Fasting for Better Health – Should You Do It?
In the East, the act of fasting has been performed for thousands of years as a tool to reach new states of consciousness. Over the past few years, people in the West have started embracing intermittent fasting to take advantage of its numerous health benefits for both mind and body. It may not be for everyone, but for those whose bodies are capable, it can be a powerful tool for regular recalibration.
The Benefits of Fasting
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin is a hormone released by the body when food is consumed, and it is responsible for the uptake of nutrients into muscles, fat cells and the liver. Various factors, including overeating, have led a majority of us to have poor insulin sensitivity.
Poor insulin sensitivity has been linked to increased risk of diabetes and cancer, as well as a decreased ability to absorb nutrients and burn fat. Practicing intermittent fasting can help boost your body’s sensitivity to insulin.
Increase in Growth Hormone
One study showed that 24-hour fasts temporarily increase the brain’s production of human growth hormone by between 1300 to 2000 percent (more for males than females). Human growth hormone helps protect lean muscles and metabolic balance in the body.
Improve Brain Function
A study conducted by the National Institute of Aging at Johns Hopkins University showed that fasting in mice increased the growth of new neurons in the brain, which can help battle dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
It also helped stimulate Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which helps create new nerves, and protects those nerve cells from being damaged by toxins. Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, stated regarding fasting: “The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells.”
The body uses a great deal of energy in digesting and extracting nutrients from food. Giving the digestive system an occasional break can free up energy to be utilized by the brain and other systems of the body.
Fasting is also a real opportunity to drive energy to the prefrontal cortex part of the brain, take a step back to look inward and make more clear decisions going forward. If you decide to fast, it would be wise to incorporate an introspective method—meditation perhaps—to get the most benefit.
Intermittent fasting means fasting for anywhere between 16-36 hours. The most important thing to remember with any fast is the meal before going into it and after coming out of it, are key. Ensure that these two meals are filled with good whole foods: lean proteins, veggies, and fruit—preferably all organic.
A popular fast is the 16/8 method, otherwise known as the Lean Gains method. This is the incorporation of a daily 16-hour fast, with an eating window of 8 hours during the day. For example, if you have your first meal at 1 p.m., you would stop eating at 9 p.m. and repeat the cycle the next day. This can be viewed more as an eating style than a traditional fast.
Another method is to fast for a period of 24 hours, usually for one to two days per week. From personal experience, 24-hour fasts tend to give the most introspective experience, as the body passes by what would normally be three meals without having to spend energy on digestion.
It’s important to drink plenty of water during the fast. Many people consume tea or black coffee, as well, for an energy boost and to temporarily curb appetite.
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. It’s important your stress response is under control before engaging in intermittent fasting, as your body may have an adverse reaction if it’s not. If you have any concerns about your cortisol levels, get a measuring from a health professional to make sure they’re at optimal levels. You could try intermittent fasting for a month and see how it goes. If you experience negative effects after having fasted on and off for the month, talk to your healthcare provider for recommendations or to re-test your cortisol.
7 Intermittent Fasting Tips for Seeing Results
Now that you have a better understanding of what IT is, let’s get into a few intermittent fasting tips you can follow to get the most out of your IT experiences.
1. Get into the Right Mindset
A lot of people fail to achieve their intermittent fasting results because they weren’t able to set the right mindset. They quit before they can even see the changes they want.
Also known as IF, intermittent fasting cannot and should not be a one-time program. In fact, you have to be consistent and make it part of your lifestyle.
You must also be clear about your goals. Are you doing intermittent fasting for weight loss, for example?
These objectives will help you set benchmarks when you need to assess whether IF is working for you or not.
Intermittent fasting has many health benefits for those who stick with it. Not only is it a great diet plan for body fat loss because it helps you consume fewer calories, but it can improve wellness in other areas too. According to a study, fasting can help reduce blood pressure in those with obesity.
Other studies report that intermittent fasting for 3 to 24 weeks can help control blood sugar, glucose and insulin levels in those who are pre-diabetic. It is also suggested that fasting can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, some heart conditions, and non-alcoholic liver cancer. It may also preserve memory and slow down brain disease. There are even animal studies which show that repeat short-term fasting can extend the lifespan.
But, some people should not consider themselves a candidate for IF. These can include children or people below 18 years old, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, individuals with weak immune systems, and those who have other underlying medical conditions
Those with eating disorders or a history of disordered eating should also avoid fasting as inconsistent eating patterns and/or having periods of not eating may trigger a relapse of their condition.
Even if you’re healthy, you should not proceed with IF without getting clearance from your doctor. You want to ensure you’re in tiptop shape before you begin.
2. Choose How You Want to Fast
As previously mentioned, intermittent fasting is a cyclical period of fasting, which can be calorie restriction or non-eating of food, followed by the consumption of food. With this definition, we have different intermittent fasting plans:
- Intermittent Fasting 16/8 Method—You fast for 16 hours and eat within the 8-hour window.
