By Jenn Benson, Contributing blogger
When we hear the word fasting, we often think of the religious or spiritual rituals used by those seeking to connect with their higher power. We think of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days. We think of Ramadan and Yom Kippur where fasting is used on holy days and holy months to realize the power of abstinence. Is there more to fasting than just a spiritual awakening?
Recently, we have heard the buzz on intermittent fasting in the news as a new trend or diet strategy used by those who want to lose weight, boost longevity, sharpen the mind, and regain an overall feeling of health and well-being. We may all may be thinking, “Here we go again with another diet trend”. There seems to be some new way of eating every time we change our clothes! But, before we neglect the eating pattern of intermittent fasting, first we must understand what it is, how it works, and what types there are before we decide if it is worth trying out.
WHAT IS INTERMITTENT FASTING?
Fasting is the willful refraining from eating for a certain period of time. Therefore, intermittent fasting (better known as IF) is willingness to fast during specific intervals paired with planned intervals for eating. For example, we decide not to eat after 7 p.m. and we start the following day with a black coffee at 7 a.m. We may be incorporating intermittent fasting into our lives and not even know it! This dietary approach is more about when to eat and not so much about what to eat.
The typical American will eat three meals or more a day plus snacks, plus more snacks! We seem to constantly be eating and not exercising on top of that. It makes sense then that “taking a break” from food could have some serious health benefits.
HOW DOES FASTING WORK?
When the body is in a fasting state, the serum level of glucose drops. Glucose is the preferred fuel that the body uses. When glucose is low, the body turns to using ketones and free fatty acids as the energy source. Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Mark Mattson, Ph.D., has studied intermittent fasting for over 25 years. He refers to the state of change from fed to fasting as metabolic switching. Intermittent fasting works by prolonging the period when your body has burned through the calories consumed during your last meal (fed state) and begins burning fat (fasting state).
During a fast, the body changes. When the body does not get food for a prolonged period of time, it starts to use certain processes to protect us and help us hold on to energy. Processes such as hormone regulation, genetic reactions, and cellular repair. There is also a reduction in blood sugar levels, insulin production, and an increase in human growth hormone. All of these can lead to better health, more mental clarity, and an overall sense of “feeling better”.
One popular question with fasting is: Can I drink while I am fasting? The simple answer is YES. You can have water, mineral water, unsweetened herbal tea, black coffee, and apple cider vinegar. Water should be the top priority. Since the food we ingest contains some of our daily water intake, when our food intake decreases, so does our water intake. That is why making sure you are still drinking water during intermittent fasting is so important. Coffee and tea should be taken without sugar, cream, or any artificial sweeteners. You should stay away from beverages such as fruit juice, coconut water, milk, soda, and alcohol. As soon as you add liquid sources that contain sugar, carbohydrates, or fiber, that is treated by the body the same as food and insulin begins to spike. If you are going to engage in intermittent fasting, you want to do it the right way and reap the full benefits.
If you are looking for more evidence-based resources out there, bestseller The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung is the place to start. He combines both research and experience with intermittent fasting so you can make the most educated decision if you want to give it a try.
WHAT TYPES OF INTERMITTENT FASTING ARE THERE?
There are so many choices when it comes to intermittent fasting. Some mild and some extreme. Here are the types that seem to be creating the most buzz in 2020:
Overnight Fasting: This approach is a simple one. It involves fasting for a 12-hour period typically while you sleep. If you fast from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., you've done it! This is perfect for those who want to eliminate the nighttime snacking. Doing this also reduces calorie intake and can aid in weight loss due to those unnecessary calories.
East Stop Eat: This approach came from Brad Pilon in his book Eat Stop Eat: Intermittent Fasting for Health and Weight Loss. His approach is all about flexibility. Just take a break from food from time to time! Combined with resistance training, you complete one or two 24-hour fasts per week. Both physical training and calorie restriction are equally important to feel the results.
Time-Restricted Fasting: This approach involves choosing an 8-hour window of eating every day. For example, only eating between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. You won’t even technically “miss” any meals depending on when you set the window.
5:2 Fasting: This approach was made popular by the bestselling book, The Fast Diet by Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. This is one of the most popular intermittent fasting methods. Basically, you eat normally for 5 days and then for 2 days, you restrict your calories to 500 a day for women and 600 a day for men. You can pick which two days you want to restrict calories. This allows for some freedom of choice.
Whole-Day Fasting: This approach can be harder to start because it involves a 24-hour fast every day. With this method, you eat only once a day. For example, you would eat dinner at 5 p.m. and then not eat until dinner the next day at 5 p.m. This may be difficult to sustain and often causes severe hunger pangs in the beginning.
Alternate-Day Fasting: This approach is that you fast every other day but eat whatever you want on the non-fasting days. This way you only need to restrict what you eat half of the time. One day 500 calories, the next day...whatever you want!
Thinking of trying out intermittent fasting?
The sound of longevity and feeling our best is intriguing to most of us. However, there are pros and cons of every nutrition plan and diet strategy out there. I believe the components of intermittent fasting are beneficial for a multitude of reasons. For one, it makes us realize that we don’t need food all of the time. How many times have we been caught with our hand in a bag of chips when we are not even hungry or curling up on the couch with that late-night bowl of ice cream? Intuitive eating is a skill we could all use more of. Second, avoiding nighttime snacks helps us eliminate those unnecessary and often unneeded calories. Just cutting those calories out can aid in weight loss all by itself. Intermittent fasting also teaches us to really feel what is going on in our bodies. Bringing more awareness to energy levels, mood, and mental clarity is a benefit we can all measure if we are simply paying attention. Lastly, intermittent fasting focuses on hydration and the importance of getting our daily water intake for basic metabolic functioning.
What intermittent fasting does not address is the quality of food you are eating when off the fast. We all know that eating an apple sure is different than eating an Oreo! When the fast is over, sometimes we become a little ravenous and don’t make the smartest choice when choosing our meal. If we are trying to build an overall healthy lifestyle, choosing whole foods that a nutrient dense is the key. We can’t expect to feel better if we are feeding ourselves junk in-between our fasting periods. It just doesn’t work that way.
If you are thinking about trying out intermittent fasting, what you first need to ask yourself is, which intermittent fasting type would be best for me? Once you decide which type of intermittent fasting you would like to try out, you need to consult your physician and/or certified nutritionist. Just like other diets and diet strategies out there, there are risks and potential dangers that come with restricting calories. Safety first my friends! Pregnant women, children under the age of 16, underweight individuals, and those with certain medical conditions are not recommended to try intermittent fasting.
If you are cleared by your physician to try out intermittent fasting, get ready and give it a go! Experiment and feel what your body responds to best. We are all so different even though biological processes are the same. We may find that we love our new way of eating or perhaps realize that it is not sustainable or flexible enough for us. Trying new ways to eat can be fun and really beneficial to the body if we are educated on it and fully embrace it. Remember, the choice is always yours.