Now that practically everyone you know – including your close friends- is fasting intermittently, you might be wondering whether IF is all it’s cracked up to be. And whether you should join the bandwagon. I’m here to demystify this ‘diet’ for you, so read on.
But first things first. What is intermittent fasting, or IF, as it’s commonly referred to?
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a style of consuming food that follows a schedule of alternating between regular periods of fasting and consuming food. While the majority of diets focus on what to eat, IF differs quite notably because it is entirely about when to eat.
This means that when on IF, you confine your eating to a specific time or window. For instance, you could choose any of the following options featuring an 8-hour eating window:
- 9 am – 5 pm
- 10 am – 6 pm
- 12 pm – 8 pm (i.e., skip breakfast, have lunch at midday and dinner by 8 pm)
Other popular variations include:
- Alternate-day fasting: Consuming regular meals on one day and either fasting or having a single small meal (under 500 calories) the following day.
- 5:2 fasting: Having a regular diet 5 days a week and fasting for 2 non-consecutive days.
But here’s the thing…
Did you know that you naturally engage in some form of IF in your day-to-day life? Think about it. You are typically awake for roughly 12-16 hours and asleep for about 8 hours or so — or more for those who truly adore their sleep.
And when you wake up, you break the fast — hence the term breakfast — by having your first meal of the day after a night of fasting.
The 16:8 eating plan thus follows your body’s circadian rhythm or internal clock. IF merely extends the nighttime fast by a couple of hours.
I do not particularly enjoy fasting, but the idea of extending the fast made IF seem more palatable (pun intended). And that’s how I decided to try it out. But what piqued my interest even more were the potential benefits.
However, before we explore the benefits of IF, let’s first find out how it works.
How Intermittent Fasting Works
While there are various modes of IF or fasting schedules, the basic principle is about selecting regular times to eat and fast. For instance, some people confine their eating to an 8-hour window and fast for the rest of the day. Alternatively, you could choose to eat a single meal per day, twice a week.
When your body stays for an extended period without food, it depletes its sugar stores and starts to burn fat. This typically happens after 10-12 hours — the time it takes your body to exhaust the calories stored in the liver, after which a metabolic shift causes it to use stored fat.
Picture this; when you consume 3 meals a day — plus snacks — without engaging in any form of exercise, each time you eat, your body runs on those calories instead of using its fat stores.
In a nutshell, intermittent fasting works by extending the period when your body has used up all the calories from your last meal and begins burning fat.
Here is a short video that explains how intermittent fasting works:
Now that we understand how IF works, let’s delve into the positive outcomes of engaging in this eating pattern.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
According to research, IF can help in weight management and prevent or reverse some ailments such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, fasting over a given number of hours per day can assist your body in burning fat and excess calories brought on by inactivity and mindless snacking.
Here is a deeper look at some of the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Protects You Against Type 2 Diabetes
One notable feature of type 2 diabetes, a common lifestyle disease, is high amounts of sugar in the blood. This situation occurs because of insulin resistance, a condition where your cells cannot respond appropriately to insulin. Fortunately, IF has proved beneficial by promoting a notable reduction in blood sugar.
Simply put, IF helps reduce insulin resistance by lowering blood sugar levels, thus lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes.
Fun Fact: Looking to improve insulin resistance? Donate blood. Too much iron in the blood might be associated with insulin resistance.
It Can Help With Weight Loss
Most people join IF primarily to lose weight. The thing is, this eating style limits the number of meals you consume. Subsequently, you end up consuming fewer calories. You can also boost your results by consuming smaller portions and opting for balanced meals.
Furthermore, IF amplifies hormone function, thus facilitating weight loss. Lower insulin plus higher HGH levels also boost the breakdown of body fat for energy.
Simply put, IF improves your metabolism, enabling you to burn off calories more effectively through short-term fasting. Most of the fat lost is visceral fat, located around your waistline — within the abdominal cavity. This type of fat puts you at risk of severe health issues.
