Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, it’s very likely you’ve heard one thing or another about intermittent fasting. This not so new concept has, over the last year or so, garnered some renewed attention as the “newest kid on the block” when it comes to weight loss.
To be honest I never thought the day would come when I’d willingly say that fasting might not be so bad after all. Can you blame me? The benefits of breakfast were probably as ingrained in you as they were in me! But with it being a hot topic (and me being the curious dietitian I am) I couldn’t help myself from digging into the scientific research on intermittent fasting. Little behold, one paper at a time, my view started to change.
If you’re similarly curious about effective weight loss strategies, allow me to introduce you to intermittent fasting; what it is, whether it can help you and how you can get started with it. Let’s dig a little, shall we?
What is it exactly?
Intermittent fasting consists of alternating cycles of fasting and eating. There are various ways of doing it but each consists in spending a period varying ranging from 16 to 24 hours without eating. And although that might seem intimidating at first glance, we’re all already doing it to a certain extent. We just know it under a different name; sleeping!
Admittedly, fasting for the majority of the day might not sound attractive for everyone (and particularly not for a foodie like myself). However, I strongly believe in solutions adapted to each individual. And truth be told, many people consider the concept of intermittent fasting particularly interesting because it helps reduce “decision fatigue”.
This concept implies that the more choices you must make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes. By reducing the amount of meals you eat each day, intermittent fasting allows you to spend less brain power thinking about what to eat, allowing you to focus more effectively on other tasks at hand.
This spared “decisional power” can be particularly handy at the end of a stressful work day, helping you walk by that lovely ice cream parlour without feeling compelled to run in and grab a banana split.
By reducing the amount of meals per day, intermittent fasting can also save you some time otherwise spent on prepping and eating foods, adequately freeing it up to spend on other interesting things.
How Does It Work?
We’ve been fasting for longer than we can remember, be it out of necessity, for religious reasons or even instinctively, for example, when we’re feeling sick. So it’s definitely safe to say that our bodies are adapted to fasting. So much so that, when we do end up fasting, various cellular and hormonal processes are put to work so that we can continue to thrive, despite a limited food intake. These adaptations are the same that helped us survive, thousands of years ago, in periods of low food availability.
But how exactly does this relate to our modern era? And what can fasting do for us in a situation where, with easily accessible food one short car ride or phone call away, food availability is far from being a problem?
Put simply, one thing intermittent fasting can do today is help people shed unwanted pounds, leading to improvements in health and life expectancy.
By now, most of you know that there is no magic pill for weight loss. For those who didn’t, I’m sorry to have burst your bubble, but it had to be done! A wide array of scientific evidence agrees on this; weight loss comes down to energy in versus energy out. To lose weight, you need to expend more energy (calories) than you intake. This can be done by eating less, moving more or a combination of both.
There’s basically nothing “magical” about intermittent fasting other than that, while you’re fasting, you’re not eating. This effectively reduces your energy intake, leading to kicking some of the blurb to the curb. However, some do say that, as opposed to simple caloric restriction, fasting may have some added advantages.
For example, during the first days of fasting, insulin concentrations slightly decrease, encouraging a switch from our body using glucose to using fat as a main source of energy. Meanwhile, both growth hormone and cathecholamine (i.e. noradrenaline) concentrations increase, the latter of which can increase your metabolism by 3.6% to 14%, at least in the first three days. This increase in metabolism probably helped our ancestors find the energy to hunt for their next meal despite not having eaten for the last day or so. However, past those first first three days, your body transitions to prolonged fasting, at which time opposite compensatory mechanisms kick in, actually reducing your metabolism and perhaps even lowering your muscle mass. These same mechanisms probably helped our ancestors survive through longer periods of famine. The thing to keep in mind is for us is that, when it comes to fasting, longer is not necessarily better.
Despite this slight increase in metabolism, studies comparing intermittent fasting with more traditional calorie restriction approaches generally show both to be just as efficient at producing weight loss if calories are matched between groups. And since losing as little as 5% of body weight improves a wide array of health factors, it is not so surprising that intermittent fasting is as effective as continuous energy restriction when it comes to warding off heart disease and diabetes. Heck, early animal studies show that losing a little weight may even increase life-span and have potential benefits for brain function.
So, Are There Any Advantages Other Than Losing Weight?
If you’re like me, by now, you’re wondering if there are any added benefits to fasting other than those associated with losing weight?
You may also like: