Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a big trend today in the health and wellness community, for good reason. IF has been linked to increased life expectancy, immunity, energy, cognition and clear thinking, lower blood pressure, improved efficiency of the pancreas, weight loss, reduction in inflammation and oxidative stress, and has been credited with improving one’s ability to stave off neurodegenerative diseases.
How IF can help you achieve your fitness goals:
Through intermittent fasting your body learns to burn fat as fuel instead of burning recently consumed calories. In addition, the food you consume immediately after working out in a fasted state is used more efficiently. Instead of being stored as fat, your body either stores it as glycogen in your muscles or burns it right away as energy while you recover. Essentially by promoting stronger insulin sensitivity and increased growth hormone secretion, Intermittent Fasting can help you lose weight and gain muscle more effectively.
Think of it as less of a diet, and more of an “Eating Schedule”
Intermittent fasting is simply extending the amount of time you are “fasting” (not eating) and decreasing the hours of the day when you do eat, either every day or on specific days in the week.
The average person eats food throughout the day for about 13 hours from 8 am- 9 pm, and then they fast for approximately 11 hours overnight. The true fasting state, when all of the benefits of fasting occur, begins when all the food of the last meal is digested and insulin levels have dropped. This means the average person actually spends about 6 or 7 hours in a truly fasted state each night. So, the objective of IF is to extend this fasting period and increase its many benefits, without slowing down the metabolism, throwing off the hormone balance, or losing muscle.
If weight-loss is not your main goal, you can actually eat the same number of calories, just in a smaller window throughout the day, and still, experience many of the benefits of IF.
If weight-loss is your goal – it is definitely a lot easier to eat fewer calories in the day when you have less time to do so. But it is definitely not about extreme caloric restriction. Be sure to consume enough calories during your eating window, so your body doesn’t think you’re starving and start burning muscle or throw your hormones out of balance. It is important to only decrease caloric intake by .20 -.25% during your eating window each day. This will allow you to safely and responsibly lose 0.5 - 2 lbs /week, without risking muscle loss or hormone imbalance.
But it Sounds Really Hard…
When you hear the word fasting it can be quite daunting. And some forms of IF are definitely intense and involve major lifestyle changes. But other approaches to the diet can be very manageable and easy to incorporate into any lifestyle.
So, first let’s get clear on the different types of intermittent fasting.
The most popular fasting diets are 5:2, Alternate Day Fasting, and 16:8 (or sometimes 18:6). For the 5:2 Fasting Diet; you fast for two days out of the week. That means zero caloric intake for 24 hours, twice a week with a normal eating schedule for the other 5 days of the week. For example, on the 5:2 IF schedule, you could fast on Mondays and Thursdays and eat normally for the rest of the week.
For Alternate Day Fasting, you fast every other day.
And for the 16:8 Fasting Diet, you fast for 16 hours and eat during an 8-hour window every day.
Each type is effective, it just depends on what feels right for your lifestyle. In my experience, the best option for beginners is definitely a 16:8 fasting window and this is what I recommend my clients try first. It is the easiest way to incorporate IF into your schedule without having to make any major lifestyle changes, essentially you are skipping breakfast and eating your lunch a little later.
For anyone who feels sluggish when training on an empty stomach and thinks Intermittent Fasting impacts the effectiveness of their workouts, the 5:2 schedule can be a good option. When you fast for 24 hours two days out of the week, you simply schedule your fasting days on rest days or low-intensity workout days and your workouts will not suffer.
If you are interested in alternate day fasting, I highly recommend you try one of the above fasting windows first and work up to it. Save the alternate day fasting for the more experienced fasters.
What can I have when I’m fasting?
True fasting means ZERO calories. Calorie free liquids like coffee and tea are allowed, and of course water, but other than that, you do not consume any calories until you break your fast. Some people will say a bit of cream in your coffee is ok because it is a negligible number of calories. But the jury is still out on whether even that is technically enough to break a fast, and I wouldn’t recommend any of my clients use cream in their coffee anyway - so either go black coffee or tea (maybe with a sprinkle of stevia) or just stick with water- Lots and lots of water!
Try one teaspoon of Matcha Tea blended with hot (but not boiling) water and stevia for an anti-oxidant rich, zero-calorie caffeine kick during your fasting window.
What about BCAA’s?
Many people think taking Branched Chain Amino Acid supplements pre or post workout won’t break your fast, but they contain calories, and they trigger an insulin response. Which means you are no longer technically fasting. So, if you want to take BCAA’s while on IF, make sure you’re training at the end of your fasting window and close to your first meal of the day. Otherwise, skip the BCAA’s during IF for best results.
But I have a job! Will I be able to focus while I’m fasting?
