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Most health practitioners won’t recommend eating less, due to the stigma involved, but there are incredible benefits attached to fasting when used sensibly. Here are some of the more popular methods.
Intermittent fasting is currently one of the world’s most popular health and fitness trends. It is a term for an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. As it says nothing about which foods you should eat, but rather when you should eat them, it is not a “diet” in the conventional sense. It is more accurately described as an “eating pattern”.
Common intermittent fasting methods involve daily 16-hour fasts, or fasting for 24 hours, twice per week. Humans have actually been fasting throughout evolution, at times more due to the fact that food was not always available on demand. Think hunter-gatherers.
Fasting has become increasingly popular over the years, especially among the health community. Whilst most health practitioners are afraid to recommend eating less due to the stigma involved, that still doesn’t alleviate the incredible benefits of fasting when used sensibly.
In this article I will highlight in simple terms with references to research some of the benefits of fasting and why you may want to consider giving it a try.
When you think about it, our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have supermarkets, refrigerators or food available year-round. Sometimes we couldn’t find anything to eat, and our bodies evolved to be able to function without food for extended periods of time. If anything, fasting from time to time is more “natural” than constantly eating three to four (or more) meals per day.
Is it a good thing to “starve” yourself each day, or a few days of the week?
A tonne of evidence indicates that timed periods of fasting are a good thing. Intermittent fasting has been very popular for many years and several different methods have been used. All of them involve splitting the day or week into eating periods and fasting periods. During the fasting periods, you eat either very little or nothing at all.
These are the most popular methods:
- The 16/8 Method: Also called the Lean Gains Protocol, it involves skipping breakfast and restricting your daily eating period to eight hours; for example from 1pm to 9pm. Then you “fast” for 16 hours in between.
- Eat-Stop-Eat: this involves fasting for 24 hours, once or twice a week, by not eating from dinner one day until dinner the next day, for example.
- The 5:2 Diet: on two non-consecutive days of the week, only eat 500-600 calories. Eat normally the other five days.
By making you eat fewer calories, all of these methods should make you lose weight as long as you don’t compensate by eating much more during the eating periods.
I personally consider the 16/8 Method to be the simplest, most sustainable and easiest to stick to. It is also the most popular.
So what are the health benefits for me?
Here are the main health benefits of intermittent fasting:
- Weight loss
- Insulin resistance
- Heart health
- Cancer prevention
Strong evidence for weight loss
Weight loss is the most common reason that people try intermittent fasting. Anything that offers a strategy to help improve weight management instantly gets people’s attention. It works by encouraging you to eat fewer meals. Intermittent fasting can lead to an automatic reduction in calorie intake, and changes hormone levels to facilitate weight loss.
In addition to lower insulin and increased growth hormone levels, it increases release of the fat burning hormone norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Because of these changes in hormones, short-term fasting may actually increase your metabolic rate by up to 14 percent.
By helping you eat less and helping you burn more (fewer calories in, more calories out), intermittent fasting causes weight loss by changing both sides of the calorie equation.
Studies show that intermittent fasting can be a very powerful weight loss tool. In a review study from 2014, it was shown to cause weight loss of 3-to-8 percent over periods of 3-to-24 weeks.
According to this study, people also lost 4-to-7 percent of their waist circumference. This indicates that they lost significant amounts of the harmful belly fat that builds up around the organs and causes disease. However, keep in mind that the main reason this works, is that it helps you eat fewer calories overall. If you binge and eat massive amounts during the eating periods, then you may not lose any weight at all.
Fasting improves insulin sensitivity
Type 2 diabetes has become incredibly common in recent decades. Its main feature is high blood sugar levels in the context of insulin resistance. Anything that reduces insulin resistance should help lower blood sugar levels and protect against type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, intermittent fasting has been shown to have major benefits for insulin resistance and lead to an impressive reduction in blood sugar levels.
Fasting improves insulin sensitivity, and levels of insulin drop dramatically, making stored body fat more accessible.
A study showed that after periods of fasting, insulin becomes more effective in telling cells to take up glucose from blood.
Heart disease is currently the world’s biggest killer. It is known that various health markers (so-called “risk factors”) are associated with either an increased or decreased risk of heart disease.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve numerous different risk factors, including blood pressure, total and LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, inflammatory markers and blood sugar levels.
Intermittent fasting may help prevent cancer
Cancer is the second biggest cause of death and we all seek ways to combat this well-known terrible disease. Although human studies are needed, promising evidence from animal studies indicates that intermittent fasting may help prevent cancer.
There is also some evidence on human cancer patients, showing that fasting reduced various side effects of chemotherapy.
Like the sound of all this and want to know how to get started?
Chances are you’ve already done many intermittent fasts throughout your life. If you’ve ever eaten dinner, then slept late and not eaten until lunch the next day, you’ve probably already done a 16+ hour fast. Many people actually eat this way instinctively, they simply don’t feel hungry in the morning. I personally find that the 16/8 Method is the simplest and most sustainable way to do intermittent fasting. I recommend that you try that one first. If you find it easy and you feel good during the fast, then you can try moving on to more advanced fasts like 24-hour fasts one to two times per week (Eat-Stop-Eat) or only eating 500-600 calories one to two days per week (the 5:2 diet). Another approach is to simply fast whenever it is convenient. As in, skip meals from time to time when you’re not hungry or don’t have time to cook. There is no need to follow a structured intermittent fasting plan to derive at least some of the benefits, so experiment with the different approaches and find something that you enjoy which fits your schedule.