Updated: Feb 8
Intermittent Fasting (IF)
I have to say over the past year, maybe even longer, I have become a very big fan of IF, it has helped with my energy levels (no 3 pm slump), reduced my bloating, and I sleep much better than I did in the past. My skin is also clear all the time, with the exception of that once a month pimple...nemesis I tell you!
IF helps in the effort to speed up the burning of body fat, which is different to weight loss, because while burning fat you can still maintain and even gain muscle, if you are exercising with that intention. With many diets weight loss often comes at the cost of reduced muscle mass and the loss of water weight but this doesn’t have to be the case.
Intermittent fasting can help to reduce body fat (7), which will by default result in weight loss itself but without tirelessly restricting calories or counting every nutrient that enters your mouth. IF is a simple way to increase insulin sensitivity (6), reduce bloating, increase energy, stimulate the MMC (migrating motor complex), help with liver detoxification, improve brain health, decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, suppress inflammation, and improve longevity.
Intermittent Fasting works in a variety of ways, below are a few things that happen to your metabolism when you are fasting…
Insulin production is reduced. When we eat or drink, insulin (our fat storage hormone) is activated, and the body looks to store the excess energy we aren’t using primarily as fat. When we are not eating insulin is dramatically decreased which facilitates fat burning.
Increases production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which just as it sounds, helps with human growth. It helps to regulate body composition, body fluids, muscle and bone growth, sugar and fat metabolism, and may even be beneficial for the heart (1, 4, 5 ). When the body burns fat for energy instead carbs (our normal go to for fuel) blood glucose levels will remain stable. Therefore as the body burns fat to obtain energy the blood glucose levels remain normal, and HGH then increases the availability of fats and affects how they're used for energy. HGH also helps preserve muscle mass and bone density ( 2, 3, 4), both of which decrease with age, along with production of HGH itself. So promoting HGH is highly beneficial.
The nervous system sends norepinephrine (noradrenaline) , the body’s fight or flight hormone, to the fat cells, making them break down body fat into free fatty acids that can be burned for energy.
In most cases IF helps to reduce calorie consumption (7) as most people after the first few days, or within the first week, will naturally begin to eat less. The reduced amount of calories in, as a rule, tends to result in weight loss, especially if you continue with, or add in exercise.
IF gives your digestive system a rest and this will often improve overall digestion. With it we often see increased energy levels and metabolism function, improved immune function, clearer skin, better bowel movements and reduced brain fog. Do use caution or mindfulness here if you are dealing with type of IBS.
Now you might be thinking you’ll be starving if you don’t eat breakfast, especially if this is part of your daily routine and for the first few days you might be. However, once you get over that hump you’ll be amazed at how easily you roll into noon with no thought of food.
I personally have to remind myself at 11:30 am - 12 pm to eat my breakfast most days, and if my stomach isn’t signalling me I don’t let my brain dictate whether I need food or not. This was a challenge for me as well because I was running on routine programming that had more to do with a fixed belief I’d set for myself about when I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner etc. I was robotic with what and when I ate for years but this didn’t prove beneficial for my mind or body.
The more time you spend in a fasted state the better your body becomes at using fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates as I mentioned. This also produces ketones as a result, which leads to more stabilized glucose levels because your body is learning not to rely on glucose as a fuel source. This can lead to less hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) moments that often trigger hunger and leave us reaching for foods that release a quick hit of energy i.e. sugar, crackers, chips, baked goods...you get the idea.
So how do you start on IF?
Well that depends on you, some of us can go 16 hours without food and not bat an eye, others have beliefs ingrained in them (like my prior self) that we must eat every 3 hours or we’ll be tired and slow our metabolism down, yet nothing could be further from the truth. We all differ in what will work for us, some may thrive eating regular small meals, while others need to give our systems longer rest periods in order to maximize our best results.
Since there are many options for intermittent fasting I’ll give you a few options to consider and you can choose where to start. As always please contact me for more details if needed. These are just guidelines and other factors need to be considered before entering into IF so please check with a health professional (like a Nutritionist, GP or Dietitian) if you have any concerns regarding this approach to diet.
