Fasting. Yuck! Nobody thinks “Yeah I want to fast” especially those who struggle with overeating. The word tends to conjure up unpleasant thoughts of hunger pangs, light-headedness, restriction, and deprivation. We tolerate fasting when we have to, for blood work or medical procedures like colonoscopies (double yuck). And fasting is a spiritual cleansing ritual associated with many religions.
But could intermittent fasting (IF) actually help reduce your overeating? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Aside from reducing your cravings for sugar and processed foods, and turning you into an efficient fat-burning machine (making it easier for you to lose weight and maintain your ideal weight), research has confirmed that there are many other good reasons to fast.
WHAT EXACTLY IS IF? It involves timing your meals to allow for extended periods of fasting beyond the time you’re asleep. Research suggests that the most effective fasting schedule involves a fasting period of at least 16 hours. This means eating, for example, between the hours of 11am and 7pm or noon and 8pm, or any eight-hour period you prefer, allowing for approximately three food-free hours before bed. Most people who practice IF skip breakfast; others skip dinner. During your “feeding window,” you might consume two large meals or two small meals plus snacks—whatever feels right for you. You can practice IF daily, every other day, or just once per week. When I heard about IF, my first thought was that the concept of skipping breakfast seemed to fly in the face of everything I had learned about good nutrition. I had been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that skipping meals slows the metabolism. But it turns out that fasting actually stimulates the metabolism (whereas eating all day doesn’t) and having a longer fast than the typical eight sleeping hours has immense benefits. And you’re still essentially having breakfast, just later in the day.
MORE OF A LIFESTYLE THAN A DIET It’s a way of timing your food intake to optimize your health, weight, and longevity, especially since there is no calorie counting involved. Throughout history, our ancestors had to survive periods of famine. Avoiding starvation and getting enough to eat (while avoiding being eaten) was more often the challenge than overeating. Research suggests that fluctuations between periods of feast and famine are required for optimal metabolic function. The problem today is that most of us are always feasting, but rarely fasting. Our bodies are often digesting and processing food for 16 or more hours per day. And unlike our ancestors who were constantly on the move, our marked decrease in daily physical activity combined with an environment characterized by constant food abundance is a recipe for weight gain and obesity.
When combined with daily movement, you can mimic the natural fluctuations in food availability with an intermittent fasting schedule, thereby optimizing your metabolic function without actually changing what or how much you eat when you do eat. It is important, however, for health and well-being, to choose the most nutrient-dense foods during your feeding window. Unprocessed, whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, yams, nuts, and seeds are both nutrient-dense and full of fiber.
And just as you would on any healthy eating plan, it’s best to reduce or eliminate your intake of processed foods loaded with flour, sugar, and fat. WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS? IF normalizes your hunger hormone, known as ghrelin, and reduces cravings, which translates into weight loss. IF helps promote insulin sensitivity. Poor insulin sensitivity (think insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome) contributes to nearly all chronic diseases. IF increases the rate of human growth hormone production, which slows the aging process and has an important role in health and fitness. IF lowers your triglyceride levels and helps suppress inflammation and fights free radical damage. IF enhances brain function and preserves memory functioning and learning. IF is a way of lengthening your life—scientists have long known that caloric restriction (which naturally happens when you cut the amount of meals) extends longevity. IF has been shown to improve the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which improves your immune function. And less time eating means less hours with sticky, sweet foods on your teeth, which is always better for your teeth and gums. IF makes your day simpler, which reduces stress.
Hippocrates doctors are featured in an Amazon Prime documentary for their expertise on fasting.
IF allows you to eat one less meal per day, which translates into less preparation and planning and less expense. And many people who have found it difficult to lose weight on most diet plans find it much easier to lose weight with IF.
WILL IF WORK FOR YOU? It’s important to note that IF is not a diet and is not about periods of starvation followed by binge eating. And IF is not a form of extreme calorie restriction. Therefore, IF would not be appropriate for anyone struggling with an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating, or anyone newly recovering from an eating disorder. And while many emotional eaters find IF to be helpful in reducing cravings and improving metabolic function, it’s important not to fall into the trap of viewing the feeding window as a license to eat all your favorite comfort foods. With less time per day for feeding, good nutrition is even more important.
It’s best to check with your medical doctor before embarking on any fasting schedule. IF is not something you should practice carelessly. It’s important to pay close attention to how your body feels. If you have adrenal or thyroid imbalances, are diabetic or have low blood sugar, or are pregnant and/or breastfeeding, you should avoid any type of calorie restriction or fasting schedule until your blood sugar or insulin levels are regulated. And if you have recently had surgery, you may not want to try any fasting schedule until you have clearance from your doctor.
Take the time to educate yourself further on the many different types of fasting schedules. Intermittent fasting is a powerful way to reduce cravings and overeating, shift your body into fat-burning mode, and improve quite a few biomarkers for disease. It’s an evidence-based lifestyle adjustment for taking control of your health and fitness.
B Y JULIE M. SIMON