When acquaintances or strangers chat about their dietary habits, there’s often a holier-than-thou flavor to the conversation. If one person eats only organic produce, the other will claim to grow their own turnips. If one is lactose intolerant, the other is deathly allergic to oxygen, and so on. This stupid one-upmanship means that a great deal of useful advice is lost or discounted as faddish, especially when the subject seems a little “out there”. And this one-upmanship especially happens online because it is perceived as relatively safer, but is it really? Read this post.
Intermittent fasting is not the same as a crash diet, it’s not about the joys of feeling empty all the time, which may or may not be a serious concern: and it is not some kind of religious ritual. It’s not even a diet in the conventional sense, since it has little to say about what and how much a person should eat, only during which times they shouldn’t. Even so, many people swear that it has helped them lose weight, increase muscle mass without exercising more, and improve their general health significantly.
The Idea Behind Intermittent Fasting
The “paleo” diet has been increasing in popularity over the last couple of years, essentially stating that anything a primitive human couldn’t forage for (candy bars, frozen ravioli, soda, etc.) shouldn’t be put into our bodies. The theoretical assumption is simply that evolution doesn’t work fast enough for our digestive systems to have adapted in the four or so millennia since agriculture became common, never mind a couple of decades we’ve had access to processed foods.
So, most of what goes into the typical modern diet is stuff we’re not biologically equipped to handle, and every aspect of health, from insulin resistance to mood, can be improved by addressing this. Taking this a step further means remembering that hunter-gatherers did not have access to refrigerators, supermarkets or even much in the way of reliable storage. Eating three meals a day, every day, used to be the exception rather than the norm, and our bodies are inherently capable of functioning on an empty stomach for longer than we tend to think.
How to Fast Intermittently
When considering fasting as a health regimen, it’s important to realize that there are different types of hunger. People eat because they’re bored, because it is lunchtime or because something smells good, not necessarily because they’re facing starvation. There is indeed an adjustment period during which the body’s hormones and systems adapt to make stored fat more accessible, but once this has passed, deliberate fasting has little effect on a person’s blood sugar level and concentration. Digestion actually consumes a great deal of the energy food supplies, meaning that fasting can actually leave a person feeling more energized.
The most popular method, in effect, simply means skipping breakfast. Including the time spent sleeping, this means that no calories are consumed for 16 hours each day. Outside this period, a person can eat however much of a balanced diet they need to feel satisfied. Other techniques involve eating nothing for two days a week, or temporarily limiting calorie intake to only a fraction of the normal 2000 to 2500 recommended for adults. Sugar-free liquids are of course consumed normally.
Effects on the Body
Diabetes affects nearly 10% of people living in the United States, making it one of the most prevalent diseases resulting from poor lifestyle choices. When fasting, insulin levels are lowered to burn more body fat, which leads to better insulin sensitivity over the long term. Cells begin to discard the wastes that build up in all tissues over time, while human growth hormone levels shoot up to truly impressive levels. This chemical, often taken as a performance supplement by bodybuilders, supports brain and organ health, increases muscle growth and boosts libido.
Perhaps most interestingly, intermittent fasting is associated with neurogenesis or the growth of brand new brain cells. For a long time, scientists believed that this was biologically impossible, but it turns out that this process may be crucial to avoiding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s later in life. The neurons of a person in a fasting phase are measurably more active.
If this wasn’t enough, inflammation (associated with a wide range of chronic conditions) is reduced, immune function increases, LDL (bad) cholesterol is reduced and oxidant stress is lowered. At least in animal studies, it’s been shown that lifespan can be lengthened, and dramatically so.
Fasting and Weight Loss
Even without exercise, a 16 hour fasting period is enough for most people to deplete the energy stored in their livers. At this point, and to some extent only at this point, the body produces chemical signals that enable the processing of stored fat into usable blood sugar. Since real progress in weight loss is not measured in pounds but in body fat percentages, this is ideal for those who want to cut the flab.
Both hormonal changes and the reduced calorie intake intermittent fasting cause are aids to weight loss, especially in terms of burning off the unnecessary and possibly dangerous fat that builds up around the abdomen. Aerobic or strength workouts can be done during a fasting period, although some trainers recommend an amino acid supplement before exercising, as well as some carbohydrates not too long after.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that women and men respond differently to an intermittent fasting regime. The fairer sex, especially if pregnant or planning to be, should go carefully rather than jumping right into periodic fasting as a lifestyle. Additionally, anyone with cardiac or insulin problems, or taking medication, will probably want to consult a doctor before embarking on intermittent fasting.