My top 3 options for Intermittent Fasting are:
The 16/8 method involves fasting every day, for 14–16 hours and restricting your daily eating window to 8–10 hours. This includes the time when you are asleep so if you think about it you are only having to refrain from eating for 6 to 8 hours in the day.
Within the eating window, we’ll say 12 pm until 8 pm for simplicity sake, you can fit in 2 to 3 meals. These will ideally be nutrient dense and it is best to break a fast with the like of protein/fat rich smoothie or egg/cheese/veggie omelette or scramble. Nutrient timing and eating the right foods to break a fast are important and need to be considered when embarking on this journey.
This method can be accomplished easily by not eating after 8 pm and not eating again until 12 pm the next day as mentioned above. Essentially you just skip breakfast and for some maybe a mid-morning snack but you can drink water (best with a pinch of salt to keep electrolytes balanced), black coffee, tea, or herbal teas so long as they do not have calories or carbohydrates noted on the box.
Note, women may do better with slightly shorter fasts, so 14-15 hours is a great starting point for many women. It’s not to say you have to stay here, just build up to the 16 hours as you are able.
This may be a challenge to people who enjoy or rely on their breakfasts in the mornings. However after a couple of days or even a week in some cases this will give way to so many benefits you may never go back.
During your fast you can drink water, black coffee, black tea, and lemon water providing it’s fresh lemon and no more than a ¼ of a lemon squeezed in. There are slight exceptions to coffee and tea such as adding a tsp of grass fed organic butter or coconut oil, or an unsweetened almond milk with stevia.
Ideally you want to keep your calories under 50 and your carbs less than 1g to not break your fast BUT don’t beat yourself up if you need to have your coffee or tea for the first couple days up to a week. Ease into any lifestyle change for better results.
The 5:2 method involves eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 calories per day for 2 days of the week.
On the fasting days, it’s recommended that women eat 500 calories and men 600.
For example, you might eat normally every day of the week except Mondays and Thursdays. For those two days, you eat 2 small meals of 250 calories each for women and 300 calories each for men. There is also the option to eat just one larger meal of 500/600 calories either, whatever works best for you.
As critics correctly point out, there are no studies testing the 5:2 diet itself but there are plenty of studies on the benefits of intermittent fasting in all its varieties.
Alternate Day Fasting is another commonly used method where you eat normally one day and then fast (restrict calories to 500) the following day. This is similar to the 5:2 method only done on alternate days instead of 2 days per week.
On a Monday for example, you would eat your normal amount of food. Preferably a balanced, unprocessed diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, some dairy or eggs, and if you eat meat then a good quality meat source like chicken, salmon, or beef.
The next day you would restrict your calorie intake to 500 calories, so you may have a dense salad, sandwich or shake as examples. You could also split your meals into two 250 calorie portions if desired.
This form of intermittent fasting can leave you feeling hungrier more often though, especially in the evenings which can lead to overeating if you are not extremely disciplined.
I would not recommend this form of IF to start out or if you have underlying conditions related to hormone imbalance as IF can affect hormone balance in both men and women in certain cases (8).
*If you have fertility/reproductive concerns or issues please consult a health professional prior to using IF*
In summary IF has its pros and cons depending on your current state of health. There is always new research becoming available and it may, or may not be the right solution for you. As with anything you try, if you do not feel well doing it, please stop. This is not to say if you are hungry the first few days that you should throw in the towel, but if you have noticeable changes in sleep, moods, or energy levels then it is worth stopping and addressing the issues with a health professional.
Remember as with all dietary and lifestyle changes:
- Food quality is important. Try to stick with whole foods, less than 5 ingredients, and organic if at all possible.
- Calories still count and gorging during your ‘eating window’ is not advised. Try to eat as you would normally do and don’t compensate for the missed meal in the morning as such.
- Consistency is key, the same as with any other weight loss method, you need to stick with it for an extended period of time if you want it to work. Fortunately most people tend to see results within a few weeks.
- Patience, as it can take your body some time to adapt to an intermittent fasting protocol. Try to be consistent with your meal schedule and it will get easier. It’s about breaking old habits and forming new ones.
...and as always make sure you are enjoying what you do!