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Exploring the Benefits and Drawbacks of Intermittent Fasting: A Comprehensive Guide

Posted on June 5th, 2024 03:40 PM

Various forms of fasting, especially intermittent fasting, where participants fast for hours in a day or on alternate days, have gained popularity in recent years. Would you recommend fasting as a way to improve health?

Fasting is something that our bodies are genetically adapted to deal with. Let’s consider our hunter gatherer ancestors and their lack of instashop or inability to pop into to their local spinneys for immediate food; they would often go for long periods without food so of course we are programmed to be able to survive in such states. Intermittent fasting (IF) has become very popular of late and typically people will fast for 16+ hours and then have an  “eating window”. So if a person fasts for 16 hours they will then have 8 hours for consuming their meals. This might mean they have breakfast and lunch only (eat between 8am-4pm) or have lunch and dinner only (eat between 12pm-8pm), refraining fro any food outside of those times. For some they might choose to fast for a one to three days a week, then eating in their normal way for the rest of the week. The time fasting each day can vary, some may fast for a whole 24hours, others will have just one meal a day, there are different techniques.

Numerous studies have looked at the impact of IF on health and some of the results are pretty impressive! If done in the correct way IF can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation (key factors leading to chronic disease) and this has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of those with asthma. A study found that fasting during Ramadan helped a group of 50 individuals to lower some inflammatory markers. IF also helps to boost immunity, to balance fat regulating hormones such as adiponectin (fat burning) and leptin (controls satiety), to improve blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels (improve triglycerides and LDL particle size, while increasing HDL cholesterol).  Studies have also shown IF helps the body deal with stress at a cellular level as the fasting itself causes a stress response to be activated in the same way a mild stressor would. Over time this consistent build up makes our cells more resilient to stress, reducing cellular aging and disease development.

Many are able to lose weight through IF for a couple of reasons, firstly it is likely that you consume fewer calories when you are cutting out entire meals. Fasting in itself also helps weight loss as it puts your body into a fat burning state, breaking down the bodies fat stores to use as a fuel. When we eat the body will use glucose as a fuel rather than fat stores.

What do you consider are the cons of a fasting regimen?

It is important for people to realise that it’s not a type of diet, it is merely a schedule for eating. It is very important to make sure IF is done correctly, focusing on still eating a diet full of whole foods and avoiding processed foods. Fasting for 16 hours a day shouldn’t then be rewarded with unhealthy foods. Many people have food sensitivities and intolerances to foods such as dairy, soy, gluten and artificial sweeteners so continuing to avoid those foods in the eating hours will enable them to see the best results. Often in IF people are consuming larger meals in a smaller “eating window” and this can put extra pressure on the digestive system for some. This is especially apparent for those with existing digestive symptoms such as IBS or issues with bloating or acid reflux.

For those who suffer with low blood sugar fasting can cause blood sugar levels to drop too low so they experience symptoms like fatigue, palpitations and shakiness. Fasting is not advisable in such cases. IF has been shown to help conditions like diabetes but the individual needs to be guided by a medical professional to see if it’s suitable for them.

It is also wise to avoid IF if you have a history of eating disorders as it might trigger unhealthy eating patterns. Others who should avoid IF include pregnant women and also children or adolescents who are still growing. If you are sick then your body requires a continual stream of nutrients to help the healing process, so IF is not advisable.

In my experience men tend to do a lot better with IF, that is not to say women cannot do it but they need to be more aware that it might not suit them. Some women may experience hormonal imbalances if they IF for too long, so doing it a few days a week rather than everyday might be a better idea. IF can also have an impact on the thyroid hormone production, so fasting is not recommended if you have thyroid issues.
Fasting might also be an issue for people taking certain prescription medications so be sure to consult a medical professional. Fasting is also not advised for anyone with gallstone disease as it may actually increase the risk of having issues.

Fasting might also bring with it some awkwardness in social situations, where others are meeting and dining outside of your eating window. This can leave a person feeling left out so it is good to have a response ready and prepared for such times.

Not eating can also bring with it some uncomfortable physical symptoms for some, for example some may experience constipation, fatigue, lack of concentration and focus, headaches, bad temper (hangry).

The reality is that we are all very different and there is no one size fits all when it comes to our food intake. It is so important to listen to your own body and see what works for your body and lifestyle.

Can anything be eaten after a fast? What foods would you recommend should be top of the list for someone on a fast, and what should be avoided?

There are many different types of fasts, if you are doing something like the 5:2 approach then 2 days a week you restrict your calories to around 500/600 calories a day for women and men respectively. It is important to make those calories count. So make sure to go for a meal with adequate protein, it will probably be the main source of calories. This will help you to feel fuller for longer and prevent muscle breakdown. Then fill your plate with lots of veggies which are low in calories. Add flavor with herbs and spices as they are low in calories. The vegetables will help to fill you up as well as offering an array of important micronutrients. You can cook them by steaming or can have them raw in a salad.
You can add spices like cinnamon, ginger and turmeric to help balance blood sugar levels to the low carb meal as this will mean you are less likely to feel hungry so soon. It is ok to add a little fat as it will help you to feel fuller for longer but be sure to not go crazy as fat has more than double the number of calories per gram, when compared to protein and carbs.

Foods to avoid would be grains and starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, pasta or too much fruit and anything with sugar. Such foods are high in calories and will also cause you to feel hungry again soon after eating, due to their effect on blood sugar levels. 
Some will drink coffee throughout their fast but this can have a damaging effect as the caffeine will cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which signals to the body to store fat. This increase in cortisol can also exacerbate stress levels, particularly if a person is already feeling quite overwhelmed with life. It is a much better idea to stick to green tea (has a little caffeine and L-theanine (a calming amino acid) and of course lots of water.

Different types of fasting regimens have gained prominence in the past few years, ranging from juice fasts to water fasts or even longer-term. In your opinion, what is the best type of fasting one can undertake?

I think when it comes to fasting, it really depends on the individual. I know that for my body, I do well with having a day or two every month where I just consume veggies juices or bone broths. Occasionally I will do a 2-3 day juice or bone broth cleanse but often that means my training in the gym suffers so it is something I do after  I have overindulged around Christmas or if I have travelled over the summer and need to press reset. If you choose to try fasting then explore what works for your body and lifestyle and also what works specific to your goals, for example a bone broth fast can be great for gut healing.
Something that I find is more sustainable is to do intermittent fasting where you do 16 hours of fasting, with an 8 hour eating window of clean, whole foods. It should be heavily plant based, with a well sourced protein and healthy fats. This really works for me and I would do this 5-6 days a week and feel great with it. Listen to your body and your mind and be kind to yourself, fasting can have great benefits but it’s not for everyone.

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