If you’re looking for ways to improve your health, lose weight or just trying to experiment with what's new, it’s likely you’ve heard of Intermittent Fasting. At least that's how I came across it many years ago.
At that time, I realised that 10+ years of office life had taken its toll and I had to start paying attention to my health.
I used to think of myself as an active and fit person, but I realised that this was only true of my days in college and that was more than a decade ago. Since I left college, other things seemed to take over my life completely - a new job, getting married, moving cities, having my two boys, another job etc. Before I knew it, I’d spent 10+ years with almost no activity at all. I had also not paid much attention to what I was eating. This and my increasing waistline only hit home when it started getting harder to bend and tie my shoelaces (yes I wore shoes with laces) and I started having some acid reflux issues. On our Skype calls, my mom politely said that I looked healthy. That should have been a clear warning sign, parents are always too kind.
The annual medical check-up at work was a reminder also.
You know those blood tests results are going to be bad.
The only question is: How bad?
For me, it was the LDL cholesterol and Triglycerides numbers that seemed ready to go above the borderline. The blood sugar was inching towards the higher end too.
This was not a good sign. I knew of friends who had left it too late and were diabetic, had poor cholesterol or long-term thyroid issues. I did not like the idea of being on medication for life or having to carry insulin everywhere I go. Not to mention all the side effects that arise from taking medication long-term.
As I thought about what I needed to do, exercise and diet seemed to be the two obvious things to deal with. I had long days at work (mostly sitting in front of a computer) and could only manage a little exercise (usually badminton) over the weekends. While I wished I could do more, it became clear that there was only a limited amount (2-3hrs) of exercise I could manage consistently each week. I concluded that this was better than nothing and I turned my attention to my diet next. I had tried calorie counting before. I’m lazy and writing down everything I ate and how much was hard work. I still did it for a couple weeks. The conclusion seemed to be ‘eat less’, no surprises there. But other than that, I did not feel like I had learned anything. I had enough to do, so I certainly did not need another task (of counting calories) in my daily life. I moved on.
I looked online for better ways to deal with my diet and lose some weight. As with all things on the internet, every search returned results, millions of them. Some ideas seemed rather popular at that time, like a Paleolithic diet and the Mediterranean diet. They seemed rather elaborate and felt like a lot of work, so lazy me moved on and looked for something that was simpler. Intermittent fasting kept coming up too. I knew that a ‘fast’ meant not eating. Simple enough. I also knew members in my family who fasted often for religious reasons, so it was not a completely new concept. So I explored it some more.
‘Intermittent’ fasting (IF) means that in a day, you fast for a certain period (say 16hrs) and then eat over a certain period (8hrs in this example).
All I needed to do was to not eat for a certain amount of time and good things supposedly happened. I got into the details of how to do it.
Sadly, there was no textbook on the subject, so the only place to find the information I needed was online. I soon realised that many ‘experts’ disagreed on some fundamental points about IF. There seemed to be plenty of debate about what counted as a fast and whether 12 or 16 or 20hrs was enough, what ‘broke’ it and how to do it properly. There were plenty of supplements on offer too. It was bad enough that the so-called experts of the nutrition world could not agree on what to eat, it seemed that the same experts couldn't even agree on how not to eat.
As entertaining as all that was, I was still left with two questions:
Is there a real benefit (and no risk) to fasting?
How can regular people with busy lives do it?
I’ve found answers to these questions about Intermittent Fasting through a lot of research and practical experience. I’m hoping that you have the answers you need about IF by the time you’re done with this article. Let’s get to it.
The idea of fasting is ancient.
The health benefits of fasting have been known since 500 BC. Specifically, fasting came to be recognized as a good way to help treat epilepsy (a neurological disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures etc).
Humans have fasted for most of our history, whether it’s during the typical overnight period (between dinner and breakfast), during more extended periods of food scarcity, or for religious reasons. It’s likely you or someone in your family fasts regularly or a few times a year, usually on religious occasions.
What is new is that we now know a lot more about what fasting does to the body and its effects on health.
In short - the science is starting to catch up.
So, what do we know?
The research so far seems to show that IF when done properly, might help regulate blood glucose, control blood lipids, manage body weight, gain (or maintain) lean mass, and more.
Don’t stop reading here and start deciding to skip meals. What you will not know is that most of the research till date has been on animals (like rats and monkeys). So we know a fair amount and it is promising, but we don’t know everything yet. It helps that we have centuries of practical experience with fasting in order to guide us and to also confirm that when done properly, fasting does not cause any harm.
Let’s focus on what we know and how you can make it work for you.
Benefits of fasting
Speaking of things we know, it’s time you got familiar with Autophagy.
