Fasting is deeply rooted in traditional cultures and religions because of the natural cycle of nature. For generations, humans went from fasting when the food was scarce to feasting when they had a surplus of harvest or successfully completed a hunt. Recently, mindful calorie restriction has become a hot topic in the dieting and nutrition industry.
Intermittent fasting is one trend that helps people who are interested in losing weight control their hunger, manage cravings, and eliminate bad choices.
What are its benefits? How does it work? Does it bring results, and is it an effective tool for you?
8/16 or 4/20 fasting
It’s important to note that intermittent fasting is a behavioral change that has become popular—it isn’t a diet by itself. Intermittent fasting won’t tell you what to eat or what to avoid.
The methods used to incorporate intermittent fasting are generally split into two groups: “traditional” daily split intermittent fasting and whole-day or every-other-day (EOD) fasts.
The basic idea is this: set yourself a window of eating hours, and fast outside of those hours. The most popular schedules are those with 4-8 hours of eating and 16-20 hours of fasting.
Within this structure, it’s possible to follow almost any kind of diet. It’s more of an eating template and schedule than a typical diet like the Mediterranean diet or Keto.
The essence of intermittent fasting helps you skip a certain meal of the day and reduces the total number of calories you consume within a day. The key is to adjust the schedule to fit your lifestyle. Some people prefer skipping breakfast and so begin eating at 12:00 pm, have a nice dinner with friends or family, and complete their fasting at 20:00. Others cannot imagine their mornings without a meal, so they choose to have breakfast at 9:30 and start their fasting around 17:30.
It doesn't really matter the type of window in which you choose to allow yourself to eat. The most important part is to fast for 16 hours and eat only during the window of 8 hours.
Day-long fasts are different—and probably not as effective for most people. The discipline to not eat for a day at a time is a big ask and may not be suitable for those with an unhealthy relationship with food. During a 24-hour fast, you can only have one meal a day, meaning that if you have a nice breakfast at 8:00, your next meal awaits you the next day at the same time.
Not eating for a day at a time can leave you feeling drained: your body needs carbohydrates and electrolytes regularly or you can experience dehydration, muscle soreness/cramps, and headaches.
You’ll adapt in time, but this longer fasting window also increases the risk of muscle loss. A weight loss diet is a fine line to walk between calorie restriction that burns fat, and breaking down muscle tissue.
This can hamper your metabolism in the future and may not produce the physique you had in mind when you began dieting.
It’s a high-risk, low-reward strategy. Fasting for twice as long doesn’t produce results twice as good, and it could contribute to muscle-loss or other unwanted side effects. If you want to fast, stick with a daily split.
Fasting versus starvation
Fasting should not be confused with starvation. Our bodies are adapted to fasting; in fact, we fast every night while we sleep. Intermittent fasting prolongs that time and pushes the first meal a bit further into the day, yet still allows you to consume all the necessary nutrients and the right number of calories.
Starvation means that you are not giving your body enough nutrients to sustain itself. Your body starts breaking down essential tissues, such as muscle, or muscle tissue in our organs. Starving is very damaging to your health, whereas intermittent fasting allows you to eat the right kind of foods at the right time.
What are some of those benefits?
The benefits of intermittent fasting
Research shows that intermittent fasting sharpens a person's mental clarity and improves their focus on their work. It also gives them a better hormone profile ad improves their mood (because the blood sugar levels are not fluctuating all day long). It also is a great tool to use when you want to break up a weight loss plateau and start losing weight because it reduces the amount of insulin in the blood and increases growth hormone. It can be great for people who have a sedentary lifestyle, for example, those who have a desk job.
Snacking throughout the day can be a real problem if you’re eating three great meals a day. Snacking two to three times a day is pretty easy but could easily add up to 1000+ calories, depending on your snack of choice. Intermittent fasting basically cuts this out: if you’re not in your eating period, you don’t eat. During fasting hours, you simply can’t snack—this is one of the key reasons it’s such an effective choice for you if you like to ”graze” throughout the day.
Overeating is more difficult to achieve with a shorter eating window. It’s totally possible to get into a surplus and gain weight with intermittent fasting, but if you’re using a 4-hour eating window, it’s going to be pretty tough. Eating your daily calories within 4 hours is probably going to mean two big meals for most people. If you’re prioritizing healthy, filling foods like lean proteins and fibrous veggies, you’re going to be full and satisfied pretty quickly.
The drawbacks of intermittent fasting
Despite its benefits, intermittent fasting should not be considered a fix-all tool. There are certain rules you have to follow if you want to reap the benefits.
If you want to lose weight using intermittent fasting, you should not exceed your recommended number of calories. Fortunately, because the concept of intermittent fasting is to skip a meal throughout the day, for example, skip breakfast and only have lunch and dinner, it should be easy not to exceed your limit.
Also, intermittent fasting might not be the best choice for people who have blood sugar problems, i.e., prediabetes or diabetes. Before trying to fast, they should consult with their doctor. Blood sugar levels can drop very low while you're in the fasting state, which can cause headaches, dizziness, and confusion for some people, so it's not for everybody.
What I found in my personal experience is that it's not always a good strategy for athletes. Athletes train very hard and might have to do two or three training sessions per day, and intermittent fasting doesn't allow them to have that preworkout and post workout meal. It doesn’t allow them to get the nutrients they need in time to recover before their next training session.
Intermittent fasting is, first of all, a behavioral intervention and not a diet. If you choose to incorporate this intervention into your daily routine, you still need to do the traditional, time-proven things: improve your food choices, slowly make healthier swaps, and prioritize nutrient-dense foods.
If you were a wellness coach, would you recommend intermittent fasting to your clients? Join the Kilo Fit Academy course for wellness coaches, complete the quiz, and find out if you could become a coach!