Intermittent fasting (also known as IF) involves eating very little or nothing for short periods throughout the week followed by a normal (healthy) diet the rest of the time. The theory, which has been tested in various scientific studies, is that fasting every now and then can help us lose weight, reduce the risk of certain diseases and even prolong our lifespan.
While weight loss advice in recent years has been to eat little and often to ‘keep up the metabolism’, longer periods between eating may in fact be much more useful for weight loss and overall health.
There are lots of different ways to go about intermittent fasting. Some diet programs allow you to eat a total of 4-500(for women)/5-600 (for men) calories during a fast day, some advocate a full 24 hours without a morsel of food passing your lips, and others allow a 6, 8 or 10 hour window in each 24 hours in which you can eat. Perhaps the most well-known is the 5:2 diet, first mentioned by Dr Michael Mosley in the 2012 documentary:
‘Eat, Fast and Live Longer’. If his dramatic weight loss results are anything to go by, IF really does work. Here are some ways to go about it as safely and healthily as possible, alongside tips for making it through fast days!
Intermittent Fasting and Muscle Growth
A lot of people who use IF are also proponents of weight lifting so you might be interested in the muscle development benefits. The full explanation of the hormonal effects could take up a blog post on their own, but here are some of the highlights:
- Intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight, when used in conjunction with resistance training is better for muscle retention compared to the same calorie deficit with a higher meal frequency.
- In the first 48 hours (depending on the study you read) of fasting, levels of human growth hormone actually increase, which is obviously good for muscle development.
Of course these benefits will only be yielded if the rest of your diet/lifestyle is up to scratch. But you know that anyway right? Or in other words, fasting won’t save your muscle if you spend the rest of your time eating pizza and drinking Coke!
Should You Try Intermittent Fasting?
Are you pregnant? Do you have diabetes? Have you had food issues or eating disorders in the past? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then intermittent fasting may not be safe for you (or at the very least you should do more research and consult your doctor first). But if you are otherwise healthy, it might be worth trying.
The key, as with everything in life is moderation, so try to do it healthily and don’t immediately stop eating for the next week!
Avoid Strenuous Exercise On Fast Days
Over exerting yourself when you haven’t eaten is not a good idea. You will have little energy, may feel light-headed or unwell and won’t be able to replenish your body with the nutrients it requires after working out. It might also lead to you feeling even more ravenous, making fast days harder to get through.
There’s no harm in engaging in moderate exercise, but save sweat inducing, heart rate raising exercise for days when you can fuel your body sufficiently.
This is particularly true the first few times that you fast as you body will not be used to it and will not be well adapted to coping without food. Once you start to get used to IF you may well find that you are more energetic during your fasts.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule and really depends on the length of your fast and how fit and healthy you are, so use common sense. Going for a run at the end of a 16 hour fast might be ok, but you certainly wouldn’t want to hike up a mountain 2 days into a fast.
Some people actually workout during a fast (and generally eat right afterwards) as a way to take advantage of the hormonal benefits (although others don’t get along well with that strategy). The key is to listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard, particularly when you are new to fasting.
Drink plenty of water
There are different extents to which you can fast but in almost all cases water is allowed and you should drink plenty of it. As you fast, your body will start to release toxins that it has been storing (that’s a good thing) and drinking plenty of water will help to flush them out.
In some fasting diets tea and coffee are allowed, but be careful not to overdo either, firstly because of the caffeine and secondly because the calories in the milk will add up. (White coffee is ok, but no sugar, sorry!)
Get To Bed Early
Sleeping through up to half of your fasting period means that you will spend less time feeling hungry. For example, if your method of fasting involves not eating for 16 hours, time it to begin after dinner, at say 7pm, and your next food intake will be at 11am the following morning. A late breakfast shouldn’t be too difficult.
For 24 hour fasts it is often a good idea to fast from around 6pm on a Friday as you can then go to bed before you feel too hungry and have a lie in the following morning, this way you only really feel fasted for a few hours.
Eat Healthy Calories
Restricting calorie intake will be no good for you if the calories you do consume are mainly in the form of fats and sugars. Not only are those types of foods worse for you but you can’t eat very much of them.
You could, for the same amount of calories, choose to eat either four squares of chocolate or an entire plate of salad with dressing. The latter will fill you up, provide you with the leafy greens that are so good for you and won’t spike your blood sugar levels only for them to come crashing down a few hours later, leaving you craving more.
Also, remember we mentioned de-toxin above? Well the more toxins you have in your diet, the more your body will release and the harder the fast will feel. If you have a completely healthy, toxin free diet you will suffer much less.
Choose Foods That Keep You Full
Opting for low-fat, high protein foods prior to fasting will keep you fuller for longer. Good options would be:
- poached eggs for breakfast
- ham and low-fat cheese with lunch
- a small piece of lean meat or fish for dinner
Don’t forget plenty of leafy greens and fruit as well!
But don’t overeat! This is a common mistake, overeating before your fast will just up-regulate your appetite and make the fasting harder. By eating small amounts in the run up to your fast you will down-regulate your appetite and you will likely feel less hungry.
After Your Fast
To break your fast you should eat a small meal of something healthy, immediately going back to binging on processed foods will not do you any favours and using fasting as an excuse to binge is not healthy.
Fasting is best when seen as a tool to help you make your diet healthier; by teaching you discipline and allowing your body to beat its sugar addiction you can use fasting to improve your diet for the long-term.
Don’t Fear Short Term Hunger
Whilst feeling hungry is unpleasant, there is one important thing to bear in mind: this hunger is temporary! There is no need to panic, no serious harm is going to come to you from not eating for 12-24 hours and you can take comfort from the knowledge that tomorrow you can eat again.
It takes around 84 hours of total fasting before
glucose levels in the body are adversely affected
Photo credit: empty plate, girl working out 1, girl working out 2, water, veggies
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