Advice for what to eat, when to eat, and how to eat can be confusing and conflicting. I’ve talked to many people that say the amount of nutrition information out there tends to be more overwhelming than helpful. When this happens, it seems easier to simply eat nothing at all than navigate these muddy waters. It’s for this reason that intermittent fasting often seems so appealing. Proponents of intermittent fasting will proclaim the amazing benefits of simply not eating, saying that fasting will make you leaner, stronger, smarter, and even live longer. Are these claims true? Let’s find out!
What is intermittent fasting?
If you’ve never heard of it, intermittent fasting is a dietary approach that involves abstaining from food for a particular period of time. There are many different forms of intermittent fasting, but the most popular forms are time-restricted feeding and alternate-day fasting. Time-restricted feeding includes a prolonged period of fasting followed by a shorter eating, or “feasting” period. This can often look like a 16-hour fast with 8 hours to eat, an 18-hour fast with 6 hours to eat, or a 20-hour fast with 4 hours to eat. On the other hand, alternate-day fasting involves eating little to no food for an entire day, while other days involve unrestricted intake.
Intermittent fasting & fat loss
Of course, one of the first things that come to mind with fasting is fat loss. During a normal eating schedule, the average person eats enough food to provide their body with a consistent supply of energy. The body converts nearly all food to glucose, the body’s preferred energy source. At the same time, the body is able to store some glucose in the muscles and liver as glycogen. This stored energy is there for when you are pushing through intense exercise or go a short period without eating. When you don’t eat for 12 hours or more, though, you begin to drain your glycogen storage. Around the 16-hour mark of no food, give or take, is when the body is out of glycogen and forced to switch to fat-burning. The body is extremely efficient at storing fat because it wants to tap into using it for energy when food is sparse. This metabolic shift occurs to make the body no longer rely on glucose, but instead use its own stored body fat as fuel. To do so, your body breaks apart stored fat and turns it into ketone bodies, or ketones. These ketones circulate in the blood for readily available energy, and they are actually the namesake for the popular “Keto diet”. The ketogenic diet is a whole other conversation, but this diet shares a similar process to intermittent fasting. It is by this mechanism, though, that intermittent fasting has become very famous for burning fat. There is a variety of research backing intermittent fasting’s ability to aid people trying to lean out.
Exercising while fasting
The effect of fat loss with fasting is multiplied with endurance exercise or cardio. Endurance exercise classifies as longer duration and usually lower intensity. Exercises like jogging and biking would qualify. With this type of exercise, your body actually prefers to burn fat for energy. If you do cardio in the fasted state, your body has already started liberating stored fat and converting it into ketones. As you jog, your working muscles are happy to pick up the fat and ketones circulating in the blood and burn them for energy.
How can you practically apply this to your own fat-loss journey? If you are able to fast overnight and exercise before breakfast, cardio in the morning will allow your body to burn fat much more efficiently than after breakfast or any other meal of the day. It’s worth noting these effects aren’t a magic bullet, though. Fat loss doesn’t happen overnight. Even if you were fasting during that night! There is limited research saying that people didn’t lose fat using intermittent fasting, but this research was done over a short period of time and in a very small group of people. At the end of the day, being consistent with your exercise and nutrition will always be the key to leaning out.
Can intermittent fasting help you live longer?
What about those of us that care more about living longer? Some research has related intermittent fasting to a variety of general health benefits that fight some of the most common ailments leading to death and disease. Some research has found that intermittent fasting has helped improve cholesterol levels, protect heart health, improve the balance of gut bacteria, and even help to fight cancer. Limited research saw that intermittent fasting actually decreased peoples’ triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), while increasing their HDL (good cholesterol).
Further, different fasting regimens have been found to slow down cell proliferation (excessive growth), decrease inflammation, and reduce hormones that are indicated in the uncontrolled growth of cells. All of these processes are related to the belief that fasting can help prevent certain forms of cancer. Early research is even suggesting that fasting allows for more efficient apoptosis (or destruction) of cells that are defective and have the potential to become cancerous.
In the gut, the metabolic changes that occur with fasting influence the “good” and “bad” bacteria. In short, fasting has been seen to increase the good and decrease the bad bacteria, which is part of improving digestion and gut health, as well as helping to reduce and fight obesity. Further, there’s some research beginning to suggest that a properly executed intermittent fasting regimen can even help reduce stress and improve learning abilities.
Intermittent fasting & circadian rhythm
Part of these benefits from intermittent fasting stem from the ability to help the body reconnect with its circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock, telling us when to sleep, wake up, eat, exercise, and much more. Our current lifestyle involves unpredictable eating and sleeping patterns that disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, causing improper brain and hormone signals and patterns. Providing the body with set times to eat, fast, and sleep helps realign this rhythm and can correct the body’s metabolism. In doing so, our ability to regulate our body weight, fight cancer, and generally stay healthy is vastly improved.
Can you work out while fasting?
What about working out? Won’t fasting hurt my performance in the gym? Well…it might. Generally, exercise performance during “feasting periods”, or the times that you can eat, is unaffected. Unfortunately, a good number of studies have found that individuals that exercise during their fasting periods usually perform worse. In other words, intermittent fasting might help you lean out faster, but you most likely won’t be able to lift any heavier or run any faster. In other words, you might get leaner but you certainly won’t get any fitter.
Should you try intermittent fasting?
How would you know if intermittent fasting is worth trying? Intermittent fasting may be achievable and sustainable if you’re someone who finds that they “forget to eat” when they’re too busy, has a work/life schedule that makes eating or snacking more difficult, or finds that they simply don’t get hungry very often. With lifestyles like this, intermittent fasting may be an easy dietary pattern to adopt.
When you don’t feel like eating or don’t have time to eat, just don’t eat! On the other hand, intermittent fasting may not be sustainable if you’re someone who gets very tired or “hangry” from not eating, quickly gets hunger pains, is prone to low blood sugar, or has better energy levels when they snack on small meals throughout the day. If you’re an individual in the latter group, you might feel like there’s no hope for reaping the benefits of intermittent fasting. Fear not! Even shorter periods of fasting carry their own benefits. Research has found that simply eating dinner at a normal time, say about six o’clock, and not eating the rest of the night until breakfast, say sometime after six o’clock in the morning, can have health benefits. Fasting between dinner and breakfast could help improve your quality of sleep and even help regulate blood sugar levels for the whole next day. Both of these benefits can lend to sustained energy levels for the entire day, prevent you from feeling the need to overeat, and reduce fat storage during the day. Even if fasting for 16 hours seems quite daunting, refraining from some late-night snacking can impart benefits similar to intermittent fasting without all the hunger pains.
So is intermittent fasting good or bad for you?
Intermittent fasting is simply another approach to how we eat, and it may have certain health benefits if you find it to be sustainable. Just as important as how we eat is what we eat, though. Regardless of how you approach nutrition, what matters most is that you eat a balance of food that is good for you and that you enjoy. Food is fuel, true. But food is also emotional. Food is tradition. Food is social, and food is meant to be shared and enjoyed. So, whether you’re slurping a kale smoothie or splitting a pizza, rest assured that you’re living a healthy life if you’re enjoying what you consume without allowing it to consume you.
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