Yes! Fasting actually improves cognition and focus. Check out this TEDx Talk where Mark Mattson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging discusses how Intermittent Fasting bolsters brain power:
What about the hunger?
It takes about 3-4 days to adjust to the new eating schedule, so it is likely that you will be hungry during your fasting windows at first (especially if you’re doing 5:2). Just remind yourself that hunger is a passing feeling that will come and go in waves, your body is undergoing some very beneficial physiological processes, and there is an end-point. And I’ll say it again: Drink lots of water! Staying hydrated will definitely help stave off hunger.
Be gentle with yourself and listen to your body…
If the hunger becomes too much to handle or too distracting for you, simply break your fast early and try again the next day.
If a 16-hour fasting window seems too hard at first, start with 14 or 15 hours and work your way up over a week.
If you really love breakfast and don’t want to skip it, you don’t have to! Just push it back a few hours, break your fast with breakfast and have a light lunch or break your fast with brunch.
If you are doing 16:8 and you do not want to fast for 7 days - don’t! You can always choose to do IF for some days out of the week and stick to your regular eating schedule on other days. If this sounds like you - try 16:8 fasting Monday - Friday and allow yourself more flexibility on the weekends when socializing with friends and family (highly encouraged!).
What if I over-eat when I break my fast?
If you’re breaking your fast with nutritionally dense, whole food you’re much less likely to overeat throughout your eating window. Fight the temptation to reach for a sugary treat as soon as it’s time to initiate your eating window and you will feel much more in control of your cravings the rest of the day. If you are prone to binge or struggle with intuitive eating and understanding huger cues, track your caloric intake throughout the day to make sure you’re not consuming more calories than you need.
Oats are a great option for breaking your fast just be sure to include some protein and good fats.
When to schedule your fasting and eating windows:
Research shows the most effective window to fast appears to be 10 pm - 2 pm because most of the hormonal benefits like increased growth hormone secretion and better insulin management occur when you don’t eat in the morning. However, this exact timing is not realistic for anyone who has a day-job, a family to prepare food for, or just prefers to work out early in the morning. Ideally, you want to work out right before you break your fast - making your first meal a post-workout snack or lunch. If your fasting window is 10:00 pm-2:00 pm, this means getting a work out in around 12:30 or 1:00 pm. If you train in the morning, stretching your first meal all the way to 2:00 pm can be tough after a work-out, and it means you also miss out on that very important post-workout refuel.
If your schedule allows you to train at midday and eat your first meal at 2:00 pm and last meal at 10:00 pm, I say go for it! Try the 10:00 pm - 2:00 pm fasting window with a mid-day workout and see how it goes.
But if that doesn’t work for you, a fasting window of 6:00 pm -10:00 am with a workout sometime between 7:00 am and 9:00 am is much more manageable and still very beneficial. It involves eating a pretty early dinner, but there are lots of digestive and sleep benefits associated with going to bed on an empty stomach too, so embrace it!
The one thing to remember, regardless of how long you decide to fast, is that it’s not about extreme calorie restriction. You must consume enough calories during your eating window so your body does not think you’re starving and start burning muscle or throw your hormones out of balance.
Some bonus benefits:
• Saves time - eating fewer meals means less preparation, time spent eating, and cleanup.• Better hydration - focusing on drinking fluids all morning makes staying hydrated super easy• More productivity in the mornings - skipping breakfast means you can get straight to work• Improved sleep, digestion and decreased bloating - going to bed on an empty stomach can help improve quality of sleep, regularity, and other digestive issues
Who should not try IF?
Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or struggle with infertility or hormone imbalance. If done incorrectly, intermittent fasting can cause or exacerbate hormone imbalance and lead to infertility. The danger occurs for women when caloric needs during the eating window are not met, and overall caloric intake is restricted to an unhealthy level. Women are more sensitive to signals of starvation and more susceptible to feelings of insatiable hunger. This hunger can then lead to binging during the eating window, which throws off the hormone balance and has the potential to disrupt ovulation. The best way for all women to avoid this is to keep the fasting windows smaller (16:8 or less), and by consuming enough calories during the eating windows, so insatiable hunger is never experienced and binging is less likely.
Who should proceed with caution?
Those with a history of eating disorder, or disordered eating habits. Intermittent fasting for long periods of time can exacerbate preexisting anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Always consult your physician or nutritionist before changing your eating habits. Those who struggle with blood sugar regulation, are hypoglycemic or have diabetes should work closely with a physician or a nutritionist when starting IF.
References:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4257368/ ______________________________________________________________________________ Kara Lang Romero is a holistic nutritionist, former professional soccer player, Olympian, sports broadcaster, mom, yogini, and plant-based foodie.
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