Intermittent fasting is a popular eating pattern that has been around for thousands of years. Also known as cyclic eating, it generally involves alternating between periods of eating and fasting, which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days at a time.
Historically, intermittent fasting was used as a survival mechanism during times when food supplies were running scarce. It is also a common religious practice during periods like Ramadan, which is a holiday centered around fasting and prayer that is observed by Muslims around the world.
In recent years, a slew of new studies have emerged on the potential benefits of intermittent fasting, demonstrating that it could help promote weight loss, improve heart health, boost brain function and more. Here’s what you need to know about intermittent fasting and how to get started.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
1. Improves brain function
Promising research in animals has found that adding intermittent fasting to your routine could help reduce inflammation in the brain and slow the progression of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
For example, one animal study out of Charlottesville, Virginia showed that chronic intermittent fasting was effective at improving learning, memory and brain function in mice compared to a control group. What’s more, another animal model noted that intermittent fasting could help protect brain health by altering the activity of a specific enzyme involved in the aging process
2. Increases weight loss
Restricting your food intake during the day can naturally decrease calorie consumption, which could help boost weight loss. Like the ketogenic diet, it also forces your body to burn up glycogen and fat stores for fuel, making it easier to shed stubborn pounds and inches and keep your waistline in check. Some people even combine intermittent fasting with keto for greater fat loss.
According to one study published in Nutrition Reviews, both whole-day and alternate-day fasting were found to be effective at reducing body weight and body fat while also improving cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
3. Enhances heart health
Studies show that intermittent fasting can come with some big benefits when it comes to heart health. In fact, one 2012 study conducted by UAE University reported that participants who completed a month of intermittent fasting during Ramadan experienced significant improvements in levels of blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.
4. Protects against inflammation
Although acute inflammation is an important part of the immune response, sustaining high levels of inflammation long-term can actually contribute to chronic disease. Fortunately, multiple studies have found that intermittent fasting can reduce levels of inflammation in the body, which means that it could also potentially help protect against conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
How to Get Started
There are many variations of intermittent fasting available, making it easy to find something that works for just about anyone.
The easiest and most common type of intermittent fasting is 16/8 fasting, which involves limiting food consumption to an eight-hour window each day and abstaining from food during the remaining 16 hours. With 16/8 fasting, simply skipping breakfast and forgoing your evening snack after dinner can help you meet your goals with minimal effort required. Of course, you can also adjust your timing as needed to line up with your personal schedule.
Other variations like alternate-day fasting are a little more flexible. Instead of limiting your food intake to a specific slot of time each day, you abstain from food altogether or cut back on your caloric intake for 1-2 non-consecutive days during the week. On the other days, you can eat normally and follow a healthy, balanced diet.
One of the best parts about intermittent fasting is that it’s completely customizable and can be easily tailored to fit your personal preferences. If you find that you’re feeling hungry between meals, for example, consider adjusting your eating window as needed to figure out what works for you. You can also switch things up based on your workout routine, daily schedule or dietary preferences to find the perfect fit.
1. Filling up on unhealthy foods
Unlike other diet plans, there are no strict limitations on which foods you can and can’t eat with intermittent fasting. However, that doesn’t mean that you should break your fast each day by hitting the local drive-thru.
Enjoying a variety of nutritious, whole foods as part of a balanced diet is absolutely essential to ensuring success with intermittent fasting. During eating windows, your diet should be filled with nutrient-dense foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and healthy sources of fat and protein. Meanwhile, processed ingredients, sugary beverages and fried foods should be kept to a minimum.
2. Not drinking enough water
Staying well-hydrated is incredibly important for maintaining overall health. However, drinking enough water each day becomes even more important when you start intermittent fasting. Not only does it help clear toxins out of the body and promote regularity, but it can also keep you feeling full between meals to keep cravings at bay.
While water needs can vary quite a bit based on a number of different factors, it’s generally recommended to aim for around eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, which is equal to about two liters, or half a gallon.
3. Forgetting to time fasts around workouts
Whether you’re a professional athlete or casual gym-goer, fueling your body properly before and after your workouts is crucial to maximizing muscle growth and progress. For this reason, it’s important to time your workouts around your eating schedule so that you’re able to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to function and thrive.
If you’re regularly hitting the gym, you may want to consider alternate-day fasting instead, which makes it easy to work out on the days that you eat and let your body rest and recover during fasting days.
4. Eating too much
After fasting all day, it may seem tempting to start filling your plate with your favorite fast food indulgences the second it’s time to start eating again. However, going overboard can hinder your progress and negate many of the health benefits associated with intermittent fasting.
Instead, try practicing mindful eating, which is a technique that involves slowing down and taking the time to really enjoy your food without all the external distractions. Eating slower makes it easier to listen to your body and become more familiar with the physical cues that signal hunger, cravings, satiety and fullness.
5. Jumping in too fast
Sudden, drastic changes in your diet are often harder to stick to and sustain in the long-run. For this reason, if you’re used to eating frequently throughout the day, you may want to consider easing into intermittent fasting before jumping in completely.
To get started, try fasting for just 12 hours a day instead of 16, which is easier to follow and much closer to a typical diet pattern. Then, start slowly increasing your fasting window by an hour or two every few days until you finally reach your goal.