The What and How of Intermittent Fasting

Hi Bhavika.. Can you please also share some insights about intermittent fasting diet? My son, is trying that and wanted to know the pros and cons.

A question from Mum

Let’s start first with the definition of Fasting.

Fasting is the willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time.

The abstinence or reduction can be of materialistic things, money, food, mobile phones, toxic relationships or anything which improves quality of life. This blog’s focus will be more on food and health.

Let’s look at the history of fasting first. Since our hunter-gatherer days, we have fasted due to scarcity of food or lack of skills. At times our ancestors had to go without food for days (in-voluntary fasting).

Hippocrates (c 460 – c370 BC) is widely considered the father of modern medicine. Among the treatments that he prescribed and championed was the practice of fasting, and the consumption of apple cider vinegar. Hippocrates wrote, “To eat when you are sick, is to feed your illness”. The ancient Greek writer and historian Plutarch (cAD46 – c AD 120) also echoed these sentiments. He wrote, “Instead of using medicine, better fast today”. 

Fasting and Religion

  • Hinduism – The most commonly-observed fast, Ekadashi, is respected approximately twice a month, on the eleventh day of each ascending and descending moon. The celebration at the beginning of the year, in honour of Shiva, is another important occasion. During the months of July and August, many Hindus adopt a vegetarian diet and fast on Mondays and Saturdays until the evening.
  • Bahá’í faith – In the Bahá’í Faith, fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset during the Bahá’í month of ‘Ala’ (March 1 or 2 – March 19 or 20).
  • Buddhism – Buddhist monks and nuns following the Vinaya rules commonly do not eat each day after the noon meal. This is not considered a fast but rather a disciplined regimen aiding in meditation and good health.
  • Christianity – In Western Christianity, the Lenten fast is observed by many communicants of the Catholic Church, Lutheran Churches, Methodist Churches, Reformed Churches, Anglican Communion, and the Western Orthodox Churches and is a forty-day partial fast to commemorate the fast observed by Christ during his temptation in the desert.
  • Islam – Fasting is obligatory for every Muslim one month in the year, during Ramadhan. Each day, the fast begins at sun-rise and ends at sunset. This also helps to give the digestive system a break. Non obligatory fasts are two days a week as well as the middle of the month, as recommended by the Prophet Muhammad. A meta-analysis on the health of Muslims during Ramadan shows significant weight loss during the fasting period of up to 1.51 kilograms (3.3 lb), but this weight was regained within about two weeks of Ramadan ending.

As you can see most of the popular religions have some sort of fasting integrated in their practices. You must have heard or seen people fasting for days without having even drop of water in the name of religion. So it seems fasting is a fast forward way to the almighty.

M.K.Gandhi made fasting very popular during his freedom fight. He used hunger strike as a method of non-violent resistance, as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt, or to achieve a goal such as a policy change. You can say fasting can change rulers of nation, if you are a fan of Gandhiji.

Now let’s get to the meaty part (the reason why you are here) 🙂

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting (intermittent energy restriction or intermittent calorie restriction) is an umbrella term for various eating protocols that cycle between a period of fasting and non-fasting over a defined period.

Intermittent Fasting or IF, has gained popularity since 2002.

The Protocols

There are three main protocols (practice) followed in intermittent fasting.

  • Whole day fasting – This involves a 24-hour fast followed by a 24-hour non-fasting period. The most popular in this category is 5:2 diet – five days per week not fasting and two days per week total fasting.
  • Time Restricted Feeding (TRF) – This involves no calorie intake to a certain time period, usually between eight and 16 hours per day.
  • Intermittent calorie restriction – This involves reducing daily caloric intake to 500–1,000 calories. This type of eating is a variation of the popular 5:2 diet, you eat for five days and for two days per week restrict yourself.

What’s the point of starving yourself?

This is a valid question, when we have abundance of food and get slim quick diets. Why do fasting?

While we will get into the physiological benefits later, MP says fasting teaches us a lot.

