Intermittent fasting has attracted a dedicated base. Adherents say it helps with everything from weight loss to relieving chronic inflammatory diseases. But does fasting live up to the hype? For those wondering what is Intermittent fasting, here’s what you need to know about the health benefits, challenges, and limits of the program.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a practice of incorporating regular, relatively short fasts into your daily routine. Normally, your body stores glucose, which it digests first when you need energy. By fasting, you force your body to use up its store of glucose in the liver and then begin to digest fat.
There are two main fasting strategies: Time-restricted fasting — scheduling all meals into one relatively short block (and thus, fasting the rest of the day), and 5:2 fasting, where the dieter fasts or only eats one meal for two days each week. However, other intermittent fasting schedules, such as fasting every other day, may also be used.
Intermittent fasting appears to have several benefits, including:
- Stabilizing blood sugar
- Reducing inflammation
- Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol
- Lowering resting heart rate
- Improving memory
- Burning fat
Here’s what research says about the benefits of intermittent fasting.
The human body typically stores about 700 calories worth of glucose in the liver — enough energy for 10-12 hours. If you eat three meals per day, starting at 7:00 AM and ending at 6:30, your body will maintain some of that glucose, because there’s not enough time between meals to use it all. Intermittent fasting forces your body to use up its entire glucose store and move on to burning fat — a process called metabolic switching.
This has several beneficial effects. Internal hormone levels change to help your body access and burn fat. Intermittent fasting can even change gene expression, helping your body cope with stress and potentially helping prevent age-related mental decline, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Short-term fasts can also help with several other issues, including promoting weight loss, reducing diabetes risk, protecting heart health, and potentially even decreasing your risk of cancer.
Combined with a healthy diet, intermittent fasting can support weight loss in several ways. First of all, when you carefully restrict and regulate your intake, you’ll tend to eat less. Over time, you’ll get used to relatively long periods without eating, which means less craving for unhealthy snacks that can derail your diet plan.
Intermittent fasting also helps to stabilize blood glucose levels. Not only does this reduce the risk of diabetes — but it may also help with appetite control. Over time, you’ll grow to depend less on snacks to maintain your energy level, which can help you maintain healthy eating.
Intermittent fasting also causes changes that help your body burn fat more aggressively. Insulin levels will drop, and blood levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) increase, helping your body burn fat and build muscle.
Is It Safe?
For adults in good health, intermittent fasting is safe. The human body evolved to cope with periods of scarcity — 12 or even 24 hours won’t harm most people.
However, fasting isn’t for everyone. It may not be safe for children, the elderly, people with medical conditions, and those who are underweight. Intermittent fasting can also be dangerous for diabetics and other people whose bodies have trouble controlling blood sugar. While intermittent fasting has some long-term benefits for diabetics, in the short term, it can be dangerous, causing hypoglycemia. Please consult your doctor first — particularly if you have a medical condition.
Intermittent fasting can also make you less alert. Until your body gets used to fasting, you may feel sluggish or weak between meals. This can pose serious risks during dangerous tasks, like driving a car or operating heavy machines.
Finally, fasting is not recommended for anyone pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.
Getting Started with Intermittent Fasting
The easiest way to get started with intermittent fasting is with a weekly 16:8 fast, eating all of your daily meals within 8 hours of the day, and fasting for the other 16. So for example, if you eat breakfast at 8:00 AM, you will need to finish dinner by 4 PM, and not have any meals or snacks until 8:00 AM the next morning.
After a month, try adding a second weekly 16:8 fast to your schedule. At this point, you’ll be doing 5:2 fasting — i.e. fasting on two days and eating normally the other five.
If you wish to take it even further, you could add a third 16:8 day, expand one of your existing fasts by a couple of hours, or even do a full-day fast. Watch your energy level and listen to your body. More extreme isn’t always better — one or two 16-hour fasts per week could be the right amount for you.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Intermittent fasting is only as healthy as your diet. If you currently eat a diet high in processed foods, trans fats, and other unhealthy ingredients, consider working on maintaining a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet now and adding fasting later.
When you do start fasting, be prepared to be uncomfortable for a while. You’ll feel hungry, and you may feel drowsy, foggy, or grouchy during your fast periods. It’s a good idea to start gradually, by skipping a meal sometimes or eating dinner earlier to increase your fasting period. As your body adapts to fasting, you can then lengthen the time between meals or add entire fast days to your schedule.
Stay in touch with your body, but don’t lose perspective. Over time, your body will adapt to longer periods between meals, and it will start to feel completely natural and comfortable. And remember, it’s not for everyone —there are plenty of other approaches to healthy eating if fasting doesn’t work for you. I hope we have answered your question, What is intermittent fasting?
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