Humans have fasted throughout history for many reasons. Lately, the practice of intermittent fasting* as a potential weight-loss tool and health benefit has gotten a lot of attention. You can certainly do some type of IF while tracking macros. But how does it work and is it a healthy choice for you?
What's intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) involves eating your meals during a specified window of time and avoiding food outside of that window. Examples of IF include:
- The 16/8 Method: Skip breakfast and restrict your daily eating period to 8 hours, for example, noon–8 p.m., then fast for the remaining 16 hours. This method is popular because it's relatively easy to follow (and because many people skip meals anyway).
- Eat-Stop-Eat: Fast for 24 hours, once or twice a week, for example by not eating from dinner one day until dinner the next day. You can also fast from breakfast to breakfast, or lunch to lunch. This approach is more challenging since it can be difficult (both physically and mentally) to go a full 24 hours without eating.
- The 5:2 Diet: Eat only 500–600 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week, and eat normally the other five days. For example, you might eat normally on all days except Mondays and Thursdays, on which you eat only two small meals.
- Warrior: Fast for 20 hours a day and eat one large meal at night (or a similar variation). This means you need to try and fit all your nutritional needs (both in terms of macronutrients and vitamins, minerals, and fiber) into a single meal, which can be a challenge.
What are some benefits of intermittent fasting?
A lot of the research is based on relatively short time periods or animal studies. More research is needed to assess its longer-term effects and if and how the animal research findings apply to humans. However, IF has still been linked to a variety of health benefits including:
- Weight loss – Generally speaking, restricting your “eating window” means you're getting fewer calories. IF has also been shown to reduce insulin levels and increase levels of human growth hormone, which can both boost your body’s ability to burn fat. However, as with any dietary approach, it's important to choose healthy, nutrient-dense foods. (The idea, of course, is NOT to eat fast food and candy during your eating window.)
- Reduced risk of diabetes – IF's ability to reduce insulin levels and boost insulin sensitivity may help reduce the risk of diabetes.
- Reduced inflammation – Some research suggests that IF boosts the production of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body.
- Cardiovascular health – IF may help reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Longevity – Animal research suggests that IF may play a role in healthy aging and an extended life span.
Are there downsides to intermittent fasting?
The short answer is yes. Here are several things to consider before trying any kind of fast.
Who should avoid intermittent fasting?
IF isn't for everyone. If you want to give it a try, always discuss it with your health care provider first before starting. IF may not be right for you if you have:
- Any medical conditions. IF can lead to low blood sugar levels during the fasting periods, so people with hypoglycemia or other blood sugar-related conditions should steer clear. People with digestive disorders may also want to avoid IF. It may prove more beneficial to eat at regular intervals rather than skipping meals to encourage regularity and make sure the body has enough time to digest between meals.
- High levels of anxiety or sleep issues. Fasting leads to low blood sugar levels. In response, the body may release stress hormones (i.e. cortisol), which can increase feelings of anxiety. Similarly, if your blood sugar levels drop low during the night, your body may release cortisol to bring it back up, which can disrupt sleep.
- History of eating disorders or chronic dieting. IF has the potential to lead to extreme calorie restriction, binge eating and ruminating, and obsessing about food.
- History of amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) or irregular menstrual cycles or are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive. Calorie restriction isn't recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Some research suggests that women, in general, may not benefit as much from IF as men. For example, one study found that while insulin sensitivity was increased in men, blood sugar control was worse for the female participants. Because of the impact fasting can have on women’s hormone levels, it's often recommended that if women fast, they do so for 14 rather than 16 hours to help maintain hormonal balance. Women are different than men!!!!
Real-life situations: I tend to not eat breakfast, and try to eat dinner at a reasonable time, so my eating window is like 7-8 hours out of 24. That's what works for me! I am working with a client who has leptin resistance and I have found that eating breakfast first thing improves leptin hormone levels.