The list of different diets and eating methods to improve your general health and fight the global obesity epidemic is growing by the day. One such eating method is intermittent fasting (IF).
Even if you are only a bit conscious about your health/weight, you probably have heard about it already, it is that popular.
Notice that I didn’t call intermittent fasting a diet…it’s because it’s actually a method of eating, not a diet. But in this article, I’ll be using the word diet loosely, so if I refer to IF as a diet, please know that it’s not a diet in the true sense of the word.
All these “diets” including IF are on the rise because compared to our parents and grandparents, we are spending increasing amounts of time with limited physical activity.
Our workplaces, schools, public places, and homes have been re-engineered over the last century in ways that reduce human activity. What compounds the problem is our increased consumption of processed foods which are loaded with sugars, salts, and fats.
However, it is hard to find a diet that does not have its opponents, and IF is no different. On one hand, we hear how great it is for weight loss and on the other hand its opponents can’t get over the fact that it can be stressful for the body.
In this piece, we will try to draw the whole picture for you describing both the pros and cons of intermittent fasting, and will also try to separate myth from the truth. So, stay with us.
How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
Intermittent fasting essentially refers to any recurring eating pattern that cycles between extended time periods of no or very limited caloric intake and intervening periods of normal food intake.
If you’re brand new to IF, I encourage you to look through the articles in my intermittent fasting library before you decide if this method is right for you.
There is no one way to do intermittent fasting, but there are several popular methods to do it. I will describe some of the commonly used methods below.
The 16/8 method – This probably is the most commonly used IF method and involves 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating window. This method is also called the Leangains diet.
This is the method I personally use.
In this method, individuals usually eat their last meal of the day by 8 p.m. and then skip breakfast the next day and don’t eat until noon. For women, it is recommended to do 14-to-15-hour fasts because they have shown to do better with slightly shorter fasts.
Fasting for 2 days a week or 5:2 method – This method involves eating normally for five days of the week and restricting caloric intake for the other two days to 600 and 500 calories for men and women respectively. This also called the Fast diet.
Weekly 24-hour fast or Eat Stop Eat – In this method, there are 24-hour fasts once or twice per week. This method is also very popular. People usually do this by fasting from dinner one day to dinner the next day. Water, coffee, black tea, and other zero-calorie drinks are allowed in this IF method.
Alternate day fasting – As the name suggests, this method involves fasting every other day. Among several ways to do this method, one involves allowing 500 calories on the fast days.
The Warrior Diet – this method basically involves long periods of low caloric intake and short bursts of overeating. In the fast period, you basically rely on raw fruits and vegetables and eat a huge meal within a four-hour window where you feast.
Intermittent Fasting Focuses on When You Eat, Not What You Eat
So, intermittent fasting is basically a shift from watching what you eat to when you eat. It has been shown to affect our body in a number of ways. It aids weight loss by a variety of means.
For example, we know that body invariably goes into ketosis when there is no caloric consumption for a period of time and this results in fat burning. IF has also been shown to lower blood insulin levels and this is helpful in conditions such as diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome.
Moreover, it has also been shown to cause a surge in human growth hormone levels which promote fat burning and muscle gain.
IF is also known to reduce the risk factors for heart disease as it has been shown to help control blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides. Besides, fasting also leads to a reduced resting heart rate.
On the flip side though, although intermittent fasting has a great safety profile, in beginners it has been shown to cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, lower blood sugar levels, and fatigue.
The Pros (Benefits) of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting has a lot of potential to be your go-to lifestyle/eating pattern for a variety of reasons. In this section, we will go over different benefits intermittent fasting has and these are actually what makes IF widely popular and quite in vogue these days. So, let’s discuss.
Easy to Follow
I hinted that there is no set pattern in intermittent fasting to follow and this is what makes it highly versatile and easy to follow. This fact means anybody is able to tailor it to their needs and incorporate IF into their lifestyles.
What makes it even better is the fact that you don’t need to deprive yourself of any particular food group as you see in some popular diets. As long as you are able to maintain your fast for the intended time length, you are good to eat anything.
I’ve been intermittent fasting for a couple of years now and I have to say that it simplifies my life and lessons the chaos around eating time.
Moreover, because it is easy to follow, more people are able to stick to it for longer and make it a lifestyle, which is ultimately what you want when you’re trying to lose weight and get healthy.
No Calorie Counting
Another advantage IF has over some of the popular diets and eating patterns is that it does not necessarily involve counting your calories.
Different studies conducted have shown that even without a conscious effort to limit caloric intake in IF, it still fights obesity and other metabolic disorders.
Researchers believe that this is because intermittent fasting sets off an immune response in fat cells. This is done by anti-inflammatory macrophages (white blood cells) as they stimulate adipose tissues to burn their stores.
This combined with the added effects of fasting including higher metabolic rate and lower insulin and sugar levels means you are more likely to lose weight with IF than with any calorie-restricted diet.
With IF you no longer need to measure everything you eat or record calories to shed a few extra pounds, how’s that?
Promotes Weight Loss
No one thinks that losing weight is an easy job, but with intermittent fasting, it does seem easier because you aren’t limiting what you eat. Even if you’re doing IF for other reasons, you’re probably not going to complain about losing weight as a side effect.
The multi-prong effect IF has on body fats is going to result in faster weight loss.
IF does this by triggering fat burning where it resorts to body fat for energy after burning off more readily available carbs. This state is known as ketosis and also is the main concept behind some of the popular diets including keto and Atkins.
