A mindset of eating three, well-balanced meals a day has been imposed on societies for many generations. Often considered a social determinant of good health, research is suggesting otherwise. The 3-meal concept might not be as healthy as once thought.
A dietary phenomenon called Intermittent Fasting (IF) is quickly gaining notoriety and popularity in the mainstream. Most of the health-related magazines are touting its short and long-term benefits. A long-time believer of eating 4 – 5 small meals per day, I paid little attention to the fast until I read an article in one of my favorite Journals, Scientific America, where studies demonstrated that young rats placed on a restricted daily diet lived longer and were less inclined to develop the diseases associated with aging, e.g. cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, in comparison to those who were allowed to eat liberally.
Yes, this article is about intermittent fasting, and there is a brief introduction to the subject below. But the real intent of my article is to share my 6-month IF experience rather than provide you with a review of the literature, which you can find on your own on the Web.
FAST VS. DETOX
People often confuse or interchange the processes of fast and detox. But they are different. With fasting, one abstains from ALL foods or eating only sparingly of certain kinds of foods for health or religious reasons, and detoxification is a process intended to purge the body of accumulated toxins to improve overall health.
But can a detox actually “cleanse the body? Most medical professionals frown on the process of detox and warn of the potential risks that can occur if undertaken incorrectly. And commercial detoxification products often contain a large variety of plants and herbs that can potentially be harmful, especially for people taking certain prescription medications. According to Edward Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University: “There are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t. The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.” Truth be told, the human body is the most magnificent system in the world and, unlike any other system, it has the propensity to fix, heal, and detoxify itself (in most cases) under normal conditions.
Fasting, on the other hand, should be considered a rest or time out for the body. Think about it, in the most simplistic way. Generally, people eat several times a day, and that puts the body in a constant state of work; yes, work! There’s a high amount of energy expended in the course of digestion. It starts with the mechanics of chewing, and then continues on to the processes involved in digestion, absorption, nutrient assimilation and transport, cell/tissue nourishment, growth and repair, and last – elimination. Just as we need to rest at the end of a very busy day, our bodily functions need a vacation too. Many experts now believe the internal body periodically requires more than 8 hours a day (the sleeping hours) to recover and repair.
What is intermittent fasting? In layman’s terms, IF is a “way of eating” – where you alternate periods of eating and fasting on a regular basis. It is fast emerging as the new “fountain of youth.” According to Dr. Rozalyn Anderson, PhD, Professor at the University Of Wisconsin School Of Medicine who studies aging and calorie restriction in primates says, “Cutting calories (from fasting) delays aging because the body uses energy from food differently to become more resilient.”
Hypothetically, there are numerous benefits derived from intermittent fasting for both the body and the brain. For example, IF may:
- Increase the production of circulating human growth hormone
- Increase metabolic rate
- Lower insulin levels (decreasing the risk for Type 2 Diabetes)
- Facilitate important cellular repair processes
- Improve hormone function to mobilize stored fat (weight loss)
- Reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress associated with aging and chronic disease
- Improve cardiovascular function by lowering pulse rate, blood pressure and circulating blood lipids, e.g. cholesterol, triglycerides
- Prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease
- Prolong lifespan
There are 5 different methods of intermittent fasting which are briefly outlined below:
- The 16/8 Method: Fast for 16 hours each day or abstain from one meal/day
- Daily fasts of 16 hours for men, and 14-15 hours for women. Your food intake is limited to an 8-10 hour “eating window” where you can fit in 2-3 small meals.
- The 5:2 Diet: Fast for 2 days per week.
- Eating normally 5 days of the week and restricting calories to 500-600 kcals 2 days a week.
- Eat-Stop-Eat: Do a 24-hour fast, once or twice a week.
- Fasting 24-hours once or twice per week, e.g. fasting from dinner one night to dinner the next night.
- Alternate-Day Fasting: Fast every other day.
- Every other day fasting that involves not eating at all or only eating a few calories/day on the “fasting” day, and eating whatever you want and as much as you want on the non-fasting days. However, I do not recommend this fast because there are many nights each week you will go to bed hungry. Not good for sleeping or morale.
- The Warrior Method: Fast ALL day; eat a huge meal at night.
- Eating small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day, then eating one huge NORMAL meal at night, within a 4-hour time period.
MY “IF” EXPERIENCE
Those who know me well know that I’m a big skeptic, especially when it comes to diet and health-related Fads. I generally spend a great deal of time researching a dietary theory or fad trying before trying one. My rule of thumb: try something for a few months before making judgment. If it doesn’t deliver, move on. Don’t waste time or money on something that doesn’t work. And remember, what works for some, does not always work for others.
