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Are you a 16/8, a 5/2, or an alternate daily? If you’ve heard people talk like this and have wondered what it’s all about, here’s the scoop. It’s the new, yet old, rage—intermittent fasting. What is it? Why is it so popular? And how do you do it? It can’t be good for you, right?
Our bodies are geared toward intermittent fasting. Our ancestors often fasted out of necessity—food just wasn’t available. Fasting now and then is probably a more natural body rhythm than the forced “3 meals a day” we often eat. Intermittent fasting has been part of the world’s major religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, to emphasize our spiritual nature over our physical nature. Now, people are doing it to improve health and simplify life.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting isn’t a diet—it’s an eating pattern. You don’t count calories, or even try to reduce them. There are no “diet” foods or restrictions. You don’t change what you eat, you change when you eat. (Remember that what you eat needs to be healthy no matter when you eat it.) People believe that this kind of meal timing helps to keep muscle mass while losing fat. Is this really possible?
What happens in your body when you fast?
When you eat, your body immediately gets busy digesting and absorbing food, which lasts for about 3 to 5 hours after a meal. It’s hard for your body to burn any fat during this time because eating causes your blood sugar levels to rise, and your body will use that first to produce energy. About 8 to 12 hours after you eat, your blood sugar levels are lower, and your body will look for an energy source. It can find it in stored fat.
How do you do it?
There are lots of different ways to fast intermittently. You can schedule by the day, by the week, or even longer. You’ll find advantages and disadvantages no matter what you try, but there is likely an option that will work best for you. Keep in mind that whenever you choose to eat, you need to make sure you are eating healthful foods and getting the nutrients your body needs. Here are a few popular fasting methods:
- 16/8 Days: This involves fasting for a 16-hour period and eating during an 8-hour period. For most people, breakfast is the easiest meal to skip, because eating isn’t just about the food, it’s often about socializing. So if you normally eat breakfast alone, you can still eat lunch with friends and dinner with family on this type of an intermittent fast. But if that doesn’t work for you, pick another 8-hour period during the day when you want to eat and fast for the other 16 hours.
- 5/2 Week: This weekly method involves eating normally for five days out of the week, then eating 500 calories or less for the other two days. For example, you can eat normally with friends and family over the weekend, then cut down to 500 calories on Monday, eat normally Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then eat 500 calories on Friday. Or pick two non-consecutive days that work the best for you.
- Eat-Stop-Eat: Fast for 24 hours once or twice a week. For example, eat dinner one night then the next day, possibly when you have an extremely busy schedule, fast until dinner time. Just make sure you spread out the days when you’re fasting.
- Spontaneous Meal Skipping: Listen to your body. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Or if you have a really busy day, one where you normally eat junk food because you feel like you should eat SOMETHING, just don’t. Let your body have a rest instead.
What are the advantages?
- You’ll probably lose weight. Most likely, you won’t eat as many calories as you previously were. Remember, though, that what you eat is now even more important—make sure the calories you are eating provide your body with the nutrients it needs.
- It’s easier than dieting. It’s hard to switch to “diet” foods, and after a while, many people revert back to what they were eating and enjoying before they started their diet. If you’re fasting intermittently, there’s no need to change what you eat or buy any special foods. You don’t deprive yourself of your favorite foods; you just plan when to eat them.
- It makes your life easier. If you skip one meal each day or even fast for 24 hours, you have a lot less meal planning, shopping, and cooking to do.
- It can help you live longer. Restricting calories is believed to lengthen life span. But who wants to starve? Intermittent fasting activates some of the same body processes that happen with calorie restriction, so you get many of the same benefits without the misery.
Here are some of the processes that your body can focus on while it’s not digesting food:
- Hormone functions: For example, the levels of human growth hormone (HGH) in the body skyrocket when fasting. This can help with fat loss and muscle gain and many other bodily functions.
- Insulin levels: Insulin sensitivity improves while you’re fasting and your insulin levels drop. This may make stored body fat more accessible.
- Cell repair: Your body has time to focus on cell repair processes, such as digesting and removing old, non-functioning protein build up.
- Gene expression: Changes happen in your genes, especially the ones that are related to longevity and immune system function.
Who shouldn’t try it?
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. Some reasons to NOT try it are as follows:
- Blood sugar medications. If you take anything that regulates your blood sugar levels, like insulin or metformin, you need to eat regularly so your blood sugar doesn’t fall too low—a dangerous and life-threatening situation.
- Eating disorders. Anyone who has any kind of history of or tendency toward anorexia or bulimia should avoid this type of eating as it could trigger a flare up.
- Pregnant or planning to be pregnant. Women in this stage of life should focus on getting good nutrition all day every day.
- Medications that need to be taken with food. It’s possible that you can use some butter or coconut oil to help avoid the discomfort and stomach upset that come when you take some medications on an empty stomach. It’s best to check with your doctor, though, before trying intermittent fasting with these types of medications.
Tips and Tricks to Make it Work for You!
- Keep it healthful. Your body still needs a balanced intake of protein, carbs, and fats to keep you well and functioning correctly. You might need to work even harder at getting those nutrients into your body in a shorter period of scheduled eating time.
- Don’t stop drinking. While you’re fasting, keep drinking water and other non-calorie fluids, like coffee or tea.
- Work up to it. You may want to start by working on eating a healthful, balanced diet. When that is working for you, consider some intermittent fasting. Start with one day a week or even one day each month, and work your way into it. Or start by fasting 12 hours, then 13, then work your way up to 18.
- Try it once. Once you get over the mental barrier and realize that you really aren’t going to die if you don’t eat on the schedule you’re used to, it’s all downhill from there.
- Give it a little time. You probably eat about the same time every day—it’s a habit. Not eating can be a habit, too. Give yourself some time to adjust to changing your behavior.
- Remember, it’s just a sensation. Hunger comes and goes. Sometimes you feel hungry because you’re used to eating at a certain time. Sometimes you feel hungry when really you’re just thirsty. And sometimes you’re hungry because you always eat during a certain activity. Acknowledge the feeling and move through it. After about three weeks, people generally aren’t hungry on fasting days.
Despite what cereal manufacturers have been telling you, you can get by without eating breakfast! As long as you make sure you are eating a balanced diet when you do eat, intermittent fasting can be good for you. If you think it might be for you, ease into it and enjoy the benefits of calorie limitation without feeling deprived.
Want more health-boosting tips? Check out this article about how everyday choices, like sleep and diet, impact your health as you age –