Intermittent Fasting: What’s the Deal?
It’s a newly coined term for a routine that humans have been practising throughout the ages – knowingly or otherwise. Intermittent fasting is fast emerging as an easy way to achieve weight loss, challenging many hitherto established theories about nutrition. While research on IF and its benefits is still in its initial stages, the people who have tried it out seem convinced about its effectiveness.
What is Intermittent fasting (IF) all about?
IF is the term used to describe the practice of occasionally abstaining from eating for extended periods of time. We all follow a natural routine of intermittent fasting every night while we sleep as the time from the last meal (dinner) until the first meal in the morning (breakfast) constitutes the fasting interval. But this rhythm still leaves us with around 12 hours, in the span of which we usually consume 3 full meals and some mini-meals. The concept of intermittent fasting involves either limiting the eating “window” to a few hours or extending the interval between two meals.
Latest studies on this topic have pointed towards definite health benefits like lower body fat, more insulin sensitivity and even longevity. But these benefits can be experienced only after fasting for longer periods like 20-24 hours, depending on the individual’s lifestyle. The research suggests that a sedentary person would require to fast for an entire day before feeling any positive changes while for an active person, 16 hours of fasting would be sufficient to realise the advantages.
How does IF help?
One of the most convincing theories about intermittent fasting suggests that depriving the body of food for short phases gives it a respite from the rigours of digestion, cleanses the body of accumulated toxins and has a rejuvenating effect on all the systems.
Another logical argument in favour of IF is that our metabolic rate is directly proportional to the number of times we eat. So the more frequently you eat, the hungrier you are likely to get and this seems like an open invitation for overeating. Eating fewer meals translates into a lower calorific intake and a feeling of satiety due to reduced frequency of hunger. For example if you opt for an IF plan where you fast for 24 hours for two days every week, you would reduce your intake by 30% and would most certainly result in weight loss. This is an extreme deprivation of nutrients however and for most is an unrealistic method.
Those who practised IF realised that by staying off food for extended periods, they ended up consuming fewer calories and lesser junk food throughout the day than they would otherwise have consumed.
The different ways to do intermittent fasting
IF can be done in different ways by different people in accordance with their lifestyle and physical requirements. The only thing to bear in mind is to eat only healthy food, if you want results. Following are the different intermittent fasting plans that can be implemented:-
- Skipping meals: Proponents of IF prefer to listen to their bodies and naturally skip a meal if they are not hungry, rather than eating only out of a routine habit.
- Limit the “eating window”: In this plan, the food intake for the day is restricted to a period of 4-7 hours depending on individual preferences.
- Increase duration between 2 consecutive meals: Many people find this option more convenient so they follow an early breakfast by a late lunch.
- 24 hour fast: This involves a single long fast that may begin with the previous day’s dinner and end with the subsequent dinner the next day and could be repeated on a weekly/monthly basis.
- Fasting on alternate days for one week: This is believed to give the greatest benefits and many people plan similar fasts a few times a year. They either choose to include water and juices or opt for a reduced intake.
The supposed benefits of Intermittent Fasting – physiological and psychological
Latest research on fasting for short spans does support evidence of some definite advantages like:-
- Improving the metabolism of glucose by increases sensitivity to insulin
- Preserving lean muscle tissue
- Lowering blood pressure, reduce inflammation and lower triglycerides in the blood
- Maintain a healthy metabolism and controlled appetite
- Better cardio vascular function
- Teaches us the difference between eating because we believe we are hungry and eating because we are actually hungry.
- Helps to overcome fear of hunger
What to guard against
Intermittent fasting could be used as an effective way to control weight only when it is practiced occasionally and with the right attitude. It should not be used to compensate for an unhealthy diet due to poor food choices or become a pretext to justify an eating disorder. It will also prove absolutely ineffective if you binge more than you should during your “eating window”. The trick lies in understanding that the body can survive just as well on a smaller intake of food.
Some dieticians are of the opinion that intermittent fasting can also cause digestion disorders and upset an individual’s metabolism. Therefore it is best to seek medical advice before going in for this method.
To sum it up
While there is much on-going research on intermittent fasting and its benefits, there are no conclusive answers yet. If you feel inclined to try it out, it would be best to start with limiting your “eating window” rather than going in for the longer and more difficult plans. It may not work for everyone but it does seem to result in weight loss. What we are not sure at this point of time is whether that weight loss is from fasting or from cutting down on unhealthy foods. Another factor to consider is that it is not realistic to fast often and could be harmful to health so if you cannot maintain a healthy bodyweight from your natural intake of good quality foods then IF may just be a temporary method which may lead to psychological issues with food. Our advice – sort out your eating habits and eat clean natural foods that are nutrient dense first. Then give it a go and see how you feel.
The good part about the current buzz about IF is that it has forced us to rethink on all the established truths that were considered to be irrefutable – never skip meals being the greatest of them all. As is the case with plenty of other well-known myths, maybe it’s time to do an about turn on this one as well, we will have to wait and see!