Intermittent fasting - the health benefits and how to go about it
If you are surrounded by health-conscious people and are yourself honed in to health, you must have heard of the term intermittent fasting or cyclic fasting. But if not, I will help to to get a good overview fo what is intermittent fasting and why we should practice it on a regular basis.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting shortly is going without food for a period of time. It's not that eating is bad, especially if you are eating healthy whole-food, but in today's world we tend to overdo with eating and not give our body the rest it needs in between the meals. Digesting food is an energy-consuming activity for the body.
Intermittent fasting has been used for centuries during the time of famine or when food was scarce and as we know it's one of the central parts in different religions.
Many of us also tend to be reliant on glycose stores for energy rather than utilising our fat storage for energy. Intermittent fasting is helping to switch that around, where we are not dependent on glycose and can utilise fat instead to keep our energy levels high.
What are the health benefits of intermittent fasting?
Improves your immune system and increases energy
Intermittent fasting helps to lower your white blood cell count, recycle the immune cells not needed and triggers your immune system to start producing new white blood cells.
Decreases insulin resistance
It increases metabolism and also increases the production of beneficial enzymes, which help your body to adapt to stress better and fight chronic illnesses like diabetes.
Heals the leaky gut
As you give your digestive tract a rest, it allows your body to heal the gut lining and improve gut disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease. Click here to learn more about leaky gut and how to heal it.
Encourages weight loss
Hormone imbalances are often the cause of people not being able to lose weight. When your body is running on sugar-fuel, your body might have leptin (satiety hormone) resistance, which means your brain has stopped recognising leptin's signals to use your body's fat storage for energy.
Promotes autophagy (cell self-eating)
This is normal bodily process of cellular renewal, when our own cells are eating away old cells and studies have shown that fasting helps to improve this process.
Helps killing off cravings and reduce emotional eating
When practicing intermittent fasting, your hunger hormone in your body, ghrelin is decreased and at the same time your brain's dopamine levels are increased. By moving your metabolism from a sugar-burner to a fat-burner, you reduce the need for cravings and especially cravings for unhealthy starchy and sugary foods.
Improves autoimmune conditions
Intermittent fasting helps to reduce the severity of a a flare of those with autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis.
Reduces inflammation in the brain and improves memory
It enhances your brain cognitive function, slows down brain ageing and help with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's.
Improves heart health
Intermittent fasting helps to lower blood pressure and triglycerides, while raising beneficial HDL cholesterol.
Improves lung health
Helps to reduce asthma symptoms and oxidative stress.
How to go about with intermittent fasting?
There are different ways to go about intermittent fasting, but it's all about eating in a restricted time-window and of course focusing on healthy whole-foods, while eating.
People who have not practiced intermittent fasting at all and have not been health-conscious eaters, it's better to start slowly. Meaning, start off with eating your meals within 12h and then giving yourself 12h rest from food- it could be eating your meals between 7am and 7pm and not eating between 7pm and 7am.
If you feel comfortable with a 12h eating window, you can take it a step further and try eating within 10h window and then giving your body a rest for 14h before you eat again, so it would look like this for example: eating your meals between 8am and 6pm and then not eating between 6pm and 8am.
And you can take it from there even another step further, where you eat within an 8h window and give your body then 16h of rest.
It's all about finding the right eating window that works for your body, there is no one rule that works for all. You could also eat your meals between 12am and 6pm, if you are not a 'breakfast person' and not really hungry in the mornings. You could also do 16h fasts during the weekdays and 14h fasts during the weekend. Find your own sweet-spot.
But it's important to mention here that women need to be more careful when intermittent fasting, read further to find out why.
What to eat when you are practicing intermittent fasting?
Beginner: Eating between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
If you haven't practiced intermittent fasting in the past, then it's best to start with 12h fasts or 14h fasts as this allows you to have your breakfast, lunch and dinner within normal hours while still getting the benefits of fasting. You can
Breakfast around 8 a.m.
Best is to start off your morning with a smoothie, that has good fat, protein, fibre, greens and small handful of berries in it. You can find some more information and inspiration how to put together and well-nourishing smoothie here.
Lunch around 12 p.m.
Have a healthy salad for example with a choice of greens (spinach, rocket, roman lettuce) , avocado, a choice of protein (wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, egg), sprinkle with some seeds like sesame or pumpkin seeds and add your salad dressing (just olive oil, a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, tahini dressing etc).
Dinner around 5.30 p.m.
Depending on what you had as a protein for lunch, you can have a different protein for dinner (fish, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, duck etc). Serve next to it some oven-roasted vegetables like sweet potatoes, beetroot, leek, cauliflower (the choice is wide).
In between the meals make sure you consume enough water to avoid dehydration, drink tea such as green tea or matcha or any other herbal tea.
Intermediate: Eating between 12 p.m and 6 p.m.
This takes your fasting from 14h to 18h and usually means you skip breakfast and have your first meal at 12 p.m. You can sip herbal teas or green teas in the morning as they naturally help to reduce the hunger hormone ghrelin.
You can either have your smoothie at 12 p.m. or have your usual lunch meal. If you do get hungry between your first meal and last meal, have something like a handful of soaked nuts or seeds (learn why you need to soak them from here).
For dinner have a healthy protein together with either a salad or cooked vegetables.
Is intermittent fasting for everyone?
Women are more sensitive to intermittent fasting than men as they have more hormone called kisspeptin, which creates greater sensitivity to fasting. If women take intermittent fasting too far, it can mess up their menstrual cycle, throw off their hormones and have a negative effect on fertility. So women might want to try to do intermittent fasting just couple of days a week (let's say Mondays and Wednesdays) and while they have their period, try longer eating windows, like 12h eating and 12h fasting. It's not about stubbornly going in and pushing it though all days, no matter what. Intuition is key here. Also on fasting days, rather than going all in with hard-cardio exercise focus on yoga, pilates or any light-cardio exercise.
If you have blood-sugar problems and/or are diabetic, it's important to talk to your healthcare provider, who helps to monitor your health, while you slowly go into intermittent fasting and increase your length of fasting as your blood glycose stabilises.
If you have eating-disorders (like bulimia and anorexia), also talk to your healthcare provider. You will also benefit more going into regular intermittent-fasting slower. Though studies have shown, if done right with proper nutrition, people are able to heal from their eating disorders with intermittent fasting.
If you are someone with anxiety, struggling with sleep and your circadian rhythm is not in balance (not able to fall asleep easily, stay asleep and wake up energised, then you are probably the one also who should step slowly into intermittent fasting.
If you have thyroid problems, then it's also best to talk to your healthcare provider before starting to practice intermittent fasting.
As you have hopefully learnt from above, intermittent fasting is definitely something to try and practice to reap the benefits from it for your health, but it's important to do it intuitively, listen to your own body and also work with your healthcare provider if you have current health issues to make sure you ease into the fasting the right way.