In recent months, I’ve written at length about the benefits of intermittent fasting, something I’ve been doing in my personal life for the past two years. I also work closely with a number of people who currently use intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is a style of eating where one refrains from consuming any calories for an extended period of time. Usually between 12 and 40 hours. The results can be great for those who follow the rules scrupulously. This means full understanding because fasting does not entail consuming anything but water, black coffee or unsweetened tea. The key is to avoid anything that triggers an insulin response because insulin helps you store fat.
I met a good friend who just got back from vacation at a resort in Mexico. Over the past several months of intermittent fasting, he’s shed 27 pounds of body fat, which is evident, especially with his lower waistline. He told me how in the past at the resort, he wasn’t able to walk the nearby mountain passes, but this time he’s commuting and he loves it. Furthermore, he once again emphasized that the intermittent fasting approach is the easiest and most effective thing to do to control his weight.
So, here’s what you need to know about intermittent fasting and how you can benefit:
How does intermittent fasting affect the body?
Like many, I was drawn to intermittent fasting not only for its weight-control benefits, but also for its many other health aspects. It makes sense to me that if I consume food relentlessly at regular intervals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and evening snacks — then I’m giving my body the message that food digestion is a priority. Since the digestion process, especially dietary fats, takes several hours, the body is actively involved in the digestion process from early morning breakfast to evening snacks and several hours later.
As a result, the body gets little relief from digestion and only fasts for a few hours, at best, late in one’s sleep cycle which does not last long because breakfast is coming soon.
This is an important consideration because the gut contributes to health in many ways, especially when it comes to strengthening the immune system, which happens during fasting. Working in tandem with increasing immune cell production is autophagyThe body’s way of cleaning damaged cells, for newer, healthier cell renewal. A good analogy to the process of autophagy is taking out trash or cleaning up debris. Debris in this case consists of parts of the body’s cells that are damaged and need to be removed so that new cells can develop.
Fasting also boosts the production of human growth hormone, which helps you shed body fat and retain muscle, which is even more important for health as we age.
How do I fast intermittent fasting?
There are several ways to deal with intermittent fasting. My approach is to fast daily and only consume food within a narrow time period of two to four hours. I’ve built this incrementally, starting with a larger window and gradual decreasing is. In about 18 hours of fasting, that’s when the above benefits kick in and the speed kicks in.
This is what I outlined about my typical daily approach to intermittent fasting in a previous column: I imagine what I would normally eat for breakfast and lunch, as well as snacks (energy bars, nuts, etc.), and consume them “after” today’s 6pm meal. Rotate throughout the day comfortably satisfying even dinner.
And let me add, if I ever feel like cheating at night with a treat like a hot fudge sundae, I don’t hesitate.
Plus, my workouts are great, with no loss of energy, even though I’m silent for many hours before my workout.
How is intermittent fasting different from other extreme diets?
A reader recently wrote to me about intermittent fasting. He wrote, “I’ve read your books on nutrition, healthy diet, and exercise and you’re fighting against diets because lack of nutrients leads to loss of muscle mass. Now, I’ve read about your use of intermittent fasting that reduces calorie intake to zero for long periods of time, I wonder, how is this different from restricting calories on a strict diet?”
An insightful question worth exploring.
First, when you go on a strict diet, you sharply reduce your calorie intake from 2,000 calories a day to less than half that amount and enter a semi-starvation mode. When you drastically reduce your calorie intake, the body struggles to keep blood sugar, known as glucose, at optimal levels. Blood sugar is critical because the brain relies on glucose as its primary source of fuel, and of course the brain is the body’s top priority.
Glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen. When you eat “normally,” if blood sugar levels drop, glucose is released from the liver to bring the level back up again. However, when following a strict diet, the glycogen stores in the liver are depleted because the body is in a semi-starvation mode. Thus, when blood sugar levels drop, the body is alarmed that the liver cannot respond appropriately.
This, in turn, causes the body to take emergency actions. The hormone cortisol is released that breaks muscle down into proteins that break down into amino acids. The selective amino acids are transported to the liver and converted into glucose which boosts the blood glucose level. In other words, the body destroys muscle to produce glucose and the process is called The introduction of sugar.
Are there benefits to rigorous diets over intermittent fasting?
Disruptive diets almost always fail because losing muscle mass is counterproductive, and even when you lose a lot of pounds, the fact that you lose several pounds of muscle means you don’t look your best. This is disappointing because when you start a rigorous diet with the goal of losing 30 pounds or more, you visualize in your mind’s eye that you are back to the body that used to have 30 pounds less fat. Your “new” diet body doesn’t look the way you expected.
Plus you tend to feel bad and all you think about is food.
When you engage in intermittent fasting, you are not cutting calories, and you are not entering a semi-starvation mode. Conversely, even though I’ve lost weight, I’m now eating more than I did before I started intermittent fasting because I don’t want to lose any more weight. Thus, I easily replenish my liver glycogen stores every day, keeping my blood glucose at optimum levels that preserve my muscle mass.
All that is required is simply to make a firm decision to stick to eating at the set times and stick to it.
You can reach Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Hannover College, at email@example.com.