Understanding intermittent fasting

The pros, the cons and a safe, effective way to fast intermittently, courtesy of WAG wellness columnist Giovanni Roselli.

“Fasting today makes the food good tomorrow.” — Unknown 

Fasting has been around for a long time, mainly as part of religious and cultural practices.  Over the last several years especially, it has gotten mainstream attention as a way to approach eating and good nutrition.  Intermittent fasting (IF) involves
refraining from eating for periods ranging from hours to days.  The International Food Information Council characterized IF as the most popular dietary strategy among Americans in 2020 (even more so than the highly acclaimed low-fat keto diet) and those who follow it usually do it for weight loss and/or better health.  

Feeding time

There are several ways to use intermittent fasting, which in itself may be eye opening, because while the word fasting often conjures up thoughts of hunger and starvation, proper planning will leave you full and satisfied.  The 16:8 method seems to be the most popular, involving fasting for 16 hours and eating within an 8-hour window each day.  This is the easiest way to start since approximately half of the 16 hours will be spent sleeping (we hope), in addition to the time preparing for sleep, getting ready in the morning, taking care of our children and whatever timely matters need to be attended to. So these are hours generally not focused on food.  Therefore, skipping breakfast, for instance, which many people do anyway, isn’t that much of an elaborate swing. All the person has to focus on is eating within an 8-hour time frame, say noon to 8 p.m. 

While most IF models do not restrict specific foods, they encourage the consumption of nourishing, satiating whole foods. Think about how your body would react if you focused hard to fast, and then the first thing you ate was a bag of salty, sugary, potato chips.  When it’s time to break the fast, meals should be comprised primarily of protein and healthy fats.  Breaking a fast with carbohydrates and sugary foods, even a “healthy” fruit such as an apple, will lead to hunger and eventual snacking. There are also different “levels” of fasting as “clean fasting” uses only water, tea or other calorie-free beverages during the fasting time while “dirty fasting” might involve a handful of grapes, walnuts or other foods or beverages containing less than 50 calories.    

Advantages and misconceptions 

Some of the main advantages of IF include:

Stabilized blood sugar levels, because insulin levels rise after eating meals.  So in a fasted state, insulin levels fall, blood sugar stabilizes and fat stores can be utilized as a source of energy;

Lowered blood pressure;

Decreased low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol; and

Lower triglycerides.   

A common misunderstanding is that we must eat ketogenic or low-carb diets while practicing IF.  Carbs are to be considered but emphasize nutrient-dense whole foods and fewer processed foods, whether they are part of keto, paleo, omnivore or vegetarian diets.  

Women and IF 

Women need to fast differently, especially those in peak childbearing years who have to account for their menstrual cycles, meaning the body of a younger woman is much more sensitive to macronutrient depletion or other changes than that of a menopausal woman.  Younger women need to limit fasting if they are already lean and need to avoid fasting five to seven days prior to their menstrual cycles, remaining attuned to messages their bodies send them in response to sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise.  In general, once women reach menopause, they experience less hormonal fluctuation and thus have more flexibility to fast on a daily basis.

Final thoughts

Intermittent fasting is something we are constantly hearing about, and the benefits look to hold a lot of water (see what I did there).  However, as with any new nutritional venture, make sure  it’s something that is feasible and fits your lifestyle.  One of the common pitfalls with most nutrition plans is that you jump into the latest trend when your life and schedule completely clash with it. Another is that once you lose weight and your body becomes resigned to the lower food intake, you’re going to have to diet or fast more stringently to maintain the weight loss or to lose more weight.

As always, I’m happy to help if you have any further questions regarding this topic.  Wishing everyone a great summer.   

Reach Giovanni at gio@giovanniroselli.com.

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