Have you heard about the benefits of extended traditional fasting but have been afraid to try it? Are you open to a less challenging way to fast, as long as you do not feel you are starving from severe calorie restriction or are otherwise harming your body? If so, the great news is that intermittent fasting (IF), also known as time-restricted eating, is an easier approach to obtaining similar advantages.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Your body essentially exists in fed and fasted states. In the fed state, it releases fat-storing insulin from the pancreas so your cells can open and take in your consumed calories for energy. During this state, your body stops burning fat and uses glucose from your last meal for fuel. After 12 hours, your body enters the fasted state, when it runs out of glucose from your meal and your insulin falls precipitously, allowing your fat cells to unlock and start fueling your body until you eat again (called ketosis). More simply put, you burn stored fat only in the fasted state and add to your body fat stores only in the fed state.
When your body is more accustomed to being in the fed state, your cellular energy producers (mitochondria) develop a preference for the easier-accessed glucose, thus causing hunger when your body’s energy stores are depleted. Staying in the fed state causes your insulin to stay high, which can ultimately lead to insulin resistance (the failure of cells to respond well to insulin, which causes the pancreas to create more insulin to support the glucose metabolism process) and pre-diabetes/type 2 diabetes.
Intermittent fasting, viewed as a viable alternative approach to calorie restriction for weight loss, involves suspending eating for a planned period of time. It can be a means of restricting calories, but it also allows your body to focus on maintenance and recovery rather than devoting resources to digestion. A 2019 review published in the New England Journal of Medicine discussed three types of widely studied IF from both preclinical animal studies and those of patients with various diseases:
- Alternate-day fasting: You fast or severely restrict calories (500–600/day) every other day.
- Time-restricted feeding: You intake all of your daily calories within a particular window of time and fast the rest of the day. One small study of prediabetic men established that early-time-restricted feeding, between 7 am–3 pm—known as circadian rhythm fasting—is most effective for promoting multiple aspects of health, including increased metabolism and reduced appetite, insulin resistance, blood pressure, and oxidative stress; other research and clinical experience, however, has shown that prolonging overnight IF by skipping breakfast improves insulin sensitivity and can reduce hunger and overall daily calorie intake.
- 5:2 IF: One of the most popular and widely studied IF patterns, in which normal food intake occurs for five days of each week, and only 500–700 calories are consumed during the remaining two days of each week.
Other patterns include OMAD (one meal a day) and combining IF with the ketogenic diet. Extremely low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and high in fat, the IF/keto combo diet can make fasting easier by training your body to look for fat stores for fuel rather than crave food for energy.
Safety and Benefits of IF
While every diet should be personalized and take into account an individual’s medical condition and history (absent medical supervision, IF is not recommended for advanced diabetics or those taking diabetic medications, pregnant/breast feeding women, or those with eating disorders), IF is not only generally safe, but actually offers a wide range of health benefits. By altering your body’s use of insulin and stabilizing your blood sugar, animal and human studies have shown that intermittent fasting:
- Reduces inflammation.
- Supports weight loss when combined with other lifestyle modifications—one 2014 review found 3–8% body weight reduction over 3–24 weeks and weight loss impact equal to calorie restriction.
- Strengthens the cardiovascular system by supporting the heart’s mitochondria and reducing oxidative stress, which results in lowered blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
- Increases energy and metabolism (according to studies, energy expenditure can increase by up to 12%).
- Enhances brain function (motor coordination, cognition, learning, and memory) through enhanced autophagy, a cell-cleaning process that removes damaged molecules and proteins.
- Improves longevity by increasing AMPK (an enzyme that regulates metabolism and energy use), sirtuins (proteins that protect against age-related decline), and FOXOs (help regulate the expression of genes involved in cell growth, insulin regulation, and longevity, and evidence suggests that they function as tumor suppressors in various cancers). This increase protects cells by repairing DNA, replacing damaged cell parts, producing more cell mitochondria, and reducing inflammation.
Researchers have recently focused on the power of IF to enhance immunity. It is well known that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the emerging virus that has caused the recent worldwide pandemic, officially named COVID-19. It is also widely accepted that individuals with compromised immune systems and pre-existing conditions are particularly vulnerable to this disease. In a 2020 review published in Immunology Letters, researchers proffered IF as a possible preventive strategy against COVID-19. Recognizing that no experimental evidence details the impact of IF on SARS-CoV-2 infection yet, they proposed a detailed investigation of IF’s health-promoting potential given its ability to prime the immune response through increased autophagy, which helps ensure that cells function optimally. The researchers caution, however, that COVID-19 patients should not fast while infected, as doing so may put them at risk for deficiencies of nutrients essential for their immune systems.
How to Maintain and Break Your Fast
If you find the idea of full-blown intermittent fasting to be daunting, take heart. You can maintain ketosis during your fast even when you consume water, coffee, tea, bone broth, apple cider vinegar, or healthy fats (ghee or coconut/MCT oil). Indulging in these beverages can stave off hunger and/or replenish energizing electrolytes.
When easing out of your fast with healthy, readily digested foods, follow these guidelines:
- Eat small portions and chew your food thoroughly (this will help you to not be tempted to overeat).
- Avoid dairy, gluten, corn, and lectins, which commonly cause inflammation, and junk food (high in bad fats and sugar).
- Consume more protein and healthy fats than carbohydrates and limit fiber, which can be difficult to digest.
- Drink plenty of high alkaline water.
- Eat fish, chicken, turkey, and eggs, and limit/avoid beef, pork, lamb, and duck (all full of saturated fat and antibiotics). Smoothies, soups, fermented foods, dried fruits, and healthy fats are gentle options.
Vitamin Supplements That Support IF
Julian Whitaker, MD, founder of the Whitaker Wellness Institute, recommends exploring these optional dietary supplements during IF:
- Garcinia cambogia (HCA): Boosts ketone production to fuel the brain and reduce cravings.
- Chromium: Especially in the well-absorbed polynicotinate form, this trace mineral can stabilize blood sugar and reduce cravings.
- 5-HTP: As a precursor to serotonin, the “happy hormone,” this amino acid may help curb appetite and reduce carb cravings.
- Saffron: Increases serotonin and reduces stress eating (Relora®, a combination of magnolia and phellodendron, can have this same effect).
Other supportive supplements to consider, ideally taken with food, include a high-quality multivitamin, fish/algae oil, probiotic + prebiotic, immune enhancers, and collagen.
Supportive Lifestyle Changes
While IF and dietary supplements can be instrumental in promoting weight loss and overall good health, other healthy lifestyle choices are equally important. For example, managing your stress with essential oils, exercise, meditation, yoga, or tai chi can go a long way to reducing your cortisol levels, balancing other hormones, and reducing harmful belly fat.
Ideally, try experimenting with different approaches to intermittent fasting to find the right one for you. If you have a chronic health condition, seek guidance from a holistic practitioner before embarking on any IF program. When you do, don’t be surprised if you start thinking more clearly, have more energy, and have a smaller appetite!
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, are for educational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice.
Erika Dworkin, Board Certified in holistic nutrition, is the former owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe in Manchester, CT (www.cthealthshop.com), which operated for 65 years.
Erika is available for nutrition consultations and to speak to groups, in person or on Zoom. She can be contacted by phone at 860.646.8178, or by email at: email@example.com. Ask her about her FREE 20-Minute Wellness Assessments and FREE Essential Oil Chats!
All statements in this article are practice- or scientific-evidence-based and references are available upon request.