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Intermittent fasting: What is it and what are its benefits?

intermittent fasting and diet - plate and scales

Photo by AbsolutVision

People are in a constant search for the best way to lose weight and improve their health since forever. According to recent research, one of the most popular health and fitness trends is intermittent fasting. However, there is nothing new about fasting. Quite the opposite, intermittent fasting is probably one of the ancient secrets of health, which has been practiced throughout our history.  

intermittent fasting and diet - plate and scales
Photo by AbsolutVision

Many people are nowadays rediscovering this ‘eating regimen’. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since intermittent fasting can provide significant health benefits, including weight loss. There are several methods regarding the way to do it, and different people will prefer different styles. Let’s find out what are the benefits and the ways to do intermittent fasting!

What does the term ‘intermittent fasting’ actually mean?

Also known as intermittent energy restriction, the term intermittent fasting refers to various meal timing schedules that cycle between voluntary fasting and non-fasting over a given period.

You should be aware that intermittent fasting is not a diet, it’s more like a pattern of eating. It is a way of scheduling your meals in order to get the most out of them. So, intermittent fasting changes when you eat, as opposed to diets, who change what or how much you eat.

Is intermittent fasting the same as starvation?

Most certainly not. Fasting differs from the term starvation in one very important way – control. Starvation is an involuntary absence of food for a long time, which can lead to severe health problems, and in worst cases, death.

On the other hand, intermittent fasting is a voluntary withholding of food, due to health, spiritual or other reasons, and it is usually done by people who aren’t underweight, who have enough stored body fat to live off.

One key distinction between fasting and starvation is that if done right, fasting shouldn’t cause suffering, and most certainly never death. You can start a fast for just about any reason, or no reason at all. It has no standard duration, and it is merely referred to as the absence of eating.

Is fasting easier than dieting?

When you actually think about it, the reason most diets don’t work isn’t always because we switch to the wrong food. In fact it’s because we don’t follow the diet over the long term. So, it’s a behaviour change problem, rather than a nutrition problem. This is where intermittent fasting comes in perfectly, since it’s easy to implement it once you get over the idea that you have the need to eat all the time. A study has found that intermittent fasting is an effective approach when dealing with weight loss in obese adults and concluded that they quickly adapt to an intermittent fasting schedule.

The three types of intermittent fasting

Different people choose different methods of fasting. However, there are three popular ways of intermittent fasting that should be distinguished.

1. Periodic fasting

Periodic or also known as whole-day fasting refers to any period of consecutive fasting of more than 24 hours. An example of periodic fasting is the popular 5:2 diet, where there are one or two days of fasting per week. There is a more extreme version of this way of fasting, where people choose to do it for several days or even weeks. The consumption of about 500-700 calories, or approximately 25% percent of the regular daily caloric intake may be allowed during the fasting days.

2. Alternate-day fasting

This type of intermittent fasting involves alternating between a 24-hour ‘fast’ day, when one eats less than 25% of their usual energy needs. Then this day is followed by a 24-hour non-fasting period, or also called the ‘feast’ day. In fact the basic idea is that you fast on one day and then eat whatever you want the next day. This way you only need to restrict what you eat only half of the time. There are two subtypes of the alternate-day intermittent fasting approach:

  •   Complete alternate-day fasting

This approach requires total energy restrictions, where no calories are consumed during the fast days.

  • Modified alternate-day fasting

Also known as partial intermittent energy restriction, the modified alternate-day approach of fasting allows the person to consume up to 25% of the daily calorie needs on fasting days. In other words, it refers to alternating days with normal eating and days with a very low calorie diet.

3. Time-restricted feeding

The time-restricted feeding is a way of intermittent fasting that involves eating during a certain number of hours each day. The examples of this approach are skipping a meal and the 16:8 diet. This diet is based on 16 fasting hours followed by 8 non-fasting hours. Many consider this scheme as beneficial for leveraging the circadian rhythm.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?

One of the most obvious benefits of intermittent fasting is weight loss. However, we should know that there are various other potential benefits other than losing weight. Throughout human history, the fasting period has been often been referred to as ‘cleanse’, ‘purification’ or ‘detoxification’. The idea today is almost the same, i.e. to abstain from eating food for a certain amount of time, often because of health reasons. So let’s find out what exactly are these health benefits of intermittent fasting and why should you try it!

1. Lose weight

 This is probably the first reason why many decide to try any of the above mentioned approaches of intermittent fasting. Generally speaking, it will make you eat fewer meals. So, unless you decide to compensate by eating twice during the other meals, you will end up taking in less calories. Intermittent fasting will enhance hormone function to facilitate weight loss. It works ideally on both sides of the calorie equation. Or in other words, it reduces the calories in and increases calories out.

3. It can reduce insulin resistance

This is primarily important in order to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, which has become very common in recent decades. Intermittent fasting has been shown to have enormous benefits for insulin resistance and lead to a major reduction in blood sugar levels. However, you should be aware that there might be some differences between genders. The results of one study in women have shown that blood sugar control became worse after a 22-day long intermittent fasting protocol. 

4. It may reduce the body’s oxidative stress and inflammation

It is no surprise that oxidative stress is one of the steps towards many chronic diseases and aging. A study has shown that intermittent fasting might enhance the body’s resistance to oxidative stress. Moreover, some researchers claim that it can help fight body inflammation, which is yet another key source of all kinds of common diseases.

5. It may be beneficial for heart health 

We all know that several health markers, or popularly known as ‘risk factors’ are closely related with either an increased or decreased risk of heart disease. Intermittent fasting improves some of those risk factors, such as blood pressure, blood triglycerides, and total and LDL cholesterol. However, since many of these findings were based on animal studies, we should be aware that a lot more research in humans needs to be done before anything is precisely recommended. 

6. It’s good for the brain

If it’s good for the body, it’s very often good for the brain, right? Since intermittent fasting improves various metabolic processes, it’s super important for the health of the brain. It may stimulate and increase the growth of new nerve cells, which later have benefits for the brain’s function. It also increases the levels of a brain hormone known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor. A deficiency of this hormone is linked with depression and many other brain problems.

A couple of studies on animals have shown that intermittent fasting enhances cognition in multiple domains, including spatial memory, associative memory and working memory. Alternate-day fasting and daily caloric restriction reverse the effects that obesity, diabetes and neuroinflammation have on spatial learning and memory. A large, multicenter clinical trial has recently shown that two years of a daily caloric restriction had led to a crucial improvement in working memory. However, there is still a need for further studies regarding intermittent fasting and cognition in older people, especially because of the absence of any pharmacologic therapies that influence brain aging and the progression of neurodegenerative illnesses. 

7. It helps you live longer

Scientists have long known that one of the keys to lengthening life is restricting the intake of calories. We’ve got some good news for you! Intermittent fasting activates the same mechanisms for extending life as calorie restriction when dieting or the not-recommended starvation, for example. In other words, you get the benefits of a longer life without the problem of starving yourself!

8. It makes your day a bit more simple

Intermittent fasting allows you to eat one or few less meals a day, which also means planning less meals, cooking less meals, and stressing about less meals. So yes, it may make your life a bit simpler.

Intermittent fasting – the key to a healthier lifestyle!

Intermittent fasting revolves around entirely or partially abstaining from eating for a set amount of time, before eating regularly again. As much as it stimulates weight loss, this food regimen has an array of other important health benefits. Each person’s experience of intermittent fasting is individual, so make sure you choose what fits best to your health and lifestyle. And the best part of it? It’s surprisingly easy to stick to, as opposed to a regular diet, because you only need to ‘diet’ a certain amount of time!

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