Intermittent fasting is a way of eating that switches between periods of fasting, and then putting all of your eating allowance into a limited window of time.
The main payoff typically sought from this approach is weight loss, but some of the other touted benefits of this method are said to be extended life span, boosted metabolism, lowered blood pressure, potential benefits for type-2 diabetics by raising insulin sensitivity, increased human growth hormone and lean muscle gain, amongst others.
THIS ALL SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE!
But does it work?
First let’s look at some of the most popular models of intermittent fasting, as there isn’t just one standard approach, but many:
- 16 hours fasting/8 hours eating (women 14/15 hours fasting)
- 20 hours fasting/4 hours eating
- 5 days eating normally/2 days eating 500-600 calories
· THE 12/12
- 12 hours night-time fasting: E.g. 9pm to 9am
THE WARRIOR DIET:
- Fast during the day and then eat a huge meal at night
I won’t go into them in detail as they can all be easily accessed with a simple google search.
Next, let’s look at the logic behind intermittent fasting.
It is for most people undertaken as a diet to lose weight. Diets require a reduction in calories.
We can therefore assume that intermittent fasting is not magic. It will require you to pay a price, which in this case, is going for lengthy periods of time without eating.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHILE YOU ARE FASTING?
What is so special about the actual hours of fasting and why does staying hungry for extended periods of time help with weight loss?
Well a lot of it’s merit is often derived from good ol´ cave man stories.
You know the kind I’m talking about! Those watertight justifications for eating a certain way based on our assumptions of how we believe cavemen ate hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The argument goes- Cavemen would eat infrequently because food was scarce, and so they fasted (starved) for hours, and sometimes days at a time, and that’s how they stayed so lean.
There are many things wrong with referring to populations that we couldn’t possibly have accurate data about for determining your own optimal nutrition, but I won’t get into that right now. The idea anyway, is that the longer you are not eating, and have an empty stomach without new food coming in, the more body fat you will begin to use for energy.
This is undoubtedly true that if you have no food coming in, you will lose weight, and there may be many benefits that are going on this period, but let's not get carried away here.
(TRYING TO) TRICK THE BODY
Once all of the fancy packaging is taken off and it is stripped down to its bare bones, the reality is more likely that you are just trying to trick your body by another method of reducing your total calorie intake across the day.
When you do finally eat, you are less likely to be able to fit in as much food in such a short window of time, because your stomach will still be digesting your food and possibly even shrinked, giving you the illusion that you are full, whilst losing weight.
BUT THAT SOUNDS GREAT, RIGHT?
What really matters here is not necessarily the timing you consume your calories (although that may have a bearing on factors depending on the individual and a host of factors). No what really matters is total calories taken in the day.
Let me put it this way. You could fast for 23 hours of the day and only eat for 1 hour, but if your total amount of calories exceeds your daily weight loss level, then you will not lose weight!
For example, there are many compensation mechanisms that take place in your body to maintain homeostasis (balance), and so many people find themselves just eating the same, or even binging on more food than they normally would, in the window where they break their fast because they are too hungry, and fearful of the next long period without food.
WHAT CAN YOU EAT?
Intermittent fasting has gained a lot of popularity for allowing you to eat whatever you want in your window of eating.
Literally any food is allowed!
Many people consider this a green light to eat all, and everything, but again, if you just eat sweets and food with a low nutritional value, then you´re more likely to overeat.
This is still an issue of energy balance after all.
QUALITY OF FOOD COUNTS
Keeping a balanced diet of all food groups, including whole-food choices is a far superior option for sustaining any dietary practice. Think adding fibre, protein, and quality sources of dietary fats to keep you feeling fuller for longer. Variety works on a diet, as well as off.
My own personal experience trying Intermittent Fasting was an eye opener.
I tried the 8/16 split many years ago. On it, I would try not to have my first meal until 4pm, which meant that my 8 hour window of eating took me up until 12 midnight.
Following the best advice I could find, I tried to abide by the rule that if I ended up stuffing in more calories than I normally would eat, then I would still not lose weight.
For this reason, I insisted on weighing and tracking all of my food.
Like any diet, it worked at first,….. and then it didn’t!
Just like any other diet I began to experience all of the hallmark signs of an extremely restrictive practice: Low energy, a preoccupation with food, and other times not even knowing if I was hungry at all, low libido, and my workouts and social life suffered, to name but a few.
When my workouts began to suffer, I decided that I wasn’t willing to continue with the my lacklustre gym efforts, and so I quit.
NOTHING GETS IN THE WAY OF A GOOD WORKOUT!
IS IT EFFECTIVE FOR WEIGHT LOSS?
Yes, pretty much. Like all diets it is focusing on you eating less, so with that shift in energy balance, the likelihood of you losing weight is quite probable. The more important question however is, how sustainable is it as a practice?
THE PERFECT DIET IS THE DIET YOU CAN STICK TO AND ENJOY
The perfect diet doesn’t exist…. Unless of course you make it for yourself, or you end up being one of the marginal percentile who can accommodate themselves to the diet of another!
