Intermittent Fasting… A Good Idea?

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In modern society, for those of us living in westernized affluent nations; we don’t need to go hungry ever. We are always surrounded by both an abundance of food and opportunities with which to consume it. We may be so ingrained in daily eating patterns, that we have lost the ability to hear when the body signals true hunger to us.

I had been a long term proponent of the “eat 6 small meals a day to keep your metabolism burning hot” idea. I had never really thought about eating less often, much less actually fasting for any length of time other than a couple “40 hour famines” in high school for youth group. Back in 2010, when I first began to learn about a Paleo/Primal/Ancestral type of diet, including whole foods found in nature and excluding processed man-made factory foods; I was also presented with the concept of “Intermittent Fasting” for the first time. Intermittent Fasting, or IF, is a type of fasting that can happen every day for a certain time period (e.g. eating in only an 8 hour window and fasting for a 16 hour window), fasting every other day for a 24 hour period (alternate day fasting method), or fasting 2 times per week for a 24 hour period (5:2 method). There are also other variations of IF, but these are the three most commonly followed today.

The idea behind IF…

Digesting meals takes energy and work on behalf of your body. Seeing as the body likes to burn the energy made available from the food you just ate for fuel before anything else, it will choose that as its fuel source before using any fat stores. Even more so if your meal had carbohydrates, which is the body’s first preference for fuel to utilize. When you are in a fasted state, without a recently consumed meal to use for fuel, the body will be more inclined to use the stored fat already on your body as its fuel source. There is also the fact that during a fasted state, the body can focus on things other than digestion, such as rest and repair.

Benefits of IF…

Studies on Intermittent Fasting have shown that it both boosts the secretion of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) and also creates a higher level of insulin sensitivity. Human Growth Hormone can help build and maintain muscles especially as we age. Insulin sensitivity is important because it means that a person does not need as much insulin to process the glucose in their system. On the opposite end of the spectrum is insulin resistance, in which a person needs more and more insulin in order to process glucose and can result in some major health problems such as pre-diabetes, a damaged pancreas and others. So the combination of increased HGH and insulin sensitivity make a good team for fat loss and muscle gain.

Other benefits reported from IF are: combatting neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, affording greater mental clarity and focus, and turning on autophagy (the process of cells getting rid of waste to promote anti-aging).

Women and IF…

A lot of women have been cautioned about trying IF due to concerns about it affecting hormonal balance and this is not without warrant. For some women, IF is not helpful and can sometimes be harmful. Women are much more sensitive to restrictions in energy sources (calories) than men are. For pre-menopausal women, the body wants to be able to maintain fertility at all costs, so a restriction in caloric intake from fasting can promote a stress response in the body that will down regulate reproduction. As Dave Asprey puts it, “In men, it’s a biological matter of convenience. If you reproduce during a famine, it’s uncomfortable, yes. But men don’t carry, birth, or nourish their babies. Women do, so women are more biologically sensitive to these effects than men and feel the problems first.”

If you are a woman and interested in trying IF, I would just caution you to really listen to your body and if you feel terrible or start to experience symptoms like irregular menstrual cycles, insomnia, anxiety or other things that seem to pop up only when you IF, then maybe it isn’t for you at this time.

IF is not for…

Pregnant or nursing mothers. The energy needed to both grow another human inside of you, and then to be able to nourish that life once delivered is considerable. Fasting is not a good idea during these seasons of a woman’s life.

Another group of people that may not do well with IF if those who have suffered from eating disorders in the past. A lot of eating disorder survivors still struggle with the conflicting concepts of calorie restriction and food freedom and therefore may end up feeling triggered if they attempt IF. This may not be true for all people who have had a past eating disorder of course, but is still good to keep in mind.

My own experience with IF…

Personally, I really enjoy intermittent fasting. As a pre-menopausal woman I have not experienced any negative changes to my monthly cycle or hormonal balance. From a convenience factor, it is nice to not have to worry about making breakfast on the days that I do IF. I seem to do the best with a 16 hour fast (overnight) and an 8 hour eating window (12pm- 8pm for instance). I have also done longer fasts as well. Like anything in the health-sphere, everyone is individual and will experience different results. The benefits I have enjoyed from IF have been more energy, mental clarity, focus, honing my true hunger signals, and becoming much more mindful about food when I do eat. I’d say that just the mindfulness piece alone is worth trying fasting for. I will admit that I am guilty of sometimes eating while distracted and not really slowing down and tasting every bite thoughtfully. IF has helped me in this regard because when I do sit down to eat I am truly hungry and able to be more present with the meal before me.

Have you ever tried intermittent fasting? If so, do you like it or hate it?

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