When it comes to fasting and its health effects, one concept you need to understand is Autophagy.
Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content - this process is called autophagy. It literally means ‘self eating’.
Fasting activates autophagy.
Simply put, if you don’t give your body food, it starts looking for food within and does some ‘recycling’ for you.
During starvation, cells break down proteins and other cell components and use them for energy, destroy viruses and bacteria and get rid of damaged structures. It’s a process that is critical for cell health, renewal, and survival.
So when you fall sick and you don’t feel like eating - this is what is going on. Your body is telling you not to eat as it’s busy with this important process. Listen to your body. That ‘starve a fever..’ saying is sound advice.
Other health benefits
There is a large body of research that connects fasting with:
- Improved blood sugar control. This means that your body does not spike blood sugar levels in response to food and manages your blood sugar within a healthy range.
- Reduced inflammation. Inflammation refers to your body’s process of fighting against things that harm it, such as infections, injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself. Chronic inflammation happens when this response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Poor diet and obesity is one cause of chronic inflammation. Over time, chronic inflammation may have a negative impact on your tissues and organs and is linked to diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. IF can help with reducing this inflammation.
- Weight loss. IF when used properly, can help with fat loss. Remember that this is very different from just starving yourself. With IF you’ll be fasting a lot of the time, but when you eat it's important that you have balanced and nutritious meals.
- Improved brain function. There is increasing evidence that IF can help with improving cognitive function and can even be used as part of the treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s.
It’ll change you (in a good way)
When you fast - for any period, you’re doing 2 things:
- You shrink your eating window - this is the period over which you eat.
- You expand your fasting window - this is the period over which you do not eat.
As an example, if you finish dinner at 10pm and eat at 10am the next day, that’s a 12hr fast and a 12hr eating window.
This is what happens when you start shrinking your eating window:
- You’ll eat less. The shorter your eating window, the less you’ll eat overall. After all, there’s only so much food you can eat in 8, 10 or 12hrs. So you’ll automatically reduce your overall food intake.
- Quality of food improves. With a short eating window, there’s only so many meals and snacks you can eat. Assuming you have a good lunch and dinner, that won’t leave too many opportunities to eat or snack. In any event, you’ll end up snacking much lesser than what you’re doing now. Overall, there will be much less junk food in your diet.
It certainly takes the late night snack out of the equation.
- You’ll learn to manage hunger. Most of us no longer remember what it feels like to be hungry. We mostly ‘feel like eating’ and because we’re always surrounded by food, we eat whenever the mood strikes. Or whenever the food presents itself, like the birthday cake at work. Not eating for an extended period helps you relearn what being hungry feels like. And then to be ok with that feeling (and not freak out). You’ll soon realise that hunger is not an emergency. Learning to be calm and making good food choices while hungry is an important skill.
- You’ll most likely lose weight or weight maintenance will become easier. This is a natural consequence of not overeating and eating mostly good quality foods.
- Life can become easier. Lesser meal planning, lesser time and cost to cook, and it can simplify your day.
Should you try it?
Yes. As an experiment. Think of it as a ‘trial’ fast.
At the least, do it to experience hunger intentionally in order to get accustomed to the feeling, and not freak out. The ability to manage hunger is essential to fitness and good health, and this is a great way to get better at it.
How to do Intermittent Fasting
What counts as a fast?
There’s been research on fasts for as long as 48hrs and it shows that different health effects kick-in after different durations of fasting. Overall, it appears that a 12-16hr fast can yield many of the health benefits, while also being reasonable for most people to do.
Where should you start?
This is what I would suggest:
Aim for a 12hr fast and work your way up to 16hrs.
You may already be doing a 12hr fast. Think about it. If:
- you finish your dinner by 9 pm;
- get to bed without any night-time snacking; and
- have your breakfast at 9am the next morning,
you've just completed a 12-hour fast. If you’re already here, that’s a good start. If not, start with a shorter period - say a 9 or 10-hour fast and increase it gradually to 12 hours.
If you’re new to fasting, then you might want to stay at 12hrs for a few weeks or months.
Like with anything new, it takes practice.
As you work your way up to 16hrs, you’ve got two choices as regards when you fast - shown below. Times noted are examples only.
Most people find it easiest to fast overnight. It’s not surprising, as with an overnight fast you’re asleep most of the time.
This makes sense for behavioral and social reasons too. Most people simply find it easier to fast after waking up and prefer going to bed satisfied. Afternoons and evenings are usually times to unwind and eat, so why fight it.
That’s what I do when I fast. I’ll finish dinner by 10pm and the next day I’ll eat a late lunch at 2pm. I follow that with a snack around 6pm and dinner around 9pm such that my fasting period starts again at around 10pm.
