Experimenting with Intermittent Fasting (IF)
If there is one dieting fad that is taking the world by storm AND is actually based on scientific research, it would have to be intermittent fasting (often abbreviated to IF). IF first appeared a few years ago in the form of the 5:2 diet, which sees dieters eat normally for 5 days of the week and then "fast" (eating no more than 500-600 calories) on 2 alternate days. The idea behind this diet is explained beautifully in a documentary by Michael Mosley called Eat, Fast, Live Longer (Eat, Fast, Live Longer). However, since Mosley's documentary and subsequent book 'The Fast Diet', intermittent fasting has evolved into many different forms, including the 16:8 version. In 16:8 IF you fast for 16 hours and eat for 8 hours per day. Generally this is done by skipping one meal (either breakfast or dinner), so that your overnight fast is extended to 16 hours or more. It is this form of IF that I have been experimenting with for the last two months or so.
As with many of my health experiments, the idea to try 16:8 IF came from a conversation with my Mum. As a naturopath she had started to recommend IF as a safe and healthy way for her patients to lose weight and also rebalance their hormones, control diabetes and slow down ageing (more on that later). She had some patients who tried and were successful with the 5:2 version of IF, however many who tried it found the 2 days a week with limited calories were challenging to say the least, especially if they were working or had a busy day scheduled. After some research and recommendations from others who had tried it, Mum decided to give 16:8 IF a go herself. For her the weight loss was almost immediate and quite remarkable. Those last stubborn few kilos that she wanted to lose just came off in a matter of weeks. What she also liked is that it wasn't hard to do, there wasn't really any willpower involved. Mum simply skipped breakfast and ate her usual lunch and dinner. By skipping one meal, she effectively cut her caloric intake by 1/3 each day and ensured her body got the full benefits of a 16 hour fast. For me, the motivating factor behind my decision to try 16:8 IF was not weight loss, but in fact the myriad of health benefits that have been shown to result from such a practice. Allow me to explain...
In addition to easy and effective weight loss, IF has been shown to drastically improve blood lipid profiles (cholesterol), reduce or eliminate signs of pre-diabetes by normalising insulin and leptin sensitivity, normalising ghrelin levels (the hunger hormone) and reduce sugar/carbohydrate cravings, increasing human growth hormone (associated with anti-ageing effects of IF), reduce oxidative stress (the kind that causes ageing and disease), improve brain function, switch the body to burning fat instead of sugar and promoting the body's natural repair and restore functions. (Source: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/06/14/intermittent-fasting-longevity.aspx) I'll be the first to say, it is a pretty convincing argument for IF. The science behind all of this can get a little bit complicated with all the interplay between various hormones and organ systems, but essentially by creating an extended fast period you allow your body to completely digest your last meal. Once that meal has been digested the body switches on the 'rest and restore' program, which effectively helps the body to clear out any debris, detox, repair any damaged tissues, cells or DNA. Also, once the body no longer has glucose (sugar) circulating in the blood from your last meal, it switches over to burning body fat for energy. Burning fat is why IF is so good for weight loss, but for those who don't need to lose weight fat is a much more efficient and less damaging source of cellular energy. Additionally, the periods of fasting allow insulin sensitivity to increase, which is key in preventing diabetes and also those pesky sugar and carb cravings that may threaten to undo you, despite your best intentions. The list of benefits goes on, but basically IF is definitely a great way to get your body running at its optimal level.
So what was it like fasting? Well, let me firstly say that I was the last person that I ever expected to successfully fast. As a kid, like many others, the importance of breakfast was drilled into me, so the idea of skipping it always seemed very counterintuitive. From what I can remember the first few mornings of fasting until 12 were a little challenging, as I would usually start to hungry around 10.30 or 11am. However, after the initial period of hunger I noticed that my body rapidly adjusted to my new eating window of 12-8pm and I was no longer hungry in the mornings. In fact sometimes I wouldn't even get hungry until 1 or 2pm. The type of food I ate didn't change a great deal, it was still based around a wholesome diet of good quality fats and proteins, veggies and avoiding dairy and sugar as much as possible. I also noticed that when I switched over to fat burning my sugar cravings were a lot less intense and less frequent, which was a great relief. I also wasn't as hungry as I usually am, and found myself being satisfied with smaller portions at each meal. What I loved about the 16:8 approach is that it actually fit really well into my schedule, as I teach yoga three mornings a week and then go straight to uni for an 8am lecture. Normally I would pack breakfast and scoff it down in less than five minutes between yoga and the lecture, but whilst fasting I didn't have to worry about packing or eating breakfast. It was also nice to not have to eat so mindlessly! After a few weeks of fasting I didn't even have to think about it - I simply wouldn't think about food until lunch time.
Alright, so it's sounding pretty great, but were there any downsides? After two months of practicing IF pretty consistently the only hurdle I have come across is brunch! I love having brunch with friends on the weekends and I absolutely adore breakfast/brunch food. As such, I tend to be a little bit less strict with the eating window on weekends and won't worry if I eat breakfast at 10am. It usually works out okay anyway, because I am an early dinner person, so even if I have brunch my eating window is still usually no longer than about 9 hours. The only other challenge I had was not allowing myself to be tricked by thoughts that told me I could "treat myself" at night because I hadn't eaten breakfast. At first I found myself snacking quite a bit after dinner, not because I was hungry, but because some emotional part of me felt the need to make up for my lack of breakfast. Fortunately, after a few weeks this tendency dropped away as IF became my new normal way of eating.
So after more than two months of IF I have to say it is something I can see myself doing on a permanent basis. What are your thoughts? Have you ever tried IF?
Keep healthy, happy,