How many of us, if asked, could easily rattle off a dozen different diet fads? Some of we’ve tried, some we’ve heard of, some we’ve laughed at—the low carb diet, the liquids only diet, the cabbage soup diet, even the baby food diet!
All of them ranged from downright gimmicky to the believably scientific. But for whatever reason or another, most of us have tried and fallen off of these various wagons. It was just unsustainable or just too weird. And with such experiences behind us, it is easily understandable why there might be people looking at intermittent fasting with a worn and wary eye. Is it just another trendy fad? What’s the gimmick? What’s the hook?
And as popular and gimmicky-sounding as this topic has become, intermittent fasting is quickly becoming regarded as one of the more sound methods of dieting. And that is because at the bottom of the method, it relies on the tried and true formula of weight loss: eating a little less. It uses the normal chemistry of weight loss, aiding it simply by wrapping it in a calculated time frame.
When we eat, our body breaks down our food with enzymes and turns it into energy. If we don’t end up using all of this energy, we store it in our body as fat by carrying sugar into our cells with insulin, creating fat cells. When our insulin levels go down, our fat cells then begin using the stored sugar within as energy, thus losing weight. But we need that time in between eating for our insulin levels to get low enough that this process occurs. If we keep eating throughout the day, we never let our insulin levels get low enough for our stored fat to be used. But by blocking out a window of time where we aren’t eating, we are letting are body reach into those reserves. That is what intermittent fasting is accomplishing.
Although you can pair any kind of diet with intermittent fasting (Atkins, Weight Watchers, keto, etc), intermittent fasting itself doesn’t ask you to change what you eat—just how you eat. Intermittent fasting focuses more on how we consume our food. Instead of grazing throughout the day, the diet is focused on giving ourselves a defined window of time to eat. For example, you are free to eat from 7am to 7pm and then afterwards, for the next twelve hours, you are fasting. But from 7am to 7pm, you are free to break up your meals however you’d like.
It is important to remember that those twelve eating hours are not a challenge but merely a window of opportunity. Don’t eat as much as you can during those twelve hours. Eat as smartly as you can. Sensible portions, reasonable calories per meal, and weight loss can be achieved. Speaking of calories though, there is an argument to be made that not all calories are created equally. 100 calories of fructose, which can be turned into glycogen and eventually fat, is different from 100 calories of protein, which can build muscle and aid in digestion. That is why diets such as a ketogenic diet or the Atkin diet gained popularity–it shifted the focus on what each diet considered to be the more important and nutritional food group. But regardless, what all these different diets and methodologies had in common were smaller, more reasonably portioned meals. The main idea of calorie awareness is just to be more mindful of what kind of foods and how much of it we are consuming. We should be consuming less refined sugars and processed foods, more fresh vegetables and healthy proteins. We want to train ourselves to choose the 100 calories of protein over the 100 calories of fructose.
There are no food restrictions or requirements. There are no minimum number of meals. If you want to break up your calories into seven different meals within those twelve hours, that works. If you want to wait till the end of your day to have one giant meal, that works as well. This kind of freedom actually works for a broader range of people than other diet methods because not everyone enjoys having three big meals. Not everyone enjoys having snacks. Intermittent fasting allows you the freedom to choose how you want to eat, when you want to eat. The window of time to eat can also be varied. There are different methods. The most known method that popularized intermittent fasting is the 5:2 method introduced by Dr. Michael Mosley in his book The Fast Diet. This method suggests eating a restricted diet for two days out of the week, while the remaining five days were normal eating days. But there are a variety of fasting formulas and it’s best to pick which one works best for your individual lifestyle. Regardless of the eating window you choose, the concept of intermittent fasting and what is happening to our bodies at a biological level is similar.
So there it is. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Eat within a specific timeframe and let our bodies use up our stored fats for energy. That’s all there really is to intermittent fasting. Even without exercise, simply watching what you eat and managing it responsibly on a daily basis will lead to weight loss.This all seems so simple and almost obvious. So why has something this straight forward and obvious picked up so much steam?
Because research is showing that intermittent fasting is doing much more than just helping people lose weight—it is changing their overall health, and even future health, for the better. Through intermittent fasting, researchers and doctors are finding benefits beyond simple weight loss.
One of the first and most obvious benefit of intermittent fasting is psychological. Many of us have been conditioned to soothe ourselves by eating when we are bored, stressed, upset, or even happy. By restricting our timeframe of eating, we quickly realize that the hunger pangs we’re feeling at 10pm at night are not truly hunger pangs. They are boredom pangs. By recognizing our own habits, we can quickly realize where we are adding unnecessary calories into our diets. We can also more quickly identify what is truly motivating us to eat, allowing us to address those issues more directly. Eating is something we all do every day and sometimes we forget how intimate our relationship with food can be. Intermittent fasting can give us that space to step back a bit to reevaluate how we are relating with food on a psychological level.
There are also mental benefits of intermittent fasting with research suggesting better mental clarity and improved learning from fasting. In testing with mice, mice who were kept on an intermittent fasting diet showed less proteins containing oxidative stress indices in the cerebral cortex. Oxidative stress is a known factor for brain aging and can induce cell injury and impairment of learning and memory.
And there are benefits in our ability to fight future disease and illness. Humans evolved in environments were food was relatively scarce which pushed our bodies to develop numerous adaptations that enabled us to function at a high level, both physically and mentally, when in a food-deprived or fasted state. Researchers have found intermittent fasting to make significant improvement against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s. Intermittent fasting helps regulate insulin levels and reduces insulin resistance, allowing for some studies to show a complete reversal in Type 2 diabetes. Intermittent fasting also allows the body to regain some equilibrium between fasts. Intermittent fasting helps lower the circulating levels of glucose, insulin, and homocysteine, all of which are factors in regards to cardiovascular disease. And as mentioned earlier, intermittent fasting also allows the brain to produce less harmful oxidative stress proteins which can damage the brain and sometimes lead to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
But be aware that intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. There are people who follow a more extreme version of intermittent fasting–OMAD, or One Meal A Day. This fasting method means exactly what it says, you eat one meal a day. Many celebrities to tech moguls tout this method of dieting. But this method isn’t for everyone and many argue this can actually be a dangerous and damaging practice. Just as some can argue intermittent fasting has helped them recognize and re-evaluate unhealthy eating habits, others can be triggered by the restrictive time window. People who have struggled with eating disorders should be very careful and possibly avoid intermittent fasting altogether. It can be a slippery slope into relapsing. You should always consult a healthcare provider before beginning any kind of intermittent fasting.
Weight loss can be a hard and discouraging battle. But if we can change our perspective from weight loss to overall health and well-being, we see that we are not battling our bodies but instead embracing and elevating them. Intermittent fasting provides a more holistic approach to getting not only a slimmer body but also a healthier one. If you’re ready to not only lose some pounds but also gain a better appreciation for what we can do for our bodies, intermittent fasting might just be your ticket to a new and better you!