Understanding Intermittent Fasting

  • October 1, 2020
  • 2 minutes read

Everyone has at some point heard of or tried various diet plans, such as paleo, keto and low-carbohydrate diets, to name a few. What about intermittent fasting?

Fasting is not necessarily new, having been practiced for centuries by religious groups or for spiritual reasons. This form of restricted eating however, has gained traction with athletes and fitness buffs in the last several years.

Benefits of Fasting

Intermittent fasting has many benefits. For instance, a study by Dr Valter Longo, biochemist at University of Southern California, on the effects of periodic fasting on rodents indicate that it could promote better blood sugar balance.

The Independent reported on the same experiment, noting that by alternating a week’s worth of unrestricted eating days with four days of restricted eating, the rodents’ pancreas began producing insulin again.

According to the article, “The days of restricted eating gave the pancreas a break that allowed it to remove and recycle many of its cells. Then, when the mice started eating again, new cells that were capable of producing insulin emerged.” Dr. Longo did a similar study, where people with high blood sugar levels showed improvements after practicing intermittent fasting.

Other studies suggest fasting can boost the body’s defense against a range of health issues, like inflammation. As the body’s inflammatory markers are lowered due to intermittent fasting, the risks of developing health conditions – type II diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – are lowered.

Another benefit of intermittent fasting is improved memory and learning. Dr. Mark Mattson, chief of laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, has studied the effects of intermittent fasting on the brain in animals. Quoted from Today: “Intermittent fasting improves cognition, which is learning and memory, and protects nerve cells from dysfunction and degeneration.”

How to do it

There are multiple variations of the plan for those who would like to try it out. Some versions encourage you to fast daily, others on alternate days or even on a weekly basis.

The daily fast. Created by Swedish nutritionist Martin Berkhan, this fasting protocol recommends you eat all your meals within an 8-hour window. You can choose skip breakfast and choose to eat later in the day.

This means fasting for a 14- to 16-hour fast a day, consuming nothing except fluids that contain no calories. Sleeping is included in this time frame.

Alternate day fasting. You eat what you want for an entire day, then go on a restricted diet – up to 500 calories for women and 600 for men – the next day. The calories can be consumed all at once or in different sittings. The remaining five days are normal eating days. Light exercise is recommended while fasting as opposed to your non-fasting days.

Eat stop eat. Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat, suggests fasting for 24 hours once or twice per week. Your fast should be broken by a regular-sized meal and you can maintain a regular exercise regime without any special diets for workout days.

The 5:2 Fast. Similar to alternate day fasting, calorie intake is reduced to 500 and 600 calories for women and men respectively on fasting days, which can be eaten all in one sitting or throughout the day. Light exercise should be done on fasting days and intensity of workouts should return to normal levels on non-fasting days.

Is It Safe?

A firm believer of intermittent fasting, Dr Mattson was quoted by The New York Times: “Once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal. I’m not hungry at all in the morning, and this is other people’s experience as well. It’s just a matter of getting adapted to it.”

Dr Mattson also feels that humans are well-suited for intermittent fasting, given our ability to store food in our body. “From an evolutionary perspective, it’s pretty clear that our ancestors did not eat three meals a day plus snacks.” he said.

Intermittent fasting however, is not for everyone. If you are hypoglycemic – low blood sugar – or diabetic or pregnant and breastfeeding, avoid fasting until your blood glucose and insulin levels have returned to normal, or once your baby has been weaned.

If you are unsure on whether or not to undertake intermittent fasting, consult a doctor or get a referral to a registered dietitian.

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