Intermittent Fasting is one of the latest trends in weight loss, but is it just another fad contributing to the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry or is it the real deal?
It’s not hard to see why so many diet attempts fail. Between highly restrictive diets like the Dr Nowzaradan diet and fad diets that you’ll find on the cover of the latest magazines to the unproven supplements that fly-by-night companies push to make a buck, there is endless misinformation out there.
Amongst all that misinformation, though, if you dig hard enough you’ll find science-backed methods that actually have some validity to them. More than that, with the right tools, you can begin discovering the proven methods that have been in practice for long-term results.
One of those methods is known as Intermittent Fasting, or “IF” for short. If you are new to the concept, consider this the Intermittent Fasting 101 guide that will tell you all you need to know to get started with your own Intermittent Fasting journey, along with why you should.
Let’s dive in!
The Meaning of Fasting
In its most basic form, fasting simply means a period of not eating.
Conscious fasting is an ancient technique that is found throughout religious, spiritual, and health texts. Of course, long before people consciously and intentionally fasted--even when they had food available to eat--our ancestors fasted out of necessity.
While we now have grocery stores around every corner and food readily available in our fridges and pantries, our ancestors did not fair so well. Ancient ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, often went a day or more without eating as they moved around searching for food.
Even once civilizations began to form and food supply became more steady thanks to the agricultural revolution, traditions of fasting continued. Fasting out of necessity also remained an occasional occurrence when particularly dry, wet, or fiery seasons killed off crops in massive numbers.
These days, the majority of people are hardly effected by such events. With our global economy, chances are anyone with a grocery store in town will never have to deal with a real famine. So, why on earth would we choose to fast? There are actually plenty of good reasons.
Why The Timing of Eating Matters
When it comes down to it, most people who are looking to lose weight ask one big question: How much should I be eating? They may even think about what they should be eating to help them reach their goals. Yet, so many ignore the crucial aspect of when and how often they should be consuming food.
Did you know that, every time you start chewing something (even a piece of gum), it begins to activate your digestive system? Digestive juices start flowing and your body begins preparing for food to enter your stomach.
When your body starts this preparation, its attention and energy is taken away from other systems within the body--like the natural repair processes that help your body recover from damage, both internal and external.
This is why health experts agree that it’s bad to eat right before sleeping. Why? Because the majority of your body’s repairs happen at night while you’re resting since that’s a time when your body doesn’t have any other distractions. You’re not moving around consuming energy, requiring a faster heart rate, or more efficient oxygen flow. But, all of that changes if you eat before sleeping because now your body is, again, spending its energy on digestion.
But, the benefits of fasting go far beyond giving your body ample time and energy to do the important work without having to process food. The science behind fasting has discovered many incredible minute details regarding why intermittent fasting--or not eating for some time during the day--is so beneficial.
Intermittent Fasting 101: The Science
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment may sound quite archaic when you first learn about it, but it remains one of the biggest clinical studies regarding fasting and its effects on the human body in modern history. This study took place at the University of Minnesota, running from November 1944 to December 1945.
The plan of the investigation was to determine the physiological and psychological impact of severe and prolonged dietary restriction, followed by a study into the effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation techniques.
The study setup a simulation of a severe famine within a laboratory environment with hopes of collecting data that would guide the relief assistance the Allies were providing to famine victims of Asia and Europe following World War II. The study used 36 men from a pool of more than 200 Civilian Public Service volunteers.
Following a 12-week control phase in which analysts gathered information on the normal physiological and psychological behaviors of each participant, all men were entered into a 24-week starvation period. During this period, the men ate a drastically reduced amount of calories each day, causing them to lose an average of 25% of their starting weight. The calories they received were divided into two meals per day.
Of course, this old study is just one example in a growing body of research related to the effects of not eating or eating too little. And, in reality, intermittent fasting isn’t about calorie restriction, it’s about restricting your eating window. In fact a meta study found in 27 studies intermittent fasting resulted in weight loss of 0.8% to 13%.
How Much Should You Eat?
Intermittent fasting encourages participants to eat to fullness and satiety. That means not restricting yourself to an unhealthy number of calories, but instead opting to eat healthier foods when you do eat and using the practice of intuitive eating so you put your fork down when you’re full.
Most people find that they eat a significant amount during their first few days of fasting because their bodies are not used to going more than a few waking hours between meals. But, as time goes on, you’ll find yourself becoming less and less hungry as your eating window approaches.
With time, a natural balance should occur where you find yourself only eating as much as you need. Many people also find that, if they make a conscious effort in the beginning to restrict their intake of junk food, they’ll begin to crave healthier foods in no time at all and have less trouble adjusting to the restricted eating window.
What Modern Science Says
Considering that the Minnesota Starvation Experiment had many variables that contrast from modern intermittent fasting--like extreme calorie restriction--most experts no longer cite it when talking about IF, though you may still find it come up.
Instead, if you want specific facts on how intermittent fasting protocols impact the body, it’s best to look to other studies that have taken place overtime.
Intermittent Fasting Changes Body Functions
When your body goes a period without eating, attention is taken away from the digestive system. Instead, your insulin levels begin to drop and the amount of growth hormone within your body rises. Cellular repair processes begin to take place and hormone levels change to help your body access stored body fat more easily.
As your insulin levels drop, it begins to facilitate fat burning. Meanwhile, the amount of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) in your blood can increase as much as five-fold. Higher levels of HGH don’t just mean more fat burning, but more muscle gain, as well. As all of that happens, cellular repair processes begin removing waste from within cells.