Know what ‘breaks’ the fast
This is relevant because the last thing you want is to have something during your fast that you shouldn't, ie foods that will ‘break’ your fast. At the same time, it’s not the case that you cannot have anything at all during the fasting window. The common foods that are ok to have and should not break your fast are black tea, green tea, black coffee, water (including lemon water) and sugar-free gum. No sugar should be added to the tea/coffee/water.
I use black coffee and sugar-free gum during the fasting period. I love my french press filter coffee so this gives me the chance to enjoy a few cups. See what works for you. If you’ve had a history of acid reflux, the coffee on an empty stomach may not be a good idea.
If you find that you’re worrying a lot about what breaks the fast and the foods you can squeeze in, then maybe you should reduce the fasting period or maybe IF just isn't right for you (and that’s ok).
Learn to use it in real life
You don’t need to fast every day.
Use Intermittent Fasting with a purpose.
Here are some examples of how I use IF:
- If I have a big dinner planned, I’ll do a fast the earlier day in the build-up to it. That way I don’t walk into dinner worrying about how much I am going to eat.
- After a holiday. On any holiday where there is a buffet at the hotel, I’m sure to eat more than I should have. I don’t fuss about it. I’ll do IF every day for the 2-3 weeks once I get back and this helps bring things back on track.
- When I’m working from home. Hanging around the house can be extremely dangerous as the only place to go is the kitchen (to get more snacks). I simplify it by doing IF. That way I’m not thinking about food all day and can’t do much damage. I’ve been doing IF ever since the lock-down for Covid-19 started (about 2 months ago now). It’s helped me focus on work, limited my snacking and I’ve lost a couple of kilos. I make an exception every Sunday when I eat through the day.
As you can see from the above, you can use IF ad hoc, for a few weeks or even months at a time. But be sure to use it when it works for you.
IF only works if…
1. You eat sensibly during your eating window.
And by that I mean eating balanced meals that have vegetables, carbohydrates, protein and some fat. Vegetables and protein should be more than half your plate.
If you don’t plan your meals well, you will not have a good time with IF.
We see this time and again. Randomly skipping meals or adding IF to a poor diet does more harm than good. Common problems we see include poor mental performance/fogginess, being tired all the time, dizziness etc. Basically, you’ll feel like you’re on ‘low battery mode’ all the time. IF is not a fix for a poor diet. And your eating window is not a license to eat all you can.
Plan your fast only if you’re going to plan your meals.
IF works well when you add it to a healthy eating pattern.
It is not a substitute or a license to eat poorly.
2. You don’t have too many stressors in your life.
If you’re dealing with a demanding job, poor sleep, travel, etc., do not add fasting to this list. It will make matters worse.
Fasting is a stress on your body.
This is especially true for women, whose hormonal systems are much more sensitive to energy intake and fluctuations than men’s. For hormonal health, you must apply IF cautiously, safely, and sanely. And if your body speaks, listen.
Myth or fact?
It seems relevant to bust some myths here that are related to the topic of fasting.
- Myth #1: You need to eat small meals throughout the day.
There is no evidence that eating small meals throughout the day is necessary (except in specific situations where doctors may advise regular meals, e.g. for diabetics). It certainly does not ‘boost’ your metabolism and you’ll likely end up overeating. Also, if you eat by the clock you may never stop to actually become hungry. If this approach works for your schedule, that’s perfectly fine but don’t expect any health benefits from it. You will see that IF suggests the exact opposite approach which can provide real benefits to your health and help you learn to manage hunger.
- Myth #2: Fasting causes Ulcers.
It’s been shown that the most common cause for Ulcers is a bacterial infection called Heliobacter Pylori. Dr Barry Marshall and his colleague Robin Warren proved this in 1982 and for this, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.
When NOT to do IF.
- People with any health issues or conditions (like diabetes and hypoglycemia) should consult with their physician before trying IF.
- Fasting can affect people differently. It can affect sleep, stress and have other implications, especially on women's reproductive health. Research is still on-going, so it's important to ease into it and watch for any signs of issues (for example, changes in menstrual cycles).
- If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, underweight, younger than 18, or have a history of disordered eating, I would not recommend IF.
- If you exercise at a moderate or high intensity, do not skip your post-workout meal.
IF is not a must-do
While I would certainly recommend giving it a try, IF is just one approach among many effective ones, for improving health, performance, and body composition.
It’s not for everyone and many other strategies (like a lower-carb balanced diet) work just as well. So don’t feel like you’re missing out if you’re not on a IF protocol. You can lose weight and be healthy without it.
As with all things, approach IF in a reasonable way - by starting slow and progressing gradually. At the least, you'll learn a lot about how you respond to hunger and develop skills to manage it well.