Doesn’t it seem like there’s always something new in the world of weight loss? With all the talk lately about intermittent fasting, you might be tempted to dismiss it as just the latest fad. I want to tell you why that would be a mistake!
Although it may seem new, fasting has been around since our earliest ancestors faced periodic stretches of famine lasting days, weeks, and even months. Because of this, the human body adapted to allow for high cognitive and physical functioning when food deprived – and these adaptations are still present today.
Fasting is also a longstanding tradition in major religions, used to clear the mind and connect with faith in a deeper way. Practicing fasting for spiritual reasons often helps people move beyond emotional barriers and make better decisions in their lives. Even if you don’t follow any particular faith, certainly you can see the positive impact the ability to make conscious decisions with a clear head could have on your life.
So why are women still reluctant to try fasting when I mention it? For many people, the idea of not eating for a significant stretch of time is alarming. Fear of blood sugar “crashes,” hunger-induced irritability, or the discomfort of hunger pains leave women shaking their heads, certain they’d be unable to sustain even a short-term fast, never mind make a lifestyle of it. But here’s the funny thing — many women are already doing a simple fast every night without even knowing it! Let’s explore the idea of intermittent fasting and some of the amazing benefits that come from adopting it as part of your healthy lifestyle.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
You probably already know that fasting means restricting food intake. The big question many women have is for how long? The answer will depend on your lifestyle, health care professionals recommendation, and what you find works best for you.
Many women like to begin with a simple fast, meaning they stop eating after dinner until breakfast the next morning – usually a 12 hour stretch. Because they’re sleeping for much of that time, this is often the easiest way to begin a fasting regimen.
The real benefits come, however, from a more structured and intentional fasting – but there are still plenty of options available. Some of the most popular include the 16/8 method, which means restricting food intake to eight hours per day and fasting for 16; fasting for 24 hours at a time once or twice a week; and the 5:2 method, which involves eating only 500-600 calories two non-consecutive days of the week, but eating normally the other five.
A short term restricted calorie plan like the program I offer can also reap great benefits.
Whatever method you choose, it’s important to stay well hydrated throughout your fast, and to talk to your health care provider before beginning.
How Intermittent Fasting Benefits Your Body and Brain
Now that you understand a bit more what I mean by intermittent fasting, let’s talk about some of the amazing benefits that you can gain by adopting this practice. While weight loss is certainly one of them, fasting isn’t just a temporary “diet” designed to help you reach a goal. It’s a lifestyle choice that can boost energy, reduce inflammation, and keep your body and brain healthy and strong long term. Here’s a closer look at how.
Reduce Inflammation and Boost Brain Health
Inflammation is at the root of so many chronic diseases that it just makes sense to do all we can to keep it at bay. Multiple studies have shown that fasting decreases inflammatory activity and the number of cytokines the body produces. Because inflammation impacts your entire body, anything that reduces systemic inflammation can only help.
In fact, a review study analyzing the role of intermittent fasting on chronic disease prevention showed promising results, though more research is required to determine just how effective intermittent fasting can be.
Inflammation also impact the brain, increasing the risk of stroke and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia. Fasting causes our body to create ketones, which help the brain function more efficiently. The primary ketone, Beta-HBA protects brain cells from toxins linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, acts as an antioxidant, and boosts growth of mitochondria and new brain cells.
And there’s another brain benefit from fasting. When inflammation is reduced, fuzzy thinking is also reduced. We can think more clearly and make better decisions – like choosing the healthy food and water over sweets and sugary beverages or alcoholic drinks.
Better Relationship with Food
That leads me nicely to my next point. Our relationship with food is so tied up in emotional or psychological needs, rather than a physical need for fuel. We’ve learned to use food as a salve, a way to make ourselves feel better. But the actual purpose of food is to fuel our bodies, not our souls, and it’s time we started to acknowledge that.
That’s not to say you won’t feel deprived when you first begin fasting – you very well might. This feeling is a sign that you’ve been viewing food as something more than a survival tool. If you’re focusing on food as fuel, anything that keeps your energy levels high and body strong will do the trick.
Our culture has trained us to eat constantly – three meals a day and snacks, too – and to expect certain foods on specific occasions. Think about a birthday party without a cake. Your first reaction may have been That’s not right! This is an emotional reaction, a habit. But trust me, a birthday without cake is possible. Fasting can help you identify the unhealthy attachments you have to food. And once you notice them, you can change your attitudes — instead of cake, maybe a massage is your new birthday treat.
Suppressed emotions are often behind that stubborn weight that you just can’t get rid of. Intermittent fasting allows you the space to acknowledge and deal with these emotions.
Women spend a lot of time getting angry at themselves for the food choices they’ve made. I often hear clients berating themselves for eating half a box of cookies or an entire bag of chips in one sitting. They want to stop, but they don’t know how.
