WTF Is Intermittent Fasting?!
Fasting is not a new concept. Humans have been fasting for centuries, generally for one of two reasons – a compelling health motivation or as a spiritual practice. Yet in recent years, the trends of fasting have been moving into mainstream culture, and Intermittent Fasting (IF) has been wielded as a magic fix to assist weight loss, improve metabolic health, safeguard for illness prevention and a method of “bio-hacking” your system.
There's promises of rejuvenation, longevity and optimisation, and combinations of numbers, the 5:2, the 16/8 (don’t worry, I’ll explain…) just about everywhere you turn. From major advertising, to academic studies and down to your mates effusively gloating about the benefits, intermittent fasting has now gained widespread notoriety.
But, WTF is it?!
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Simplistically, intermittent fasting is the practice of fasting, i.e. not consuming any food, for a set period of hours, and then refuelling and replenishing within a certain time window. It is a structured method focused not on what you eat, but rather when you eat it!
Most of us fast everyday without realising it (it’s called sleep!) but this method, lengthens the duration of the fasted state in a bid to recalibrate the digestive and metabolic systems.
The Methods Of Intermittent Fasting
There are various methods for engaging a practice of intermittent fasting. The most popular are:
The 16/8 Method
Fast for 16 hours of the day, with a window of 8 hours to eat. For example, you would have your first meal of the day at 12pm and cease consuming food by 8pm that evening, giving your body a fasting period of the subsequent 16 hours.
Either once or twice during the weekly cycle, you undertake a 24 hour fast, consuming no food from dinner on the first day, until dinner the next.
The 5:2 Diet
Over two days of the week, eat only between 500-600 calories. Only the subsequent 5 days, stick to your usual intake.
do i do intermittent fasting? a disclaimer...
I have numerous friends and colleagues who swear by Intermittent Fasting. One attributes it to a recent weight loss that had previously been difficult to shift. I personally, do not follow the protocol strictly, mostly as a precautionary safeguard for PCOS symptoms (I’ll get to that shortly!) and because I try not to force rules on my eating behaviours. However recently I have been trying to ensure a decent break between my last and first meals of the day (of at least 12-14 hours) as I was commonly eating dinner late at night, followed by an exceptionally early breakfast. Which I felt was increasing symptoms of bloating and a sluggish digestion.
As digestive processes utilise a significant amount of energy from our bodies, resting the digestive system properly can give it a much-deserved break, (these organs are not designed to constantly be in a state of digesting food!). I have found it has been beneficial for subsequent more thorough digestion and energy optimisation. Though, as a disclaimer, I have not tested this first hand for long enough, nor do I have the professional expertise to guide on whether this is right for you. Before embarking on any kind of nutritional guideline it is always recommended that you check in with a GP or functional doctor to ensure it is the right thing for you.
Why Would you begin Intermittent Fasting?
As is the way with big trends, there are numerous articles and studies backing up the positive for intermittent fasting. The pro camp has some very convincing ideas of why intermittent fasting can be hugely beneficial. The major drawcard? Evidence that demonstrates when we don’t eat for a continued durational period, processes relating to hormones, genes and cellular repair of the body can positively change significantly.
There is a significant drop in blood sugar and insulin levels , which may assist in diabetes prevention and increase fat burning potential. Some studies have proven drastic increase in human growth hormone levels, which may facilitate fat burning as well as muscle gain on a body composition front. Additionally, many that undertake IF report an increase in weigh tloss. With one explanation for this being due to the fact that even if you are eating the same types of food, you end up eating fewer calories overall, leading to a calorie deficit and subsequent weight loss.
On a cellular level, the body induces cellular repair processes such as removing wastes from the cells, and in terms of gene expression, there has been research into benefical changes in several genes and molecules related to longevity and protection against disease. Hence, the biohacking aspect.
Who Intermittent Fasting is NOT for
So here’s the thing about any nutritional protocol, “diet” or method, no two bodies are the same, we are all inherently unique and no one method works for everyone. It’s always a balance of finding what works best to optimise your health, happiness and functional ability. The rising trend of intermittent fasting is being picked up the latest “healthy” way to lose weight and enhance your systems, but it is really something that is not for everyone. Before embarking on any kind of nutritional guideline it is always recommended that you check in with a GP or functional doctor to ensure it is the right thing for you.
As a general guideline, those who are recommended to steer clear of IF include anyone who has encountered the following experiences:
Gut issues or digestive health markers
Disordered eating past
And potentially, women.
There’s a many opinions on the topic of whether women and men should train and nourish themselves according to their biological difference, however in relation to IF, the protocol of fasting then feeding may have more negative implications than positive for females. In fact, one study demonstrated that blood sugar control actually worsensed for women after following a 22-day intermittent fasting protocol.
As always, do your own research, seek professional advice and to make the best choice and own informed decision for your body!
Intermittent fasting and PCOS
For women who experience PCOS and it’s many side effect symptoms, IF can seem like a way in which symptoms, especially stubborn weight gain, can be controlled. However, in a recent interview, registered dietician Abbey Sharp warned IF may not be the best route to take for those with PCOS. Detailing studies that have examined both PCOS and IF, she explained "The studies looking at PCOS and IF have found that IF may have positive effects only when it is followed strictly and accurately, [which] may be difficult since the diet can be hard to adhere to." This may actually lead to a worsening of symptoms, as many who do lose weight, especially in a restrictive manner, gain it back. "Dieting and restricting may lead to binge-like behaviors, which may cause weight gain and worsened symptoms," she continued.
Her view overall? "The short answer for whether IF is good for people with PCOS to lose weight is no. There is not enough research that IF has concrete benefits for insulin resistance.” Additionally she added there is not enough research that IF has concrete benefits for insulin resistance. Instead we require “Larger-scale and longer studies needed to examine fasting benefits in treatment of metabolic diseases."