In recent months, I’ve written extensively 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 some people who are currently using intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern in which people avoid any calories for extended periods of time. Usually between 12 and 40 hours. For those who strictly followed the rules, the results could be dramatic. This means fully understanding that fasting means eating nothing 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 returned from a vacation at a Mexican resort. He lost 27 pounds of body fat over the past few months on intermittent fasting, which shows, especially as his waistline has shrunk considerably. He told me that in the past at the resort, he couldn’t walk the nearby mountain trails, but this time he easily liked it. What’s more, he revealed again that intermittent fasting is the easiest and most effective way he has done to control his weight.
So, here’s what you need to know about intermittent fasting and what you might benefit from:
How does intermittent fasting affect the body?
Like many people, I was drawn to intermittent fasting not only because of the weight management advantages, but several other health aspects as well. To me, if I’m consistently eating food on a regular basis—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and evening snacks—I make sense, I’m sending a message to my body that digesting food is a priority. Since digestion, especially of dietary fats, takes several hours, from early morning breakfast to evening snack and many hours after, the body is actively involved in the digestive process.
As a result, the body gets only minimal relief from digestion, and fasting is only for a few hours, at best late in a short sleep cycle, as breakfast arrives quickly.
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This is an important consideration because the gut contributes to health in many ways, especially when it comes to boosting the immune system during fasting. Going hand in hand with increased immune cell production is autophagy, the body’s way of removing damaged cells to regenerate newer, healthier cells. A good analogy for autophagy is scavenging garbage or clearing debris. In this case, the debris consists of damaged body cell parts that need to be removed so that new cells can develop.
Fasting also boosts the body’s production of growth hormone, the hormone that helps you lose body fat and maintain muscle, which is increasingly important for health as you age.
How to do intermittent fasting?
There are several ways to address intermittent fasting. My approach is to fast every day and only eat in narrow time periods of two to four hours. I build up gradually, starting with a larger window and gradually reducing it. A fasting period of about 18 hours is when the above benefits start to kick in and accelerate.
Here is a typical daily approach to intermittent fasting that I outlined in my last column: I envision what I usually eat for breakfast and lunch, plus snacks (energy bars, nuts, etc.) After “consuming these 6pm meals of the day” I drink black coffee regularly throughout the day until I eat dinner, which makes me feel good.
And, let me add, if I wanted to cheat on a hot fudge sundae at night, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Also, even though I fasted for hours before my workout, my workout was great without any energy loss.
How is intermittent fasting different from other crash diets?
A reader recently wrote me about intermittent fasting. He wrote: “I read your book on nutrition, healthy eating and exercise, and you were against crash diets because lack of nutrients can lead to loss of muscle mass. Now, I read that you use intermittent fasting to reduce calories for long periods of time. Reducing intake to zero, I wonder, how is this different from calorie restriction on a crash diet?”
An insightful question worth exploring.
First, on a fast diet, you severely cut your caloric intake from about 2,000 calories a day to less than half, then go into semi-starvation mode. When you drastically reduce your caloric intake, your body works hard to keep your blood sugar, or glucose, at optimal levels. Blood sugar is crucial because the brain relies on glucose as its primary fuel source, and of course the brain is the body’s top priority.
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Glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen. When you eat “normally”, if blood sugar levels drop, the liver releases glucose to bring blood sugar levels back up. However, on a crash diet, the supply of liver glycogen is depleted because the body is in semi-starvation mode. Therefore, when blood sugar levels drop, the body is alerted that the liver is unable to respond appropriately.
This, in turn, causes the body to take emergency action. Releases the hormone cortisol, which breaks down muscle into protein, which is further broken down into amino acids. Selective amino acids are transported to the liver and converted to glucose, thereby increasing blood sugar levels. In other words, the body destroys muscle to make glucose, a process called gluconeogenesis.
Are there any benefits to a crash diet over intermittent fasting?
Fast dieting always fails because losing muscle mass can backfire, and the fact that you lose a few pounds of muscle even if you lose a lot of pounds means you don’t look any better. This is disappointing because when you start a crash diet with the goal of losing 30 pounds or more, in your mind, you picture yourself back in a body that lost 30 pounds of fat. Your “new” weight loss body doesn’t look the way you expected.
Plus, you tend to feel bad and all you think about is food.
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When you do intermittent fasting, you don’t cut calories and you don’t go into semi-starvation mode. Conversely, although I have lost weight, I am actually eating more now than I did before I started intermittent fasting because I don’t want to lose any more weight. As a result, it is easy for me to replenish my liver glycogen stores every day and maintain my blood sugar at optimal levels, thus maintaining my muscle mass.
All it takes is a firm decision to commit to eating at a set time and stick to it.
Contact Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology, Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.