The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting: The Beginner’s Guide
Intermittent fasting is all the craze right now among fitness and health enthusiasts young and older. Yet, it’s nothing new. In fact, it’s been used—though likely unintentionally—for longer than you and I have been alive.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors fasted as part of their daily life simply because food could be scarce. They didn’t always have a choice because before they could eat, they had to find their food. Makes you grateful for the grocery store around the corner, right? Of course, that convenience can also be a bit of a drawback with the overabundance of often unhealthy foods.
Intermittent fasting has been gaining popularity in today’s day and age as an effective way to control food intake in the face of that food abundance. Because, as you likely already are very well aware, we have a lot of food available to us, and many of us are eating too much of it. Ironic, right?
Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what fasting is and the benefits of intermittent fasting for beginners.
The History of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting is simple: it’s the voluntary abstinence from eating food and/or drinking calorie-containing liquids for a specified period of time. I highlight the word “voluntary” because there’s another extreme form of involuntary abstinence from food, and it’s called starvation. That’s a completely different story.
As I mentioned earlier, fasting is not new, nor was it originally implemented as a weight-loss tool. In fact, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions have been incorporating fasting into their lifestyles for centuries. For Islam, it’s most common during Ramadan.
For Christians, fasting dates back to the Old Testament in The Bible. Many Christians observe a 40-day fast during Lent as well as during the period before Christmas known as Advent. Roman Catholics have modified their fasting ritual to include only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
In Hinduism, fasting is traditionally observed on certain days of the week or the month, such as Purnima and Ekadasi.
The Science of Intermittent Fasting
While people have been fasting for hundreds of years, intermittent fasting now being used as a tool to improve health and body composition.
You see, strategically including intermittent fasting into your lifestyle has a potential multitude of health benefits. Even a single fasting interval (e.g., overnight) appears to reduce insulin and glucose as well as other markers for certain diseases.1 This explains why patients are required to fast for 8 – 12 hours before blood draws: to achieve steady-state fasting levels for many metabolic substrates.
Several studies suggest that intermittent fasting may have some benefits that directly affect metabolism and potentially longevity.2 When you combine calorie restriction with intermittent fasting, research indicates it may prolong the health-span of the nervous system by affecting fundamental metabolic and cellular signaling pathways that regulate life-span.3
Intermittent Fasting Perspective
Many of us eat out of habit (the clock says it’s time to eat), out of convenience (it’s there), or because our hunger hormones tell us to do so (I’m hungry). In the case of the latter, the body gets used to cyclical feeding patterns. As a result, many of us experience hormonal hunger, which isn’t true, deep hunger. Rather, it’s just because the body is expecting food. I personally think intermittent fasting gives us the opportunity to realize what REAL hunger feels like.
With intermittent fasting for beginners, when we experience this hormonal hunger—which is sometimes purely psychological, we are forced to “sit through it” and let it pass. This gives us insight that hunger is not an emergency at all, and it will pass even if we have to go more than three hours (gasp) without food.
What’s even more interesting is that hunger hormones are “trainable.” In other words, you may have noticed that you always get hungry in the afternoon or evening at a certain time—regardless of what or you eat for lunch. Intermittent fasting can help re-train your hunger hormones, putting you in the driver’s seat of your appetite.
Further, the fasting reminds us that eating is a privilege. Not everyone has the opportunity to eat every 2 – 3 hours, or even every day. Further, eating is a responsibility in the sense that what we put into our bodies is our fuel, and we’re reminded of this during periods of intermittent fasting.
Essentially, our bodies are our vehicles. Do you want to opt for low-grade, low-octane fuel because it’s cheap and convenient? Or, do you want to opt for high-octane rocket fuel that will fuel you and your goals properly?
