Though often treated as a modern fad, intermittent fasting has had a place in our eating habits for millennia. In the modern world, however, with the wrong approach and perspective on it, this can backfire. Obsessive focus on weight and appearance has led to fad diets that focus on highly restricted eating patterns – which can do more harm than good.
On the flipside, while vilifying food is not conducive to good mental and physical health, there is no doubt that maintaining a healthy level of body fat is important. Professionals across the board state the need to address the growing issues associated with obesity, as well as the problems with highly restrictive fad diets that do not promote health but thinness.
Intermittent fasting is often presented as a unique solution to this specific and exceptional problem. But does it actually work, and is there a right way to do it?
What is Intermittent Fasting?
What makes intermittent fasting different from most diets is that it doesn’t focus on what to eat, but rather when and how to eat. Those who use intermittent fasting to balance their diet only eat at specific times and have longer periods of fasting in between meals.
There are no rules or restrictions around what you can eat when not fasting (though experts recommend following a balanced, varied diet that focuses on nutrition). This is based on a blueprint of the dietary rhythms that our prehistoric ancestors would have followed.
How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
While experts and fitness enthusiasts alike state that intermittent fasting is an effective way to lose and manage weight, many people are uncertain of precisely how it works. Decades of research into the effects of this dietary program have uncovered some interesting information about how the human body works.
Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins have found one reason why intermittent fasting is so effective. In prehistoric times, our ancestors were primarily hunters and gatherers; this meant that they could go days, even weeks, without consuming a substantial amount of food. As a result, we evolved to function well, mentally and physically, while fasting. Even after human society became primarily agricultural, famines and periods of fasting were very common. Research has shown that obesity has grown in scale and severity even in the last 50 years.
Increasingly sedentary lifestyles and easy access to high calorie foods, combined with the modern habit of eating three full meals a day, means that we rarely rely on our fat reserves to fuel our bodies. As a result, it is very easy to accumulate fat, and visceral fat, but harder to lose it. Intermittent fasting combats this by returning our lifestyle to sporadic eating and, in turn, creates a situation where our bodies must use fat reserves to maintain themselves and fuel action.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
The benefits of intermittent fasting have been widely researched, and the general consensus is that when properly undertaken, it can be highly beneficial to general health and wellbeing. The benefits of intermittent fasting include:
Reduced Insulin Resistance
In clinical studies, intermittent fasting has shown the potential to reduce insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels. This, in turn, can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
There are some studies that show differences between men and women in this regard, however. One study undertaken in 2005 suggests that insulin resistance may worsen in women after 22-day long periods of intermittent fasting.
Increased HGH Levels
Intermittent fasting can contribute towards higher levels of human growth hormone (HGH). This is beneficial, because this hormone facilitates muscle gain and fat burning, as well as promoting general health and wellbeing.
Whether it be routine intermittent fasting or less frequent fasting (for example, the annual fasting that occurs during Ramadan), fasting induces the body’s cellular repair processes. Known as autophagy, this is essentially a process of waste removal where the cells break down and metabolize damaged and dysfunctional proteins in the cells. Increased and frequent periods of autophagy can reduce the risk of many serious diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Loss of Visceral Fat
While intermittent fasting has been known to promote general weight loss for many years, more recent studies have shown that it can also help to reduce the amount of visceral fat that we carry. Visceral fat is the fat that gathers on the inside of our bodies, particularly around the organs.
This is important, because visceral fat is the most harmful and can contribute to a number of diseases and hormonal issues. The loss of visceral fat during intermittent fasting may be partly due to increased HGH levels and could contribute to lower insulin resistance.
Increased Brain Health
Because intermittent fasting improves many basic metabolic processes, it can also be beneficial for brain health. By reducing inflammation, blood sugar levels, and oxidative stress, fasting may promote the growth of new nerve cells and improve brain function. This could help to protect against strokes and other forms of brain damage.
Potentially Lower Risk of Heart Disease
According to the World Health Organization, heart disease is one of the biggest causes of death worldwide. While heart diseases are complex, there is some evidence to suggest that intermittent fasting can reduce the risk of heart diseases. This is partly because of lowered levels of visceral fat and inflammation, but also because it contributes to lower blood pressure and levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Possible Risks of Intermittent Fasting
So, as you can see, intermittent fasting has many benefits and could be helpful for anyone seeking to maintain a healthier lifestyle. However, it is not suitable for everyone. As is the case with many diets, there are some risks that you should be aware of before you proceed.
Here are the main risks to keep in mind when considering intermittent fasting;
Increased Risk of Eating Disorders
One potential pitfall of intermittent fasting is an obsessive focus on food. This is most common when people change their diet and reduce their food intake dramatically. Being hungry constantly is stressful and can lead to people counting the minutes until mealtimes and then overindulging. As a result, feelings of guilt can cause cycles of binging and purging or lead to increasingly restrictive eating habits.
Possibility of Chronically Elevated Cortisol Issues
If you find intermittent fasting stressful and unpleasant, the levels of the stress hormone cortisol will increase in your body. This can lead to a number of the issues commonly associated with chronic stress, such as strokes, heart failure, and chronic fatigue.
Extreme changes in diet may also contribute to migraines as a result of stress, fatigue, and the body’s reaction to sudden lack of common substances, such as caffeine, sugar, and healthy fats.
Increased Risk of Caffeine Dependency
As intermittent fasting allows for low calorie and no calorie drinks, many people rely on coffee and energy drinks to maintain energy levels when fasting. This can be detrimental to overall health, as increased levels of caffeine can contribute to anxiousness, acid reflux, insomnia, and other health conditions.
Increased Risk of Food Intolerances
One uncommon risk of intermittent fasting is the increased risk of inflammation and food intolerance. This seems to be connected to the likelihood of binging after fasts. As the body craves fuel after periods of fasting, many people can fall into a habit of eating high-fat, high sugar foods and meals that rely on starchy, gluten-laden ingredients and other reactive foods. This can irritate the digestive system, and may lead to food intolerances and inflammation over time.
These issues are most likely for those who already have an unhealthy relationship with food. When practiced properly, intermittent fasting can be very beneficial. However, focusing on food intake and avoidance is often a trigger for unhealthy cycles of binging.
At HyTable, we believe that health comes first, and we always encourage customers to speak with their doctor before drastically changing their lifestyle or diet.