Have you ever wanted to:
– Do a lot less cooking and cleaning?
– Lose weight without starvation?
– Spend less on food?
– Target belly fat reduction?
Then intermittent fasting may work for you!
For most people, the call to try intermittent fasting comes from the desire to lose weight. While this may be the most recognised benefit of the diet, or more so, eating routine, there are other benefits too.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a type of eating pattern that requires you to skip one or more meals for a particular amount of time. Skipping meals allows you to automatically “cut calories”, giving you a calorie deficit that allows you to eat relatively freely at your other meal times.
No calorie counting, macros or points to calculate. Plus you get the freedom to dine out and choose whatever you wish to eat. These factors alone tend to be one of the key reasons why IF is becoming increasingly popular.
Here, I discuss the evidence around both intermittent fasting for weight loss, other potential benefits, some precautions and of course, how to get started.
Intermittent Fasting Weight Loss Benefits
As mentioned, the key reason people try IF is for weight loss and losing belly fat (1).
IF is no different from other diets as it works by reducing your total calorie intake. So you burn more than you consume, and ultimately, lose weight (2).
When you skip entire meals, you quickly reduce your daily calorie intake.
For example, an average woman typically aims for 1600-1800 calories a day as part of a weight-loss plan.
Skipping breakfast can save roughly 300-500 calories, leaving you with more calories to consume in the meals you do eat while still staying on track with your weight loss goals.
In one study, one type of IF resulted in an average of 3.8kg more fat loss, compared to a very low-calorie diet (800 calories or less)(3).
Another study found IF helped reduce harmful belly fat with a reduction in participants’ waist circumferences by 4-7% in 24 weeks (4).
In typical calorie-restricted diets, researchers found that 25% of what weight you lose tends to be muscle mass. However, only 10% of muscle mass was lost using IF (5). This does depend on how much protein you consume on your non-fasting days. It seems you need to eat 1.2g protein/kg of body weight on non-fasting days to preserve fat-free muscle mass (6).
Another reason why IF may be superior to regular calorie-restricted diets or other weight loss methods is that it doesn’t send your hunger hormones crazy (7). A calorie restriction of 24 hours or less isn’t severe enough to have you racing for that pack of chips or lollies for that post-starvation, hormone-driven pick-me-up.
So when you fast in intervals that are shorter than 24 hours, you’re less likely to end up yo-yo dieting and sabotaging yourself by overeating at your next meal. Ultimately leading to better chances of you sticking to your lower-calorie diet without feeling famished.
Your basal metabolic rate (the rate in which you burn energy simply by being alive) may also increase post-fast. Researchers believe this is likely due to an increase of norepinephrine (as a result of lower blood sugar during the fast). This rise in norepinephrine also increased fat
metabolism, meaning fat became the preferred fuel source of the body (8).
However, these effects don’t last if you continue to fast for longer than 3 days. In fact, your basal metabolic rate can drop significantly.
Other Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting, in its many forms, has been a part of many cultures for years, including major religions – Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.
Now, research is beginning to show that fasting can benefit more than just your waistline.
In fact, fasting has been shown to help positively influence key risk factors for disease, reduce oxidative stress on your body, influence blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, support a healthy heart, and even preserve brain function including learning and memory.
Reduce Your Risk of Chronic Disease
Inflammation is a risk factor for most chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer (9).
Fasting increases your levels of human growth hormone and reduces inflammatory markers, helping to initiate the processes that allow your body’s cells to repair.
In one study, inflammatory markers were reduced when the participants ate less than 30% of their total daily intake in the evening and fasted for longer overnight periods than other study participants. (10)
IF may also support a healthy heart by positively influencing your cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease. One particular study showed fasting resulted in increased HDL cholesterol and decreased LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (11).
Plus, according to one study, fasting may decrease blood sugar by up to 12% and lower insulin levels by around 53% when you fast for around 16 hours daily (12).
There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, but preliminary animal studies suggest that IF may help enhance brain function, influence proteins involved in brain ageing and protect against memory problems and Alzheimer’s disease (13,14,15).
How it does this isn’t yet quite understood, however, IF can increase a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and may support the growth of healthy new nerve cells (16).
More human research is needed to determine the full effects of IF, however, the existing studies do show promising evidence to support the positive effects of fasting and its potential to reduce our risk of chronic disease.
Types of Intermittent Fasting
How you fast is really up to you. For some, fasting for whole days is more appealing than simply skipping one meal a day.
These are some of the types of intermittent fasting that you can follow:
● The 5:2 Diet: Eat normally for 5 days of the week, but only eat up to 600 calories on the other two days.
● Eat-Stop-Eat or Spontaneous Fasting: Fast for a 12 or 24 hour period multiple times per week. There is no real schedule for this one.
● Alternate Day Fasting: Fast for one day and eat normally the next day. Continue to alternate days of fasting and normal eating.
● The 16/8 or Leangains Method: Fast for 16 hours per day and eat in the remaining 8-hour window. Most people will skip breakfast and eat from 1pm to 9pm for example.
● Spontaneous Meal Skipping: Skip meals when convenient. Simply skip 1 or 2 meals when you don’t feel hungry or don’t have time to eat.
Despite the potential benefits of IF, it’s always best to speak to your health practitioner before trialling any new health or diet regime.
For some people, fasting can be harmful to their health depending on their current health status.
Fasting may not be right for you if you have one or more of the following:
● Low blood sugar levels
● History of eating disorders
● Women with long-term hormonal issues or amenorrhea
● Thyroid issues
Pregnant women and those who are sick or ill should also avoid IF and focus on eating regular healthy meals to nourish the body.
Whether you choose to fast for just a few hours each day, skip an entire meal, or fast for two days a week, the benefits of intermittent fasting are continuing to surface, and thanks to its adaptability to most lifestyles, it may well be one of the easiest ways to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of a variety of chronic diseases.
Larina Robinson is a Wholefood Dietitian, author and founder of The Body Dietetics. Specialising in gut health, food intolerances and alternative diets, Larina empowers people to embrace a diet unique to their own dietary needs and supports them to find freedom from long-term digestive complaints.