Intermittent fasting has been getting a lot of press lately. With all the claims made about what it can do—help you lose weight, reduce inflammation, lessen the chance of stroke, prevent diabetes—it’s sounding like the latest diet fad crossed with CBD. Yes, it can be an effective diet or lifestyle tool, and yes, it does have many positive impacts on health, but a benefit I believe to be most important and something we [as a society] have forgotten is a reconnection to the feeling of hunger. In our food-saturated western lives, we eat for every reason but hunger—for pleasure, for escape, to pass the time, to cope with feelings of depression and anxiety. Not feeling hunger as part of everyday life, we eat too much, too often, and choose things that are not good for us.
Intermittent fasting brings back hunger, and with it, a chance to listen to our bodies again. With hunger awareness we can become more cognizant of all aspects of eating—what, how much and how often we eat and the pace of eating itself. In my practice I’ve found that this kind of self-awareness is a crucial first step towards adoption of healthy lifestyles that include not just diet, but sleep, exercise and stress management.
At Wellstead Health we recognize every patient as an individual, and so customize meal plans to each person’s needs. When appropriate we recommend intermittent fasting, along with other complimentary practices such as conscious eating, as effective methods to lose weight and sustain weight loss. And as practitioners of Functional Medicine, we help them integrate these behavior changes into a holistic approach to healthy living.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a form of time-restricted eating where you eat only in specified intervals. It’s done both for overall health benefits, and to aid in weight loss.
In one of the most common approaches, you eat meals/snacks over an 8-hour period, and then fast for 16 hours. This might mean eating lunch around noon and dinner at 6pm, and then refraining from meals and snack until noon the next day, or eating breakfast at 7am, lunch at 1pm, and then fasting until breakfast. Another approach, known as 5/2, allows you to eat normally for five days a week, interspersing these with two fast days. Some of those who practice the 5/2 approach consume only low/no-calorie liquids on their fast days, while others allow themselves one or two small meals that total, together, no more than 500-600 calories.
How it works
As hunter-gatherers, we evolved a highly efficient system for consuming nutrients based on cycles of food plenty and food scarcity. Our bodies used the times of plenty to quickly turn food into fat, and then, in times of scarcity, burn the fat, and when not digesting new food, break down old cells and clean up the “debris” in our systems, such as older proteins--enzymes and transporters.
Through intermittent fasting, we recreate the cycle, if only briefly, of scarcity and plenty, triggering a metabolic switch during fast times from burning glucose to burning fatty acids from fat. If careful about what and how much we consume during active eating periods, we don’t store more fat, and so lose weight.
In my practice as a physician, I’ve found that intermittent fasting can have both immediate and long-term benefits. In the short-term it:
● promotes metabolic efficiency—we spend more time using fat as an energy source, and less processing sugars, making to easier to lose weight when dieting, and to maintain desired weight long-term. In a more efficient state, we also better regulate glucose, reducing the risk of diabetes.
● helps the body develop better responses to stress, leading to increased antioxidant defenses, DNA repair, autophagy (damaged cell removal) and reduction in inflammation.
Intermittent fasting can impact other key drivers of health by improving sleep, reducing stress and encouraging a time commitment toward exercise:
● Skipping dinner or eating dinner earlier in the evening can improve the quality of your sleep by allowing your body to focus on rest rather than digestion.
● Intermittent fasting can reduce anxiety and depression, putting you in a better frame of mind to deal with the causes of stress.
● Feeling more in control of your life, feeling better about yourself, can make you more willing to do things at home, and to get out and exercise.
While there can be immediate value to intermittent fasting, I’ve found that significant, long-term benefit comes from listening to yourself and recognizing the power of food as medicine. When you eat well and see that you can control how healthy you are, you feel empowered to change your life.
Step 1: Optimize the immediate value of intermittent fasting
Think of the first week or two as an on-ramp to better eating. Most people find the 8/16 daily approach the easiest to implement. Start with an intermittent fasting schedule that will work with your lifestyle—if you need energy in the morning, eat breakfast and lunch and fast from mid-afternoon on. Most research I’ve seen suggests that longer fast periods have increased benefit, so when comfortable, consider adding a fast day or two. You might begin these with limited calories each fast day—not more than 500-600 total, consumed in two small meals. If your physician approves, and you feel ready, try complete fasts, consuming only no- or low-calorie liquids for 24 hours.
During eating cycles, try to limit your consumption of sweet and starchy foods, as these will trigger a switch to fat storage. A diet closer to the ketogenic, with more protein and fat and even bigger dose of healthy vegetables, will increase the health benefits and help with weight loss.
Step 2: Leverage intermittent fasting to change long-term eating behavior
Use this window of awareness to get back in touch with all aspects of eating. You’ll probably find that like most Americans, you eat when you’re not hungry, you eat too quickly, your portions are too large, and you eat without thinking about what you really want.
Once you’re comfortable with intermittent fasting or before experimenting with intermittent fasting, try implementing simple behavior changes, one at a time:
● Don’t eat unless you actually feel hunger.
● Start with smaller portions, maybe half of what you’d normally serve; wait 10-15 minutes after finishing, and if still hungry, have a second, smaller portion.
● Slow your pace of eating: take deliberately smaller bites; put your cutlery down between each bite; eat for 3-4 minutes and then stop for a few and talk (or if by yourself, read); break your meal into courses and wait 10-15 minutes between each. When you take more time to eat you’ll find you eat less and enjoy meals much more.
● Think about what you want to get out of a meal—what kind of taste or experience you’re in the mood for—and then choose the healthiest version available. Want a savory breakfast?Try two poached eggs and turkey sausage instead of eggs benedict.
Step 3: Use intermittent fasting to build a holistic approach to healthy living
Once you’ve seen how getting in touch with hunger can lead to sustainable changes in diet, you’ll be much more receptive to ways to change behavior in other aspects of life. At Wellstead Health we can work with you to implement complementary behavior changes in the way you sleep, exercise and deal with stress.
If you’d like to optimize the immediate value of intermittent fasting to create profound, positive lifestyle change, contact us at Wellstead Health www.wellsteadhealth.com—we’re happy to share our knowledge with you and help you get on track to healthier living.
New England Journal of Medicine: “Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging and Disease” https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1905136
New Atlas: “New studies shine light on long-term effects of intermittent fasting” https://newatlas.com/health-wellbeing/long-term-effects-intermittent-fasting-heart-health-mortality/
NIH: “Intermittent fasting: the science of going without” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3680567/
Scientific American: “Does intermittent fasting work?” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-intermittent-fasting-work/
Healthline: “10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting “ https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-health-benefits-of-intermittent-fasting
Harvard Health Publishing: “Intermittent fasting: surprising update” https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/intermittent-fasting-surprising-update-2018062914156
WebMD: “’Intermittent Fasting’ Diet Could Boost Your Health” https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20191226/intermittent-fasting-diet-could-boost-your-health#1
Huffington Post: “This Is Your Body on Intermittent Fasting” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/body-intermittent-fasting_l_5e0a3220c5b6b5a713b22dcb