During the month of July, we are focusing on debunking diets at Healthoholics. This week we’re covering another current popular diet — Intermittent Fasting.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern, or diet, that includes periods of extended fasting. In short, that means no food for 16 hours (or longer in some cases). These “fasts” can be daily or weekly, depending on an individual’s needs and goals. “Breakfast” is a word that we are all familiar with, and when you examine the word, it literally is a meal which ‘breaks’ an overnight ‘fast’. Our bodies are used to fasting in shorter time periods, while asleep, but intermittent fasting plays on this pattern and increases the duration of the overnight fast to also include day time hours without food.
Though this is a “diet” it does not necessarily mean that everyone following an intermittent fasting diet is using it to lose weight. While, yes, this diet can help some patients break through weight loss plateaus, it also bolsters a number of other health benefits, and can be useful for some health conditions.
How Intermittent Fasting Works:
During the “fast” the body burns through food sourced whole sugars – called carbohydrates (such as those from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fibre). These healthy forms of carbohydrates (made of primarily glucose) are the main fuel source for your muscles, organs, your brain and all of life’s activities. During a fast, stored carbohydrates from muscles and the liver supply the body with energy and glycogen (which is the storage form of glucose) is burned for fuel.
Carbohydrate burning continues until stores run low enough and the body moves into “gluconeogenesis”, which means that the body starts to use fats for fuel, instead of carbohydrates, after a long enough period of time. This is where this diet gets good! The fat burning state is where we want patients to get! Intermittent periods of time spent in a fasted (non-fed) state is the whole premise of intermittent fasting.
To simplify things, think of your internal body as a burning campfire that requires a constant supply of hardwood to keep the fire burning. You can put a log on the fire every so often, and the fire still burns. Eating meals throughout the day keeps the inner fire burning its fuel source. When your campfire hardwood pile runs low, another fuel source is required to keep the fire burning, so now you switch to burning dried cedar branches, or maybe birch bark. This is kind of like intermittent fasting: when the supply gets low enough the body will switch to another type of fuel to keep the body running and the internal fire burning.
How To Do Intermittent Fasting:
Typically, a window between 8pm and 12 noon (16 hours) the following day you are fasting. Therefore, your first meal of the day would be at lunch time; effectively skipping breakfast. At lunchtime a large and complete meal is eaten. Small snacks, and multiple meals are eaten during the day, as the body feels hunger. All meals should be balanced, energy dense, and should ensure enough protein, fibre, and healthy fat to ensure all recommended daily intakes of essential and non-essential vitamins and minerals are being met. When you eat, you should eat well! Listening to your body and eating until you are about 75% “full”; you should not stuff yourself full.
You can still continue with your dietary preferences such as a vegetarian or vegan diet, and/or eating a gluten free diet, or wheat free diet, or eating a dairy free diet. Intermittent fasting isn’t so much about what to eat, it is about WHEN to eat. It is a fairly flexible diet, however, eating a diet high in whole and nutritious food is mandatory. You cannot eat two fast-food hamburgers and fries per day, and fast for 16 hours for this diet to be healthful and successful long term.
Science-backed Benefits of Intermittent Fasting:
- Belly fat weight loss
- Overall fat burning increases, due to changes in insulin levels
- Weight loss without loss of lean muscle mass
- Cells repair themselves better – increased healing
- Cellular resistance to oxidative stress improves and longevity increases, meaning you become more resiliant
- Human growth hormone increases – meaning that fat is lost, muscle is gained
- Increased metabolic rate
- Inflammatory markers improve – this can mean inflammation decreases and inflammatory conditions, such as joint pain, could improve on this diet
In my experience, as a naturopathic doctor, intermittent fasting is a great option for those who are trying to lose weight. Many patients have tried cutting calories, restricting food intake, or even cutting out whole food groups, and yet they still cannot lose weight. This is what I call “stubborn” weight loss. When we pair healthy food, with periods of fasting, patients feel satisfied, energized, clarity, and the weight begins to change.
Of course, this isn’t all about weight loss, as this diet can also help with body composition – ie. fat loss. When you don’t really care so much about the number on the scale, but instead want to lose body fat, and maintain lean muscle mass, this diet is a great option.
In my clinical experience patients have experienced the following therapeutic effects:
- Weight loss
- Fat loss
- Muscle mass increases
- Increased mental clarity
- Sugar cravings drop
- Caffeine dependence drops
- Mood improves
- Sleep improves
- Exercise tolerance improves
Drawbacks of Intermittent Fasting:
Certainly it would seem that not eating for 16 hours might be a challenge to some individuals, mostly, diabetics, patients prone to hypoglycemia, and patients on some medications that require regularly timed meals. A study done on blood sugar control in diabetics, during Ramadan, a religious-based fast, shows that patients with type 2 diabetes do not experience a worsening of blood sugar control from intermittent fasting. However, in insulin-dependent patients (type 1 or type 2 diabetics), this type of diet is not normally advised, as blood sugar levels could go too low causing an emergency hypoglycemic state.
Generally most patients adapt, and do well with this type of dieting, as long as caloric restriction is not too low. In order to ease the transition for some patients we modify their intermittent fasting plan with the addition of some fat burning (ketogenic) snacks such as coconut oil, walnuts, MCT oil and coffee, avocados, etc. This is all part of the individualized approach I take with each unique patient I see in my office.
In conclusion, intermittent fasting is a diet that introduces periods of fasting, and puts the body into a fat burning state. During the fasting time (typically 16 hours) changes in the body occur promoting increased longevity, cellular repair, decreased inflammation, and changes in the hormonal control of body weight. Though it is not ideal for those who are insulin-dependent or require regularly-timed meals, intermittent fasting can be relatively easy to adapt to, and can be a successful diet for many individuals.
If you’re interested in knowing more about what a healthy diet without breakfast might look like, check out our Intermittent Fasting menu plan! We’ve made sure to pack all the nutrition you need into just two meals and a snack per day.