It’s also been noted that there are several beneficial changes in genes and molecules that help promote longevity and protect against diseases.
Intermittent Fasting Lowers Your Risk of Type II Diabetes
Type II Diabetes, which anyone can develop throughout their lifetime, has become extremely common in recent decades. The primary marker of Type II Diabetes is high blood sugar levels paired with insulin resistance.
Anything you do to help reduce insulin resistance will help lower your blood sugar levels as well, helping to protect you against Type II Diabetes. Therefore, intermittent fasting is very helpful for those at risk of developing it.
In human studies, intermittent fasting has led to blood sugar levels being reduced by up to 6% while fasting. Meanwhile, insulin levels while fasting is reduced by up to 31%.
Intermittent Fasting Reduces Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
One of the primary causes of aging and chronic disease is oxidative stress. That means unstable molecules, known as free radicals, which react with important molecules such as DNA and protein in a way that damages them.
Several studies support intermittent fasting’s ability to enhance the body’s resistance to free radicals and it has also been shown to help fight inflammation within the body. All of that means a lower risk of damage at the molecular level.
Benefits Go Beyond A Slimmer Waist
As you can see, the benefits of intermittent fasting go beyond more efficient fat burning capacity. With routine intermittent fasting, you’ll enjoy all of the above benefits and you’ll find that IF supports a healthier heart, brain, and a longer life.
With all of that said, let’s get into what you really want to know now: How to get started with Intermittent Fasting.
Getting Started With Intermittent Fasting
So, now that you know all about where the concept of fasting comes from and how science supports the notion of intermittent fasting, let’s talk about how you can get started with an intermittent fasting routine of your own.
Choose Your Fasting Window
Intermittent fasting is very easy to customize to your needs and lifestyle. Many people start with a 16/8 plan, which means fasting for 16 hours every day and then having an 8-hour window in which you can eat as you please.
Remember, the time you spend sleeping counts as time spent fasting, so your 16-hour fasting window may last from 7 PM to 11 AM the next day. That means you can eat up until 7 in the evening and you can have your first meal as early as 11 in the morning.
You can move your eating and fasting windows around however you please, though most people agree it’s best to give your body at least 2 hours of fasting before you plan on getting in bed for the night. That’s so your body isn’t working on digesting food while you’re sleeping as that can disrupt the quality of your sleep and interfere with your body’s most efficient healing period.
What you do want to strive for is one continuous period of fasting because, as soon as you eat (or “break your fast”), your body’s repair processes have been interrupted. So, go for one solid fasting period and one solid eating window each day.
As you advance, you may choose to go for a 20/4 schedule (where you fast for 20 hours each day) or even a 23/1 schedule, which is also known as OMAD or “One Meal A Day”.
Set Realistic Expectations
One thing you don’t want to do, as with any diet, is set unrealistic or extreme expectations of yourself and set yourself up for failure or drastic struggle. If you’re used to eating three meals a day, for instance, think about the general time period in which you eat those meals.
Maybe you tend to eat right after you wake up around 8 AM and your last meal is typically dinner at 6 PM. This already gives you a 14/10 schedule, but you ideally want to extend your fasting period by at least a couple hours to begin with. That can mean eating breakfast a couple hours later, eating dinner a couple hours earlier, or a combination of both.
In general, it’s thought that extending your fasting period in the morning will be more beneficial than starting it earlier in the evening since your body really dives into its deep healing processes while you sleep. Those processes continue until “break-fast” the next day.
Of course, eating your last meal earlier will also prove very beneficial if you currently eat close to your bedtime, as doing that will delay the start of these deep healing processes and it’s also likely impacting your sleep quality, even if you don’t know it.
The metrics of success should go beyond the number on the scale. In fact, many people find that the number on the scale won’t budge, or at least not consistently, due to different phenomena.
For instance, since IF promotes muscle gain, you may find that you’re losing bulky fat and replacing it with lean body mass. That means the difference on the scale will be miniscule even though the difference in the mirror, in your clothes, and in how you feel can be great.
So, while stepping on the scale may be a big deal for you, try not to weigh every day. Instead, track a trend with a weekly weigh in and watch the pounds come off. And, in addition to getting on the scale, pay attention to these metrics that show your real success with greater accuracy:
How You Look
Progress photos are, by far, one of the best motivators whenever you’re trying to lean up or tone down. Take a new progress photo every week, perhaps on the same day that you weigh yourself, and you’ll find that photos will show massive progress even if the scale shows minimal change.
How You Feel
Are you no longer hungry in the hours leading up to your first meal of the day? Are you finding yourself craving different, healthier foods when you do eat? Do you have more energy throughout the day? Do you sleep better at night? These are all side effects of the right fasting plan.
How You Measure
Paying attention to how your favorite outfit fits you and taking measurements around key areas of your body, like your waist line, is another great way to “see” progress even when the scale won’t budge or you find it hard to compare your progress photos without bias.
Doing a mixture of all of these things will help keep you motivated and show the impact your actions are making.
Connect With Those With Intermittent Fasting Experience
It’s been said time and time again that a support network is one of the biggest factors of success when it comes to weight loss. So, feel free to share your story with those around you and try to get them involved, too.
Beyond that, consider joining an online forum or support group of likeminded people who are also pursuing an IF journey. Doing so will give you a supportive place to ask questions, share progress, and get more information on what you can be doing to reach your goals.
Congratulations! you've got through Intermittent Fasting 101, and now have a working knowledge of what Intermittent Fasting is, the science behind it and how to implement it - if you choose to do so. As with any changes to your diet or exercise it's best to discuss it with your medical practioner before you start.