- Warrior Diet—You eat for only four hours and fast for the remainder of the time.
- Alternate Day Fasting—You fast every other day or have selected fast days during the week.
- 500-Calorie—You choose the days when you limit your daily calorie intake to only 500.
- 12-Hour Fast—You eat for only 12 hours and fast the rest of the day.
- Skipping Meals—You avoid eating one of the three big meals. Usually, it’s breakfast.
If you’re a beginner, you may want to begin with a 12-hour fast and then work your way to 16:8, which many people do.
Note, though, longer periods of fasting can have side effects such as gallstone formation. The risk is higher among women, regardless of their weight.
Skipping breakfast may also not be ideal for everyone. According to a study by the American College of Cardiology, this habit can have a possible link to atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the narrowing and hardening of the arteries.
If you truly want to skip breakfast, drink plenty of water throughout the morning, and tread lightly to begin with, paying attention to your body for energy crashes. If you feel like you are unable to make it to your next meal and are finding it hard to function in the morning without food, you may want to rethink your fasting plan.
3. Stick to the Routine as Much as Possible
Your preferred fasting method only comes secondary to your commitment to the routine. As much as possible, you want to choose an intermittent fasting schedule you can follow religiously.
These tips may help you:
- Make dinner your last meal so your sleep can count toward the fasting period.
- Plan ahead for the activities of the week. If you expect to attend a birthday lunch on Friday, adjust your fasting period the day before that.
- Keep yourself busy, so you don’t end up absentmindedly grabbing food in the middle of the fast.
- Are you planning to work out? Do it after the fast, if possible.
4. Stay Hydrated
One of the immediate effects of IF is hunger, and when you’re hungry, you are more likely to jeopardize your intermittent fasting results.
To avoid it, drink something in between. IF does allow you to consume herbal teas, coffee, and water during your fast.
You can even go for coffee alternatives, which can help replenish energy, or a drink using alkaline greens such as wheatgrass, kale, spinach, spirulina, arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, beet greens, and celery. When you keep your body at a slightly alkaline state, you can experience increased energy and cognitive function, better digestion, and decreased inflammation.
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5. Exercise Portion Control
Just because you’re doing the intermittent fasting diet doesn’t mean you have the luxury of overeating during your non-fast period. This only offsets the benefits of intermittent fasting.
You still need to exercise portion control, but it may be difficult when you can feel your tummy grumbling. One technique is to pace your meals so you don’t have to eat large ones during your non-fast time frame.
If you’re on an 8-hour eating window, you may consider the following schedule:
- First Hour – Eat your first normal meal.
- Second Hour – Have a small snack.
- Third Hour – Eat your second normal meal.
- Fifth Hour – Have another small snack.
- Seventh Hour – Eat your last normal meal.
Drink plenty of healthy fluids between these meals, and if it helps, use a smaller plate for better portion control.
6. Eat the Right Kinds of Food
Eating the right kinds of food is the perfect complement to portion control. When IF leaves you wanting when it comes to food, you may tend to grab microwavable meals or head to the nearest burger-and-fry shop.
You may also consider drinking sweetened beverages for the taste or because you believe you need to increase your carbs.
All these will not give you the intermittent fasting results you want. Processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods, can leave you feeling even hungrier. Worse, you’re increasing your risk of metabolic conditions, including obesity.
Here are some tips for eating healthily:
- Focus on foods with healthy fats, such as avocados and salmon.
- Eat healthy and lean proteins, such as grass-fed beef, organic tofu, and beans, peas, and lentils.
- Stuff your plate with leafy greens.
- Consume some nuts as snacks.
- Consider healthy food swaps.
Some people like to follow a low-carb, low-calorie diet in between fasting periods so that they can keep up the level of fat burning and lower the risk of weight gain. The ketogenic (or keto) diet is one example.
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7. Sleep Well
You can also lose or not achieve your desired intermittent fasting results if you lack sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to many problems, including the poor ability to control food intake and weight.
It can increase the production of a hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite. It may also decrease the release of leptin, which helps curb appetite.
Lack of sleep may also make you want to eat more cookies and other types of sweets. This is because it may activate endocannabinoid, the same type of lipid you stimulate when you take marijuana.
An ideal target to shoot for is a minimum of at least seven hours of sleep. If you’re having a hard time sleeping, make sure you are cultivating habits that promote a health sleep routine such as no electronics (blue light) before bed and no caffeine within 4–6 hours of when you want to sleep.
This intermittent fasting beginner’s guide can bring you closer to the dieting results you want, but only if you’re willing to put in some effort and dedication. But—it’s okay if you fail or occasionally fall short, as most people do.
What’s essential is you get back on track as soon as you can, provided you’re following your doctor’s or dietitian’s medical advice and it’s doing your body some good.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 2, 2019, and has been updated for quality and relevancy on April 12, 2021.