Intermittent fasting has become super popular lately, and with good reason!
For some, it helps them lose weight. Others report feeling stronger and more energetic. And there are those who can think more clearly and effectively because of it.
But as it is with other trends, some may be skeptical, and reluctant to try it.
Does it truly offer benefits? Is there more than just anecdotal evidence?
Well, I’m here to tell you that there is something to it! In this guide, we’ll walk through what intermittent fasting is, some of the many benefits, and how you can start intermittent fasting, today!
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
In simple terms, intermittent fasting can be best described as time-restricted eating.
For the majority of people, your day normally looks kinda like this:
- Waking up at around 6 or 7 a.m.
- Having breakfast or a snack
- Having a mid-morning snack
- Eating lunch
- Having another snack between lunch and dinner
- Eating dinner
- Having a snack or dessert after dinner
The time during which you eat your meals and snacks is what’s known as your eating window. The average person’s eating window (in the “developed” world) is around 14 hours long, from early am breakfast until close to bedtime, and for some, it’s much longer – ie. midnight snacks and night-time eating.
Intermittent fasting is the practice of shortening this eating window to less than 12 hours.
So this could mean having breakfast later or not at all, or having dinner earlier or not at all, or a combo. Any day that you shorten your eating window to fewer than 12 total hours, from the first bite or sip to the last, you are doing intermittent fasting, aka time-restricted eating.
Now, you might be wondering – how can it help you?
The Benefits Of Intermittent Fasting, And Why It Works
Intermittent fasting works in large part by 1) giving the digestion and metabolism a rest, and 2) taking advantage of a process known as autophagy. Put simply, autophagy is the body’s way of cleaning up, which can look like clearing out anything from scar tissue to damaged proteins, and regenerating newer, healthier cells, and thus healthier tissues and organs, which leads to healthier overall bodily functioning.
The benefits of intermittent fasting include:
•Boosting HGH and Balancing Hormones: Intermittent fasting has been shown to boost production of human growth hormone (HGH) and balance out other hormones like insulin. This supports the healing process of the body and helps it achieve homeostasis with greater ease.
•Boosting Metabolism: Beyond reducing calorie intake through mindful eating during tighter eating windows, intermittent fasting can reduce food cravings while boosting metabolism.
•Battling Inflammation: As suggested in the study above, intermittent fasting can also reduce oxidative stress, helping the body minimize inflammation-based conditions.
•Improved Brain Function: The healing powers of intermittent fasting extends to the brain as well, enhancing brain function and shielding the brain from neurodegenerative brain disorders.
•Aiding Digestion: The shorter your eating window is (within reason), the more time the body has to tend to the digestive system. This allows it to heal, and digest your food properly, which results in improved digestion.
While the scientific evidence is new, however, this is something we humans have known for a long while. Did you know fasting has been used therapeutically since at least the 5th-century BCE? The Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstinence from food or drink for patients who exhibited certain symptoms of illness.
Fasting has also been employed through the ages for spiritual purposes. In Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam alike, fasting was and still is seen as a way to cultivate self-discipline and purify ourselves, and it’s been a practice for thousands of years.
In summary, there is no shortage of benefits when choosing to pursue intermittent fasting, and this is something that our ancestors noticed themselves. But now that we’ve tackled the what and the why, how do you start doing it yourself?
How Can I Incorporate Intermittent Fasting Into My Day-to-Day?
Arguably one of the most popular methods you can use is the 16:8 method.
Aptly named, the 16:8 method helps you begin your intermittent fasting journey by fasting for 16 hours and eating during an eight-hour window. For instance, you can eat between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. and fast between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. This gives you plenty of time to fit necessary meals into your day.
With this in mind, everyone’s daily habits may look different, so it’s best to work within a timeframe that fits your specific schedule. If you can only start with a 12-hour window, then start with 12! For example, eat from 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. and fast from 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m.
That being said, some people have trouble adjusting to these types of fasting cycles. One neat trick to make your fasting experience smoother is to exchange your breakfast for a cup of plain black coffee or tea loaded with pure fats so it doesn’t impact your fast. Adding butter, ghee, coconut oil or MCT oil to your morning beverage can help you feel more full until it’s time for your first meal of the day.
Over time, you can start working into clean fasting so that you’re only consuming water (or sparkling water), green tea, black tea, and black coffee, with no fats added.
Once you do become accustomed to your new fasting habit, make sure that you’re closing your eating window well before bedtime. Eating too close to bed can reduce your quality of sleep and impact your overall health as well! Additionally, while anywhere from 5 to 12 hours of eating daily tends to be the norm for intermittent fasters, be careful of windows smaller than 5, especially for women.
Many people (especially women) notice that having a very tight eating window (<5 hours) every single day can lead to hormone imbalances, drops in energy and mood, weight loss plateaus, and strong food cravings. So either alternate your eating window, shorter and longer, or, if you prefer a set schedule, lengthen it out to 6 hours or more – the important thing is to listen to your body, and tinker until you find the pattern that works best for you and your body.
What Is Extended Fasting Or Alternate Day Fasting?
Besides a shortened daily eating window, there are other ways of fasting, including extended, and alternate day.
Extended fasting consists of longer fasts of anywhere from 24 to 36 hours or longer. While the added benefit of these can be significant, extended fasting is something most people need to work their way up to. Fasting is like a muscle – the ability to fast grows with practice.
Alternate day fasting (ADF) is, well, just what it sounds like! Fasting on alternating days. For instance, you could fast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and then eat “normally” (ie. with a longer eating window) on the other days. This can work really well for people who don’t want to fast every day, or whose schedule makes it challenging to do so. You still get lots of the benefits of daily intermittent fasting, in a way that’s easier to manage for some.
There’s an alternate day fast out there called the 5:2, which entails eating “normally” for five days, and eating calorie-restricted for two days of the week. For example, you might only have dinner on Monday and Saturday, and eat 3 meals a day the rest of the days. For those who are having difficulty getting started with intermittent fasting, this can be a great way to acclimate to the practice.
For more detailed guidance on getting started with intermittent fasting, check out Dr. Emily’s intermittent fasting guide!