The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Shannon Miller

December 3, 2018

Skip breakfast? It’s not exactly what the doctor would normally recommend. But could it be beneficial to your health?

Health experts and wellness enthusiasts are abuzz with talks of “intermittent fasting” – spending periods of time without eating. This notion has challenged our common tendency to eat every few hours to ensure the metabolism runs fast and energy levels are high throughout the day. For most, it’s difficult to imagine spending 12, 16, or 24 hours without fueling the body, but recent research is hinting towards a clear upside to skipping meals. From losing weight and balancing hormones, to reducing inflammation and risk of chronic disease, the benefits of intermittent fasting are becoming evident as researchers continue to explore the concept.

What is “Intermittent Fasting?”

Intermittent fasting refers to a pattern of eating where the body cycles from periods of time of eating and not eating. It is different from a “diet” in that it is time-dependent, rather than content-dependent: it dictates when to eat, not what to eat.

The theory behind fasting is to provide the digestive system a break and to allow the body to detoxify on a cellular level. Our digestive systems usually spend around eight hours to fully digest food. When food is consumed every three to four hours, the digestive system rarely experiences a moment where it is not working to break down food and absorb nutrients. Fasting for a period of time, preferably longer than twelve hours depending on metabolism and food consumed, provides the opportunity for the body to rest and repair. Fasting also typically results in a calorie deficit, which could assist in weight loss, reduction in belly fat so long as overcompensating food intake is avoided.

A recent pilot study from the University of Illinois at Chicago and published in Nutrition and Healthy Aging showed after a 12-week period of intermittent fasting, participants reduced calorie intake by an average of 350 calories, loss an average of 3% of their total body weight and reduced their blood pressure by 7mm Hg. Along with potential for weight loss, there are several additional health benefits that may result from allowing the body to “rest” from consuming food.

  • Hormone Regulation – Research suggest that when in a fasted state, insulin levels drop and insulin sensitivity improves, which allows stored fat to be burned more efficiently when the body reaches for a source of energy, instead of constantly relying on glucose. Intermittent fasting controls signaling between hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which helps control appetite. Human Growth Hormone also increases dramatically when the body is in a fasted state, resulting in body composition regulation and improved bone strength.
  • Cellular Repair – When cells are not expending energy to digest food, they are able to begin the process of self-repair. Similar to a “wringing out” effect, cells can digest and remove waste and toxins to allow for more efficient function. Intermittent fasting is also associated with changes in gene expression, specifically in genes that promote longevity and protective factors for cells.
  • Reduced Risk of Chronic Disease – Intermittent fasting has long been associated with the prevention of chronic conditions including diabetes, autoimmune disorders, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. Fasting has also been shown to reduce signs of oxidative stress and inflammation, which is a major precursor to many preventable diseases.
How to Intermittent Fast

There are three main types of intermittent fasting patterns, each consisting of different intervals of time between eating and not eating. They include 16/8, 5:2 and Eat-Stop-Eat.

  • 16/8 – Spend 16 hours in a fasted state and only eating within an eight-hour window. This usually consists of skipping breakfast, then eating the daily allotted calorie amount within eight hours. (for example, from 12 P.M. to 8 P.M.)
  • 5:2 – Eat 500 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week, then eat normally for the remaining five days.
  • Eat-Stop-Eat – Fast for a complete 24 hours once or twice a week, then eat normally for the remaining days.

Other methods of fasting include consuming all daily calories in one meal at the end of each day (the “Warrior Diet”), alternate-day eating, or spontaneous meal skipping. While the different benefits between each type of intermittent fasting are yet to be scientifically clear, choosing a pattern of fasting depends on lifestyle and nutritional needs.

Fasting is certainly not for everyone, but it could provide benefits beyond traditional dieting to help achieve body composition and overall health goals. Before considering beginning an intermittent fasting program, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider, or learn more from a nutrition coach.

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