I have to admit I am on the fence with this one. While the intermittent fasting phenomenon is sweeping the globe, I am not sure if I am ready to jump on the bandwagon. Unlike traditional diets, intermittent fasting is more about when you eat, not what you eat. However, calling it a diet would be a misnomer, say devotees of intermittent fasting, also called time-restricted eating. Instead, they refer to it as an eating pattern. While most people become intermittent fasters to lose weight, proponents of this method say it is linked to various other benefits such as reduced risk or management of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, higher energy levels, reduced inflammation, and improved brain function.
I spoke with a renowned expert who has been studying intermittent fasting for more than 25 years. Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of the Intermittent Fasting Revolution says fasting aligns with thousands of years of our biological history. When food was scarce thousands of years ago, people often went for many hours, even days, without a meal. He explains that when the body does not have carbohydrates or sugar to burn, it burns fat as energy in a process known as ketosis. However, fasting goes far beyond weight loss.
In one of his first studies on humans, he analyzed the blood of 200 overweight women. Half of the group ate only 600 calories two consecutive days per week. The other half ate normally, but they reduced their calories by 20%. By the end of the six-month study, the two groups had consumed about the same number of calories and lost the same amount of weight. However, the IF group had a more significant reduction in abdominal fat and improved glucose regulation, an essential factor in diabetes management. Since then, there have been hundreds of studies involving intermittent fasting that can be found at clinicaltrials.gov.
In my non-scientific analysis, I know three people who have been on the plan. My 61-year-old husband is an avid weightlifter who eats nutritiously and maintains a normal weight. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about. After six weeks on the program, he felt tired, hungry, and cranky. End of experiment. However, since time-restricted eating helped my friend end night-time grazing, she lost eight pounds in her first two months. She enjoys the simplicity of not keeping track of calories and says, “It forces me to think and plan my eating. It is also great to feel hungry once in a while. I almost forgot what it felt like.” Well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Not sure that would be mine! Finally, there’s my sister. I couldn’t stop laughing as she described shoving as much food into her belly while watching the clock tick down before the time expired on her “eating window.” It led her to eat more food! We always seem to want something when we cannot have it.
That brings me to another point about IF. It is human nature for us to take everything to extremes. “Red wine is good for me? I will have three glasses. Coffee is fine? Let me fill my 32-ounce to-go cup. I am intermittent fasting; I can eat whatever I want.” So, I asked Mattson what an intermittent faster should eat? He recommended a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and fish instead of red meat. In essence, he described the Mediterranean diet. I am no scientist, but I will suggest that if people ate like that anyway, without the time restraints, they would lose weight and improve their health markers. However, it does make sense that people would tend to eat fewer calories in a time-restricted plan (unless you are my sister, and most likely, me).
If you want to change how you eat, decide what plan makes sense in your life. Some people might do better by tracking their calories and eating regular meals. For others, intermittent fasting is the perfect option. The bottom line is that the eating plan that works is the one you can follow.
Most Popular Intermittent Fasting Approaches:
Alternate Day Fasting - Normal eating every other day, with days of restricted eating (500 calories) in between. Zero-calorie beverages such as water, coffee, and tea are allowed.
16:8 Plan – You eat regularly for eight hours and fast for 16 hours. You only actually fast for eight hours since you are sleeping for eight hours.
5:2 plan - involves normal eating five days a week but limiting yourself to 500 to 600 calories for two non-consecutive days.