Intermittent fasting has the health community buzzing. It claims to be a game-changer, but what does it involve? Intermittent fasting is simply an umbrella term for meal timing schedules that cycle between fasting and non-fasting over a given period. Intermittent fasting is not a diet as such, because it does not tell you what to eat. It tells you when to eat.
Although it’s often criticised as a fad, fasting has been practised for centuries. Never before in history have people had access to food the way we do now, so fasts were very much a way of life. Studies into its benefits and potentially harmful effects are underway.
The main benefits of fasting
- May help you lose weight and belly fat without having to count calories.
- It seems to help prevent inflammation linked with many chronic illnesses.
- May minimise “bad” LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood sugar and insulin resistance—all risk factors for heart disease.
- Animal studies suggest that intermittent fasting may prevent cancer.
- Increases the brain hormone BDNF and may aid the growth of new nerve cells.
Potential side-effects of fasting
- Hunger is the main side effect of intermittent fasting.
- Low mental functioning, because of hunger–although this should get better as you get used to the system.
- Light-headedness and low energy levels.
- Long-term effects are still to be proven.
How to start with intermittent fasting
If you’re keen to try it out, here are some guidelines to get started with intermittent fasting.
1. Stay calm! Fasting is not going to go perfectly the first time around. So, if you do fall off the wagon, just try again.
2. Keep hydrated. This is good practice on the whole. Drinking enough water keeps your body operated at its highest efficiency. Remember that up to 60% of your body is water.
3. Identify personal goals. It may be to lose weight, improve overall health, or improve metabolic health. A person’s ultimate goal will help them determine the next steps.
4. Choose a method. It’s best to stick with one fasting method for a month or longer before trying another. It can take a little time to start showing effects, so don’t give up too soon. There are many different ways of doing intermittent fasting, and it can be tailored to fit your lifestyle:
The 16/8 method (Leangains Protocol)
By far the most popular and possibly the easiest to stick to. You fast for 16 hours (drinking water and herbal tea, but not eating) and then have an 8-hour eating window, also known as your ‘feasting’ hours.
This entails fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week.
The 5:2 diet
You only consume 500-600 calories on two days of the week (not back-to-back), but eat normally the other five days.
5. Figure out your caloric needs. There are no dietary restrictions when fasting, but this does not mean that calories do not count. It’s important to eat enough so that you are not running on empty, but if you are looking to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit – around 200 – 400 calories less than you would normally eat.
6. Figure out a meal plan. Meal planning has many benefits. You can plan your intake in advance, so you are sure you have what you need when it comes to cooking and snacking. Planning also means that when it comes to your “feast” hours, you have your food ready so you don’t binge.
7. Make the calories count. Not all calories are the same. Although these fasting methods do not set restrictions on how many calories a person should eat when fasting, it is essential to consider the nutritional value of the food. In general, you should aim for nutrient-dense food or food with a high number of nutrients per calorie. You don’t have to abandon junk food entirely, but practise moderation and focus on more healthy options to gain the most benefits.
Intermittent fasting is not for everyone. If you are underweight or have a history of eating disorders, you should consult a health professional first. People taking medications that require food, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, children and teenagers should probably not fast either. Above all, stay healthy!