Intermittent fasting is notoriously popular. Everyone from Jennifer Anniston to Benedict Cumberbatch is a fan—but how do you know if it’s any good for you? Let’s start by understanding the method and its pros and cons.
So, what exactly is it?
Intermittent fasting is a technique where you switch between phases of eating and not eating. The periods don’t have to last long enough for you to feel starved or exhausted but should stretch enough to ensure that your digestive system is resting. So in a way, it’s more of an eating pattern rather than a conventional dieting regimen. “Sooner or later, everything old is new again: this technique gives your gut a fresh start, and it actually works because it provides a sense of balance to our diets and after all, life is about balance. The same applies to eating and fasting. They’re both two sides of the same coin, both equally important—like yin and yang,” says Shweta Shah, celebrity nutritionist and the founder of EatFit24/7.
The Different Variations
There are plenty of intermittent fasting schedules out there and all of them depend on the philosophy of dividing the day or week into periods of eating and fasting.
The 5:2 diet: In her book, Lessons, supermodel Gisele Bundchen revealed that she follows the 5:2 version of intermittent fasting. And what does it entail? Eat normally for five days a week and restrict your calorie intake to 500 on Saturdays and 600 on Sundays.
Leangains protocol/ 16/8 method: It involves skipping breakfast and strictly restricting your eating period to eight hours and fasting for the remaining sixteen. For example, eat anything between 2 to 10 p.m and then abstain from eating till the clock turns 2 the next day.
Eat-Stop-Eat: Quite literal in its meaning, this is a fairly simple procedure that requires you to fast for a whole day, once or twice a week. So eat for a few days, stop for one and then keep repeating it over and over again.
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Benefits of Intermittent Fasting Beyond Weight loss
“Weight loss is not the only advantage here; from maintaining healthy blood pressure levels to cell repair—intermittent fasting appears to have all the bases covered,” Shah adds. We lose weight when our insulin levels go down—and as long as we don’t snack in between meals; our insulin levels will go down far enough for our fat cells to release their stored sugar, which can be used as energy—ultimately leading to weight loss. The key mechanism behind this is a process known as metabolic switching, where fasting triggers the body to switch its source of energy from glucose stored in the liver to ketones, which are stored in the fat cells.
According to a study conducted by researchers at The University of Alabama, USA, obese men with pre-diabetes who had their meals restricted to an 8-hour window (7 am to 3 pm), maintained their weight but exhibited dramatically lower insulin levels and improved insulin sensitivity, as well as significantly lower blood pressure.
Other benefits of intermittent fasting include reduced inflammatory markers and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Some studies also point that it may protect against Alzheimer’s disease. The only catch is that most of these studies are done on animals and there is a dearth of both long-term and short-term research focusing on humans.
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What if it’s not meant for you?
While intermittent fasting might seem promising on the surface, the truth is that like most diets, it doesn’t always benefit everyone in the same way. Some might feel rejuvenated while others may experience stress and/or fatigue—a few of the many unpleasant side effects of starvation. Research conducted by The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2020 highlights the downsides of fasting and states that “time-restricted eating, in the absence of other interventions, is not more effective in weight loss than eating throughout the day, and also has a negative effect on muscle mass.” Moreover, this may not be the best eating plan for those who suffer from digestive ailments like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, or acidity. This diet is also not recommended for people who are experiencing, recovering, or undergoing treatment for eating disorders.
Researchers advise that people who are prescribed intermittent fasting by their physicians must adopt this method gradually and in consultation with a dietitian or nutritionist. A high-quality diet and exercise are essential for the proper functioning of our body—nothing can replace that. While tools like intermittent fasting may help us maintain a balance; they also come with their own set of risks. And even though fasting is an extremely common and seemingly harmless method, it may still lead to health concerns if you suffer from certain diseases—this is why you should always consult your physician before making extreme changes to your diet.
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