Intermittent fasting is a very popular dieting concept and for good reason: Research and studies have proven that this method works. Benefits of intermittent fasting range from weight loss to reduced oxidative stress to preserved learning and memory functioning.
The problem is, however, that while this trend—like many other diet and exercise trends—originated from legitimate science, the facts tend to be distorted by the time they reach mainstream popularity. Benefits are exaggerated, risks are downplayed, and science takes a back seat to marketing. The goal of this post is to give you the facts and science behind intermittent fasting to help you decide if this dieting concept could help you to achieve your goals.
What is intermittent fasting and how does it work?
Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that “intermittent fasting works by prolonging the period when your body has burned through the calories consumed during your last meal and begins burning fat.”
Intermittent fasting involves a period of severe calorie restriction (ranging from 0-25 percent of a normal daily caloric intake) that typically ranges from 16 to 24 hours. The restrictive phase is then followed by a relatively normal calorie intake for a period of 8 to 24 hours. According to bodybuilding.com, the central idea behind the implementation of intermittent fasting is to reduce overall calorie consumption, ideally resulting in weight loss. Fasting has been practiced for thousands of years but only recently has it been studied for its potential health benefits.
There are many different intermittent fasting protocols. Each varies in length for the fasting period as well as the suggested calorie intake. Below are a few examples of intermittent fasting plans:
- The 8-hour Abs Diet: This plan requires that you eat all of your food within an eight-hour window each day, which means daily fasting for sixteen hours.
- The Alternate Day Diet: According to Healthline, in this version of intermittent fasting, you fast every other day. On non-fasting days, you can eat whatever you want. On fasting days, you stick to about 500 total calories. Some research has shown that this method of fasting may help with weight loss and can even help lower some of the risk factors related to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler: This diet it based on how our early ancestors—who were hunters and gatherers—used to eat. According to Everyday Health, the Warrior Diet “alternates a period of fasting with a small window of time in which to eat all of the day’s calories. The Warrior Diet promotes exercising and undereating during the day, when our nomadic and hunter-gathering ancestors would likely be busy finding food rather than eating it. For exercise, the diet encourages short workouts that emphasize strength training, especially for your joints and back, and high-velocity exercises such as jumps, kicks, and sprints.”
Does science support the intermittent fasting trend?
Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins, has studied intermittent fasting for over 25 years. He explains that intermittent fasting does more than just burn the body’s fat. He states: “Many things happen during intermittent fasting that can protect organs against chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, age-related neurodegenerative disorders, even inflammatory bowel disease and many cancers.”
Many of our body’s systems benefit from this type of eating. Mattson explained the following benefits:
Thinking and memory: Studies have shown that IF boosts verbal memory in humans.
Heart health: Studies have shown that blood pressure is lower, as is the resting heart rate.
Physical performance: Hopkins Medicine reports that “young men who fasted for 16 hours showed fat loss while maintaining muscle mass.” That’s good news for those who worry about losing muscle!
Obesity: Several studies have shown that overweight adults have had success with weight loss through IF.
Type 2 diabetes: Johns Hopkins reports that “most of the available research shows that intermittent fasting can help people lose body weight and lower their levels of fasting glucose, fasting insulin and leptin while reducing insulin resistance, decreasing levels of leptin and increasing levels of adiponectin.” Some studies even found that people no longer needed insulin to control their type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Krista Varady is a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is also one of the only people to have done clinical trials on intermittent fasting with humans. What she found is that “there are currently no clear benefits to intermittent fasting over daily calorie restriction—rather, it is another method to consider if one’s goal is to lose weight.”
Varady stresses that intermittent fasting produces similar benefits for health and weight loss as restricting daily calorie consumption. She said that many people like fasting because it’s a good option “for people who prefer to watch the clock instead of tracking data in a food record.” In other words, it works because of the restriction of calories and because it’s an easier plan for people to stick to than counting calories.
How intermittent fasting relates to exercise
According to Mark Mattson, there are several theories about why fasting provides physiological benefits. “The one that we’ve studied a lot, and designed experiments to test, is the hypothesis that during the fasting period, cells are under a mild stress,” he says. “And they respond to the stress adaptively by enhancing their ability to cope with stress and, maybe, to resist disease.”
The word “stress” often has negative connotations, but certain areas of the body can benefit from mild stress. Consider a really tough workout. Both your muscles and your cardiovascular system undergo stress, right? Weight training will cause micro-tears in the muscles being trained, which will result in muscle growth after they have repaired. As long as you give your body time to recover, it will grow stronger. “There is considerable similarity between how cells respond to the stress of exercise and how cells respond to intermittent fasting,” says Mattson.
Should you try intermittent fasting?
If there is one key takeaway point from the research presented in this article, it’s this: Don’t believe every dieting trend that’s out there, even if it’s the most popular one! Always look at the science and facts behind why a diet or nutritional concept works. Intermittent fasting is a prime example of a trend taking off without most people understanding the facts behind it.
Plus, since the majority of studies on intermittent fasting have been conducted on animals, not humans, the benefits found in these studies cannot be generalized to the human population without further research.
So should you try intermittent fasting? That decision can only be made by you in consultation with your physician. Further, experts caution against the following people using the diet: those who are pregnant, those who are breastfeeding, those who have insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes, those who have eating disorders, and anyone who has a condition that requires them to eat at regular intervals.
Ultimately what’s most important is to eat a balanced diet that includes lots of vegetables and lean protein and that limits the amount of empty calories (like fruit juices, sodas, candy, etc.). If you’re trying to lose weight, reducing your caloric intake is vital, but this should never be done to the detriment of your health.
Performance Inspired Nutrition believes in honest and better sports nutrition, which is why we care about all aspects of your health. We don’t just sell nutrition products; we care about your whole body—inside and out. In Latin, this is called cura personalis—care for the whole person. Our goal is to nourish your body with quality products and to nourish your mind with knowledge so you can make the best decision for your health. This principle is what inspired us to start PI and offer clean, natural, and high-performance products without unproven or junky ingredients. When you’re with us, you know you’re with a company you can trust.
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