IF also promotes weight loss by boosting metabolism. Studies have shown that any fast of up to 48 hours increases the metabolic rate by 3.6-14%.
However, it must be noted that any fast beyond 48 hours can cause muscle loss instead of burning fat.
Lowers Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
In our bodies, insulin works to drive glucose into the cells. Increased glucose levels mean higher levels of insulin. Therefore, insulin is higher after a meal and falls between meals. This means eating throughout the day will keep insulin high most of the time.
When the insulin levels are constantly high, your body becomes desensitized to it, and it can cause insulin insensitivity. This phenomenon leads to insulin resistance and the development of type 2 diabetes.
IF prevents this from happening and has been shown to reduce fasting insulin by 20-31%.
In addition to the above, IF has also been shown to improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and reduce bloating. Moreover, it has also been proven to improve cognitive function, help sleep better, and help curb sugar cravings.
What Are Some of the Cons (Downsides) of Intermittent Fasting?
Just like any plan, IF does have some potential downsides and the severity of them varies from individual to individual. Some of the cons of IF include:
Yes, IF is easy to follow but you still have to fight the severe hunger that comes with it. This is going to be more of a struggle if you are used to eating as many as five to six times a day.
During fasting, the level of ghrelin hormone increases and it signals the brain to seek food. Its level continues to rise and intensifies hunger.
The first few days are the hardest and it requires strong willpower to succeed against this severe hunger. However, you can employ strategies to keep hunger at bay for longer.
This includes drinking more water and keeping yourself busy by using different distractions for the brain.
The good news is that after a few days of intermittent fasting, you won’t even realize that you’ve increased your fasting windows.
No Focus on Nutritious Eating
As you know by now, in intermittent fasting, the focus is on timing and not on getting good nutrition. Therefore, it can be said that IF there is no emphasis on food choices, so you can eat anything whether it has good nutrition or not.
IF does not require you to change your basic eating behaviors except for at what time you eat.
So if you’re eating junk during your eating periods, you aren’t going to feel well AND it can slow down your weight loss. So even if you aren’t restricting your calories, make good nutritious choices for the foods you do eat.
May Promote Overeating
In IF, your brain builds you up for the eating window and you are also going to picture it as a reward for your efforts and this mindset can lead to overeating.
This is more of a tendency during the earlier part of the IF journey. This problem can be countered by planning your meals ahead of time and making healthier choices, like choosing a salad over a slice of pizza.
Low Energy and Irritability
Our bodies have a mechanism to utilize readily available carbs in food items for instant energy. As the carbohydrates diminish, the body has a tendency to save its energy resources and basically go on a low-energy mode.
So, you might feel sluggish and low during the first couple of weeks of IF. You can counter this by avoiding strenuous physical activities, doing yoga and meditation, and getting more sleep.
In addition, low sugar/energy levels can also make you irritable and a little cranky. Avoid getting into annoying situations and do things that make you happy.
In addition to the above, intermittent fasting has also been associated with digestive conditions such as heartburn, bloating, and constipation.
Moreover, headaches, increased sugar cravings, dizziness, and sometimes low blood sugars are also some of the common side effects of intermittent fasting, especially in people starting out. These usually go away after a few days.
Who Can Benefit from Intermittent Fasting?
IF is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of lifestyle. Careful consideration should be given to your body type, metabolism, lifestyle, and overall health before attempting IF.
In essence, a normal healthy adult can benefit from IF and can use it as a tool to lose weight.
Intermittent Fasting Works Well For People Who:
- Want to lose weight without restrictive diets
- Are over 18
- Hate calorie counting
- Have busy lives
- Do not struggle with disordered eating
Before starting any eating plan, check with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to begin. Anybody who has diabetes, takes regular medications for any condition, or has a liver or kidney condition, should only intermittent fast with the OK from their medical provider.
Who Should Avoid Intermittent Fasting?
Broadly, intermittent fasting is not for people who have higher caloric needs. This group includes individuals who are:
- Struggling to gain weight
- Children under 18 years of age
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Women who are trying to conceive
- Those with eating disorders
Important: IF is not for people who have a history of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia as this can trigger a relapse for them. People who are susceptible to developing an eating disorder should also avoid IF.
Some of the risk factors for developing an eating disorder include having a family member with an eating disorder, mood instability, perfectionism, and impulsivity.
IF should also be avoided by chronically stressed individuals, those who don’t sleep well, and those who are new to diet and exercise.
These people should look for other ways for weight loss and should try and introduce healthy choices into their lives such as learning the basics of good nutrition, exercising regularly, and eating whole foods, and staying consistent.
The Takeaway: Is IF for You?
Intermittent fasting has become widely popular and has proven to be an effective way to lose weight and even improve your health in many ways.
But like any method, there are pros and cons to intermittent fasting.
IF does not have one set schedule to follow and does not specifically involve keeping a check on your caloric consumption. These factors make it an easy-to-follow and effective weight loss eating pattern.
On the downside, it demands strong willpower to fight hunger, avoid overeating, and deal with low energy levels and irritability. These downsides are especially relevant during the earlier days in the IF journey.
Despite being a healthy and effective way to lose weight, IF is not for everyone.
As always, before you make drastic changes to your diet, you should talk to your healthcare provider to find out if IF is right for you and to rule out any reasons you shouldn’t try this effective method of eating.