Intermittent Fasting: What’s the Skinny?

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One mention of the words intermittent fasting and some people cringe behind their fork. Fasting? That means starving, right?

Not really, and intermittent simply means you choose the times you eat. The concept is not new as intermittent fasting, or IF, has been fairly popular for almost a decade now and there’s plenty of research backing this eating practice. While it can lead to weight loss, the benefits can go way past the pounds.

IF is a way of eating during specified periods of time that research identifies as a way to “clean cells” and decrease the risk of illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Newer research suggests that IF helps keeps our DNA and cells in check, essentially slowing the aging process.

Although IF is trendy and popular on social media platforms, it has been around long enough to receive serious consideration in the health world. Supporters of IF say the benefits are boundless, including weight loss, increased energy levels, reduced inflammation and lowered insulin levels.

As unappealing as abstaining from food may sound to some, IF can be quite simple without much deprivation. Basically, it is cycling between periods of eating with periods of fasting. It’s not so much about the food that’s consumed, but instead when the food is eaten. Most people already fast every day, while they sleep. Intermittent fasting can be as simple as extending that fast a little longer.

But how does all this fasting work for weight loss? On a regular day, our body uses our food for energy. When we fast, our body is forced to move from burning sugar in our normal meals for energy to burning the fat that’s already in our system. This can result in weight loss.

As far as other benefits, many animal studies and some initial research in humans have shown that alternating between times of fasting and eating may support cellular health too. Our bodies use glycogen from the foods we eat to function on a daily basis. As time passes since our last meal, our glycogen stores begin to deplete. When our bodies run low on glycogen, fat cells release fat that’s sent straight to the liver to create new fuel. We are burning fat to function, and this is called ketogenesis.

Ketogenesis enhances the body’s defenses against oxidative and metabolic stress and initiates the removal or repair of damaged molecules. Ketogenesis helps even when we’re not fasting by improving blood sugar, increasing stress resistance and suppressing inflammation. This can lead to all sorts of benefits including clearer thinking, lessening chances of chronic disease and inflammation while aiding in better heart and tissue health.

Even more exciting might be that IF has also been linked to increased lifespan. The National Institute on Aging recently sponsored a study using rodents as models. The rats that fasted every other day lived 83 percent longer than those that did not.

As easy as it sounds, IF is not for everyone. In a JAMA Internal Medicine trial in 2017, 100 overweight people were placed on an IF plan. Thirty-eight percent dropped out before the 12-month study ended, and experts say real-life IF is challenging to stick with long term. Also, fasting can lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which may lead to even more food cravings or falling off the wagon.

Intermittent fasting is not a one-size-fits-all eating practice for everyone. IF can be very beneficial for some people if it fits their lifestyle. Most experts agree that people should consider their overall relationship with food and whether fasting will trigger a binge or unhealthy reward-oriented food choice that may slow progress.

If you feel intermittent fasting could fit your lifestyle, talk to your doctor first and go from there. Some people may find help from an experienced coach or nutritionist, while others may be ready to get a jump start on their own.

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Ways to intermittent fast are based on splitting the day or week into eating and fasting periods. During fasting periods, little or nothing at all is eaten. Here are some of the most popular methods.
• The 16/8 method involves skipping breakfast and restricting the daily eating period to 8 hours, such as 1:00 to –9:00 p.m., then fasting for 16 hours including sleep.
• Eat-Stop-Eat involves fasting for 24 hours, once or twice a week. An example would be not eating from dinner one day until dinner the next day.
• The 5:2 diet method involves consuming only 500 to 600 calories on two nonconsecutive days of the week, but eating normally the other 5 days.
Many people find the 16/8 method to be the simplest, most sustainable and easiest to maintain. It’s also the most popular.