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water glasses & intermittent fasting

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 45 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

About 2 years ago, a colleague of mine handed me a diet book and said:

I just finished reading this and it sounds really promising. Would you mind taking a look at it and letting me know what you think?

It was a book on intermittent fasting. I held up to my promise and actually read it cover to cover. I gave him my feedback (which I will share with you here), which he listened to with an open mind. I thought, “Ok, here’s another fad that’s ‘in’ right now… but it’ll pass soon enough.” Well, here we are, 2 years later and we’re still discussing it. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, part of the reason the idea of intermittent fasting has grown in popularity is that there are some studies that have examined its effects on body weight. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that A-list celebrities like Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Lopez have been very vocal about their successes with intermittent fasting. While this diet approach may not improve your singing skills or give you superhero powers, it will be important to consider the pros and cons.

Let me start by describing what fasting and intermittent fasting are:

By definition, fasting means the complete avoidance of food.

Intermittent fasting means that you will still eat, but with larger lengths of time in between meals and snacks.  

Some intermittent fasting programs suggest limits on how many calories you can eat. For example, some may allow one meal during a “fasting day” that makes up 25 percent of your calorie needs for a typical day. So, let’s say you need to consume 2,000 calories per day. This would mean that your one meal should be about 500 calories.

Types of Intermittent Fasting Diets

In general, there are 3 types of intermittent fasting diets:

  1. Alternate-day fasting: This diet has you alternate between days you can eat what you want and days you are supposed to fast.
  2. Whole-day fasting: Fast one to two days per week; on the other days you can eat anything, anytime.
  3. Time-restricted eating: This involves a routine where you only have a certain number of hours to fast and a certain number of hours to eat daily.

Does Intermittent Fasting Work?

Ok, so now that you know what intermittent fasting is like, we need to discuss whether it’s effective. There are some studies that have found benefits, such as weight loss, reduced body fat, and lower total cholesterol levels. Sounds really good, right? On the other hand, researchers have also found that intermittent fasting may be just as effective as watching what you eat and reducing your daily calories.

Short-term intermittent fasting may reduce body weight and body fat because, by fasting, your body relies more on your fat stores for energy. This has been shown especially within the first 24 hours of fasting and seems to peak between 18 and 24 hours of fasting. Also, it has been shown to increase metabolism in the short term.

At this point, you may feel convinced! These are some wonderful benefits, right? However, as always, you must ask yourself, “Is this right for me?” When we look at longer-term studies (most of the ones I mentioned earlier were done in the short-term… like 1-6 months), researchers are finding that very low-calorie diets do not have better long-term weight loss results than less extreme diets. Also, when they study these diets, they often use young, otherwise healthy folks. In fact, many were athletes. Since most of us aren’t young, healthy athletes, we need to be sure that this eating pattern is right for us. Plus, there are also some risks for nutrient deficiencies, some loss of muscle mass, and the possibility that you will gain more weight (mostly fat weight) if and when you go back to a typical eating pattern. But if you’re one of those folks that find yourself snacking way too often throughout the day, or always eating too much during meals, then intermittent fasting may be a reasonable way to restrict calories for weight loss in the short-term.

Does Intermittent Fasting Get Rid of Toxins in the Body?

I must mention claims that fasting may help remove toxins from the body. We simply don’t know whether this is true at this time. If you do hear this claim, and they claim it’s backed by science, they are likely quoting studies performed in animals… usually mice. And, since our bodies are different from rodents’, we can’t put much stock in these claims.

Trial with Intermittent Fasting

Although some intermittent fasting diets may be more difficult – fasting for 20 hours and only allowing time to eat for four hours – there are other versions that may be easier to follow. For example, a 16-hour fast followed by an eight-hour eating window is very similar to eating patterns of people that regularly skip breakfast and dinner.

There are some folks that should avoid this style of eating completely:

  • Those with diabetes
  • Those with low blood sugar
  • The elderly
  • Children
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • I wouldn’t recommend fasting before exercise – you may end up fainting (or worse) due to low blood sugar levels

As always, definitely check with your personal physician before beginning something like this just to be safe.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 45 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.