Whether you want to drop a few pounds or need to regenerate your body on the cellular level, intermittent fasting might be just the ticket. I will try to break down the main points about it and give you an Intermittent Fasting 101 guide to doing it right.
Intermittent fasting is currently one of the most popular health and nutrition trends and it is touted for fast and lasting results, but it is not just a diet fad. There is lots of real science behind its benefits and there can be real results if done properly. Some people ask, is intermittent fasting safe? Others want to know what benefits can intermittent fasting bring.
Let’s dive into all this.
Why Intermittent Fasting 101?
Earlier this year, for New Year’s resolution, I set myself a goal of quitting sugar completely. Well, five months into the experiment, I have to admit that I failed miserably. I wish I could blame the quarantine, but I started breaking my own rules way before that, probably around Valentine’s Day. And, I started noticing my mid-section expanding slowly but surely.
If I cannot go off sugar completely, I had to do something else to avoid getting into yet another “battle of the bulge.” Enter Intermittent Fasting 101. I knew a bit about it (I’ll explain more later) and I knew it was effective. I wanted to research why and how does it work and how to do it right.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
The most important thing to understand about intermittent fasting is that it is not a diet but rather a pattern of eating. People are using intermittent fasting for weight loss, but also to improve their general health and to regenerate their bodies.
“Fasting has been practiced for millennia, but only recently studies have shed light on its role in adaptive cellular responses that reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, optimize energy metabolism and bolster cellular protection.”Pub Med
The most common intermittent fasting patterns include daily 16-hour fasts or fasting for 24 hours, twice per week, which technically should be termed periodic fasting.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe?
Research shows that for lifestyles that incorporate periodic fasting, there is great potential to promote optimal health and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, particularly for those who are overweight and sedentary.
“However, studies of fasting regimens have not been performed in children, the very old and underweight individuals, and it is possible that IF and PF would be harmful to these populations.”NIH Study
If you are an adult and not underweight, intermittent fasting is safe and can be very effective in changing not only your body but also your brain and may lead to a longer and healthier life. This study’s findings suggest that intermittent and periodic fasting are as effective as calories restriction for weight loss and cardioprotection.
The best part is that you can reap all these benefits of intermittent fasting without much restrictions and deprivation. Of course, it would make no sense to eat junk within the eating window, but aside from staying away from what is considered generally unhealthy foods (too much sugar, junk food, unhealthy fats), one can eat pretty much anything one desires during the eating period.
Personally, I’d rather abstain from food for 16 hours (which includes sleep) than live on carrot sticks and plain brown rice to keep the caloric intake down.
What happens inside your body while on a fast?
The benefits of fasting of all kinds have been thoroughly researched. Apparently, when one is fasting, some interesting things happen in the body on the cellular and molecular level:
- During the fasting period, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy. The main idea behind intermittent is precisely to allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat.
- Moreover, the body starts rebalancing hormone levels so that the body fat -stored for the hungry times – becomes more accessible, leading thus to weight loss.
- The levels of Human Growth Hormone start to rapidly increase (as much as five times their regular level), allowing for fat loss and muscle gain processes and can even lead to a change in the expression of genes.
“Diminished secretion of growth hormone is responsible in part for the decrease of lean body mass, the expansion of adipose-tissue mass, and the thinning of the skin that occur in old age.”NIH Study
- Individual cells start repairing themselves. This includes autophagy (cellular cleansing or “cannibalism”), where cells digest and remove old and dysfunctional proteins that build up inside cell. This is a crucial process for disease prevention and healing.
“In recent years, autophagy has been recognized as a crucial defense mechanism against malignancy, infection and neurodegenerative diseases.”NIH Study
Intermittent Fasting and Cancer
I first heard of intermittent fasting while on chemo. I came across an animal study, which suggested that fasting may decrease the incidence of carcinogenesis. The same study claimed that fasting “could also slow the tumor growth and augment the efficacy of certain systemic agents/chemotherapy drugs in various cancers.
Basically, the thinking goes that chemotherapy is more effective and targeting only the malignant cells when administered after a period of fasting, and then followed by few more hours of abstaining from food.
It can of course be very hard for cancer patients to fast, when trying to build up strength and energy amidst all the treatments. I tried, but my chemo regimen was not permissive to fasting (I had continuous 48-hour infusions) so it didn’t work out.
If you are a cancer patient and thinking about including fasting in your treatment, PLEASE consult your medical team first. Every person’s situation is different and might require different approaches.
Intermittent Fasting and Working Out
Some people worry that if they fast, they will not be able to work out. In my personal experience, morning working out, just before breaking the fast, is not an issue at all. I actually feel more energetic, somehow “lighter”, working out on empty stomach.
And, research shows that working out while fasting might actually lead to more weight loss than exercising after eating. Moving while fasting is what’s known as fasting cardio and the body is supposedly using stored fat and carbs instead of what one has recently eaten, causing higher levels of fat loss.
One study suggests that “fasting prior to exercise may be advantageous for reducing energy intake and increasing fat oxidation which has potential implications for weight and body composition management.” However, there are also studies that suggest there is not much difference between exercising on an empty vs. full stomach. So, the jury on the issue might be still out.
Intermittent Fasting Muscle Gain or Loss
This is another question people have: will intermittent fasting cause muscle gain or loss? Here, as well, there are studies that support a yes and a no answer.
Weight loss usually combines loss of fat and loss of lean body mass, which includes muscle mass. However, it’s been suggested that intermittent fasting will not cause any more muscle loss than any other weight-loss diets.
How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
Let’s get into actual Intermittent Fasting 101. There are several ways to do it. Depending on your motivation, your relationship to food, maybe even your family situation, one might be better suited for you than the other.
