Crash Course to Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is making headlines all around the world, and causing nutritionists and health gurus of all stripes to stock up on antacid medication. It has become a way of life for thousands of people who have reported positive results, and these results are backed up by clinical trials that stand conventional wisdom about what constitutes a “healthy” diet on its ear. In this article we will discuss what intermittent fasting is; how it works; what the benefits and drawbacks may be for you; and some of the more popular ways in which intermittent fasting, or IF, is incorporated into a regular diet.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
“Fasting” is simply going without eating. Many people do this for religious reasons, others because they are forced by circumstances or lack of available food to do without, and still others because of stress or physical health problems. Fasting is nothing more than not taking in food and hence calories. If this sounds weird to you, consider that while you’re sleeping, you’re also not eating. You don’t feel thirsty or hungry, you’re not bored, tired, or preoccupied, and therefore not looking for something to “pick you up” or nibble on.
“Intermittent fasting,” therefore, is going without food on a more or less set schedule. Strangely, this type of fasting may actually be better for most people than conventional wisdom and commonly held beliefs about what a stable diet should and shouldn’t be would suggest. The reason for this is evolutionary: Human beings as a species did not evolve in a situation where a steady, regular source of caloric intake (that’s food to you) was assured or available. Diets could change drastically based upon weather, time of day, season, location and other factors. Therefore, our bodies evolved to be able to cope with periods of lean sustenance by coming to actually require a certain amount of fasting.
Fast forward fifty thousand years, give or take a couple of millennia. Only in the past century has a steady, reliable source of food become a reality for most humans. Thus on an evolutionary scale, we started eating a lot more than is strictly healthy for us particularly in First World countries. The evidence for this is increased obesity in both adults and children, a corresponding reduction in overall health, and a number of nutrition-related deficits and overabundance which work together to make us feel worse than we should, all other factors being equal.
Even so, many people hear about intermittent fasting and think, “That’s crazy! Who would do that?” There are actually a lot of reasons to do this. You do it yourself every day, when you sleep, when you set yourself certain hours during which you do and don’t or can’t eat, or when you make the choice to pass up a snack. The difference between this very haphazard version of IF and a more disciplined, targeted methodology is that your body is not getting any regimentation and thus is convinced every time you go without eating it’s about to starve.
How Does IF Work?
IF works on the idea that your body can assimilate to just about anything, given enough time and regimentation. Remember our bodies are evolved to expect and even require fasting. IF imposes a stable, steady form of fasting upon the body, giving it the respite from processing the foods we eat it needs. This would not be as imperative if we all lived on an entirely organic, all-natural, unprocessed diet, but that isn’t the case. As you read this, I’ll bet a pack of Twinkies there’s a soda, an energy drink, a bag of chips or a package of cookies within twenty paces of you. As our diets move further away from the “natural” food we’ve evolved to require and more into the processed, overly sugared “modern” food we are served at every meal, our bodies are forced to work harder to break down these materials.
We all know that digestion is the process by which food is broken down into energy for our bodies and waste products. We rarely think any further about digestion than this, but one of the largest side effects of digestion is a release of insulin. Insulin is the chemical in our bodies that allows our systems to process sugar effectively and convert it to energy. Insulin is also the chemical which causes our bodies to store sugar, thus energy, as fat. Diabetics suffer from either a surfeit or a deficit of insulin, causing them to process sugar inefficiently if at all. From this it becomes clear that there is a clear and direct link between digestion and insulin production. By reducing the effort our bodies have to put forth to digest food, we also reduce potential fat and force our bodies to process what we put in more efficiently.
IF is not known to be a cure for diabetes. One of the crucial ideas of IF is to modify eating habits away from processed, sugar-laden foods to begin with. Eating better is the first and most crucial key to getting real results from intermittent fasting. Once your body becomes accustomed to better and healthier food then you can move on to the next step, which is where the actual fasting comes into play, but without first adjusting what you put into your body, the fasting will not be as effective and could actually cause digestive and other health problems. Before you start IF, you should consult with your doctor to identify possible problems this could cause you and what warning signs you should be aware of.
What’s A “Feeding Window” And Why Should I Bother?
Most people’s feeding windows cover the entire day from waking up to lying down. Consider a typical day in most American households. Wake up, attend to hygiene, assemble breakfast. Off to work and school, have a snack, have lunch, work some more. Come home, have another snack, have dinner, watch TV or play on the computer, snack some more, go to bed. If we assume most people sleep for exactly eight hours, this means for fifteen to sixteen hours we eat more or less constantly. This is called the “feeding window.” Then our bodies have only around eight or nine hours to process everything we ingested the previous day before starting the cycle all over again. We don’t think anything of this, because our bodies have gotten used to this semi-regular grazing throughout the day, despite the evolutionary imperative that says we’re not doing ourselves any favors.