The research on intermittent fasting was very persuasive, and the outcomes seemed positive. Numerous evidence-based studies demonstrated some of the powerful benefits IF can have on overall health and cognition; delayed aging was a plus. So I decided to give it a try, choosing the 16/8 method as the most reasonable fast for me and my lifestyle. Omitting one meal a day was no hardship to bear. So in August 2017, I started the journey and faithfully sustained the fast for 2.5 months before passing judgment.
I was a woman set in my ways; someone who ate 4 – 5 small, healthy, vegan meals a day, and started each day with a healthy homemade veggie and fruit smoothie. So starting the Fast was a challenge; it took discipline, dedication and determination.
My IF Regimen
My husband, Greg, and I eat dinner late, around 8:00 PM, because we both work late; we generally finish eating by 8:30 PM. Therefore, I abstained from taking in any calories for 16 – 17 hours. My next meal was lunch, which I ate sometime between 12:30 – 1:30 PM. During my 16+ hour fast, I drank good amounts of water, herbal and green teas, and coffee, and I made certain my 2 – 3 meals were healthy and provided adequate calories for optimal functioning.
At first, the fast was very difficult to sustain because my office at work is just across the hall from our Employee Lounge, which is also the clinic kitchen. The staff nurses and radiation therapists work on rotating shifts, so there is always someone heating food in the lounge, and the aromas would make me hungry and start thinking about food. It was much easier to endure the fast on weekends when I generally sleep late and out-and-about rushing around doing errands, so the morning hours just flew by.
By the end of the first week I noticed a huge difference. The effects were so profound, I was incentivized to keep going. I was sleeping more sound at night, and during the day my energy levels soared. In the early morning, I woke up more alert and my power walking times improved. At work, I was more productive and focused. My chronic AM headache and drowsiness disappeared and I was able to eliminate my morning aspirin regimen. And my memory improved, a real plus for someone as busy as me (and my age, of course). Without hesitation, I can honestly say I felt like a new woman and decided to stay the course.
By October, it was easy to dismiss food during the AM hours. I was now disciplined and steadfast, and feeling THIS good was motivating. But, the “proof was in the pudding.” Every 6 months I go to my PCP for a brief (Lupus) checkup, and in late October, 2017 I was do for another check. The first startling change was my weight; I had lost 6 pounds since my previous visit in April 2017. In my case, losing weight is usually not a good thing and generally signifies something is wrong. But everything else checked out just fine and my blood pressure and vital signs were excellent.
My doctor was still concerned though, particularly about my weight loss, despite my claims of feeling wonderful. So she ordered more blood work and asked me to get it done right away. The next day, the Nurse Practitioner called me at my office (a first) to say she received the blood test results. With my stomach in knots, I asked her what was wrong? She quickly responded, “Absolutely nothing! For the very first time, ALL your lab work is perfect! There are no abnormalities, when ordinarily there are several values out of range.” She told me whatever I was doing differently, to keep on doing it – except increase my calorie intake.
To that end, I am still following the IF regimen and have no intentions of stopping any time soon. I still feel great and my weight has stabilized. When it starts dropping, I just eat more food during the permitted 8-hour “feast.”
Whether or not intermittent fasting increases my lifespan, or prevents me from getting cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, only time will tell. But the overall, day-to-day health improvements were significant enough for me to stick with it.
What did I learn?
Intermittent fasting is NOT a new concept; it’s principles go way back. I was “convinced” eating several small meals a day and drinking homemade smoothies in the morning was the way to go; but I was wrong, at least for me. I found it’s important to keep an open mind and try new approaches to diet and nutrition. As long as the research is favorable, and the diet appears healthy and safe, why not try it; you may be pleasantly surprised? I was.
Just recently, I discovered a colleague at work who also practices the 8/16 IF method as well, and she feels terrific too; she said her kidney stone problems resolved. Another acquaintance adheres to the “Eat-Stop-Eat” or 24 hour fast 2 days a week, and he feels healthier too; he likes the discipline and has lost 10 pounds.
If you decide to try intermittent fasting, do some reading and research first. Intermittent Fasting may or may not be the right dietary approach for you. Keep a daily account of how you feel, noting the positive (or negative) changes you experience each day. And if you go off the fast for whatever reason – DON’T FEEL GUILTY! Going off the fast occasionally will not sabotage any attained benefits.
What do I like BEST about intermittent fasting?
Unlike other popular dietary regimens, intermittent fasting is not restrictive. You can eat your normal, everyday cuisine, lose weight, and improve overall health – just by abstaining from food periodically. I do, however, recommend eating as healthy as possible and include exercise, lots of fresh water, veggies and fruits. Portion control is also important, so, don’t overeat.
And last but not least: Check with your family physician first before undertaking any long-term fasting regime, especially if you have any serious medical conditions.