In recent months I have written extensively about the benefits of intermittent fasting, something I’ve been doing in my personal life for the past two years. I also work closely with a number of folks who are currently using intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern during where one refrains from consuming any calories for an extended period of time. Usually, between 12 and 40 hours. The results can be remarkable for those who follow the rules precisely. This means fully understanding that fasting entails consuming nothing except water, black coffee, or unsweetened tea. The key is to avoid anything that triggers an insulin response because insulin helps you store fat.
I met with a good friend who just returned from a vacation at a resort in Mexico. Over the past several months of intermittent fasting, he has dropped 27 pounds of body fat, and it shows, especially with his much reduced waistline. He told me how in the past at the resort, he was unable to walk the mountainous paths nearby, but this time he breezed along and loved it. What’s more, he confided again that the intermittent fasting approach is the easiest and most effective thing he has ever done to manage his weight.
So here’s what you need to know about intermittent fasting and how you might benefit:
How does intermittent fasting impact the body?
Like many, I was drawn to intermittent fasting not only for the weight management advantages, but also for several other healthful aspects. It makes sense to me that if I am relentlessly consuming food at regular intervals — breakfast, lunch, dinner and evening snacks — I am giving my body a message that digesting food is a priority. Since digestion, especially of dietary fat, takes several hours, the body is actively engaged in the digestion process from breakfast early in the morning through evening snacks and many hours beyond.
As a result, the body gets only a minimal reprieve from digestion and is fasting for just a few hours, at best, late in one’s sleep cycle that is short lived because breakfast soon arrives.
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This is an important consideration because the gut contributes to health in many ways, especially when it comes to bolstering the immune system, which occurs during fasting. Going hand-in-hand with increased immune cell production is autophagy, the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells. A good analogy for autophagy is taking out the trash or cleaning up debris. The debris in this case is composed of parts of body cells that become damaged and need to be removed so that new cells can be developed.
Fasting also promotes the production of human growth hormone, which helps you shed body fat and hold on to muscle, becoming increasingly more important to health as we age.
How do I do intermittent fasting?
There are several ways to approach intermittent fasting. My approach is to fast daily and consume food only during a narrow window of time from two to four hours. I built up to this gradually, starting with a larger window and progressively reducing is. At about the 18-hour mark of fasting is when the benefits described above kick into gear and rev up.
Here’s what I outline about my typical daily approach to intermittent fasting in a previous column: I envision what I normally would have had for breakfast and lunch, plus snacks (power bars, nuts, etc.), and consume these “after” my first meal of the day at 6 pm I drink black coffee periodically throughout the day, which satisfies me comfortably until my dinner.
And, let me add, if I feel like cheating at night with a treat like a hot-fudge sundae, I don’t hesitate.
In addition, my workouts are great, with no loss of energy, even though I am fasted for many hours prior to working out.
How does intermittent fasting differ from other crash diets?
A reader recently wrote to me about intermittent fasting. He wrote, “I have read your books on nutrition, healthy dieting and exercise, and you rail against crash diets because the lack of nutrients results in the loss of muscle mass. Now, I read about your use of intermittent fasting which reduces caloric intake to zero for prolong periods of time and I wonder how does this differ from the caloric restriction on a crash diet?”
An insightful question that’s worth exploring.
First, on a crash diet, you severely cut your caloric intake from perhaps 2,000 calories per day to less than half that amount and enter a semi-starvation mode. When you cut caloric intake drastically, the body struggles to sustain your blood sugar, known as glucose, at optimal levels. Blood sugar is critical because the brain depends on glucose as its primary source of fuel, and of course the brain is the body’s top priority.
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Glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen. When you eat “normally,” if blood sugar levels fall, glucose is released from the liver to bring the level back up. However, on a crash diet, the supply of liver glycogen is depleted because the body is in a semi-starvation mode . Thus, when the blood sugar levels falls, the body is alarmed that the liver cannot respond appropriately.
In turn, this causes the body to take emergency action. The hormone cortisol is released which breaks down muscle into proteins that are further broken down into amino acids. Selective amino acids are transported to the liver and converted to glucose that bolsters the blood sugar level. In other words, the body destroys muscle to make glucose and the process is called gluconeogenesis.
Are there benefits to crash diets over intermittent fasting?
Crash diets always fail because losing muscle mass is counterproductive and even when you lose lots of pounds, the fact that you are losing several pounds of muscle means you don’t look better. This is disappointing because when starting a crash diet with a goal of losing 30 pounds or more, in your mind’s eye you picture yourself returning to the body that had 30 fewer pounds of fat on it. Your “new” crash diet body doesn’t look anything like you anticipated.
Plus you tend to feel lousy and all you think about is food.
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When you engage in intermittent fasting, you do not cut calories, and do not enter a semi-starvation mode. On the contrary, although my weight has been reduced, I actually eat more now than I did before I started intermittent fasting because I don’t want to lose any more weight. Thus, I am easily replenishing my liver glycogen stores every day, and sustaining my blood glucose at optimal levels which preserves my muscle mass.
All that’s required is simply making the firm decision to commit to eating at prescribed times and sticking to it.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]
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