One of today’s most popular health and fitness trends in the world is intermittent fasting.
Most people use it to achieve weight loss, improved health, and a simplified lifestyle.
Intermittent fasting was shown to have powerful effects on your body and brain and may even promote longevity.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular eating pattern—and not a diet—that does not specify which food to eat but rather “when” you should eat. It cycles between fasting and eating periods.
Throughout human evolution, fasting has already been a practice. Hunter-gatherers in ancient times sometimes could not find something to eat. As a result, humans can suppress hunger even for extended periods.
Fasting from time to time is natural; in fact, it is more natural than always eating 3+ meals every day.
Moreover, it is often done for spiritual purposes; some religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, mandate some form of fasting.
There are different methods of intermittent fasting, but they commonly involve either daily fasting of 16 hours or 24-hour fasts, twice a week. During the periods of fasting, it’s either you eat very little or nothing at all.
Each of the methods might have different results, but all of them can be effective and nothing is better than the other.
Here are 3 popular methods of intermittent fasting. All of these methods should lead to weight loss by reducing your calorie intake, so long as you don’t compensate for your lost calories by eating huge meals during your eating windows.
The 16/8 Method (the Leangains protocol)
People using the 16/8 method skip breakfast and restrict their daily eating window to 8 hours, like 12:00–8:00 p.m., and a 16-hour fast in between.
This method is the most popular and is found to be the most sustainable and easiest method to stick to.
The 5:2 Diet
This method involves limiting your calorie intake to 500–600 during two non-consecutive days of the week and eating normally during the other 5 days.
This method involves a 24-hour fast once or two times a week, e.g., not eating breakfast from day one until breakfast the following day.
Intermittent Fasting Affects Your Cells and Hormones
Several things happen in your body on the molecular and cellular levels when you fast. Your cells also change gene expression and initiate important repair processes.
Below are some changes that occur in your body that are responsible for the health benefits of intermittent fasting.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
The growth hormone levels increase as much as 5-fold, which leads to muscle gain and fat loss.
Insulin levels significantly decrease, making the stored body fat more accessible, and insulin sensitivity improves.
Your cells initiate cellular repair processes when fasted, including autophagy—a process where cells digest and remove dysfunctional proteins that accumulate inside cells.
There are changes in the gene function related to protection against disease and longevity.
Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss
The most common reason for people doing intermittent fasting is to achieve weight loss.
With intermittent fasting comes a reduced calorie intake as you tend to eat fewer meals.
To facilitate weight loss, intermittent fasting changes hormone levels.
Moreover, intermittent fasting increases the release of the fat-burning hormone noradrenaline.
Thus, short-term fasting has the potential to increase your metabolic rate to 3.6–14%.
Several studies have found that it can be a very powerful tool for weight loss.
A review study in 2014 found that intermittent fasting can result in 3–8% weight loss in just 3–24 weeks. Accordingly, people doing intermittent fasting also lost 4–7% of their waist circumference, which indicates a significant belly fat loss—harmful belly fat that accumulates around your organs and causes disease.
Another study also demonstrated that this eating pattern causes muscle loss.
But it is important to note that the main reason for its success is that intermittent fasting promotes fewer calorie intake. If you overeat during your eating windows, it might not be effective.
Intermittent Fasting Health Benefits
Several animal and human studies on intermittent fasting have been conducted. These studies demonstrated that this eating pattern has potential benefits for weight control and the health of your brain and body. What’s more, it may even promote longevity.
The following are a few of the many potential health benefits of intermittent fasting:
As previously mentioned, intermittent fasting has the potential to help you achieve weight and belly fat loss, without consciously restricting your calorie intake.
Intermittent fasting should protect against type 2 diabetes by reducing insulin resistance and lowering blood sugar and fasting insulin levels by 3–6% and 20–31%, respectively.
Some studies have linked intermittent fasting to reduced markers of inflammation.
Intermittent fasting can potentially reduce all risk factors for heart disease, such as blood triglycerides, inflammatory markers, “bad” LDL cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin resistance.
Intermittent fasting may also prevent cancer, as suggested by some animal studies.
Intermittent fasting may aid the growth of new nerve cells and increase the brain hormone BDNF. It was also found to have the potential to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies demonstrated that fasted rats lived 36–83% longer; thus, intermittent fasting has been concluded to extend lifespan in rats.
Unfortunately, these studies have limitations. Further human studies are needed to elucidate the potential health benefits of intermittent fasting to humans.
Intermittent Fasting Simplifies Your Lifestyle
With intermittent fasting also comes a simple lifestyle: you need not plan, prepare, cook, and eat 3+ meals a day which gives you a lot of free time in your day.
It can, therefore, make things easier for you.
Who Should Be Careful or Avoid Doing Intermittent Fasting?
While it is true that intermittent fasting offers numerous health benefits, it is certainly not for everyone as it can also be downright harmful to some people.
You should not be allowed to fast if you are underweight or have a history of eating disorder without consulting with your healthcare provider first.
Intermittent Fasting for Women
This eating pattern may not be as beneficial for women as it is for men.
A study demonstrated that intermittent fasting has worsened blood sugar control in women, but improved insulin sensitivity in men.
Although no human studies are available for this matter, studies in rats demonstrated that intermittent fasting can potentially make female rats infertile, masculinized, and emaciated, and can even cause them to miss cycles.
There are a few anecdotal reports of women whose menstrual period stopped when they were doing intermittent fasting and returned to normal as they resumed their normal eating patterns.
Thus, women are advised to be careful with intermittent fasting: they should ease or immediately stop doing it should they experience any complications, such as amenorrhea.
For women who are trying to conceive and/or have issues with fertility, they are advised to consider holding off on intermittent fasting to avoid any complications. This eating pattern is also not a good idea if you’re breastfeeding or pregnant.
Side Effects of Intermittent Fasting
The only main side effect of this eating pattern is the feeling of hunger, although it can also make you feel weak and your brain may not perform well when you’re hungry.
But these side effects may only be temporary as your body can gradually adapt to the new eating schedule.
However, if you have an underlying medical condition, including diabetes, low blood pressure, and problems with blood sugar regulation, you should consult with your doctor first before starting with intermittent fasting.
But if you are just healthy and well-nourished, intermittent fasting is known to have an outstanding safety profile.
Getting Started with Intermittent Fasting
You may have instinctively done many intermittent fasts in your life.
For example, you’ve probably already fasted for 16+ hours when you’ve already eaten dinner the night before, then slept and woke up late and not eaten until lunch the following.
If you’re planning to do intermittent fasting, you might want to try the simplest and most sustainable method first—the 16/8 method. And then, later on, you can try moving on to a more advanced fast, like only limiting your calorie intake to 500–600, 2 days per week, or fasting for 24 hours, once or twice per week.
Or you can simply fast whenever it’s convenient. It is not necessary to follow a structured intermittent fasting plan to gain some of its benefits. You can simply skip meals from time to time when you don’t have time to cook or you’re not hungry.
To determine the best intermittent fasting method that works for you, you can experiment with the different approaches.
Intermittent fasting can be beneficial for some people and can be harmful to others. Thus, if you are underweight or you have an underlying medical condition or pregnant/lactating women, consult with your healthcare provider/doctor first before doing intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is only one of the many lifestyle strategies to attain improved health, but the most important factors to focus on should be exercising, eating healthy food, and taking care of your sleep.
If you’re not into the idea of intermittent fasting, you can continue doing what works for you. At the end of the day, the best diet for you is the one you can continue doing even in the long run.
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