  • Commit an entire day to fasting, and you’ll realize that hunger really isn’t something to panic over, it’s not emergency.
  • Physical vs. psychological hunger Often when people think they’re hungry, they’re not experiencing true physiological (body) hunger, but rather psychological (head) hunger. Check out our 8 types of hunger blog to learn more.
  • Taking a day to fast should remind us that there are people out there who fast regularly – not voluntarily – but because they don’t have food.
  • Fasting improves your willpower and self-discipline muscle.
  • Fasting has been shown to increase rates of neurogenesis in the brain, according to Dr Mark Mattson, a professor of Neurology at John Hopkins University.

Intermittent Fasting and Weight Loss

Intermittent fasting is a new trend in the weight loss industry, thus there are very limited (short time) studies available on humans. Most of the benefits are shown on rats.

Here’s a list of interesting studies which will help you decide if Intermittent Fasting is the way to go for you.

  • In 2011, the American Cancer Society recommended that people undergoing chemotherapy increase their intake of protein and calories, but provided evidence that a short-term period of fasting may have benefits during chemotherapy.
  • In one review, fasting improved alertness, mood, and subjective feelings of well-being, possibly improving overall symptoms of depression (Research article here)
  • Scientists have completed short-term human studies on the diet (read them here and here), which showed benefits including weight loss and improvement in metabolic disease disk markers.
  • A human study, published in February 2017, the FMD group experienced a significant improvement in body weight, waist circumference and BMI, absolute total body and trunk fat, as well as risk factors for aging and disease, including systolic blood pressure and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1)
  • A 2018 review of intermittent fasting in obese people showed that reducing calorie intake one to six days per week over at least 12 weeks was effective for reducing body weight on an average of 7 kilograms (15 lb); the results were not different from a simple calorie restricted diet, and the clinical trials reviewed were run mostly on middle-aged women from the US and the UK, limiting interpretation of the results. (Intermittent fasting interventions for treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports.
  • Intermittent fasting may reduce rapid eye movement sleep,( “Metabolic Effects of Intermittent Fasting“).
  • Total fasting diets [with zero calorie consumption] are not a good idea for a couple reasons,” Michelle Harvie (Research Dietitian, Nightingale Centre) says. “You’re more likely to start losing lean body mass. You will get, potentially, big fluctuations in fatty acids, which could lead to insulin resistance. And you’re going to get increased hunger.
  • In rare occurrences fasting can lead to refeeding syndrome. (Comparative Physiology of Fasting, Starvation, and Food Limitation. )

Is intermittent fasting right for you?

Intermittent Fasting sounds very promising as a general ideology. But things get messy when it comes to actually doing fasting.

  • Patients with hypoglycemia or issues with low blood sugar may find it challenging. They should avoid it until their blood sugar is better managed.
  • Anyone with hormone imbalances, especially of the adrenal gland or thyroid, should also be cautious.
  • If someone is already under stress, then adding fasting to the equation might have a negative impact on their body and not trigger fat burning like it normally would in other people. Any type of intermittent fasting including the TRF diet is a type of stress on the system. There are positive types of stress (‘eustress’) that then lead to beneficial changes in the body through the mechanism of hormesis.

Because the research is so spotty and minimal till date, no one really knows which type of intermittent fasting is best for different goals.

Alternates to Intermittent Fasting?

Right now our knowledge suggests, it’s equally possible to achieve all the health benefits of Intermittent Fasting by:

  • Eating fewer calories than you burn.
  • Eating a diet lower in processed foods, chemicals, and pollutants.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Removing toxic stress.

Intermittent Fasting has shown lot of potential for better health but the process needs to be moderated carefully by a professional, otherwise it can damage your health.

Our Approach

Almost all of us do intermittent fasting, which is called sleep. Most of us are able to do a time restricted fasting of 12 hours eating -12 hours of fasting without much effort. If a client is willing and has some pressing goals, we normally take them through below steps.

  • Time Restricted Feeding
  • Intermittent calorie restrictions (Provide slow releasing carbs, lean protein and healthy fats in the meals)
  • Whole day fasts (rarely recommend this)

We teach clients to create a habit based fasting ritual, not use it as a temporary solution for quick weight loss. We use our meticulous tracking system to understand client’s moods, sleep, energy, blood pressure, when they are doing intermittent fasting.

The frequency of fasting varies depending client’s lifestyle, blood markers, fitness and many other factors. Fasting is the easy bit, what you eat during your eating period is very important.

We say – Intermittent fasting is Inconclusive… but interesting.

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