The Surprising Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
More than just a tool for weight loss, fasting yields benefits for health and longevity
“The best of all medicines is resting and fasting,” said American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin, the noted polymath who invented, amongst other things, the lightning rod.
Long before Silicon Valley executives such as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsay started tweeting about the benefits of intermittent fasting, Franklin himself had already cottoned on to the practice back in the 18th century.
Indeed, intermittent fasting is not a recent practice, but one that was similarly touted by the ancient Greeks, who believed that fasting could improve concentration and cognitive abilities.
While the 16:8 fast–where individuals fast for 16 hours and eat during an eight-hour window–is the most commonly known form of intermittent fasting today, the term does not refer to a specific diet plan but rather a general concept that describes an eating pattern where individuals alternate between eating and fasting. So while some might go for 12 or 16 hours without food, others can put themselves through a 24-hour, 48-hour, or even a 36-hour fast.
According to proponents of the practice, putting the body through a fasted state helps it to shed weight, gain energy and mental clarity, and promote better general health. Some even claim that it helps to combat diabetes and other conditions such as insomnia and heart disease.
Dr. Mark Mattson, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Aging and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explains that the body tends to use glucose stored in the liver for energy for about 10 to 12 hours before a metabolic shift occurs and it turns to burn stored body fat.
This could account for the popularity of the 16:8 fast, where individuals begin to see a slight but notable decrease in their weight and waist circumference after four weeks of staying calorie-free for 16-hour windows.
But many changes that can’t be observed on the surface happen inside the body. Mattson, who has devoted over 25 years to the study of intermittent fasting, has come across reviews of human studies where intermittent fasting resulted in improved insulin resistance, high blood pressure, inflammation, and blood fat abnormalities.
Other studies have also shown that intermittent fasting may contribute to brain health by helping to decrease one’s risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
What’s in a meal?
Unlike other dietary fads that count calories or restrict consumables to certain food groups, intermittent fasting allows you to eat anything you please during your eating window. However, that is not to say that you have a free pass to stuff yourself with fried foods, processed snacks, or unhealthy saturated fats. In keeping with a healthy approach to eating, consuming whole, unprocessed foods should make up the majority of your caloric intake.
When you’re in your fasted state, you are allowed to drink water, tea, or black coffee as they don’t interfere with the fast. When on a 16:8 fast, many like to have their last meal by 8pm so that they can skip breakfast the next day and break their fast with lunch at noon.
To fast or not to fast?
For those with limited control over when they eat, such as individuals on shift work or those who conduct business meetings at mealtimes, they might find it challenging to adhere to the designated eating windows.
During the early days of intermittent fasting, researchers have also found that certain subjects experience side effects such as hunger, irritability, and a reduced ability to concentrate.
Pregnant mothers, women who are breastfeeding, underweight individuals, and others who have higher caloric needs should not attempt an intermittent fasting diet. Similarly, those at risk of eating disorders are advised not to embark on it either as it can serve as a trigger for bulimia or anorexia.
If you find that intermittent fasting leaves you low in energy or light-headed upon standing, it is wise to check in with your doctor to ensure that your body is able to regulate blood sugar properly. If you have diabetes, please seek your doctor’s approval before you begin on any type of fast as hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, would be of concern.
At the end of the day, it is important to note that any changes you make to your dietary plan should be accompanied by a healthful, balanced meal plan, regular exercise, and proper rest.