During the lockdown, and the subsequent Work-From-Home that is our lives now, there has been a renewed buzz about intermittent fasting - as more and more people try to find ways to eat healthy and also shave off the piling weight.
And yes, there are some bonafide, proven benefits. Turns out our elders weren’t just fasting for religious reasons or as a political statement alone - they were reaping the health benefits too. So here's our guide on how to Intermittent Fast (IF) and why some of you shouldn't.
How to Intermittent Fast
There are multiple ways of fasting: Regimens range from ingesting sparse calories a few days a week - the 5:2 diet - where you eat 500-600 calories for two days and eat sufficient calories the rest of the days of the week; to fasting for 14-16-18 hours every day by only eating within a fixed time window - most common being the 16:8 method - where one eats say from 11 am to 7 pm every day.
How Does it Help?
The Weight Loss Benefit
This is how intermittent fasting works: It takes 10 to 12 hours to use up the calories in the liver before a metabolic shift occurs to using stored fat. Simply put, after 12 hours when all the glucose has been cleared from the bloodstream the body switches to using body fat for energy.
When you eat, the glucose (carbs) from the food is used for energy and fat (also the extra carbs converted into fat) is stored in fat tissue, but when you fast, after the glucose gets depleted, the stored fat is broken down and used for energy.
Tip: It helps to know this - don’t expect to see results immediately - it can take time, often up to four weeks to observe a change.
The Liver Benefit
During fasting, the body is forced to use its stores of energy from body fat and the first place it will metabolise the fat from is the liver, so reversing of fatty liver happens even before you begin to lose weight. That’s a big plus.
When our body goes into a fasting mode, the digestive system quietens down and the body uses this time to repair and restore the cells. This helps on all levels, and particularly in delaying and reversing ageing. That’s because the production of human growth hormone rises dramatically when we fast and this slow the ageing process.
Better Health Markers
Even if you are not looking for weight loss per say, this way of eating leads to better insulin resistance, blood fat abnormalities and inflammation markers. Intermittent fasting can help stop disease progression and has a positive impact on a wide range of disorders - obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and neurodegenerative brain diseases.
The Brain Boost
Fasting increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that the brain makes. BDNF works as a growth factor for the brain cells. It helps grow new neurons (nerve/brain cells) and keeps our brains younger. Plus it is a natural antidepressant and has a protective effect against brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s and from stroke.
Sleep can be compromised by overeating and eating at the wrong time. Intermittent fasting helps correct that. A heavy last meal before sleeping also affects our circadian clock and if that goes out of whack, it can affect our sleep pattern negatively.
How to Hack Intermittent Fasting
If you find it difficult to stay minus any food during the fasting window try these hacks:
Keep having water regularly throughout the day; especially warm water.
Drink cinnamon herbal tea during the fasting period, as it helps suppress the appetite.
Exercise just before or during the eating window, as exercise can trigger hunger.
Try meditation during the fasting period to handle hunger pangs better
Have a tbsp of ghee or cold-pressed coconut oil; it’ll keep your metabolism churning.
Know the Cons
Intermittent Fasting is not for everyone though, so be careful. Why?
It’s strict. You need severe discipline as you can’t eat anything in that fasting window – not even a bite as that will kick off your insulin and the body will switch to using your blood sugar for energy, instead of body fat, breaking the entire chain.
IF can sometimes mess up your mood, your metabolism, can lead to deficiencies, besides making you hangry if not done right - or if abused (used excessively).
IF is not practical for many people, especially those with limited control over their mealtimes, and those who have an active social life.
The side-effects could be severe for some: Hunger, irritability, brain fog, inability to concentrate on work (during the non-eating period).
Restrictions could trigger binge eating disorder in those susceptible.
Those with diabetes need to be careful as the drops and eventual spikes when feasting in blood sugar can be especially bad them.
Often people think its okay to eat unhealthy foods or excessive calories (I am fasting so I can eat anything - junk, fried, sweets - in the allowed window), and that does more harm than the benefits that the restricting window can ever bestow.
Finally falling into the temptation of following the drastic versions like the Warrior Diet - fast all day and "feast" at night within a 4-hour eating window. Here people fast during the day, eat a huge meal at night, and this can actually mess up the body big time over the long term (in fact I won't suggest this even for the short term).
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant, and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico), Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa) and Fix it with foods.)