Until very recently in our history, food sources had oftentimes been scarce, and humans have had to go for long periods of time without eating. Eating three meals a day is actually a relatively modern concept, but is it a healthy one?
Most religions and societies have used fasting — intentionally forgoing nourishment for a set period of time — for a variety of reasons. Ramadan, for example, is a time for spiritual reflection wherein Muslims fast from dawn until sunset for 29 days.
Even non-religious fasts have been practiced throughout time, like Jeune Genevois, otherwise known as the “Fast of Geneva”, a public holiday in Geneva, Switzerland, that includes a day of fasting. While these examples are certainly not the same as intermittent fasting, it is similar in that the focus is on phasing meals or food groups for a purpose.
Intermittent Fasting simply means skipping meals or choosing your eating windows throughout the day. While intermittent fasting shortens your eating window, it isn’t necessarily about calorie restriction.
Instead, intermittent fasting is a purposeful approach to consumption. Just as you make conscious choices to skip meals, you make conscious choices to sit down and enjoy meals (1).
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Proponents of intermittent fasting are quick to point out the many benefits that can be achieved in mind and body.
Fasting encourages a process called autophagy, where the body rids itself of damaged molecules, including those tied to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (2)
Intermittent fasting can also help restore sensitivity to insulin and improve glucose regulation. Insulin resistance — the loss of insulin sensitivity – is a common, but quiet condition. Most people won’t know they’re suffering from it until it turns into pre-diabetes or diabetes. Currently, it is estimated that over 32% of the U.S. population may have this condition.
Possibly the most exciting benefit that can be supported by intermittent fasting is reducing inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a key driver of all modern, chronic diseases. (3)
How To Practice Intermittent Fasting
There are many ways to practice intermittent fasting, and each has its benefits.
- Time-restricted eating is the most common way to practice intermittent fasting. In this paradigm, you have a distinct eating and fasting window each day. One popular protocol is the Leangains protocol, in which you fast for 16 hours and have an 8-hour eating window each day. You can also have shorter fasting periods, for example 12/12 or 14/10.
- OMAD: One meal a day, or OMAD, involves eating one very large meal each day and fasting for the remaining time.
- 5:2 In this practice, you’ll choose two non-consecutive days each week to restrict your caloric intake to 500. You’ll eat normally on the remaining 5 days.
- Circadian rhythm: This paradigm involves changing your eating window throughout the year based on the amount of sun. Your eating window will match the daylight hours, and you’ll fast when the sun is down.
Is Intermittent Fasting Right For You?
While intermittent fasting may be a tool that you’d like to consider incorporating into your daily wellness routine, if you fall into one of the following categories, it’s best to re-evaluate or speak with your healthcare providers.
- People who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- People actively recovering from surgery, injury, or severe illness
- People suffering from an eating disorder or with a history of eating disorders
- People with diabetes that is currently controlled by insulin
- People who are underweight
It is important to note that research has found an association between intermittent fasting and episodes of overeating and binge eating (4). If you feel you may be at risk for an eating disorder, please be sure to discuss fasting with your healthcare providers before trying!