In the proceeding article, we will examine Intermittent Fasting (“IF”) from several perspectives including physical health, mental health, and overall well being.
What Is Intermittent Fasting (“IF”)
Simply put, it’s restricting your food and albeit drink consumption to a certain time of the day which is called your ‘eating window’. There’s another term for this approach to eating called ‘time restricted eating’. The two basically mean the same thing, however Intermittent Fasting stresses a bit more on longer fasting periods ranging between 14 hours all the way up to 48 hours in some cases.((CMAJ: Intermittent fasting: the science of going without))
Personally, I feel most people would benefit from fasting between 14-18 hours, as beyond that can be stressful on the body if you have not already established conditioning and patterns around fasting.
How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
Intermittent Fasting focuses on keeping your body in a catabolic state; one whereby your body has no food or resources for energy, so it begins to source energy from excess fat.
This is the opposite of being in an anabolic state, which is when you have consumed food and your body is actively processing and breaking down the nutrients and fats from that food and allocating those resources accordingly.
There is a large body of evidence suggesting that fasting can benefit both the body and brain, but almost all research has been conducted on animals, such as mice and rats. Researchers, such as myself, studying fasting have been calling for and awaiting more human studies to verify the results found while examining animals.
Myths About Intermittent Fasting
Myth #1: Starvation Mode?
Over the years, I’ve heard terms like ‘starvation mode’ thrown around with a lose relationship to IF, and this term is not accurate to how the body handles fasting and time restricted eating. Some people believe that your body will go into some sort of starvation mode, and by the time you actually do consume food, it will all be allocated to fat deposits and cause you to gain weight.
I’ve debunked this myth so many times with people when having conversations about weight loss, and I’m starting to think that the myth is actually going away! In large part due to articles such as this one which are geared towards informing the general public of the benefits of time restricted eating.
Myth #2: Extremely Low Energy?
Another common myth is that energy levels are extremely low when fasting. This one spawns from the notion that your body needs food constantly for energy and to survive. Let me debunk this by stating that your body is much more resilient than that!
You can technically go several days without consuming food, as long as you are having adequate amounts of water. In my experience, over the years with time restricted eating, energy levels are sustained as long as the proper macro and micro nutrients are consumed during each eating window.
If you leave yourself deficient from each eating window by way of not consuming enough calories or nutrients, then yes, of course energy levels will be down the proceeding day.
However if your focusing on consuming high quality nutrients and hitting all your ‘numbers’ during your eating window, energy will certainly not be an issue.
How and When to Use Intermittent Fasting
All too often I hear people pushing the limits right away and going for 18, 20, 24 hour fasts within their first week of adopting the practice, and to be perfectly frank this is not a good idea.
I understand some people get overly excited about the results and the hype around intermittent fasting, however the best practice is to condition oneself by slowly easing into the process. I’ve suggested starting with 14 hours fasts, utilizing mostly sleeping time, for those starting intermittent fasting.
After a week or so of 14 hours daily fasts, gradually move to 16 hours the second week, then 18hours the third week, and if feeling really ambitious and seeing amazing results, move up to 20 hours fasts on some days. That means consuming all calories for the day within a 4 hour eating window!
Where many fall short with fasting is being able to consume the proper amount of overall calories including adequate volumes of protein, carbs, fats (macro-nutrients), and micro-nutrients. Many do not consume the correct amount of food during the eating window, or they don’t space meals out correctly.
There’s a few issues that can arise when one doesn’t consume proper nutrients within the eating window, let us examine some:
- The body lacking adequate energy to sustain multiple days, or long term fasting
- The body is beginning to lose weight from muscle because it does not have enough nutrients to sustain energy levels
- When not spacing out meals, the body is not having enough time to digest food properly and thus not fully absorbing nutrients
Another problem which arises from my experience is poor eating habits being carried-over to intermittent fasting.
Someone has a crappy diet and thinks that by implementing time restricted eating or IF, they’ll start leaning up like Hollywood movie stars.. this is simply poor logic!
If serious about getting results in a healthy way, the diet should be cleaned up. This is because your body only has a certain amount of time to consume food (eating window), and if that time is being clogged-up with processing junk food, you won’t be reaping the benefits of IF.
Having said this, I do admit to having fast-food during eating windows at times, and though this can be a quick way to pack daily calories, and macro-nutrients, there is a significant lack of micro-nutrients; so when I go this route, it’s critical that my vitamin and mineral intake be on point!
Lately I have been consuming more carbohydrates and generally more calories during my eating windows because for the past 2 years, my goals have shifted from weight loss and leaning-up, to building lean muscle mass.
