Intermittent fasting has received increased press in recent years as a revolutionary eating schedule with amazing health benefits. While I am typically all over trying new lifestyle techniques, initially I wanted to avoid fasting because it seemed like a gateway habit for a resurgence of unhealthy eating patterns and an over-dependence on rigidity in an eating schedule. Saying that, I have been following a 16-8 eating schedule for almost a year now and admittedly I can see certain health benefits associated with intermittent fasting such as better digestion, more restful sleep, less bloating and admittedly, some weight-loss.
The concept of fasting is neither new nor revolutionary; ancient Greeks believed that medical treatment could be observed from nature and saw that humans, much like other animals, actively avoid eating while sick. During a fasting period you abstain from food or drink (or both) for health, ritualistic, religious or ethical purposes.
Paracelsus, a renowned healer, wrote over 500 years ago that, “fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.” Fasting is now recognized worldwide as a conduit for detoxification which allows and aids the removal of toxins in the body (thought to be responsible for illness and other conditions). By tapping into this innate power, we allow the body to heal itself. (1)
Fasting as a spiritual process is practiced by followers of: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism and Hinduism. While the fasting length and intensity varies, the common belief among the religions is that it is beneficial for cleansing and purification.
Although widely practiced by different religions and for health purposes, fasts have also been used to express social and political views. Gandhi famously fasted in prison to atone for the violence of his followers against the British rule in India. Fasting has been used worldwide to protest everything from war, social injustices and civil rights violations. (2)
Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It doesn’t specify what food you can eat and instead focuses on when you can eat them; for this reason it is less of a diet and more of an eating pattern. The most popular IF schedule is a 16-hour fast with a daily eating window of eight hours, such as 1-9PM. Others practice the 5-2 method: fasting for 24 hours (or consuming 500-600 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week) but eating normally the other five days.
A common mistake in the beginning of starting an IF program is the tendency to indulge in more calories than normal during your eating window. As long as you eat within your window and eat normally, you should notice positive changes. It’s also quite easy to eat less calories than before, so your body will kick up its natural fat-burning; short-term fasting has been shown to help your metabolism increase by 3-14%. In the beginning of my 16-8 schedule I followed a 7PM-11AM fasting period; by doing this I noticed that when I got up in the morning I actually wasn’t physically hungry and I had been eating right away solely out of habit. The fasting window let me get in touch with my hunger cues and only eat when my body was expressing its need for food. After one or two weeks of sticking to my schedule I noticed that aside from some hunger pains before I went to slept, it was a fairly painless process.
While you’re in the fasting period, your body is undergoing a myriad of processes in order to make the most of this time. The Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is raised as much as 5x during this window which will have benefits for fat loss and muscle gain. Insulin levels also drop dramatically which makes stored body fat more accessible to burn away. Even your genes are affected and some studies show that they will undergo changes to help protect against disease and foster cellular repair. Studies are still being done on the full range of benefits, but it has been shown to help inflammation, heart health and increase protection against cancerous cells.
I would definitely recommend trying intermittent fasting if you are looking for something new to help you break through a plateau. Personally I use the BodyFast app to manage my fasting windows and I find it’s a great help. It took me a month or two to get into an easy rhythm and manage my nutrient intake within the fasting window and to stop having mild binges when I broke my fast. I definitely think that IF can be dangerous and a trigger for those who are suffering/recovering from an eating disorder so it is worth discussing IF with a doctor before beginning a program.
As always, just like with any major diet or lifestyle change, the IF schedule needs to be used in moderation; fasting times are made to be extended/shortened; give your body days off to go out for a late dinner or have an early breakfast. Play around with the concept of fasting and see what works best for your body on your own schedule.
1. Hicks, C. “Why fasting is now back in fashion.” Telegraph, 13 Apr. 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/11524808/The-history-of-fasting.html
2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Fasting.” Britannica, 20 Jul. 1998. https://www.britannica.com/topic/fasting
3. Gunnars, Kris. “Intermittent Fasting 101 – The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide.” Healthline Media, 25 Jul. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/intermittent-fasting-guide.