Growing up I was told that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Then when I became a personal trainer, I was told that breakfast helps with revving up the metabolism. Then while becoming a nutritionist, the idea of “skipping breakfast” started to pop up, wait what?
Fasting, more so intermittent fasting, has been the buzz in the holistic and functional medicine world for the last 10 years but has gained major mainstream popularity in the last few years. So let’s talk about what fasting is, why people are doing it, and the importance of deciphering if it’s the right thing for you!
What is Fasting?
Fasting is about giving the body longer periods of not eating. We live in a society where food is abundant and in constant access. Eating all day long, during all waking hours is not how our ancestors lived. They would go through periods of fasting when food sources were scarce. Fasting is actually not anything “new”, it’s very ancestral. A lot of religions also have periods of fasting built into their practice. That’s because fasting can actually be very spiritual in nature.
However, fasting is different than restricting. Restriction is where caloric intake is lowered and limited. Fasting is not necessarily about reducing intake, simply reducing the time frame of intake. You still want to get in all your energy (nutrient) requirements for the day but in a smaller time frame. Reducing intake too drastically can actually put the body in such a state of stress that it begins to hold on to weight and can create dysfunction in the body; this has been referred to as starvation mode.
Why is Fasting Done?
There are a number of studies that support the benefits of fasting. Here are some of the major benefits.
- Autophagy – literally means “self-eating”. During periods of fasting, the body is able to clean up and get rid of damaged cells and tissues through this process of autophagy. This is an incredibly important process when someone is dealing with or trying to reduce chances of cancer, neurological disease, inflammatory diseases, insulin resistance, and negative effects of aging.
- Change Function of cells, genes, and hormones: When you don’t eat for a while, several things happen in your body.
- Insulin levels: Blood levels of insulin drop significantly, which facilitates fat burning. Review blood sugar blog
- Human growth hormone: The blood levels of growth hormone may increase as much as 5-fold. Higher levels of this hormone facilitate fat burning and muscle gain and have numerous other benefits.
- Cellular repair: The body induces important cellular repair processes, such as removing waste material from cells.
- Gene expression: There are beneficial changes in several genes and molecules related to longevity and protection against disease. Remember that genes give us a predisposition for an illness but environment plays a bigger role (this is known as epigenetics).
Many of the benefits of intermittent fasting are related to these changes in hormones, gene expression and function of cells.
- Reduce weight and body fat: While weight loss should not be the only reason for trying intermittent fasting, it can help people lose weight. Generally speaking, intermittent fasting will help you eat fewer meals since the window is smaller, and you’ll take in less calories. Additionally, intermittent fasting enhances hormone function to facilitate weight loss. Lower insulin levels, higher growth hormone levels and increased amounts of norepinephrine (noradrenaline) all increase the breakdown of body fat and facilitate its use for energy. For this reason, short-term fasting actually increases your metabolic rate by 3.6-14%, helping you burn even more calories.
- Reduce insulin resistance: This helps to lower risk of Type II diabetes. Fasting has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels by 3-6% and reduce fasting insulin by 20-31%.
- Reduce oxidative stress and inflammation: Oxidative stress and inflammation is correlated with many chronic diseases.
- Good for the brain: Fasting can increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), deficiency in BDNF is linked to depression and other neurological problems. Reduction in oxidative stress, blood sugar, and inflammation is also beneficial for brain health.
- Increase lifespan: Lots of people are fasting for the correlation it has with longevity and increased lifespan. More studies are being done on this. However, since so many other markers of health are improved through fasting, and the autophagy that happens, an increase in lifespan makes sense.
How is Fasting Done?
Now that fasting seems like such a great deal, how do you actually do it?
What most people refer to as “intermittent fasting” is more accurately “time restricted eating”. This means that instead of eating from the time one wakes up until they finish dinner, the eating window is smaller. The most common form of intermittent is a 16:8; fasting for 16 hours (most of which one would be sleeping) and then having an eating window of 8 hours. Most people “skip breakfast” and have their first meal around lunch time (12pm) and then stop eating after dinner (8pm). Here’s the nuance, there really is no “skipping breakfast” because whatever, whenever that first meal is, it’s breaking the fast à therefore it’s breakfast! So, breakfast still IS the most important meal of the day! Its just timing might not be when we associate “breakfast time”!