Putting on weight and building lean muscle mass while doing intermittent fasting is a tricky en-devour, mainly because the nature of IF is one of weight loss, fat loss, and ramping-up metabolism. What’s tricky is that at this stage of my life, my body has become quite efficient at processing and breaking down foods quickly; metabolic efficiency is quite high.
It didn’t start that way, in fact it was quite slow for the first couple months, but after training steadily and implementing time restricted eating for 6 months, I was well on my way to becoming a metabolic beast.
Now after having implemented intermittent fasting for well over 4 years, my body is quite adaptive and efficient at stripping nutrients from food, and leaving me with necessary fuel (carbohydrates and fats) for training.
My current goals entail acquiring 0.5 – 1lb of lean body mass (muscle) every month, totaling around 10lbs of lean muscle per year. This is very reasonable and attainable, however it certainly is challenging when also incorporating intermittent fasting.
IF does help with the production of new muscle tissue by way of improving the production of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone, however, it also burns up any excess fats very quickly. So at this stage I find myself consuming in excess of 4,000 calories on a given day, and up wards of 6,000 calories on training days – that’s a lot of eating!
The challenge then arises of how does one consume 6,000 calories in a 4 or 6 hour eating window? Lot’s of caloric dense foods helps, however they lack nutrients in most cases as I had noted above.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
The benefits of fasting are wide ranging, from weight loss (of course), to improved muscle development, to reduced stress levels, to clearer skin, and much more!
Of course, this all comes if one is following the correct protocols for intermittent fasting as we have examined earlier in this article.
Fasting has been proven to improve biomarkers of disease, reduce oxidative stress and preserve learning and memory functioning, according to Mark Mattson, senior investigator for the National Institute on Aging, part of the US National Institutes of Health. Mattson investigated the health benefits of IF on the cardiovascular system and brain in rodents, and like many others, has called for “well-controlled human studies” in people “across a range of body mass indexes”.((J Nutr Biochem 2005;16:129–37))
Mattson has contributed to several other IF studies and caloric restriction. In one, overweight adults with moderate asthma consumed only 20% of their normal calorie intake on alternate days.((Free Radical Bio Med 2007;42:665–74)) Participants who adhered to the diet lost 8% of their initial body weight over eight weeks. The participants also saw a decrease in markers of oxidative stress, inflammation, and improvement of asthma-related symptoms and several quality-of-life indicators.
In another study, Mattson and colleagues explored the effects of intermittent and continuous energy restriction on weight loss and various biomarkers (for conditions such as breast cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease) among young overweight woman.((Int J Obesity 2011;35:714–27)) They found that time restricted eating, or intermittent restriction, was as effective as continuous restriction for improving weight loss, insulin sensitivity and other health biomarkers.
Mattson’s research has also been in the direction of determining the protective benefits of fasting to neurons. For instance, if you don’t eat for 10 to 16 hours, your body will seek its fat deposits for energy, and fatty acids called ketones will be released into the bloodstream. This has been shown to protect memory and learning functionality as well as slow disease processes in the brain according to Mattson. From my own person experience of intermittent fasting I can attest to increased mental alertness and acuity.
Something that most won’t consider is the ‘detox’ and ‘cleanse’ aspects to intermittent fasting. I know you must be thinking “oh man, not another cleanse pitch”.. and I hear ya! But you do actually clean up the gut and digestive tract quite a bit with fasting.
You can do this with dry fasting, or water fasting (which I’m more of a proponent of). I would only recommend dry fasting for a maximum of 24 hours – and this is done by not even consuming water during your fasting period. There are two purposes to dry fasting:
1. You deprive the body of moisture which can clean-up the gut by not allowing moisture-thriving bacteria to form or sustain existence. Any unhealthy bacteria will in essence die-off when there is no food or water to sustain it.
2. Many claim that standard or dry fasting yields mental clarity which can be beneficial for spiritual practices. Personally I have had some experience with this, where during prolonged fasting periods I feel much more in-tune with my sense perceptions, and albeit cognitive alertness.
When I perform my ritualistic meditations such as transcendental meditation in the morning, or any time of the day while fasted, I feel much more deeply connected and dialed-in with the meditation itself. This could be due to a lack of substances/external stimuli such as food or water that the body needs to allocate resources to process.
Perhaps when the body isn’t breaking down nutrients, and left to rest, it has the ability to hone-in on any given task with much more clarity and efficiency.
If you want to lose weight, improve mental health, and overall well being – consider trying Intermittent Fasting, but as mentioned, start gradually and work your way to longer fasting periods as time goes on.
The main benefit of fasting is arguable and varies depending on an individuals goals – Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to improve metabolic efficiency? Or do you want to improve overall energy levels? There’s lots to choose from in terms of overarching benefits.