I’ve talked a lot about how mood and emotions can impact our eating habits. A review of research in 2013 showed that therapeutic fasting has a positive impact on mood in patients diagnosed with mood disorders. Another review in 2010 showed mood improvement after medically supervised modified fasting (restricting calories to 200-500 per day for a period of 7 to 21 days) in patients with chronic pain syndromes.
There’s a lot going on in your body when you fast. As I said, fasting produces ketones, which produce more energy and create less oxidative stress in your body. Fasting also makes your body use insulin more efficiently, so you need less of it to turn sugar to fuel and store fat for later use.
Fasting also helps your body break down old mitochondria (which produce energy in your cells) that may not be performing well, and produce new, healthier mitochondria. The better your mitochondria is functioning, the more cellular energy you can produce.
Norepinephrine levels also rise slightly when you fast, helping to improve overall energy and keep your mind clear. There often comes a time during fasting where people feel a natural “high” due to the combination of higher ketones and norepinephrine.
Longer Life Expectancy and Anti-Aging Effects
Numerous animal studies spanning several decades have demonstrated that intermittent fasting can lead to a longer life span. Many of the early studies involved lifelong dietary restriction, but in 2012 a study published in AGE showed that even a late-onset, short-term regimen of intermittent fasting had potential to slow negative effects of aging including oxidative molecular damage to proteins. And recent research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shed some light on how. Their findings showed a causal link between changes in the shape of mitochondrial networks and longevity.
Intermittent fasting also boosts human growth hormone (HGH), which not only helps reduce inflammation, improve cellular healing, and stimulate fat burning, but also improves the quality of collagen tissue in joints, nails and skin. A regular spike of HGH from intermittent fasting can help you look younger, and slow the aging process on a cellular level.
A 2005 review also looked at the beneficial effects of both intermittent fasting and caloric restriction, finding that both improved cardiovascular and brain functioning, as well as improving risk factors for coronary artery disease and stroke.
Weight Loss and Fat Burning
So many women come to me struggling with their weight. They’ve tried diet after diet but nothing helped them take – and keep – that weight off. Adopting a lifestyle of intermittent fasting just might be the answer they’ve been looking for.
A common myth about fasting is that it will put your body into “starvation mode,” and slow metabolism, making weight loss more difficult. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The adaptations our bodies made to survive through periods of famine mean that periodic fasting actually increases your metabolic rate, helping you burn fat more efficiently. And you won’t lose muscle either. One study found that continuous calorie restriction (typical in many traditional diets) actually causes more muscle loss than intermittent fasting.
Related Article: Kick Your Metabolism Into High Gear to Overcome Weight Loss Resistance
A 2014 review of research found that intermittent fasting can result in 3-8% weight loss over a period of 3-24 weeks. And the same study showed a 4-7% loss of that stubborn belly fat that is so often a problem for women! So if weight loss is your goal, you owe it to yourself to give intermittent fasting a try.
Is Fasting Safe for Everyone?
Remember, before you begin any kind of fasting regimen, you should check in with a trusted healthcare professional. While most people can benefit from a fasting lifestyle, there are a few select groups of people who should not fast. These include pregnant women, infants, and young children; people with eating disorders; people who have type 1 diabetes; severely underweight people; athletes participating in extreme sports; and people on some types of medication – particularly medications for diabetes, anti-seizure medication, and corticosteroids.
How Do I Begin?
The best place to start is a conversation with your healthcare practitioner. Together you can discuss any health concerns, and explore which method makes the most sense for you.
I often recommend starting small, to avoid becoming overwhelmed at the thought of fasting. A simple fast is a great way to do this. Determine your typical breakfast time and figure out when you need to stop eating the night before. For instance, if you always eat breakfast at 7 am, make sure your last meal or snack is before 7 pm the previous night. Once you’ve mastered this, you can stretch the fasting time on either end by eating dinner earlier or breakfast a little later. Eventually, you may find yourself skipping one or the other meal entirely, bringing you closer to a 16 hour fast.
You can also ease in by choosing just one day a week – or even every other week – to abstain from eating. Often, this can give you confidence that it is possible, and allow you to work on changing your emotional attachment to food.
Intermittent Fasting is a Free and Easy Way to Change Your Health – Including Your Weight – Permanently!
The thought of fasting might terrify you, but it shouldn’t! If you’ve been yo-yo dieting for years, fasting could end that once and for all. I know how hard it it to change old habits -especially when our culture has conditioned you to believe that eating constantly is a necessity! I’m here to help you every step of the way. Unlike so many diet plans, intermittent fasting is easy to do and won’t cost you anything, so you have nothing to lose – except those stubborn pounds!
This week, I will join a host of experts for Dr. Jocker’s Fasting Transformation Summit, available free, online here. This summit will be available from January 14-20, and offers so many amazing perspectives on this healthy lifestyle. I hope you’ll join me there!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD