel satisfied.
I want to include that I've never followed IF every single day, and allowed myself to deviate when I really needed to. Some days I wake up starving and eat early or have a snack before bed, extending my eating hours that day. I think with any diet, it’s important to make it work for you, or else it’ll feel forced and restrictive in some way. Intermittent fasting can be a great tool, but it shouldn’t override what your body needs and wants.
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