What actually is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting has gradually disseminated mainstream practice amongst both athletes and your everyday fitness enthusiast. Some preach its effectiveness and capability to generate higher levels of energy and even take inches of the waistline in no time whatsoever. Others question it’s health impact, suggesting that it is simply a dressed up form of starvation and that the longer term implications may not be worth the initial benefits on surface level.
For this week’s Erbology Lifestyle piece, I will explore this concept and attempt to draw a conclusion as to whether it should be implemented into one’s common health routines or whether it should be dismissed. Due to the conflicting information available, I decided to try it for myself, an entire month of intermittent fasting.
Looking at the method with a more scientific inclination, intermittent fasting is used as an umbrella term for the process of utilising various cycles of restricted eating and calorie consumption (fasting) over a given period of time, often for fat loss and energy enhancement purposes. The most common cycles are the 16:8 which consist of sixteen hours of fasting and eight hours of calorie consumption. Another cycle commonly in practice is the 5:2 which consists of two full days of fasting per week. However, there are many variations often tailored to the individual’s lifestyle and professional commitments.
Does intermittent fasting help with weight loss?
In one academic study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2017, 100 participants, medically classified as overweight individuals, were each assigned one of three eating regiments. First of which was the most common form of diet that is basic calorie restriction, irrelevant of consumption time. The second option was an alternate fast, one day on and one day off. Finally, the continuation of normal, daily eating habits. Researchers conducted the study over a 12-month period, and the results seemed relatively logical.
Arriving at the end of the study, both restricted participant groups had lost weight compared with third, non-restricted group. However, the intermittent fasters did not lose more weight than the regular calorie cutters. Whilst this is only one research study, we can conclude that, for weight loss purposes, intermittent fasting is effective, but no more so than regular calorie restrictive diets that have been common practice for so long.(1)
Does intermittent fasting improve energy levels?
Other academic research studies have identified patterns between enhanced brain function and fasting. It is vital to note that much more research is required before this hypothesis can be confidently confirmed, but there are a number of promising results. For example, Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health discussed his research, suggesting that there may in fact be a variety of evolutionary factors that explain why the deprivation of food over a given period of time may induce more energy and enhance focus.
He identifies ‘Hunger’ as an evolutionary reality, finding that from this very perceptive hunger does not cause to be sluggish and drained, but that it’s when our brains and body are required to work at maximum capacity, due to our need to hunt or retrieve nutrients for consumption. “It makes sense that the brain needs to be functioning very well when an individual is in a fasted state because it’s in that state that they have to figure out how to find food,” Mattson told Business Insider. “They also have to be able to expend a lot of energy. Individuals whose brains were not functioning well while fasting would not be able to compete and thrive.”
My own experiences
When researching fasting, I felt it would be necessary to at least conduct some primary research. So, I put myself through the experience of a fast, over a reasonable amount of time. This experience then allowed me to write from a personal perspective, with the hope of adding more value to you, and broadening my own understanding of the health and wellbeing.
I began hesitant and skeptical. However, the process was educational, and many of the preconceptions I may have had going in were dispelled over the duration. Nevertheless, many remained. The most surprising aspect of the process was the speed at which my body adapted to the hunger. I chose what seemed to be the most common form, the 16:8, i.e. 8 hours of eating followed by a 16 hour fast. This seemed to be the least extreme, and one, I felt confidently, would accommodate my professional life. I would eat from 11am until 7pm and then would stop all calorie consumption apart from water and black coffee. For the initial few days, it seemed like my stomach was in constant discomfort during the fasting period. However, this soon changed with cravings vanishing.
Towards the end, I even forgot to eat on time, having completed a full fast. Additionally, I expected my energy levels to drastically decrease due to the lack of nutrition. Although, they remained stable throughout. I had little difficulty completing tasks and including a daily workout and my professional endeavours. Finally, with regard to the weight loss, I was relatively underwhelmed. My total body weight decreased minutely, which of course is a step in the right direction. But, it seemed disappointing when I considered the time and effort that this process required.
Should I try it?
Intermittent fasting presents different results in different people. Some believe its use is limited if not pointless. Others worship it and advocate for its enormous health benefits. The jury is still out on this one. Having said this, I feel it is worth trying, as you may be in the half that experience a higher quality of life as a result. If it doesn’t work then you can stop. It doesn’t cost anything so there is relatively little harm in giving it a go. We would love to hear about your own experiences with intermittent fasting. Did you find it beneficial to your life? Or did you find it a waste of time?
(1) John F. Trepanowski, PhD; Cynthia M. Kroeger, PhD; Adrienne Barnosky, MD; et al, “Effect of Alternate-Day Fasting on Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and Cardioprotection Among Metabolically Healthy Obese Adults”, 2017, https://bit.ly/2SL5Ngn.