It Alters How Your Cells, Hormones, and Genes Function
Going without food for a certain period allows several things to happen. For starters, your body alters hormone levels, making stored body fat more accessible while initiating key cellular repair activities. Additionally:
- Insulin levels drop considerably, promoting fat burning.
- The body undergoes cellular repair processes, like removing cellular waste material.
- Positive changes occur in genes and molecules associated with longevity and disease protection.
- There’s a marked rise in human growth hormone (HGH), promoting muscle building and fat burning.
Promotes Cellular Repair
IF induces several cell repair processes. During fasting, your cells trigger autophagy, a process that removes cellular waste plus harmful materials and rejuvenates the cells. The process entails the breaking down of body cells and the metabolism of broken or defective proteins that accumulate within the cells.
Calorie restriction and ketosis (when the liver breaks down fat to generate ketones for energy once glucose stored in the liver gets depleted) could also trigger autophagy. Increased autophagy may offer protection against ailments such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Other benefits you may potentially gain from consistently practicing intermittent fasting include the following. IF could help:
- Protect your heart. IF protects your heart by minimizing blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels.
- Minimize inflammation. This improves conditions like arthritis, asthma, and multiple sclerosis.
- Reduce oxidative stress. IF may help the body resist oxidative damage, which leads to chronic ailments and aging.
- Promote longevity. IF has a positive effect on reversing or slowing aging, as well as disease processes.
- Banish brain fog. IF forces your body to access energy from stored fat rather than sugar.
- Boost sleep. IF improves sleep by regulating your circadian rhythm and moving digestive activity earlier in the day.
It’s essential to note that most research on IF bases its findings on animal studies. As such, extensive research on humans is necessary to determine its long-term effects.
What to Consume While on IF
While in your fasting window, only water and beverages containing no calories, like black coffee and tea, are permitted. Sorry dear, no spicing up your water with lemon or adding a dash of sweetener — or even cream to your beverage of choice.
During your unrestricted feeding time, try to eat normally. This means avoiding junk food, lots of fried food, and treats. Focus on your goals, such as losing weight and extra fat or eating healthily. You will soon discover that there’s a wide array of different healthy and nutritious foods available to eat and enjoy.
Sticking to healthy, well-rounded meals is the key to getting results. Hence, it’s advisable to go for leafy greens, lean protein, fruits, low-fat dairy products, and complex, unrefined carbs like whole grains.
Where You Might Be Going Wrong With IF
As I mentioned earlier. I felt I could hack intermittent fasting if I merely thought of it as pushing my sleeping time a little further. Plus, I could take water, green tea… or plain black tea/coffee. — though the last two would take a lot of willpower.
So, during the first couple of days, I happily took my hot water with lemon to start my day. Big mistake! I soon discovered that I should only take plain water during my fasting window, not flavored water.
You see, taking lemon with your water results in an insulin spike — a counterproductive move since you would end up breaking your fast. So, beware of breaking your fast inadvertently.
Here is a list of items that can bring your fast to a screeching halt by triggering an insulin response:
- Mouthwash or toothpaste containing a sweetener like xylitol
- Pain relievers with a sugar coating
- Supplements with additives such as pectin or maltodextrin
- Sugar-containing vitamins like gummy bear vitamins – have both sugar and fat
To avoid breaking your fast inadvertently, carefully read the labels on your vitamins and supplements.
Want to know what else you shouldn’t do as you embark on your IF journey? Here goes…
- Avoid a drastic start by easing into IF gradually. Moving from eating 3 normal-sized meals to eating within an 8-hour window can be tricky. If you are shooting for the 16/8 feeding style, gradually extend the period between your meals. For instance, you can start with a 12-hour eating window, then slowly reduce this to 8 hours.
- Choose the right plan. The best strategy is one that will set you up for success. This means selecting a plan that suits your schedule, habits, and general lifestyle. Therefore, if you go to the gym 5x a week, a 2-day fast during your gym days might not be ideal.