For example, I am the cook in my family, so I cannot even imagine, preparing the food for my family at least twice a day and then not eat the same entire day. If I were single, I would not be bothered by the sight and the aromas from the kitchen because they wouldn’t be there. So for me, the only way to intermittently fast is the 16/8 method.
- The 5:2 pattern calls for eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 for 2 days of the week. (Not for me, I don’t like calorie counting)
- Eat Stop Eat involves a 24-hour fast once or twice per week. (not possible for me for the above-mentioned family situation)
- In alternate-day fasting, you fast every other day. (same)
- The 16:8 method: every single day, you eat for 8-10 hours, you fast for 14–16 hours. You can pick your fasting window, but it’s probably safe to assume that it should include your rest/sleeping time.
This last one is the pattern I’m choosing to go with. I started a week ago and so far so good, only minor slip-ups. I personally was never a morning eater, so skipping breakfast is no biggie. What I am still occasionally struggling with is “closing” the kitchen right after dinner and abstaining from any snacking or drinking anything but water or tea.
My eating window is usually 12 to 8 or 9 PM. It is totally doable most of the time (weekends or date nights are tougher). Within my eating window, I fit in a lunch, a small snack (fruit or smoothie), and a dinner. I don’t feel deprived in any way. I noticed that I tend to sleep deeper and with fewer interruptions since not eating too close to bedtime. (Some people believe that IF works by supporting our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock).
You know yourself best, and you know what might work for you best. Some people love their breakfast and can easily skip dinner. For those, probably an 8 AM – 4 PM eating window might be best. Others might sleep in a bit longer but still want their breakfast and could opt for a 10 AM – 6 PM window. If someone works a night shift, their hours might be totally different.
What To Do When You Feel Famished
Whether physiologically or psychologically, you might feel like you just have to eat something this very moment. In such situations, some helpful tips might be in order:
- Oftentimes it is thirst rather than hunger, so try to tend to it first. Drink a big glass of water and see how you feel afterward. The urge to eat might pass.
- You might also turn to herbal teas which are touted for appetite-suppressing properties: for example ginger tea, cinnamon tea, or melissa.
- If hunger strikes while watching your favorite show, it might be the ads or seeing people on TV eating that triggers the feeling. Try to turn off the tube and go for a walk or read a book instead.
- Try to exercise just before your fasting period ends. In fact, exercising “on empty” is said to be doubly beneficial for weight loss and muscle gain.
- Try essential oils known for appetite suppression, like pink grapefruit. Just a whiff might be enough to export you to a different world and the thought of eating might be gone.
- Practice mindfulness when eating. You don’t have to do a 20-minute long raisin meditation (where you sniff, lick, taste, bite, etc. one single raisin for the entire 20 minutes!), but try to enjoy your meal with all senses and pause after every bite to realize the goodness of the meal and the company.
What Can You Drink During Intermittent Fasting
Anything that is calorie-free can be consumed during the fast. That would include water, unsweetened tea, and unsweetened coffee. Be wary of any other drinks such as Diet Coke and the like. Even though they are calorie-free, the sweet taste might still be sending the signal to the brain that sweet food is coming. This would lead to an insulin spike, and as you know by now, this is totally the opposite of what intermittent fasting is supposed to achieve.
Stay Clear from Junk Food
Even though intermittent fasting technically does not restrict any type of food, it would make little sense to eat doughnuts or churros during the eating window. Why bother with the whole experiment, if the food is junk instead of being a fuel for the body so that it can perform all these amazing things like Human Growth Hormone spike and autophagy while we fast?
For best result and most healthful benefits, consider these guidelines:
- 1. Stay away from simple sugars and refined grains. You can get your sweetness from seasonal fruits and vegetables and other energy-providing, complex carbohydrates from legumes such as lentils and beans, sweet potatoes, and whole grains.
- 2. Make good carbohydrates – the ones mentioned above –clean, lean proteins, and healthy fats the mainstay of your nutrition. Basically, a sensible, plant-based diet would be best. You can read about my struggle to find the right approach and settling on the Mediterranean-style diet here.
- 3. Try to have at least three or four hours between meals. Leaving this window, allows your stomach to empty and the food to enter the intestines and the intestines to clean themselves. Eating and snacking constantly during the eating window could lead to problems down the line, such as SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth)
- 4. Be active so that your body has a chance to burn fat also during the eating window but between meals. Don’t snack and stay active throughout your day (walking, even standing is better than sitting for hours on end)
- 5. If 16:8 or 5:2 seem too daunting, start small and simple. Maybe start with only a 12 hour fasting period and then gradually extend the time say by another hour on a weekly basis.
- 6. Since you are now doing all this good for your precious body, don’t poison it with smoke and too much alcohol. Moderation is key (for booze, not for cigarettes)
My Previous Dance with Intermittent Fasting
It is still an experiment for me. I did intermittently fast a while ago and I had great effects. Back then, it was more involuntary. When I was recovering after my cancer treatments, my GI tract was out of whack for a long time. So much that I wasn’t comfortable eating while working and so I simply avoided eating while on my day job teaching.
My first meal of the day would be only at 3 PM when I was done with classes. I don’t remember exactly until how late in the day I was eating, but it couldn’t have been later than 10 PM. So, technically I was fasting for at least 15 hours working every day. I felt great, I lost some weight and kept it off (until I stopped IF), and I remained cancer-free, which is the most important part!
So now, after a break of about a year and a half, I am ready to start this project again. If you’re with me, drop me a note. I’d love to hear how it’s going for you. Did you have success with intermittent fasting? Or was it a complete failure? Will you try it again? Are you in it forever and ever?
Until then, stay safe and healthy!