When starting intermittent fasting, a feeding window is greatly reduced. These are often expressed as ratios, such as 18:6. In this number, “18” is the number of hours in a day you don’t eat. “6” then is the feeding window, meaning for 6 hours a day you can eat pretty much whatever you like. However, this does not mean you should fast for 18 hours and then dig into the Slim Jims and energy drinks. Remember your body is adapted and evolved to need certain basics, and processed foods lose a lot of these or add so much in that any benefit they may convey is overshadowed by the extra effort your body must expend to break them down into energy.
Variations on this include “16:8,” “14:10,” or “20:4.” In all of these, the first number is the length of fasting time per day. The second number is the feeding window. You may also see numbers such as “6:1,” “5:2,” or “4:3.” You may have noticed the first series of numbers above all add up to 24, while the second series all add up to 7. This just so happens to be the number of days in the week. So you may eat for six days and fast for one, eat five and fast two, or eat four and fast three. The last is highly extreme and not really recommended, unless your healthcare provider clears you for it.
It is possible to combine these numbers as well. You may come up with an IF plan that breaks down to “5:16:8:2:0” or something similar. This means that for five days you have a feeding window of 8 hours and a fasting window of 16, with two days a week where you don’t eat at all. You may also decide to go with a “3:18:6:1:0:2:18:6:1:0,” which means 3 days with an 18-hour fast and a 6-hour feeding window, one day you eat nothing, 2 days where you return to the 18:6 pattern, and another day you eat nothing. The possible variations are limited only by the number of hours in a day and days in a week. You could even carry this out to the month, but that could get a little extreme.
The reason for a feeding window is simple. By retraining your body to expect food only within certain periods of the day, you give your body longer resting periods where it is not struggling to digest everything you’ve put into it. Your body also gets more of a break between feeding periods. This works well because you release the exact same amount of insulin in a constant grazing pattern as you do in a feeding window, but with a feeding window your body has more time to cope with the excess insulin and help you store less fat as a result.
This sounds weird. Anyone I know doing IF?
The IF diet has become most popular in its 5:2 variation, which in turn has a number of variations of its own. Many people are trying the 5:2 with an upper limit of 500 calories on “2” days for women and 600 for men. Among the ranks of people who are reportedly turning to IF are famous faces like Ben Affleck, Christy Turington, Beyonce Knowles and Liv Tyler. Jade Wright, a reporter in Liverpool, England, gave IF a try as well. This naturally raises questions about whether IF is just another fad diet or something that might actually last.
Like any other diet, IF requires certain things to work. First is recalibrating what you include in your diet. The keyword here is “sensible.” The next step is to regulate how much you eat at a sitting. Eating like a lumberjack three times a day, no matter how healthy the food is, isn’t any better than fasting for three days and then eating your way through a Las Vegas buffet. Eating reasonable portions of sensible food during your feeding window and restricting your intake to water and tea the rest of the time will help you lose weight and shed fat.
This is all great, but here comes the part no one likes to hear. Yes, you will have to exercise. An IF diet by itself can help you lose weight, but it will not work as quickly nor will it help you build muscle. For that, you need to exercise regularly, preferably outside your feeding window. This helps kick start your metabolism and allows your body to process food more efficiently. It will also help you boost muscle mass. Like it or not, the human body needs to be worked routinely to work at peak capability, which means exercise.
What Else Should I Know About IF?
IF is a great way to lose weight quickly and effectively, but it is not a panacea. Getting started can be a little rough, especially if you’re used to eating whatever, whenever. For the first week or so, you may experience discomfort or hunger outside your feeding window. IF takes a certain amount of discipline and willpower until the habits you put into place become second nature, like anything else. Here are some other questions people often ask about IF.
1. Can I start IF without talking to my doctor?
Never, ever start a diet or exercise regimen of any kind without talking to your healthcare provider first. With their help and guidance you can establish a feeding window that works with your life and body for maximum results and safety.
2. Does IF work the same for men and women?
No, it doesn’t. Clinical trials indicate that while men and women both build lean muscle and lose fat on IF, men’s and women’s cholesterol levels react differently although both improve. Women’s glucose tolerance may also be reduced after periods of intensive fasting.
3. How am I supposed to work out while fasting?
Remember that most of this is mental. You are retraining your body to expect different things at different times. You wouldn’t eat an entire cheesecake in the middle of an intense sexual interlude, would you? Similarly, the idea is to train your body to expect food shortly after working out. Think of it as a reward. As you get used to it, your body will adjust.
4. IF doesn’t work for me like it did for my roommate/sister/boyfriend. Is this normal?
Like any other diet, different people get different things out of it. Your results may be less or more than the people around you. Experiment with different feeding windows throughout the day and week until you find the one that works for you.
Intermittent fasting has a lot of potential to help people who thought conventional diets were out of reach or unattainable. However, like any other diet, you cannot expect instant results. In the short term you may see no results at all. Sticking with it, trying new things and methods, and keeping in touch with your healthcare provider can help you achieve your weight loss goals and feel better while you’re doing it!