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The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting, or IF as many call it, has been catching on the past few years as a great way to lose weight. There is even a Reddit thread for beginners. So, what is it exactly, is it hard, and does it work?

There are a lot of fad diets out there, but let’s get real- they are expensive, difficult to maintain indefinitely, and once you stop you gain all your weight back and then some. Living in Chicago doesn’t make it easier- with restaurants like Siena Tavern, Girl and the Goat, Lou Malnati’s Pizza, Wildberry, Velvet Taco, Sunda…. GOOD LUCK not gaining weight! This past winter was especially brutal, and getting some steps in outside always lost to staying under a blanket with the heat cranked up in the apartment. As a new Chicagoan, I understand why it’s easy gaining weight in this city. Despite the fact that a recent study showed more Americans prefer guys with “dad bods” than those with six packs, I would still prefer to have the latter for health reasons. The six-pack isn’t the important part, being healthy is ultimately most important.

Intermittent fasting is a way of eating with regular periods of fasting. People do it for weight loss, to detox and give their system a break, or to reset eating-related hormones like insulin. Children, women who are pregnant or nursing, brittle diabetics, and people with significant heart disease should not fast or at the minimum consult a physician before they begin.

So how does intermittent fasting work? It’s actually pretty basic. Let’s say, for example, we love to eat carbohydrates (I mean who doesn’t)- carbohydrates get broken down into simple sugar and are used by our cells for energy. When we eat a lot of carbohydrates, however, we may have too much sugar that our cells don’t need to use, so it goes into fat cells. Insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels, helps sugar go into fat. When an individual practices intermittent fasting, insulin levels go down, the fat cells release stored sugar that we can use as energy. So, when insulin levels decline, so does our weight. This is the main concept of intermittent fasting.

There are various versions of intermittent fasting. The most common is “16:8”, meaning eating for an eight-hour window and not eating for 16 hours. This is the most common type of intermittent fasting. The thought is that it takes at least 16 hours of fasting to use the glucose from our last meal. The caveat here is this is not like Ramadan fasting where you can’t eat or drink (NPO). With intermittent fasting, you can drink water and black coffee. This is the method I use, and I eat from 11 am – 7 pm daily. I drink a cup of black coffee when I wake up, which by the way, used to be gross without hazelnut creamer but now it’s tolerable. Coffee is a natural appetite suppressant and increases calorie burning at rest. It is important to know, that like everything in life, this is to be done in moderation. Too much caffeine can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol (cortisol suppresses immune function and can break down muscle and increase belly fat). Rebound headaches are also a common phenomenon. Interestingly, decaffeinated coffee may be a better appetite suppressant than caffeinated coffee due to a protein known as PYY that is released by the large intestine that “turns off” the desire to eat.

16:8 is just a way to intermittently fast. Here are some others:

  1. 23:1, also known as one meal a day (OMAD) is pretty restrictive- one helping, one plate, within one hour once a day. I tried this a few times but got headaches.
  2. Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) is another method where you can eat every other day normally and underfeed or fast completely between.
  3. The Warrior Diet- significant calorie restriction, paleo diet, one meal in the evening, combined with exercise.

Intermittent fasting works. One study showed a loss of 6.5% of body weight in the 12 week trial. Another study showed that those who intermittently fast had the same weight loss than a group who had significant calorie restriction. The thought is that intermittent fasting is easier than starving.

Are there side effects of intermittent fasting? Well, not so much. People
complain of fatigue initially but that goes away after getting used to the fasting regimen. Personally, I get hangry, but I’m getting used to intermittent fasting as well. I also recommend diets with adequate protein in order to maintain muscle mass, in addition to hydration, eating fruits and vegetables, and appropriate portion sizes of meals.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting? Well, weight loss and improved health is the
primary benefit in my opinion. There are other proven benefits too:

Intermittent fasting by itself will help one lose weight, but used in combination with exercise and an appropriate sleep schedule, the desired result will be reached sooner and in a healthy manner.

Let’s talk about sleep. Insufficient sleep causes a disruption in physiological and behavioral mechanisms that contribute to obesity. A lack of sleep puts the body in a state of stress, which can trigger the release of cortisol, the main stress hormone of the body. Chronic high levels of circulating cortisol will make one gain weight, not to mention, increase the risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, depression, and decreased immunity. It can also lead to cognitive decline. According to the Mayo Clinic, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. We will blog more about sleep hygiene in the future as it does have a significant effect on mood and well-being.

In summary, intermittent fasting is a reasonable, affordable, and effective method to lose weight. Fasting has been shown to benefit virtually every system in the body, and should be done in conjunction with a balanced diet, exercise/yoga, and an appropriate sleep schedule.

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