Most of you have probably heard of fasting, or intermittent fasting (IF), it has been popular for a little while now. I am frequently being asked about it, people are talking about it positively (or negatively), media streams post articles about it with a positive (or negative) approach, celebs are touting it as the next best thing. You have probably asked yourself, should i try it???
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Firstly, what I think freaks people out the most about IF is the abstinence of food, there is a thought process of “you’re telling me to just not eat? My blood sugar will crash, i will get hangry, i will starve” OR “i cant afford to be hungry, my job requires that i be on top of my game” – i understand where these concerns are coming from, so stay with me and lets continue unpacking the topic.
For such a long time, we’ve been told to eat 5 to 6 small meals a day to “help increase our metabolism” and to “ward off energy highs and lows.” We’re also told “don’t ever let yourself get hungry because if you do, you are not going to be able control yourself when you do get your hands on food, you wont be able to stop” – FYI that’s nonsense.
Intermittent fasting flies in the face of all these recommendations – so is it good for you? Or is it just a starvation diet?
Well yes, in fact it is VERY good for us. And, no, it isn’t just a starvation diet.
There is actually a surprising amount of research that has looked into IF, and the research is presenting evidence of a very rapid response in benefits. Especially when you combine IF with the low carb, healthy fat (LCHF) way of eating, you can see results very, very quickly. Interestingly, these rapid results still happen without the inclusion of exercise. Exercise and IF produce very similar beneficial effects within the body, so when you combine IF, LCHF and exercise, you have almost a superpower approach to improving your health and body composition.
What we do need to remember is that there is a critical threshold of energy (or calories) that we require on a daily basis to fuel the basic functions within our body and to provide us with immediate energy.
The amount of energy that we require on a daily basis changes. We do not burn the same amount of energy every single day so the point of trying to stick to a 1200 or 1500 or even 1800 calorie diet plan is somewhat futile in the long term (and short term for that matter).
Paying attention and listening to what our body is telling us with regard to hunger, energy and cravings is a superior approach to indicate what our body needs on a daily basis. Now I know that sounds a little fluffy “listening to our body” but we need to start seeking the internal signals and signs to work out what our body is telling us instead of trying to control it with external factors, such as calorie counting, diets in general, and relying white-knuckle willpower.
What does this have to do with intermittent fasting?
Well, with intermittent fasting, all you do is stop eating for a short period of time. So number 1, it is very cheap, it is free actually, anyone can do it, and, it is really, really easy to do. For example, fasting for 16 hours per day and then consuming food during an 8 hour window. This is just one way fasting, there are many many ways and most of the time I encourage people to work out what is method is best for them and their lifestyle. That’s the beauty of IF, there is no rules, you can create your own as long as you have a 6-8 hour window where you consume your food in 1-3 meals and during that window it is really important that you consume enough energy/calories to meet your minimum daily energy/calorie requirement.
What happens when we don’t meet this requirement over the long term is yes, it does turn into a low-calorie diet. We DO NOT want this this. It is NOT the ideal approach we want to take with our health. Your hunger and energy is driven by hormones. You cannot fight your hormones, no matter how hard you try. When we consume calories below the critical threshold of your daily needs your body starts to think that you are in an energy crisis. It starts to send out hormones that drive up hunger (ghrelin) and you start obsessing over food and thinking about it all the time. Then your body starts to conserve what energy that it does have, so you feel fatigued and tired, ALL THE TIME.
If you’ve ever been on a calorie-controlled diet plan then you’ll know this feeling, it starts around week to week 2-3, around the time you start hating life.
So how does intermittent fasting work for fat loss?
When we restrict our feeding window to 8 hours and 1-3 meals during that time, we reduce the frequency and amount of insulin secretion within the body; insulin is our storage hormone that takes carbs, fats, proteins out of the blood stream after digestion, and into cells for utilisation.
During our fasting window, what we are aiming to do is encourage our body to use its own fuel reserves i.e. fat stores. When we aren’t consuming energy via food, and our body requires energy, our body can and will provide us with energy that is already on our body. When insulin levels are low during fasting, it triggers the secretion of a hormone called glucagon to take energy from our fat stores to be utilised throughout the body. Unfortunately our current western diet and all day grazing results in frequent and high levels of insulin secretion, which never allows us to get to that low hormonal point where our body is requiring us to use the energy that is already on our body. Glucagon also does a cool thing by stimulating human growth hormone during this time (hello stronger muscles!)
What about autophagy? Autopho-what???
A shift of focus from fat loss to an important process called autophagy. Think of autophagy as like these little pac men going around your body and eating biological debris. If you have within your body; proteins that are a little bit funky or NQR, if you have pathogens or bacteria, if you’ve got genes or cells that are a bit old or unstable, autophagy is a process where you get rid of all that. What happens is immune cells come around and get rid of all these funky proteins that aren’t quite right, they get rid of the viruses and bacteria, they get rid of these old dysfunctional cells.
Now this process only happens during times of nutrients stress, or when you aren’t consuming nutrients your body starts to seek elsewhere for the nutrients it needs. So it looks for cells that arent quite right and recycles what it can from them. After we get rid of all these damaged and funky cells we want to create new, healthy functioning cells and to do that we need to eat, so during that feeding window we need to consume enough energy to stimulate the regeneration and rebuilding of healthy functioning cells within our body.
That’s great info, but wont i get really, really HUNGRY???
A significant concern when people start fasting is, HUNGER. Here’s the thing about hunger, it doesn’t progressively gets worse and worse and worse – it actually comes in waves. You would have experienced this I’m sure, if you notice that you’re hungry at work then all of a sudden you get super busy or super inundated with calls/people/emails and then 30-60mins later, you realise that you’re not hungry anymore.
Another time we feel hunger is around the times where we would normally eat, and this is called anticipatory hunger. Our body anticipates the meal that we have habitually, so if you normally have a snack at 10.30am your body starts to secrete hunger hormones (ghrelin) in anticipation of that snack.
Fasting studies have shown that at around day 3 of fasting through meals that you would normally have, this anticipatory release of our hunger hormone reduces significantly. Our body starts to adapt after only 3 days of fasting so you no longer feel hungry around the times where you would normally eat. So, initially, it might feel a bit tough but know that your body is going to adapt really quickly after only three to four days of practising fasting.
Fasting and your hormones.
Intermittent fasting absolutely improves your hormones ability to communicate with cells, so if you have a medical condition where you have hormone resistance, e.g. diabetes or pcos, with fasting we see a rapid improvement in insulin sensitivity. There is also improvements in leptin sensitivity; leptin resistance is linked in with obesity, so people who are obese are almost always leptin resistant and that’s one of the hormones that makes you feel full. One of the concerns of people who are trying to lose weight is that they are always feeling hungry, and its not anything they are doing wrong, it is a physiological problem going on inside their bodies where their hormones are working against them. So fasting absolutely improves this hormonal situation.
In summary – yes, fasting requires that we abstain from food for a period of time, but in that feasting/feeding window that follows it, we are eating all of our daily nutrient requirements in that window, so it is not low calorie, we are absolutely not trying to go for a calorie restricted diet. All we are trying to do is change our feeding window from all day grazing into a much smaller 8 hour window.
I hope that was informative and helped you get your head around fasting, if you enjoyed it, please share so we can get the info out to your family and friends. Any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below.