Is Intermittent Fasting Something I Should Try For Health Or Weight Loss?
We have a policy in our house where our kids eat what’s for dinner or they can wait until the next meal.
Our 2-year-old Cooper, much to my chagrin, is progressively becoming more picky. He is especially opposed to many of our favorite veggies and healthy fats. Thankfully, we sneak veggies into his “avocado popsicles”. Ha!
After a recent meal, which my son refused to partake in, I jokingly told my wife, “Cooper is just the first of his friends to try intermittent fasting!”
I’ve been asked by many of our clients if they too should try Intermittent Fasting, henceforth referred to as “IF”, as a way to expedite the weight loss process. And the answer is never a simple “yes” or “no”. There are questions you must ask yourself to determine if IF would benefit you. Ok, that’s the last time I’ll put “if” and “ IF” right next to each other.
So I wanted to dive in deeper and hopefully help you answer the question yourself.
First, let’s establish that IF isn’t something new.
Before the agricultural revolution made food scarcity a thing of the past and we were told we must eat 6 meals a day to keep our metabolism revved up, we often went without food for a day or two and did just fine.
In fact, this process of giving our body a break between meals poses some unique health benefits.
Essentially, when we go without food for a time, we give our body a chance to focus on long-term projects it may otherwise neglect when it is constantly working to digest food and quell inflammation.
When you eat a meal, especially a meal high in carbohydrates, your insulin levels spike. Then, your body goes to work managing blood glucose and literally keeping you alive. Blood glucose out of the normal range is a matter of life and death. The body goes to work fighting the problems of right now and neglecting the problems of tomorrow.
These long term projects are things like cleaning up dead cells (autophagy/apoptosis and ridding your brain of plaques. Important stuff, but not absolutely essential in the now.
Think of a very busy fire station. Let’s imagine that they are always getting calls and are “on the go”, the entire shift, every shift. Consumed with fighting fires, they never have time to service the trucks. This likely won’t be a problem in right away (although those will be some tired firefighters!), but long term, could spell disaster if a truck breaks down due to the lack of continual maintenance.
It’s the same with our body. If we consume our body’s resources with digesting food, it will have less time to focus on other important matters. Our brain may function ok for the first 60 years of our life and then all the sudden we start to have progressive memory issues. It would be easy to chalk this up to old age or bad genetics. But the reality is that with a little preventative maintenance, our body can do the work necessary to keep our brain working well.
Max Lugavere, in his amazing book Genius Foods, extols fasting as an excellent means of maintaining a healthy mind.
You may find it interesting to measure your resting heart rate the first few hours of sleep when you’ve eaten a big meal for dinner and when you’ve skipped dinner. Your heart rate will be much lower after having skipped a meal (or eaten a small/low carb meal). This is because your body doesn’t need to work to digest the food you’ve eaten. Therefore, it can focus on other things.
Do We Actually Want A Faster Metabolism?
I tried my first diet at the age of 11. My mom, after much pleading from me, acquiesced to buy me a container of SlimFast from Costco and a big bag of bulk yogurt covered pretzels. Because, yogurt is healthy, right?
I ate a steady stream of snacks throughout the day in between my SlimFast shakes to “keep my metabolism going”. Men’s Health told me in order to lose weight I needed to rev up my metabolism by snacking constantly throughout the day. And that’s what I dutifully did.
There are a few problems with this. First, for health and weight loss, we want a metabolism which is able to pull fat for fuel from our reserves instead of just burning food quickly. I’d take a metabolism that is able to go into my fat reserves and use calories for fuel any day over one which burns through carbs as fast as I can eat them.
This is called metabolic flexibility.
Someone with a flexible metabolism can skip a meal and forgo carbs and still have a steady supply of energy throughout the day.
If you pummel your body with a steady stream of processed carbs at routine intervals each and every day, your metabolism gets really bad at burning stored fat for fuel.
With intermittent fasting and eating a diet biased towards healthy fats, the metabolism can be trained to burn fat for fuel. When you arrive at the beautiful place of metabolic flexibility, you’ll be healthy, lean, and able to pull from your fat reserves like you were meant to.
