Intermittent Fasting: Fad or For Real?

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The month of January brings a newfound sense of optimism and an influx of resolutions for the upcoming year. Weight loss and dieting are most often at the center of these New Year’s resolutions. After the New Year holiday, gyms across the country, hauntingly vacant only days earlier, are filled to capacity with determined resolutioners. Diet fads and get-fit-quick schemes become a nauseating trend this time of year, producing an unrelenting assault of infomercials and Facebook ads. Healthy living (or the illusion of) is a multi-billion dollar industry, the main driver for which is the insatiable hunger for self-improvement in modern-day America. Nevertheless, by mid-February, the majority of New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside, a cycle that plays out to perfection annually. Are there any diets or routines that are actually healthy and sustainable? This year has seen the continued rise of a particularly interesting trend known as intermittent fasting.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is exactly what the name says it is, an intermittent period of fasting.  Often unfairly labeled as a fad diet, intermittent fasting is actually not a diet at all. It’s a pattern of eating. With intermittent fasting, it’s not about what you eat, but when you eat. Basically, you consume all your calories within a 6-8 hour window and fast the other 16-18 hours of the day. For most people, the easiest way to accomplish this is by skipping breakfast. Wait….what? Isn’t breakfast the most important meal of the day? How can skipping breakfast be healthy? Previous studies have shown that eating several small meals throughout the day may increase metabolism by allowing your body to continuously burn calories. However, consuming more calories than your body needs means the excess calories will be stored as fat. As you keep eating, your body will use the calories you’re providing instead of using the fat that has been stored away. A pattern of fasting simply trains our bodies to access this stored fat more easily. When intermittent fasting becomes a routine, some very interesting things begin to happen.

The science behind intermittent fasting

Fasting lowers blood sugar levels, improves insulin sensitivity and causes insulin levels to drop, making stored fat more accessible. Human Growth Hormone levels also spike, contributing to muscle building and fat loss. Some really cool things also happen at the cellular level when your body is in a fasted state. Fasting activates a process known as autophagy. Autophagy is a detoxification and cell-renewal process where your cells digest and remove damaged proteins that have built up over time. Autophagy is your body’s natural method of recycling and a scientifically-proven way to slow down the aging process. Recent studies have also shown that autophagy plays a major role in reducing inflammation and preventing the growth of cancerous cells.

The pros and cons of intermittent fasting

The biggest benefit to intermittent fasting may be its simplicity, it can be adopted without the need for huge life changes. This practice makes it possible to lose weight without drastically cutting calories or going on a weird diet. Intermittent fasting allows you to keep the same caloric intake, the only catch being that you consume your calories within a 6-8 hour window. As mentioned earlier, fasting allows your body to burn fat that is normally inaccessible while your body is digesting and absorbing food. Although fat loss is the main reason most people decide to begin this routine, there are a host of other benefits to intermittent fasting. As we’ve discussed, fasting helps to slow down the aging process, reduces insulin resistance and minimizes inflammation that often leads to chronic diseases. Intermittent fasting also improves focus and increases a brain hormone known as BDNF, which helps with the growth of new brain cells. Studies have shown that reduced levels of BDNF are often present in people who suffer from depression. According to recent research, those who suffer from depression have seen improvement by practicing intermittent fasting. The amazing mental health benefits are what first attracted me to intermittent fasting.

In my opinion, the benefits of intermittent fasting greatly outweigh the cons. However, intermittent fasting is not for everyone and, as with anything in life, there are downsides. Any sudden change can definitely jolt your system. Going from eating all the time to fasting for long periods can cause hunger pains and feelings of low energy. If your body is used to eating breakfast every morning, taking this expected meal away can be tough and make you feel lethargic. If you stick with it, these feelings will subside after the first two weeks or so. The human body is amazingly adaptable. Only after progressing past the transition period will the benefits of intermittent fasting begin to be noticed. Please consult your doctor before beginning a routine of intermittent fasting, as going without food for extended periods of time can have negative implications for those with hypoglycemia or blood sugar regulation issues.

My experience with intermittent fasting

I was encouraged to give intermittent fasting a try after learning about the mental benefits. I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life and, more recently, depression. A lifestyle of intermittent fasting and regular exercise has greatly improved my mental clarity and overall sense of well-being. After practicing intermittent fasting for several months, I am happy to report significant improvements in my mental and physical health. In my routine, I fast for 16 hours. I still drink water during my fasting hours, but I only consume calories between the hours of 1:00 pm and 9:00 pm. Basically, all I do is skip breakfast. I still have my coffee in the mornings, but I drink it black. Depriving myself of coffee in the mornings would not only be bad for me, it would have detrimental effects on all those around me (see An Ode to Coffee). I’ve also noticed I am leaner and have more energy. Occasionally on a weekend, I’ll have a cheat day and partake in breakfast rituals. Although, I now feel tired and sluggish after eating breakfast. For me, an intermittent fasting routine enables my body and mind to perform at optimal levels.

Although the research and studies surrounding intermittent fasting are still in their infancy, new benefits about this practice are being discovered daily. Through trial and error, you can find out which method of fasting works best for you. That’s another cool thing about intermittent fasting, you can build it around your lifestyle. If you’re looking for a way to get healthy and optimize your life, I recommend giving intermittent fasting a try. It will be tough at first, but it’s mostly a mental thing. In life, our only limitations are those we set in our own minds.

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