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Intermittent Fasting: What, Why, and How

Alarm ClockIntermittent Fasting: what is it and should I do it?

You’ve probably heard of the concept of intermittent fasting by now. This way of eating has been around for a long time, but has started becoming more popular in recent years and is touted for having many health benefits. You may be wondering what exactly it involves, and if it is worth the hype. We’ll discuss these and more, so keep reading!

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting (which we will refer to as IF for short) is an eating regimen that involves periodic periods of fasting throughout the 24 hour day. You may read different definitions of IF depending on where you look, but ultimately it involves alternating cycles between eating and not eating; with each cycle lasting a set number of hours. IF doesn’t specify what should be eaten, but focuses solely on when the food should be consumed

IF builds upon the normal physiological process of fasting (which we all do during times of sleep) and trains the body to adapt to longer periods of time without food, with the goal of eating relatively normally during the remaining hours. It is not intended to be a “binge and restrict” style of eating, which would likely interfere or prevent any of its proposed benefits.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?

IF has been a hot topic of research in the past few years, and has been shown to host many potential benefits, including:

  • Weight managementWeight loss is the most common reason people follow IF. Unlike traditional prolonged low calorie diets, though, which can cause metabolic changes that can slow metabolism and prevent long-term weight loss, IF has the benefit of cycling between normal eating and reduced calorie intake which may prevent unwanted metabolic changes. 
  • Improve or prevent insulin resistanceStudies show that fasting improves insulin sensitivity, which may protect against conditions like Diabetes. Better use of insulin also helps protect against fatty liver disease and may improve overall fat loss.
  • Promotes cellular repair-Short-term fasting can have protective effects on the brain and body cells. The cells are able to remove toxins and other unneeded substances during periods of fasting, which can protect against disease.
  • Gut health-Some research shows that IF may help preserve the gut microbiome, including the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut. In addition, giving the gut a break during short periods of fasting can help improve overall digestion and promote repair.
  • May help reduce inflammation– Some studies have shown that markers of inflammation were reduced in people who follow prolonged IF, which can have positive effects on risk or development of things like heart disease.
  • May increase lifespan. Research on rats has shown that IF extended lifespan in rats, but so far no human trials have been done to confirm this.

Keep in mind that the research is still developing for each of these benefits, and some of them can be experienced using other methods besides IF as well.

How do you follow intermittent fasting?

There are many ways to follow IF, and which method you choose can be determined by your preference, what is practical to your lifestyle, and what may be recommended by a healthcare practitioner.

When just starting out, it is strongly recommended to ease into IF by starting with a 12 hour fast, followed by 12 hours of eating as you normally would (every 3-4 hours or so). The 12 hr fast can include hours spent sleeping, and will help your body gradually adapt to longer periods without eating. It’s a good idea to follow the 12 hour fast consistently for at least a week or so until you feel comfortable to move into a longer time of fasting.

The other popular way to follow IF is the “16/8 method”. This involves eating during an 8 hour period followed by 16 hours of fasting (which can and should include sleeping). This may look like skipping breakfast but eating lunch, dinner, and a few snacks during the 8 hour window.

Other methods include fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week, or following the “5:2 method” which involves eating normally for 5 days out of the week and following a very low calorie diet of about 500-600 calories on the other 2 days. These last 2 methods are definitely harder to follow and may come with more risks if your body hasn’t properly adapted to fasting.

Should I try intermittent fasting?

Regardless of its proposed health benefits, IF isn’t for everyone.

Examples of people who should not try IF include:

  • Anyone with an active or history of eating disorder
  • Anyone with current or past struggles with disordered eating, who may be prone to turning IF into an overly restrictive diet
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women, who need more calories and consistent episodes of eating
  • People with Diabetes (especially those on insulin), who are at risk of low blood sugar if they go too long of a period without eating
  • Anyone who is underweight to begin with, or whom weight loss may cause harm
  • People who are on medications that need to be taken with food frequently throughout the day
  • Children, who need consistent food and nutrient intake to promote proper growth and development
  • Women going through menopause or others who have hormonal disturbances
  • The elderly, who are already prone to undereating and loss of muscle mass and who need and benefit from consistent eating throughout the day
  • Anyone suffering from adrenal fatigue
  • People with thyroid disorders, which affects the metabolism and therefore IF may interfere with

Take Home Message

IF can have a lot of benefits for the right person, but it’s certainly not for everyone. It’s important to discuss any desire to follow an IF eating style with a trusted healthcare practitioner before beginning to help determine if IF is right for you.

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