That also doesn’t mean that your perfect diet isn’t subject to change. In fact, it’s guaranteed to change over the course of days, weeks, and years, as your requirements and body will inevitably change.
If, however you start intermittent fasting, and you lose weight, but it feels like a constant struggle and quality of life is decreasing - especially with a lack of energy, then it is probably not a sensible, or a safe option.
WHICH IS THE BEST METHOD OF INTERMITTENT FASTING TO TRY?
It really depends. Like I said before, it’s whatever works for you. I tried a 16/8 split and it wasn’t sustainable for me. For others it’s a perfect balance. Everyone is different, and usually only by experimenting do you find what really works for you.
I ALSO EXPERIMENT
I actually enjoy doing other varieties of fasting now. I often do a 12 hour fast, from 11pm to 11am, and of course most of those fasted hours are sleep time so it’s quite an easy system for me to follow.
The reason I do it is not however anything to do with weight loss. It’s actually a pattern that I adopted from my time travelling in Asia.
In that time, I had attempted to reduce my meat consumption to save money, and so intentionally waited longer to eat so that I could eat less in my waking hours, and so spend less.
What I found through this exercise was a life changing realisation that I had rarely ever experienced hunger in my day to day living.
What I mean by that is that is that I was never hungry, hungry, but instead always a bit full. Not bursting full, but enough to not be able to truly enjoy anything new coming in.
Any hint of emptiness lead me to want to fill the void with food. No prizes for guessing that my emptiness was much connected with an emotional void. Once I discovered that I wasn’t actually hungry for food, I was able to face my hunger head on and it was so liberating.
Now I love to eat when it’s meal-time, and I also recognize that hunger is ok sometimes. I don’t have to be afraid of not always being full all the time.
APPRECIATE THE HUNGER!
Of course, I’m not talking about being murderously hungry, but feeling the rumble of your stomach can actually be a very pleasant sensation sometimes. The anticipation of food helps to build healthy appetite.
Becoming conscious of my real appetite was one of the biggest wake-up calls for me, and it led me to ask what I was really missing in my life. The answer was fairly obvious in my case and included things like pleasure, romantic connections, great friendships, and a feeling of worthiness, amongst my long list!
A DEEPER JOURNEY
I also like to use fasted states now for a self-development practice.
When we are hungry, and our blood sugar levels drop off, we are far more prone to becoming irritated and frustrated with those around us, god help their souls!
I didn’t want to be angry when hungry but instead practice more self-empowering thoughts and feelings.
I don’t know yet if it is a sustainable practice for me, but so far, a 12 hour fast has worked very well for me and my own personal goals.
THE WISDOM OF RELIGION
Many religions and spiritual practices often involve some kind of dietary abstinence, including lengthy periods of time without food to demonstrate self-restraint.
Ramadan, the annual Islamic tradition of fasting between the hours of sunrise and sunset is practiced by millions of Muslims worldwide, and is a considered by many to be a devout time of reflection, community, and praise of a higher power.
IS IT A DIET?
Many will argue that it’s not a diet, but a lifestyle choice, but for me, if you are intentionally eating in a way that is intended to lose you weight, then it’s a diet!
There’s no shame or stigma that needs to be attached to that word, ‘diet’ but it can be useful to know that dieting often comes with it’s own baggage.
THE DANGERS OF EXTREME RESTRICTION DIETING
Extended periods of hunger can potentially increase cortisol levels. This is the stress hormone that is absolutely essential to our survival but if it is left at elevated levels for too long then it has been found to be closely associated with inflammation and even fat retention.
Long periods without food leads to lowered blood sugar levels which inevitably can cause things like fatigue, sweating, shaking, and most commonly thought of irritability and anger- otherwise known as h’anger!
Suppressing your appetite can cause you to disconnect from your natural hunger signals and feelings of satiety. This is especially threatening to populations currently with, or having had a history of eating disorder behaviours.
Those who’ve suffered anorexia as an example and have intentionally tried to pass long periods without eating may find these behaviours particularly triggering.
Feeling in tune with our appetite is one of the great skills that modern day health obsessions sometimes prevent us from using, and so we can end up unhealthier than ever!
In the event that it is not a right fit for you, you may find yourself weight cycling- Continually losing and re-gaining weight. This can potentially have more damaging effects such as metabolic upset, eating disorders, psychological trauma, lean muscle loss, and often increased adiposity (fat). All of these come with their own series of consequences and inevitably there are more still.
Other high-risk groups as well as eating disorders include pregnant women and diabetics. Regardless of any advice you may receive on the internet, it is always well advised to consult with your medical practitioner/physician, before trying this diet.
MY FINAL VERDICT
Intermittent fasting can be a great tool for many different reasons. Everyone is very individual. It really depends on how you respond to it, and how realistic it seems as a long-term solution.
Do what feels right for you and then go from there.
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