Is Intermittent Fasting Right for Me?

Even if you have willpowers of steel, the holiday season’s food and beverage temptations are plentiful, ubiquitous, and are a siren’s call to your gastronomic pleasure center.

So, the conundrum often becomes:  “Do I give into it and just eat what I want through New Year’s eve then diet on January 1st, or “Do I try to use every ounce of my inner wherewithal to not have any carbs, wine, treats or holiday cocktails?”

Well, there’s never a need to go to extremes – you can have your holiday cake and eat it too (judiciously, of course) and follow a method called intermittent fasting (IF). You may have heard of it and those who do it tend to stick with it as it works to create and sustain a healthy metabolism. This in turn generate s healthy weight loss, as well as healthy blood sugar levels.   

Monique Tello, MD, MPH, writes in her article, “Intermittent Fasting: Surprising Update,” Harvard Health (February 10, 2020), “IF makes intuitive sense.”

Carbohydrates, particularly sugars and refined grains (think white flours and rice), are quickly broken down into sugar, which our cells use for energy. If our cells don’t use it all, we store it in our fat cells as, well, fat. But sugar can only enter our cells with insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas. Insulin brings sugar into the fat cells and keeps it there.

Between meals, as long as we don’t snack, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy. We lose weight if we let our insulin levels go down. The entire idea of IF is to allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat.”

To refine this even further – no eating or drinking anything except water – between meals and especially overnight. The point is to deny your body the incoming calories so it burns the ones it stores. So, if you ever heard your grandmothers intone, “A minute on lips, a lifetime on the hips,” it meant that snacking at anytime between meals (especially the midnight kind), means that fleeting moment of tastebud titillation on a regular basis turns to expanded waistlines.

There is no one strict way to intermittent fast. No doubt one of them will fit best into your individual lifestyle. There’s the 16:8 IF – eating all meals in an eight-hour window and water or nothing for 16 hours (usually after dinner through mid- late mornings). Yes, it means skipping breakfast and that is NOT harmful. Research has shown that not eating an immediate breakfast tends to reduce one’s caloric intake by approximately 400 calories per day.

In one study, 23 adults who were obese did the 16:8 IF diet for 12 weeks and compared to a control group that did not IF. The researchers found that the IF group ate approximately 350 fewer calories per day and lost about 3% of their body weight – they also exhibited statistically significant lower blood pressure. 

Slightly similar I the 14:10 IF diet – a little less strict, timewise. Here, your eating window is 10 hours with 14 fasting. Now, depending on your weight goals, this may be less effective to lose weight than the 16:8 – but much easier to follow when maintaining desired weight.

There is another option. 5:2 IF is eating normally (but not pigging out) five days per week while restricting calorie intake to 20% of average intake for two days. This amounts to roughly 500 calories on fasting days for women, and 600 for men. You can do two “fast” days in a row with 5:2 or spread them out per week.

The beauty about IF is that any of the three can work to both augment and drive a healthy, vibrant lifestyle. It is not restrictive as limiting calories day after day, or denying certain foods that help boost a sense of fulfilment and a momentary bliss that outweighs the calories.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the joy of watching the numbers decline on your scale that IF provides. It is also shown to promote improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic status.

One study showed that one form of intermittent fasting (called early time-restricted feeding or eTRF) increased insulin sensitivity, reduced blood pressure and oxidative stress, diminished or eliminated nighttime cravings and positively impacted overall health and well-being. These were the findings in pre-diabetic men who followed an 18:6 IF (six-hour eating window) or control schedule (conventional 12-hour eating) for five weeks then crossed over to either IF or control.

This is of interest as it shows that when you consume your densest calorie load may have significant impact not only on weight loss but on the related health conditions as well. The researchers analyzed several time-restricted feeding (TRF) studies and found an interesting trend linking times of eating and health/weight. Trials where meals were restricted to the middle of the day resulted in reduced body fat, fasting glucose and insulin, hyperlipidemia and inflammation. When restricting food consumption to the late afternoon or evening, especially in one meal per day, results were not as strong, even worsening – such as post-meal glucose, lipid and blood pressure levels, and beta-responsiveness. In essence, hoarding your 1,200 calories as a late-afternoon or early-evening eating extravaganza is not recommended. (Besides, who likes the feeling of the full-belly bloat?!)

The authors of the review concluded that the circadian rhythm may have dramatic impact on how the body best utilizes its incoming calories during IF – as well as glucose, lipid and energy metabolism are influenced as well.  They write, “Indeed, studies in humans show that eating in alignment with circadian rhythms in metabolism by increasing food intake at breakfast time and by reducing it at dinnertime improves glycemic control, weight loss, and lipid levels and also reduces hunger.”

The researchers added that the body of evidence they reviewed strongly suggests that intermittent fasting with concentration of calories earlier rather than later (in alignment with circadian rhythm) may have the best chance of efficacy -- and for long-term compliance.

Conclusion

Diet and nutrition expert Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, founder of pHLabs, writes that IF “doesn’t have to be a labor intensive drag. It really boils down to using your better judgement and applying a little discipline to your routine. Consider the times of the day you are most active and eat within that time frame.”

You will find that this “diet” (i.e., habitual manner of eating) can quickly become routine and not stressful. And when you and your doctor see results – better numbers – you will likely make IF your normal lifestyle.

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