Intermittent Fasting: Hype or Health Plan for Life?
The concept of intermittent fasting is certainly not new. For some, it is part of their religious practice. For others, it is a necessity because food is so scarce. But now it is heralded as a miracle medical treatment. Even major medical journals are publishing articles about the benefits of intermittent fasting related to living longer, improved resistance to stress, avoiding cancer, and treating obesity. Really? Can one simple change in eating actually accomplish all of that? Research says that it does. And those who follow intermittent fasting eating patterns swear that it makes them feel better. Research is showing that fasting can even improve your memory.
There is no magic to the practice of intermittent fasting. It is simply a way of arranging your meals so that there is a window of at least 14 to 18 hours when you do not ingest any food. These hours of fasting allow time for the body’s insulin levels to drop, allow detoxification to accelerate, and decrease the chance that you’ll eat too many calories. In addition, research shows that fasting helps people convert to using ketones as energy. Even the risk for cancer seems to be decreased if you are able to give your body a beak from eating. If this is true, why aren’t we all fasting for hours at a time? It sounds like this should be our health plan for life.
The Standard American Diet: Too Many Carbohydrates
Probably the biggest issue in successful fasting is that so many people eat a standard American diet, or “SAD”. This is a diet that is high in carbohydrates, processed foods and sugars as the major source of calories or fuel. While these foods taste wonderful as we eat them, they cause changes in our hormones within minutes of ingesting them. The processed carbohydrates cause the body to release the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job is to move the excess sugars (glucose) from the bloodstream into storage in the muscle or the liver. This process occurs within a couple of hours in most cases. Once it occurs, there is a lower glucose level in the bloodstream, and the brain gets a signal that you need to eat again. This becomes a roller coaster of eating carbohydrates, followed by the release of insulin, then the need to eat again. If a person is eating a high carbohydrate diet, they would feel very uncomfortable going 14 or 18 hours on an intermittent fasting plan, as carbohydrates need to be eaten at a much quicker frequency in order to avoid feeling hungry. And grumpy!
The Link Between Low Carb and Intermittent Fasting
So, what is the solution? It may help to try a low carb or “keto-friendly” diet. It seems that the people who are most successful with intermittent fasting are those who have moved away from using carbohydrates as their major source of energy. The better energy source for fasting is the combination of proteins and fats. Proteins are found in things like tofu, chicken, fish, beef and eggs. And healthy fats are found in things like olive oil, avocado, and butter. These macronutrients provide a prolonged energy source that keep people feeling full, so that a 14 hour fast is not so bothersome. When this moderate protein and high fat eating pattern is followed, the body doesn’t have to use carbohydrates for energy. Instead, it begins to burn fat. The breakdown of fat leads to the production of ketones, which now become the primary source of fuel for the body. We find that people who convert to this “low carb” or “keto” diet have a sense of fullness that lasts a much longer time. And they feel far more comfortable skipping a meal like breakfast or dinner.
Which Intermittent Fasting Plan is the Best?
There are a wide variety of intermittent fasting diet plans. Some include alternating a day of fasting with a day of eating normally. Others include varying numbers of hours without food. The most common approach is the 16:8 plan, which means that a person goes 16 hours with no food, and compresses all of their meals into just 8 hours of the day. Once you adapt to this pattern, you can extend it to 18 hours of fasting with 6 hours of eating. But remember, any of these ideas should be discussed with your health care provider before starting, especially if you are a diabetic or taking medications.
Tips for success
If this all sounds very drastic, there are some tips to easing into this eating pattern. One idea is to add “MCT coffee” to your morning routine. One tablespoon of MCT oil, and 1 tablespoon of butter can be added to coffee, and then placed in a blender. The oil has no taste or texture, and the butter turns to a cream. Many believe this does not take you out of your fasting state, and it’s a good way to get quality fats into your system, helping you to stay full. The added oils also help you jump into the fat-burning state of ketosis faster. Another important reminder is to use intuitive eating. Eat only when you are hungry, and really pay attention to signs that you have had enough. It is ok to take smaller portions, or to leave food on your plate. Your body frequently tells you what it needs if you just pay attention to it.
So, is intermittent fasting hype? Or is it the new health plan for life? Evidence is mounting that our constant access to food at all hours of the day is creating harm. Our society is reaching record numbers of overweight and obese people, as well as a record number of people with diabetes. One solution is the simple change of watching the clock. Find 14 to 18 hours of each day where you will stay away from food. Give your body time to detoxify and time to let your insulin levels drop. This simple change in metabolism may be the key to avoiding obesity, inflammation, and even cancer.