If you have ever run a search on diets that guarantee to improve your overall health, chances are that you have heard of Intermittent Fasting. Intermittent Fasting is an eating style that can help you lose weight naturally and effectively, improve insulin sensitivity, naturally reverse Type 2 diabetes, help balance your hormones to naturally treat PCOS, while also improving your metabolism.
And no, Intermittent Fasting is not a fad diet. In fact, it’s not a diet at all —- it’s an eating pattern that gives you a better control over food habits. And yes, it comes with doctors’ stamp of approval.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a style of eating that alternates periods of fasting with eating. In fact, it does not tell you what foods you can and cannot eat —- all it takes into consideration is “when” you eat. Most of us naturally fast for 8 to 10 hours between dinner and breakfast next day, and that is the exact principle IF is based on.
Intermittent Fasting is based on the ancestral hunter-gatherer lifestyle where humans ate a majority of their daily caloric intake within a 4 to 6 hour window, and fasted for rest of the day. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of rolling out of bed and eating a large breakfast. And neither should we! In the modern world today we have such easy access to food 24X7 that most of us are overeating without even realising it… and that is what IF prevents. If we are being honest, fasting is actually more natural that eating 5-6 meals every day, as this is what the human body is naturally designed to do.
Don’t think for a second that Intermittent Fasting promotes starvation. In fact, many people who regularly practice IF consume the same number of calories as they did before by eating larger meals in a shorter time frame. This is the precise reason why Intermittent Fasting doesn’t result in muscle breakdown, but instead helps promote lean muscle mass.
So, How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
When we eat, the body turns food into readily available energy required for cellular function. Whatever the body doesn’t need immediately is converted into fats and stored away for future use. But, when we eat frequent meals, the body is constantly trying to process readily available calories, instead of burning off the stored excess fats.
The key hormone responsible for storage of food energy is insulin. Insulins levels rise after a meal, turning carbohydrates into glycogen which is stored in the liver. However, this storage space is “limited”, and excess glucose gets readily converted into fat. It is during a fasted state that the body uses up stored fats as its primary source of energy. This is normal and in no way detrimental to health. During a fasted state, insulin levels fall. And this signals the body to start using stored up body fat as its primary source of energy. This flipping of the switch where the body starts to burn off fats instead of glucose is the primary reason why Intermittent Fasting offers a variety of health benefits.
For those who eat all through the day, insulin levels stay constantly high which increases risk for insulin intolerance. Additionally, the body is constantly in a ‘fed’ state, so there is never any need to burn off stored body fat. This disturbs the delicate balance is human body is designed for.
What Are The Different Types of Intermittent Fasting?
The good news about Intermittent Fasting is that it’s highly flexible. You can fast for shorter or longer periods, as per your convenience, and tweak your “eating periods” and “fasting periods” into any kind of schedule. However, here’s a brief look at the popular IF regimens to give you more idea about your options.
The 16:8 Fasting Method
This is one of the most popular Intermittent Fasting methods, sometimes also called as the Leangains Protocol. It’s fairly simple – skip your breakfast so that you eat during an 8 hour window, while you fast for the remaining 16 hours of the day. For example – you could have your lunch at 12noon, a snack at around 4:00 pm and finishing eating dinner by 8:00pm every day. Most people eat 2 to 3 meals with this method. This method is simple, sustainable and easy to stick to for those looking to practice IF every day.
The 20:4 Fasting Method
A stricter version of 16:8 method, this one restricts the eating window to just a 4 hour period. You can opt for one or two meals during this 4 hour eating period. For example – you could eat a small meal at around 1:00pm and finish a more elaborate lunch before 5:00pm every day.
The All Day Fast
If you don’t want to practice Intermittent Fasting on a daily basis, you can try 24-hour fasts two to three times every week. In this method you eat nothing for a 24 hour period, fasting from dinner on Day 1 to dinner on Day 2. For example, you could eat dinner at 8:00pm on Tuesday and then fast until dinner time at 8:00pm on Wednesday, and then fast again from 8:00pm Saturday to 8:00pm Sunday. You can eat normally for other days of the week. This is also the idea behind Alternate Day Fasting, wherein you alternate 24 hour fasts with 24 hours eating periods.
The 5:2 Fasting Method
Popularised by Dr. Michael Mosley from the book “The Fast Diet”, the 5:2 method involves 5 days of regular eating with 2 fasting days every week. You can choose any two non-consecutive days of the week for fasting, but are allowed to consume 500-600 calories during the fasting day. There’s no hard and fast rule for how to consume these calories – you can eat multiple small snacks or eat a 600 calorie meal once a day – as you please.
The 36 Hour Fast
For those who need to lose a lot of weight, a 36 hour fast done once a week can be helpful. You start the fast at dinner on Day 1, fast all through Day 2, and can break the fast with breakfast on Day 3. However, this method of intermittent fasting should not be done too frequently, and should never be done without the approval of your doctor.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
There are several health benefits of Intermittent Fasting. It not only improves insulin sensitivity and helps lose weight, but also promotes detoxification and combats aging.
Reduce Insulin Resistance
Intermittent Fasting is highly beneficial for those suffering from diabetes and PCOS as it helps improve insulin resistance.
Since IF encourages the body to use up stored body fat, it helps you lose excess weight, especially weight stored around the belly. Losing excess weight reduces health risk to a variety of diseases like diabetes, cardiac disease, hypertension and more. The biggest plus point of Intermittent Fasting is that it’s easy to follow since there’s no calorie restriction or calorie counting, which simplifies life.
Studies find that Intermittent Fasting is linked to reduced markers of oxidative stress and inflammation which is known to be a key driver for a variety of chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, PCOS, Heart Disease and more.
Improve Cardiac Health
When used correctly, IF can help improve heart health by keeping LDL cholesterol, Blood triglycerides, Insulin, Blood sugar levels and Inflammatory markers in check.
Enhanced Brain Health
There’s evidence linking intermittent fasting to improved brain function. In fact, animal studies show that intermittent fasting and caloric restriction ameliorate age-related behavioural deficits for Alzheimer’s disease.
Intermittent Fasting also results in increased Human Growth Hormone (HGH) levels which increases muscle gain and promotes fat loss. This is crucial for athletes as well as those who frequent the gym. Additionally, increased HGH also helps fight against premature aging.
Are Any Foods Restricted On Intermittent Fasting?
However, since intermittent fasting involves long periods wherein your body gets no food, it’s always best to eat nutrient-dense, healthy, natural foods that will take longer to digest and keep you full for longer. If you continue to eat white, processed foods on intermittent fasting, you will find yourself starving within 2 hours into your fast. So choose your food wisely! Add more fibre to your diet as it can fill you up easily. Healthy fats and lean proteins take longer to digest, so add these to your diet too. Eat more coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds along with lean cuts of meat.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe For You?
While Intermittent Fasting sounds like the perfect choice for everyone, some people should avoid it. If you are underweight or have a history of eating orders, IF is not for you.
Similarly, those with chronic ailments should not try Intermittent Fasting without the approval of their doctor. Be careful if you have:
- Problems with blood sugar regulation
- Take medication for Diabetes or Heart Disease
- Have Low Blood Pressure
- Are trying to get pregnant or undergoing IVF treatments
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
In general, Intermittent Fasting is not dangerous for anyone who eats a nourishing, healthy, balanced diet, but its best to always discuss it with your health professional so that you don’t take any unwarranted risks with your health.