As the buzz around intermittent fasting (IF) grows, by now you’ve probably heard a bit about this trendy eating plan. Maybe you even have a friend who swears by it for its health and weight loss benefits. But what is it really? And, most importantly, do you have to starve yourself to try it?
I mean, let’s be honest, hanger is a very real thing. (Guilty, party of one! Don’t get between me and my midday snack.) But don’t let intermittent fasting scare you. It’s more about restricting calories for short periods of time, and there are a number of variations you can try to see what works best for you. So let’s dive in and get you the 411!
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting means that you plan out when you eat—and don’t eat—creating cycles of fasting and fueling. And while the idea of fasting is certainly nothing new (see: religious holidays like Yom Kippur and Ramadan, among others), today we’re starting to recognize the numerous health benefits intermittent fasting may hold.
The health benefits
It can stabilize blood sugar and regulate hunger hormones
Intermittent fasting can help keep blood sugar levels steady, preventing them from spiking and crashing. In one study, participants with diabetes who fasted for about 16 hours a day for 2 weeks lost weight and reduced their blood sugar levels.
In addition, intermittent fasting has been shown to regulate hunger hormones like Leptin, which help signal when it’s time to stop eating.
It may reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer, plus, help maintain a healthy heart
Early research suggests that intermittent fasting may decrease risk factors for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, including this recent study from Cell Metabolism. Another found that intermittent fasting may improve cholesterol, while a recent review of literature found that IF can reduce visceral belly fat and insulin resistance. One study even showed that IF reduced the incidence of lymphoma in rats.
It can reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation can contribute to chronic disease, and some studies show that intermittent fasting might help. For example, this one from Nutrition Research, which found a reduction in inflammatory markers in 50 people observing Ramadan.
It protects your brain
Isn’t it crazy that the timing of when we eat can affect our brain health? Some studies are showing that intermittent fasting may have a role to play in enhancing cognitive function and protecting against brain aging. Specifically, animal research suggests IF can increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which may protect against brain dysfunction and degeneration.
It can lead to weight loss
Intermittent fasting forces your body to use up its fat stores as fuel. Plus, since IF limits your window of time for eating, you’re likely to eat fewer meals each day. That could mean weight loss—as long as you don’t binge during your eating window!
And yep, the research supports it. In fact, one study comparing a high-protein, lower-calorie intermittent fasting diet with a typical heart-healthy diet showed they lost around the same amount of weight, but those on the intermittent fasting diet regained less weight after one year.
Popular methods for intermittent fasting
This method is probably the easiest entry into intermittent fasting, as you may already be doing it! Simply fast for 12 hours a day, and eat during the remaining 12-hour window. For example, stop eating at 8pm, then break your fast the next morning at 8am. Bam.
In this method, you limit your eating to 8 hours a day, fasting for the other 16. So if you eat from 11am-7, you could still fit in 2 or 3 meals.
This method is a little more hard-core. You eat during only 4 hours of the day and fast for the other 20. So if you eat from noon-3pm, for example, you can fit in 1 or 2 meals at most.
Alternate day fasting
In this method, your goal is to eat a small amount (about 500 calories) every other day. On non-fasting days, your hours of eating are not limited at all.
With this method you eat normally 5 days of the week, then aim to restrict calories to about 500 on the other 2 days.
What to keep in mind if you try it
First off, before you try it, talk to your doctor or dietitian. Significantly cutting back on calories is a big change! So you want to make sure you’re doing it the right way.
Second, since you’ll likely be eating less, be mindful that you are still getting the proper nutrition. On fasting days, eat the right foods—real, good, whole food. On non-fasting days (or hours), stay mindful of eating well. While you might be heading into these times feeling a bit hungry (or maybe hangry), be careful that you don’t go overboard and eat all the things. You’ll undo all that good work you’ve already done.
Lastly, some people experience mood swings when they first try intermittent fasting, so be warned. Luckily, for most people, this phase is temporary and goes away quickly.
Who it’s for—and who should avoid it
The good news is: there are a lot of options with intermittent fasting, so you’ll likely find a regimen that can work well for you.
In particular, if you hate the idea of dieting and restricting or eliminating certain food groups from your diet, intermittent fasting may be a good fit for you. After all, it doesn’t mean cutting out foods you love, it just means controlling the times in which you eat those foods. (However, if there are foods you’re sensitive to, such as dairy, gluten, soy, etc., you should still not be eating these during non-fasting hours.)
Intermittent fasting may also work well for you if you frequently have digestive issues, like heartburn, flare up in the evening, since most IF methods restrict eating late in the day.
So who may want to avoid IF?
- Those with insulin-dependent diabetes. More intense fasting schedules can cause dangerous blood sugar spikes and dips.
- Amateur and professional athletes who need to time their eating around activity to fuel performance and recovery.
- Those with low blood sugar.
- Those with a history of disordered eating. Manipulating eating patterns can trigger symptoms or lead to binging behaviors.
- Those with high stress who may be suffering from adrenal fatigue. Fasting can further tax our adrenal glands and stress response.
- Women who are pregnant or working through hormone-balance issues.
- People with gallstone disease.
- Those with thyroid issues.
Ultimately, we still have a lot to learn about how and why intermittent fasting affects us. Yet, as the research supporting it as grown, we’ve begun to see the promising health and weight loss benefits it can offer.
If you’re interested in trying intermittent fasting, please reach out! We’ll find the best IF method for you—and come up with a personalized plan to ensure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs.