Do you know the many benefits of intermittent fasting? If you are like most people, you probably have been raised on “three square meals” every day. And chances are you also believe that breakfast is the most important meal. The truth is, the benefits of intermittent fasting are proven, and yet there is little to no evidence that shows eating three meals per day is good for your health. In fact, some evidence suggests that this pattern of eating three meals and snacking in between may be partially to blame for the obesity and diabetes epidemic. And the breakfast myth — this stems from really good marketing by the cereal industry!
So, how did we become a three meals culture? One theory states that settlers brought this tradition from Europe. By eating three meals the settlers considered themselves to be more civilized than the natives whose eating patterns varied with the seasons and included fasting. Now there is research to suggest that fasting (deemed uncivilized by our ancestors) could actually help you lose weight and make your immune system stronger.
Yet, it’s become a cultural norm to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, even if it doesn’t always suit our schedules or our bodies. And, in today’s society the stress surrounding meal timing and planning may actually have more negative effects than benefits.
Why Intermittent Fasting May Make You Healthier
Our ancestors didn’t have access to food 24/7 the way most of us do today. And they certainly didn’t have as many food choices or access to all of the processed food out there now. In medieval times in Europe, the morning meal for most people consisted of ale and bread. Later, they would eat whatever they brought in from the fields, usually around 2 pm. This was called “dinner.” Some people would also grab a light meal at the end of the day. But, the last meal of the day (what most of us call dinner now) was not a formal or large meal, and was often skipped.
Today, most of us are on autopilot when it comes to eating three meals so that when we skip meals (or eat foods that we think should be eaten at a different time of day, such as pasta for breakfast or eggs for dinner), we often feel guilty. But, our bodies were actually designed for intermittent periods of fasting, and many modern diets are coming back to this. The reason why is that intermittent fasting helps to lower your insulin levels.
Excess insulin is the final common pathway that has led to the obesity epidemic. So anything you can do to lower insulin levels naturally is very healthy for your body. Breakfast means to “break the fast.” A 12-hour fast is a very easy way to lower insulin levels. Because it takes 12 hours of not eating for the body to clear its stores of glycogen (stored sugar) in the liver. It’s easy to go without food for 12 hours if you do it overnight.
It is high insulin that drives cellular inflammation as well. So, that is the key point of the benefits of fasting. But, there are other benefits, such as an increase in growth hormone.
6 More Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting to improve health dates back thousands of years. Hippocrates and Plato were both said to tout the benefits. And fasting has been used in all major religions for its ability to clear our minds, hearts and bodies. In recent years intermittent fasting for health reasons has become popular, and there is now scientific evidence to support it.
Here are 6 more benefits of fasting:
- Intermittent fasting may have many of the same benefits as calorie restriction even if you don’t restrict calories on other days.
- Fasting may stimulate your sympathetic nervous system. This can help you stay alert and at the same time more resistant to stress. So if you are under pressure at work, laying off the heavy mid-day meal could benefit your performance.
- Fasting can lower your insulin levels. In addition to lowering insulin, it also can lower another hormone known as IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor,) which is linked to cancer and diabetes. This is the single most important benefit of fasting.
- Fasting shifts your body from burning glucose for fuel to using fat stores. During this process, fat is converted to ketones, a more efficient energy source.
- Fasting can reduce inflammation. Fasting has been shown in some studies to lower inflammation markers including CRP, IL-6, TNF, BDNF, and more.
- Intermittent fasting doesn’t have to feel like a diet. You can choose which version of intermittent fasting works for you so that you can eat what you want within a certain window of time that suits your body and your schedule. When done this way, you may not even notice that you are going longer between meals.
Easy Ways to Start Fasting
Here are a few ways that some experts recommend incorporating fasting into your diet:
Alternate Day Fasting. This has become known recently as the 5:2 diet. It involves eating only 500 calories two days per week. The rest of the week you eat normally without any calorie restriction. The theory is that eating only 500 calories on those two days gives your body time to reset. For some, this can lead to weight loss, reduce belly fat, lower blood pressure and blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and can even increase your lifespan.
Time Restricted Eating. This diet requires you to eat all of your daily meals within a short window of time – usually six to eight hours. Dr. Mercola is a fan of eating all of your daily meals within an eight-hour window. This involves skipping either breakfast or dinner (not both) to allow your digestive tracts to rest for a longer period of time each day. So for example, if you eat your first meal at 8 am, you would have your last meal no later than 4 pm. Then you would fast until 8 am the next day — roughly 16 hours. However, he does not recommend this for normal weight teens or growing children.
Fasting for 1-4 Days. Proponents of fasting for days on end say doing this once every six months forces your body into survival mode so that it uses up stores of fat and sugar, and also breaks down old cells. This causes the body’s entire immune system to regenerate, providing better protection against infection and disease, experts said.
Other popular intermittent fasting diets include; Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon where you fast for 24 hours one day per week. Probably the most popular is The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler, which started the intermittent fasting craze and claims that as humans we are nocturnal eaters, programmed for one meal per day. In this program, you eat one large meal every day and fast for up to 20 hours.
Is Intermittent Fasting for You?
While there are many studies supporting the different benefits of fasting, there are also studies that show fasting is not for everyone. One study reported by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that alternate day fasting could lower glucose tolerance and actually crash your metabolism.
However, in his book The Obesity Code, Jason Fung, MD, a nephrologist and top expert regarding intermittent fasting, points out that fasting actually increases one’s metabolic rate. Many of his patients are on dialysis for the kidney damage from diabetes, so every day he sees the sobering results of a diet that raises blood sugar too high over long periods of time. Many people with diabetes do well with fasting. And Dr. Fung points to research showing that, contrary to popular opinion, fasting does not result in decreased muscle mass. He recommends exercising in a fasted state to improve your recovery time and build muscle faster. I’ve certainly found that this is easy to do.
Fasting is not only safe but beneficial for most people. However, you should not use intermittent fasting if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Children and teens should not fast. Finally, if you have a medical condition or take medications, you need to check with your health care provider to see if fasting is recommended for you.
How To Adapt Your Meal Times to Your Body
The only way to know if intermittent fasting is right for you is to trust your body. You may want to try one or several of these popular intermittent fasting methods. Or, do some research of your own and see what intermittent fasting approach resonates with you.
If you feel that fasting is simply too difficult, or have other reasons why you don’t want to try it, I urge you to explore your resistance.
Often this hesitancy is emotional. Maybe there is a habit, or even an addiction — such as having a sugary breakfast and caffeine as soon as you wake up, or drinking a nightcap before bed — that you are not willing to change. Or perhaps you are a continuous eater at a certain time of day. If this sounds like you, then you may need to explore your 5th Chakra to understand why you use food to suppress your emotions and what it is that you are not willing to say.
Once you identify what’s behind your resistance and come to terms with it, you will find that intermittent fasting is easy. But remember, it doesn’t work if you go right back to your old habits as soon as the fast is over.
One way to ease into fasting is to understand when your body needs nourishment. To do this you will need to tune into your own body and learn its signals. Then, choose to eat at the right time for you. Once you have discovered your personal 24-hour meal clock, then start to introduce intermittent fasting. Try to go without food for 12 hours on a regular basis three to four times per week. For example, if you have your last meal at 7PM, then you would not eat anything until 7AM the next morning. Easy, right? During that 12-hour window, your body will switch from using stored glycogen for fuel and begin using fat.
6 Ways to Improve your Health at Meal Time
No matter how many meals you consume per day or what time you eat them, here are some ways you can improve your health at mealtime:
- Eliminate sugar in all forms. Sugar — including pasta, grains, cereals, alcohol, and even “health bars” — keep you hungry. So, reach for healthy fats instead.
- Eat fresh fruit and vegetables. These should be the staples in any diet, whether you are including intermittent fasting or not.
- Eliminate processed foods. Processed foods contain sugar and tons of chemicals that not only cause weight gain but have other serious consequences to your health. Plus, sugar keeps you hungry so you want to eat more frequently. It’s best to eat fresh, whole foods 80 percent of the time.
- Limit alcohol. Alcohol is sugar. Try to reduce or eliminate this from your diet.
- Drink pure water. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger and is the cause of overeating for many people. Aim for drinking half of your body weight in ounces per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 75 ounces of water per day. You will also have more energy when you’re not dehydrated. Fresh juices and smoothies are also good and may even replace a meal, which can give your digestive tract a rest similar to that achieved while fasting.
- Listen to your body. Tune into your body’s hunger signals and eat when you are truly hungry. But don’t overeat. And don’t worry about what time it is. Your appetite may not chime at the times our three-meal culture dictates.
How to Avoid Common Mistakes
As is true with any eating plan, when it comes to intermittent fasting, there are some easy ways to ensure that you are successful. Here are some ways to ensure that you avoid the common pitfalls.
- Go slowly. If you typically eat every 3-4 hours, fasting for 12 hours at a time right away will cause you to feel hungry and may set you up for failure. Instead, try easing into Intermittent fasting by gradually lengthening your fasting window over a period of a couple of weeks.
- Eat the proper amount. When your fast ends, you may feel the urge to overeat. This will send your glucose levels soaring and counteract the benefits of your fast. Instead, plan your meals in advance. Create healthy portions and spread your meals across your entire eating window. Also, be sure you don’t under-eat, which can throw your body into starvation mode.
- Avoid junk food. While trying intermittent fasting it is still important to eat a wide variety of wholesome foods. Be sure to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy carbohydrates. Avoid junk food and sugary drinks.
- Get moving. Many people exercise in a fasting state, including elite athletes. However, when you first start intermittent fasting you may want to lower the intensity of your workouts until your body adjusts. If you plan to exercise during your fasting period, start with brisk walking or light to moderate weightlifting. You can move on to higher intensity workouts when it feels right, or you can save them for when you are in your eating window.
- Stay hydrated. Just because you’re fasting doesn’t mean you should stop drinking fluids. Dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, and constipation. Sipping water throughout the day will keep you hydrated and also help you feel less hungry.
One More Benefit of Intermittent Fasting
Another benefit of intermittent fasting is that it can help your body initiate autophagy. Autophagy is your body’s way of clearing out cellular debris and recycling useable cellular parts to regenerate healthier cells. It’s like your body’s natural clean up mode.
Autophagy, which translates as self-eating, is one way your body adapts to stress. In the 1980’s researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi observed how cells consume their own proteins in order to meet energy requirements during starvation. More recent studies, including a 2018 study, show that caloric restriction caused by temporary food deprivation is a powerful autophagy stimulator. This is due to increased levels of glucagon (and decreased levels of insulin) when fasting.
Stimulating the process of autophagy through intermittent fasting is linked to many positive health benefits, including healthy metabolism and weight, improved skin health and appearance, better digestion, enhanced neurological function and memory, reduced inflammation, slowed aging, and increased life span.
Have you tried intermittent fasting? Do you have an eating schedule that doesn’t fit the cultural norm? What mealtime practices work for you? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.