In case you’ve always seen fasting as a religious obligation that is only beneficial for spiritual purposes, then it’s time to have a rethink. Truth is, fasting can be even much more beneficial to your body than your soul. As a matter of fact, while there are many different ways to lose weight, intermittent fasting – a way of eating that involves regular short-term fasts – is fast becoming a popular recommendation by health experts.
Intermittent fasting is an easy way to simplify your life, lose weight and improve your overall health and well-being, such as minimising the effects of aging. Bear in mind though that intermittent fasting is not a diet; rather, it is a timed approach to eating. Moreover, unlike a dietary plan that restricts the calories intake, intermittent fasting does not specify what foods a person should eat or avoid. On the whole though, fasting for short periods will help you consume fewer calories, as well as helping your body to optimise some hormones related to weight control.
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It goes without saying that when you consume fewer calories, you lose weight. In addition, scientists have conclusively found that the practice of routinely abstaining from eating and drinking for short periods of time results in longer life in heart patients. This happens because fasting affects a person’s levels of haemoglobin, red blood cell count, human growth hormone, and lowers sodium and bicarbonate levels, while also activating ketosis and autophagy – all factors that lead to better heart health and specifically reduce risk of heart failure and coronary heart disease.
Specific Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
1. Lowers risk of type-2 diabetes
Type-2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, affecting so many people today. To combat this, intermittent fasting has shown improvement in insulin resistance which reduces the risk of type-2 diabetes.
2. Helps in fighting inflammation
Many studies have shown that intermittent fasting can help in naturally fighting inflammation. Inflammation is a part of many health conditions. Intermittent fasting also helps in reducing oxidative stress.
3. Improves heart health
Just as in the study mentioned above, intermittent fasting can help in reducing the risk of you having a heart disease and thus promoting your heart health. It does this by curbing various risk factors which can lead to heart diseases like high blood pressure, bad cholesterol levels, inflammation and many more.
4. Optimises brain function and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s
Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can help in boosting brain health. It also reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Ways to do intermittent fasting
Now that you know the benefits of intermittent fasting, how do you go about it? There are various methods of intermittent fasting, which gives you a number of convenient options to use from. These include:
1. Fasting for 12 hours in a day
Depending on your health status and how much weight you want to shed, you can decide on and adhere to a 12-hour fasting window every day. According to some researchers, fasting for 10–16 hours can cause the body to turn its fat stores into energy, which releases ketones into the bloodstream. This naturally stimulates weight loss.
The easiest way to do the 12-hour fast is to include the period of sleep in the fasting window. This is why this type of fasting plan may be a good option for beginners. This is because the fasting window is relatively small, much of the fasting occurs during sleep, and the person can consume the same number of calories each day.
For example, a person could choose to fast between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. They would need to finish their dinner before 7 p.m. and wait until 7 a.m. to eat breakfast but would be asleep for much of the time in between.
2. Fasting for 16 hours
Fasting for 16 hours a day, leaving an eating window of 8 hours, is called the 16:8 method or the leangains diet. This type of intermittent fast may be helpful for someone who has already tried the 12-hour fast but did not see any benefits. In this fast, you have to finish your evening meal by 8 p.m. and then skip breakfast the next day, not eating again until noon.
A study on mice found that limiting the feeding window to 8 hours protected them from obesity, inflammation, diabetes, and liver disease, even when they ate the same total number of calories as mice that ate whenever they wished.
3. Fasting for 2 days a week
People following the 5:2 diet eat standard amounts of healthful food for 5 days and reduce calorie intake on the other 2 days. During the 2 fasting days, men generally consume 600 calories and women 500 calories.
Typically, people separate their fasting days in the week. For example, they may fast on a Monday and Thursday and eat normally on the other days. There should be at least 1 non-fasting day between fasting days.
There is limited research on the 5:2 diet, which is also known as the fast diet. A study involving 107 overweight or obese women found that restricting calories twice weekly and continuous calorie restriction both led to similar weight loss.
The study also found that this diet reduced insulin levels and improved insulin sensitivity among participants.
A small-scale study looked at the effects of this fasting style in 23 overweight women. Over the course of one menstrual cycle, the women lost 4.8 percent of their body weight and 8.0 percent of their total body fat. However, these measurements returned to normal for most of the women after 5 days of normal eating.
4. Alternate day fasting
There are several variations of the alternate day fasting plan, which involves fasting every other day.
For some people, alternate day fasting means a complete avoidance of solid foods on fasting days, while other people allow up to 500 calories. On feeding days, people often choose to eat as much as they want.
One study reports that alternate day fasting is effective for weight loss and heart health in both healthy and overweight adults. The researchers found that the 32 participants lost an average of 5.2 kilograms (kg), or just over 11 pounds (lb), over a 12-week period.
Alternate day fasting is quite an extreme form of intermittent fasting, and it may not be suitable for beginners or those with certain medical conditions. It may also be difficult to maintain this type of fasting in the long term.
5. A weekly 24-hour fast
Fasting completely for 1 or 2 days a week, known as the Eat-Stop-Eat diet, involves eating no food for 24 hours at a time. Many people fast from breakfast to breakfast or lunch to lunch.
People on this diet plan can have water, tea, and other calorie-free drinks during the fasting period. You should however return to your normal eating pattern on the non-fasting days. Eating in this manner reduces your total calorie intake but does not limit the specific foods that you consume.
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You may find a 24-hour fast particularly challenging, because it may cause fatigue, headaches, or irritability. However, many people find that these effects become less extreme over time as the body adjusts to this new pattern of eating.
You may benefit from trying a 12-hour or 16-hour fast before transitioning to the 24-hour fast.
6. Meal skipping
This flexible approach to intermittent fasting may be good for beginners. It involves occasionally skipping meals.
People can decide which meals to skip according to their level of hunger or time restraints. However, it is important to eat healthful foods at each meal.
Meal skipping is likely to be most successful when individuals monitor and respond to their body’s hunger signals. Essentially, people using this style of intermittent fasting will eat when they are hungry and skip meals when they are not.
This may feel more natural for some people than the other fasting methods.
Who should avoid fasting?
According to some researchers and healthcare professionals, there are some people who should avoid fasting altogether and who should not follow the trend. They include people who are underweight, pregnant women, anyone with a chronic condition, such as diabetes, should not fast unless under the close care and supervision of a physician.
People who are prone to low blood sugar or easily feel dizzy or fatigued if they do not eat may not want to follow a diet that involves fasting.
Dr Valter Longo, biogerontologist and cell biologist, found that inter fasting may even “reboot” the immune system, clearing out old immune cells and regenerating new ones – a process he says could protect against cell damage caused by factors such as aging and chemotherapy.
Longo suggested that prolonged fasting may also be effective for regenerating immune cells. He explained that when one starves, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.
For the best results, it is essential to eat a healthful and balanced diet on non-fasting days. If necessary, you can seek professional help to personalize an intermittent fasting plan and avoid pitfalls.