There are other forms of fasting such as the “one meal a day” (OMAD) fast where a person will just have one large meal and then fast 24 hours until the next meal. In my opinion, this incredibly stressful on the body. Fasting for long periods of time can lead to metabolic damage and consuming 1500-3000 calories in a single sitting is extremely stressful to the digestive system. The body has to work incredibly hard to digest that quantity of food.
Another type of fast is a water fast, where nothing but water is consumed for 3-5 days. This is a prolonged fast. However, there are variations of this that incorporate bone broth to help reduce muscle wasting. This can be a beneficial tool done periodically for therapeutic reasons. Such as healing the gut or killing off hidden pathogens such as candida or parasites.
There is also the 5:2 fast where caloric intake is restricted 2 days a week (consuming about 25% of normal intake), and then eating normally the other 5 days.
Is fasting right for you?
For some, mostly men, a 16-hour fast is just fine, not too taxing on the body, and something that can have great benefits. However, a 16-hour fast (or longer) can have some major draw backs for some, especially women. Fasting for too long can create undo added stress to the body, taxing the adrenals, and creating hormone imbalances, blood sugar imbalances, and even immune dysregulation. This is why it’s so important to work with a nutrition professional to ensure that fasting is right for you and done the right way for your particular situation and health. I generally will start people off with a 12-hour fast, and then work from there. I find that most of my female clients will thrive on more of a 14-hour fast.
Prior to beginning any type of fast, you want to ensure that other areas of the body are balanced. Hormone balance is most important in my opinion. If your hormones are not balanced, and then you add in fasting which can initially stress the body, then it will create more imbalances. Work with a practitioner such as myself to get help in balancing those hormones first, and then deciding if the addition of fasting would be beneficial. This is a step I see most people skip, and then they wonder why fasting seems so hard for them and why they feel worse while fasting.
Fasting is not recommended for people with a history of an eating disorder, those that are pregnant or nursing, children, and those with certain medical conditions. While fasting can be extremely beneficial to those with Type II diabetes, it must be done under the guidance of a professional. Fasting can be done with Type I as well, however, caution is in order because of the impact it will have on insulin dosing. As always, your doctor should be consulted first, and working with a professional is strongly encouraged.
*Here’s the big caution I have with fasting, more so time restricted eating. When doing intermittent fasting, it is essential that you still get in your enough calories within that window. This is where I see most people get tripped up because they don’t quite know how to condense all their food into basically 2 meals a day. Remember that reducing intake too low will put a strain in the body, putting it in a sympathetic (stressed) state, causing cortisol to rise, blood glucose to rise, and fat to increase! Often, more dietary fat actually helps to correct this problem! More on this soon!*
Tips for Fasting
- Don’t feel like you have to do 14 or 16 hours of fasting right out the gate. Try to ease into it by slowly increasing your fasting time by even 30 minutes a day. Listen to your body, intermittent fasting should be natural, and you should not struggle and feel hungry. It’s a gradual process and will take time before it can be used effectively.
- Keep yourself busy. I find it easier and more natural to skip meals when I have a busy schedule and don’t spend my time near the kitchen. Even if you don’t feel hungry, you may be tempted to have a treat or a snack if you are surrounded by food. Based on my experience, I can easily be without food all day when I’m out shopping or meeting people. I may have a coffee, tea or sparkling water but that’s about it.
- Don’t expect that IF will fix everything. Although IF can potentially help you lose weight and live a longer life, it’s just one of the several factors that will help you meet your targets. Stress levels, sufficient sleep, macronutrients & micronutrients and exercise are just some of the most important factors to consider. You should do it naturally and should never feel deprived by doing IF. Please reach out if you are still not having success.
- “Bulletproof / butter coffee” can help prolong your fasting period. Ingesting of butter (grass-fed) and coconut oil / MCT oil won’t maintain your fasted state. HOWEVER, if you are hungry instead of eating a meal maybe try this first. It can help you maintain your higher fat burning state if you use it as a meal instead of just eating a regular meal. If you do that it is suggested to have it 12 hours from your last meal, that way you technically break your fast but it’s not spiking blood sugar since it’s all fat. A true intermittent fast though, anything with a caloric value will break the fast and that’s why it’s called “fasting”. 🙂
If you are interested in trying intermittent fasting, or think that fasting could benefit your health, please contact me. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a free call here so that I can help ensure that this is the right decision for you.