- Go easy on yourself. You are bound to make mistakes, so avoid being too hard on yourself. Take a break if need be and give yourself time to refocus. It’s also perfectly in order to allow yourself a treat or two. You’ll come back re-energized and stronger.
- Don’t permit IF to consume your entire life. This would be a colossal mistake. The healthy way to go is to have IF form a part of your healthy lifestyle. Besides, there’s more to life than food and the perfect body.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe?
While intermittent fasting works and can become a lifestyle change, this eating pattern is not ideal for everyone. For starters, before you start any diet, you need to consult your doctor or nutritionist.
Secondly, steer clear of IF if you are:
- Under 18 years of age
- Pregnant or breastfeeding
- Have a history of eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) or other medical problems
IF also tends to have varying effects on people. Therefore, you need to establish whether it’s right for you. Consult your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Unusual anxiety
For safe and healthy intermittent fasting, ensure that you:
- Consume nutritious, well-balanced meals.
- Up your hydration- drink lots of water and other beverages.
- Break your fast gradually.
- Avoid too much exercise.
- Avoid overeating or feeding on unhealthy snacks during your feeding window.
Tips to Make IF Work for You
IF entails a lifestyle change. As you make the necessary adjustments, your body will need to get acquainted with a new eating schedule. As such, tangible results can take 2-4 weeks.
The easiest way to follow the IF eating plan is to select a 16-hour fasting period that coincides with or includes your sleeping time. This is particularly so if you are looking to lose weight.
Ending your food consumption early in the evening is also a plus since your metabolism typically slows down after that. This means ingesting your last meal by 8 pm, skipping breakfast altogether, and having your first meal at noon the following day.
That said, this plan might not work for everyone. Individuals may need to experiment to find the best fasting window and mealtimes to suit their lifestyle.
Nevertheless, here are valuable tips that might help you along your IF journey:
- Practice mindful eating.
- Eat healthfully and avoid junk food.
- Stay hydrated — helps with satiety and prevents you from confusing thirst with hunger.
- Drink cinnamon tea during your fasting period — it helps suppress appetite.
- Eat regularly during your eating window to avoid excessive hunger, blood sugar spikes, or dips — your body might start to store fat rather than burn it since it will assume it’s in starvation mode.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions on IF.
1. Is intermittent Fasting Practical?
IF might not be practical for everyone. Individuals with limited control over mealtimes might find the initial weeks particularly challenging. Also, the feeding restrictions might be somewhat limiting at times, e.g., when friends invite you for dinner at a time that coincides with your fasting window.
Others might want to consume as much as possible during the eating window, knowing they cannot eat at all during the restricted time.
2. I Find Fasting Challenging; How Can I Make IF Work For Me?
Aim for a gradual reduction in the number of hours comprising your eating window (e.g., from 12 to 10 and finally 8) and the number of calories ingested during your fast days. Consider doing this over 4 months. Additionally, try to work with your internal clock, as explained earlier in the article, or follow your eating habits.
For instance, if you like to snack at night or take your dinner late into the night, try eating your last meal a little earlier. You will not only eat less, but you will also start your fast much earlier.
3. Should I Still Exercise While on IF?
Exercising during IF is good. In fact, it’s highly advisable. By exercising, you burn stored fat, boost the Human Growth Hormone and build muscle. For optimal results, perform your workouts during your eating window, and consume healthy carbohydrates and proteins within half an hour after your workout. Also, keep hydrated throughout.
Note that you should discontinue your workout immediately if you feel dizzy or light-headed.
Intermittent fasting may be good for your waistline, but it also benefits your mind, heart, and overall health. That said, dieticians caution that while this approach to weight loss delivers impressive results, dieters also need to learn the essential behavior change necessary for healthier consumption habits.
Otherwise, the weight will simply creep back once you stop fasting.
So, is this time-restricted diet appropriate for you if seeking to lose weight? Well, if there are no medical reasons preventing you from engaging in IF, why don’t you try it out and find out for yourself?
I am not familiar with IF and it’s good to know the details pros and cons of your post. Thank you for this detailed article.
Rachel Macharia says