Intermittent fasting has benefits beyond weight loss, including cellular purification.
By Phaedra Rogers
Few words in our vocabulary illicit the feeling of dread like the word “diet.” Calorie-restricting diets have existed for ages, and for many people, they work—just not for long. How about the word “fast”? Fast, not as it relates to speed, but as it relates to not eating for a period of time, isn’t a favorite either.
Intermittent fasting, interval eating: Call it what you want, but it amounts to the same thing, namely tweaking when meals are consumed. Voluntarily limiting when you eat might sound absurd, but intermittent fasting has benefits beyond weight loss. Losing weight merely scratches the surface of what this eating pattern does for the body.
“Our ancestors had to stop eating after the sun went down because there was no electricity to rev up the microwave or keep food cold in a refrigerator,” says Laura Chavez, a dietitian. “The concept of limiting food intake is nothing new. It’s only been within the last century where we could eat at any hour, and intermittent fasting helps keep our bodies balanced.”
Weight loss aside, intermittent fasting may be the gift that keeps on giving.
“It’s about disease prevention,” Chavez says. “Several recent studies show a link between the prevention and treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s through fasting.”
The science is seemingly complicated and simple at the same time. A difficult cognitive task, exercise or even fasting for a short time triggers stress, which the brain responds to by shifting hormones that make the body work smarter and harder.
“Fasting gives our digestive system a break. Our body goes into healing mode when it’s not busy digesting food and delivering nutrients,” Chavez says.
Autophagy refers to the natural detoxification process in which the body’s cells clean themselves out and regenerate. Dr. Alejandra Carrasco, author of Bloom and founder of Nourish Medicine, finds that a common misconception is that intermittent fasting is too difficult.
“It doesn’t have to be hard or painful,” she says. “Even if you can only go 12 hours without consuming calories, your body will respond.”
Simply put, the body’s cells go on a search-and-destroy mission aimed at cleaning out impurities.
“Autophagy occurs after approximately 12 hours of fasting. Longer fasting equals more benefit,” Carrasco says, adding, “I’m not talking about going days without eating; I’m talking about hours.”
When it comes to longevity, intermittent fasting is often part of the equation.
“My grandmother lived to 103 years old,” Carrasco says. “She fasted daily, even though she didn’t realize that’s what she was doing. She didn’t eat anything after dinner until she was hungry the next morning. That type of eating pattern was common many years ago, which also explains why cultures that have long life spans show fasting as a part of their routine, according to recent research.”
There are several ways to practice intermittent fasting, but these two are the most common:
- The 16/8 method: This method prescribes eating within an eight-hour window, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., for example, and fasting the remaining 16 hours of the day. You can eat what you’d normally eat, provided it’s healthy, or at least on the healthier side, as long as it falls within those eight hours. If the thought of going without your morning coffee sounds dreadful, take a breath. You can have coffee or tea as long it’s not loaded with sugar and cream. The 16/8 method seems to appeal to most people because the majority of fasting occurs while sleeping.
- The 5/2 method: This method requires you to consume 500 to 600 calories on two non-consecutive days during the week, then eat normally the rest of the time. You can choose any two days, say Monday and Wednesday, then go about your normal routine the other five days. This method is beneficial for people who don’t want to think about fasting every day, but it does require discipline on the fasting days.
A note about exercise: Listen to your body. If you commit to the 5/2 method, consider practicing low-impact activities on your fasting days. Some people have no trouble exercising on an empty stomach, while others need fuel beforehand. And remember to stay hydrated, no matter which method you choose.
Chavez and Carrasco agree intermittent fasting isn’t recommended for children or for anyone who’s pregnant, nursing, diabetic or has a history of eating disorders. If intermittent fasting sounds like an option for you, talk to your health-care provider, do your research and start slowly.