Intermittent fasting is the latest buzzy health trend that everyone is talking about. The (non) eating plan has been associated with better brain function, longevity, and weight loss, and is purported as protecting against certain diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Is fasting really all that and more? Here’s what you need to know about intermittent fasting.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
First and foremost, intermittent fasting is not a diet. It’s an eating plan where that cycles between periods of eating and not eating (aka fasting). Instead of limiting what to eat, intermittent fasting limits when to eat.
Although fasting may seem like the newest wellness trend, it’s actually been practiced for thousands of years out of human necessity and food scarcity. Fasting practices are observed in many religious groups including Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism.
We naturally practice fasting in between the time we eat dinner and breakfast. The name breakfast, of course, implies breaking the fast. While we sleep and abstain from food, our body releases beneficial growth hormones, repairs tissues and cells, and increases blood supply to organs, among other beneficial and restorative things. The benefits of nighttime fasting can be elongated to other parts of the day too, according to proponents of intermittent fasting.
What Are the Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting has been widely studied as a tool for weight loss and maintenance, increased health, and decreased states of disease. Numerous studies have linked types of fasting with:
1. Weight Loss. According to Dr. Joshua Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, “intermittent fasting results in increased fat burning and fast weight loss by forcing your body to use up fat stores as fuel” he says.
“When you eat, your body uses glucose (sugar) as its primary source of energy and stores whatever is left over as glycogen in your muscles and liver.” Without glucose to provide energy, the body turns to stored glycogen as fuel instead.
Numerous studies have shown that intermittent fasting supports weight loss. This 2009 study found that alternate day intermittent fasting is a variable option for weight loss in obese patients.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders concluded that six weeks of intermittent fasting helped to improve several markers of cardiovascular disease risk including obesity, waist circumference, fat mass, and blood pressure.
This 2016 study found that fasting in which all calories are consumed in an eight-hour window each day improved some health-related biomarkers, decreased fat mass, and maintained muscle mass in resistance-trained males.
2. Improve blood sugar response and factors of type-II diabetes. Many studies have shown that intermittent fasting is a beneficial tool for managing blood sugar fluctuations.
A 2017 study published in World Journal of Diabetes concludes that short-term daily intermittent fasting (limiting food intake into a single four to eight hour period) may be a “safe, tolerable, dietary intervention” in patients with type-II diabetes and blood sugar dysfunction. The study found that intermittent fasting helped to improve key outcomes of the disease including body weight, fasting glucose, and insulin response after eating a meal.
3. Healthier cholesterol levels. This 2012 study found that fasting increased healthy HDL cholesterol and decreased unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in healthy individuals after practicing fasting during Ramadan.
4. Brain Health. Intermittent fasting studies in humans and animals have shown that that the practice improves brain function, increases synaptic plasticity, (a biological brain marker of learning and processing) enhances memory performance tests in elderly patients, promotes growth of new neurons, and even decreases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
5. Longevity. In animal studies, intermittent fasting can extend the lifespan of rats by roughly 36-83 percent.
6. Inflammation. Numerous studies have shown that intermittent fasting reduces markers of inflammation, which has been linked to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and obesity.
How to Practice Intermittent Fasting
There are a variety of different types of intermittent fasting including:
- Alternate day fasting. As the name suggests, in this fasting practice the individual eats every other day. In the fasting day, the individual may consume a small amount of calories; as in no more than 500.
- 16/8 fasting. In this fasting practice, an individual fasts for 16 hours a day and can eat during an eight-hour window. This is one of the most common practices of fasting.
- Eat-stop-eat. In this plan, an individual selects two days of the week to fast. They then eat normally for five days of the week and fast for the remaining two.
- 5:2 fasting. In this practice, an individual eats regularly for five days and severely restricts their calories (to about 500-600 daily) for the remaining two.
Water, coffee (without cream or sugar), tea, and non-alcohol beverages are allowed during fasting. Intermittent fasting is recommended in conjunction with plenty of healthy, whole foods, exercise and movement, and a healthy amount of sleep.
Is There Any Downside to Intermittent Fasting?
Even though intermittent fasting has been widely studied for its promising health properties, the practice is not for everyone. For one, the practice may be difficult to follow; this 2017 study had a 40 percent drop out rate for alternate-day fasting.
Intermittent fasting may also not be appropriate for those with a history of eating disorders or disordered patterns of eating. Women who are nursing, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant should discuss fasting with a health care provider before embarking on the plan.
Those with an underlying health condition, including diabetes, heart disease, low blood pressure, and those who take medications, should also discuss this plan with their health care provider, too.
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