Can This Help Me Lose Weight?
I get the impression from most clients who ask if they should try IF, that they want to do it primarily to lose weight.
So, let me the answer the question. It CAN be a good way to lose weight. But it may not work for everyone.
IF for some people, makes it more likely they will overeat later in the day and make poor food choices. They may skip breakfast and or lunch and wind up so ravenous later in the day that they eat a bag of chips or more ice cream than a normal human should consume.
Attempting IF with the mindset that you can eat whatever you want when you do eat is silly. You’re going to do more harm than good.
I would much rather have a client each 6 small meals a day which are full of veggies, healthy fats, and good sources of animal products than two meals of sugar, vegetable oil, and other toxic foods in a “compressed eating window”.
But if you can confidently say compressing your eating between specific hours or skipping a meal will not cause you to overeat uncontrollably later on, IF is a go for you!
But Don’t I have To Eat Breakfast?
I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve coached many a client in the past that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet now I’ve changed my tune.
The rationale for those who say breakfast is the most important meal of the day is based on the need for food to fuel our brain and energy through the day. However, if we are good metabolizers of stored body fat, we actually don’t need food as often to feel energized.
Other proponents of breakfast eating will tell you that those who skip breakfast make poor eating decisions later in the day. And I believe this is a legitimate concern. If you skip breakfast only to eat a ravenous carb feast at lunch or dinner, you’re not doing good things for yourself.
So, the simple litmus test for whether or not you should skip breakfast: “does skipping breakfast cause me to make poorer health decisions later in the day?” If you skip breakfast, do you end up binging or eating uncontrollably later in the day? If you can confidently answer “no!” then you are good to give IF a go.
Benefits of IF
Outside of taking Statins, we can’t control what our cholesterol numbers do. However, we can create an environment where positive changes are much more likely. An interesting study showed positive changes to virtually all blood markers when folks did regular intermittent fasts.
LDL particle size, arguable much more important than HDL, LDL, or Total cholesterol numbers alone, was shown to be vastly improved by intermittent fasting.
In essence, intermittent fasting gives our body a chance to do its natural thing, to manage blood cholesterol levels, and keep us healthy.
Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other brain degenerative diseases are a major concern for adults. Many have seen parents go through the difficult walk of dealing with a failing memory. IF shows some interesting promise in promoting brain health.
IF doesn’t require any special food and it may even help you save money. Folks who struggle with weight tend to have a really hard time sticking to any given “diet”. Thankfully, research shows IF was easy to follow for those who are overweight or obese.
I’ve had an in depth conversation with one of the foremost experts on cancer in Los Angeles on Keto/IF’s impact on cancer. According to him, there is interesting research on Keto and IF being effective at killing off cancer cells, but nothing is conclusive. Although caloric restriction has been shown to fight cancer proliferation in mice, IF may work just as well.
Growth hormone may just be the secret fountain of youth. IF has been shown to increase GH production.
When we fast, autophagy and apoptosis, the process through which our body rids itself of dead cells tend to happen much easier. These are the important clean-up and maintenance processes’ we talked about earlier as “maintenance for a busy fire station”. We need time and space for cell cleanup to happen or we are in deep trouble health-wise.
IF lends itself to us eating less calories which is cool too.
How to Intermittent Fast
Pretty simply, don’t eat for an extended period of time and you’ll experience some benefit of IF.
Most people skip breakfast, eat lunch and dinner and then don’t eat again until breakfast the next day. This usually results in an 8-hour eating window (noon to 8pm). You could also try a 6-hour eating window and only eat from noon to 6pm.
You could also try skipping breakfast and lunch and only eating dinner a few days each week.
But really you need to figure out what works for you and give it a go for a few weeks. Reassess if it’s working for you and change if needed.
Common Issues When Starting IF
Most of the symptoms like lightheadedness, getting really hungry, or “hangry”, dissipate within a few weeks of IF.
IF can be great for a number of different health goals. Give it a go, see if it works, and change course as needed.