At the time of writing this, we’ve been under a nationwide lockdown for 122 days. While many people seem to be forgetting that fact and going out like there isn’t a virus – that could potentially leave you with permanent organ damage – on the loose, a lot of us are still riding out the storm at home. But being at home for this long can have seriously negative impacts on our motivation, productivity and general wellbeing. It was for that reason that way back when lockdown began, I took on a personal challenge – one which I started enjoying so much that I’ve managed to keep it up all this time. This challenge has had a number of positive impacts already, so I wanted to share it with all of you. I’m talking about the benefits of intermittent fasting.
What is intermittent fasting?
There are a number of ways to practice intermittent fasting. A brief Google search will provide you with multiple alternatives. There’s the 5:2 method –eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 for 2 days of the week; the eat-stop-eat method –involving a 24-hour fast just once or twice per week; or the Warrior Diet – eating only one big meal a day ( a bit intense for my liking). Which plan you choose simply depends on what works best for you!
Personally, I’m a fan of what I find to be the easiest pattern to adopt: the Leangains protocol popularised by fitness expert Martin Berkhan. This pattern involves fasting daily for a period of 16-18 hours, and then eating for a period of 8 or 6 hours respectively. Not only does this method mean you can have more than one meal a day, but it can easily be tailored to suit your daily schedule.
In fact, this method is so simple that many of us end up doing fasts like this without even trying. If you eat diner at 8pm, and don’t ingest any calories until noon the next day, you’ve successfully completed a fast whether you meant to or not!
Now that we’re spending more time at home and not eating out as much, it’s even easier to test out the benefits of intermittent fasting without having to adjust for dinner dates and social events. Really, there’s no better time to give it ago.
Why try intermittent fasting?
Though it may sound like a diet fad at first, there’s actually a lot of science behind intermittent fasting. This explains why there are so many benefits to the practice, and why its popularity has endured for so long.
Essentially, no matter which plan you try, they all work in the same way: By restricting the amount of calories you take in so your body can burn stored fat for energy. This makes it a super weapon to have in your weight loss arsenal, but potential weight loss is far from the only benefit of intermittent fasting.
Lauren Schenkman, writing for TED, cites a 2012 study which took two genetically identical sets of mice and fed them the same diet – a mouse-friendly version based on the standard American diet ( high in fat and sugar). Though both groups of mice were given the same amount of calories, one group had access to them 24 hours a day, while the other only had access to it for an 8-hour window.
“After 18 weeks,” writes Schenkman, “the mice who could eat at all hours showed signs of insulin resistance and also had liver damage. But the mice who ate in an 8-hour window did not have these conditions. They also weighed 28 percent less than the mice with 24-hour access to food — even though both groups of mice ate the same number of calories a day”.
The lead researcher on the study, Satchin Panda, described the results as “earth shattering” due to the fact that until then, most people believed that it was the number of calories, rather than when they were ingested, that determined weight gain. Since then, he and his team have conducted a lot more research into the subject and have learned a lot about the way the process works.
Panda is a professor in the Regulatory Biology Department at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. His research studies circadian regulation and our body clocks. He and his team designed an app called myCircadianClock which helps increase our own understanding of how our circadian rhythms translate to the real-world, while also aiding research. According to the website, “data that you share through the app as part of a research study will help researchers understand how daily timing of the behaviours influence health and wellbeing. At the same time, the app provides personalised insights into your daily rhythms”.
Panda’s study with the mice was repeated a number of times, on different sets of mice. Each time the results were the same. Even when the mice were given “weekends off” from the diet, they still gained less weight than their non-fasting counterparts. Even better, when the experiments were conducted with human participants instead of mice, the same results were observed.
Participants practicing time-restricted eating reported experiencing better sleep, more energy in the mornings and less hunger at bedtime. This suggested that intermittent fasting may indeed have a systemic impact all over the body and that our metabolisms are just as connected to our circadian rhythms as all the other processes in our bodies are. When we eat can play a massive role in how our bodies deal with what we eat.
Other studies have found that the benefits of intermittent fasting can include type 2 diabetes prevention, reduce oxidative damage and inflammation in the body, optimise energy metabolism and bolster cellular protection. Research has even shown that in humans, fasting can help prevent hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. (Put more simply, this means it might help you live longer and with fewer chronic health problems). Additionally, experts claim that “fasting results in ketogenesis, promotes potent changes in metabolic pathways and cellular processes such as stress resistance, lipolysis and autophagy” – which are all great for weight loss, if that’s your thing.
If you’re still not convinced, according to Healthline, fasting also gets your levels of growth hormone to skyrocket, increasing as much as 5-fold – which aids muscle gain, and alters gene expression in a way that improves longevity, brain health, and protection against disease.
Personally, I’ve noticed that I experience far fewer hunger cravings and have a lot more energy when I couple intermittent fasting with a healthy diet. Even after a 16-hour fast, my energy levels are high enough for me to get a great workout in, and tick a few things off my to-do list before my first meal of the day.
Not snacking during fasting periods means I pay more attention to increasing my fluid intake, and also opens up a lot more time for productivity. Weight loss was never the most important selling point for me, although it certainly is a bonus. I’m currently getting less exercise than before (my butt is always in my chair now that I’m stuck at home) and stressing less about my weight, but I haven’t (yet) gained any weight since lockdown began. This despite my growing penchant for quarantine baking!
How to start
I find the easiest way to take up time-restricted eating is simply to cut out one meal of the day. I choose to skip breakfast, and replace it with water, black tea and black coffee. I then push my last meal of the day a little earlier and eat dinner at about 17:00. This means I eat just about consistently between 12:00 and 17:00 and fill the remaining hours with liquids.
I really helpful app for tracking fasting hours is Simple. I love how this app provides insights into my meals, my weight, my activity and my fluid consumption while also holding me to account. You can track every meal with photographs, so it doubles as a food journal. It also provides reminders that can help you stick to your eating time slot if you’re just getting started.
I consume a variety of teas during my fasting window (without milk or sweeteners, obviously) but Panda recommends drinking only water on account of the way other beverages may alter your blood chemistry. perhaps this is something you can work up to if you don’t want to dive into the deep end immediately. It’s very important though, to stay away from any adding any creamer, sugar, honey or other sweeteners, as just one teaspoon of sugar can double your blood sugar and switch your body out of that magical fat-burning mode.
Skipping breakfast may not only be the easiest way to start fasting, but also the most efficient. Schenkman writes that “about 45 minutes after you wake up, the hormone cortisol spikes and high cortisol levels can impede your glucose regulation. Plus, the hormone melatonin, which prepares our body for sleep, only wears off about two hours after waking”. Best then to give it a few hours before starting your day’s calorie intake and give your pancreas some time to wake up too.
It’s really so easy. The first few days are an adjustment – I felt hungry a lot for the first two or three – but once you’re through that, your body might thank you for giving it a break for a few hours a day! Just remember to keep hydrating as you won’t be getting any moisture from food during your fasting hours!
Though human beings have been fasting for centuries, there’s still a lot to learn about how and why it has so many benefits on our bodies. The research experts are doing in the subject looks highly promising, but there’s more to be done. In the mean time, you can test it our yourself and see how challenging yourself to an eating schedule affects your body. Just be sure to do your research first and practice it safely. If you suffer from pre-existing health conditions, it may be best to talk to your doctor about it before making any massive changes to your diet.
If you’ve tried intermittent fasting before, or you do challenge yourself now, leave us a comment to share your experiences! Better yet, write an article about your experiences and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck and have fun with all your extra energy!