In addition, intermittent fasting reminds us of ever-present food marketing. It’s everywhere! No wonder we think we need to eat all of the time! All of our sensory characteristics are heightened each time we see an ad on TV or in a magazine, drive by a fast food joint, etc.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Here is a list of all of 10 potential health benefits of intermittent fasting:
- Reduced Blood Lipids
- Increased Cellular Turnover
- Reduced Blood Pressure
- Reduced Inflammation
- Increased Fat Burning and Metabolic Rate
- Improved Appetite and Blood Sugar Control
- Improved Cardiovascular Function
- Increased Growth Hormone Release
- Reduced Oxidative Stress
- Increased Cellular Turnover and Repair
3 Strategies of Intermittent Fasting for Beginners
There are several different ways that you can incorporate intermittent fasting. One of the most popular is called Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF). As the name implies, TRF involves extending the amount of time you fast each day while restricting your “window” of eating time. Generally speaking, most TRF programs involve a feeding window of 4 – 8 hours with a fasting period of 16 – 20 hours. Two popular examples are the One Day Diet and LeanGains.
Alternate Day Fasting
The most-studied form of intermittent fasting is Alternate Day Fasting (ADF). ADF consists of a “fast day” (which involves either a complete fast or up to about 500 calories) alternated with a “feed day” (where you can eat according to your hunger). The rationale behind ADF is that many people have a difficult time with daily caloric restriction, and with ADF, you only have to restrict calories every other day. ADF has been shown to be a safe and effective approach for weight loss, and it is at least as effective as daily caloric restriction in that regard. Even more, ADF has been shown to improve markers of heart health and insulin sensitivity.int
The most popular ADF diet is The Every Other Day Diet based on research by Dr. Krista Varady. In addition, there are other popular intermittent fasting diets that are based on ADF, such as Eat Stop Eat and the 5:2 Diet. Instead of alternating fast and feast days, these diets simply involve scheduling two fast days each week. They’re a bit more practical and easier to follow than the standard ADF protocol.
Fast Mimicking Diet
Finally, one additional form of intermittent fasting that’s gaining traction is something called the Fast Mimicking Diet (FMD). FMD, which is based on research conducted by Dr. Valter Longo and colleagues, involves “fasting” for a single 5-day period during a monthly cycle. The rest of the time, you eat normally.
During the 5-day FMD period, you don’t actually have to fast. You simply follow a low-calorie diet (about 33 – 50% of your normal intake) that’s also low in protein (about 9 – 10% of your normal protein intake) with the rest of your calories split between carbs and fats. The benefits of this intermittent fasting strategy are a decreased body weight, improve glycemic control, reduced markers of inflammation, increased ketone bodies (which reflect fat burning and also improve appetite control), and supporting healthy aging.
My Personal Experience with Intermittent Fasting
While this article is meant to be used for information purposes, and not meant to express an opinion of BioTRUST Nutrition or our affiliates, allow me to offer my personal take on fasting.
While it is the responsibility of each of us to determine what will ultimately provide us with optimal health, and fasting is not for everyone, I have personally found all of the benefits of intermittent fasting (ie health, productivity, performance, and weight management) fit my life perfectly.
Yet I did not incorporate intermittent fasting into my routine on purpose, but rather by discovery. You see, my morning ritual is more fluid when I don’t consume breakfast first thing in the morning. I am able to get my two children ready for school and out the door. I am able to hit the gym and shower. I also get my work day started by addressing all the emails and plan my schedule based on my workload. I am able to check a few things off my to-do list before my body signals to me that I need energy. Ultimately, I don’t have my first meal until around noon typically.
It wasn’t always this way, and in the past, I found when I attempted to schedule my intermittent fasting, time would appear to stand still. I was extremely unproductive as I spent most of the fasting period staring at the clock. I actually found it easier to mentally prepare if I was fasting for a full day. You wake up and know this is a “fast day.” Your mind is aware of this as you go about your day.
Did I experience hunger throughout the day? Sure. But we all know our bodies can function for several days, weeks even, without food, provided we are consuming adequate amounts of water. I mean, Gandhi was in his mid 70’s and of declining health and able to sustain his life for 21 days with no food on just water. I’m not saying we should test that out, of course! We can’t all be like Gandhi.
If you are interested in the benefits of intermittent fasting or including it into your nutrition plan, or would like some additional information on the subject, please feel free to comment below, and I will gladly help!