Are there real benefits to intermittent fasting?

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How to fast the right way.

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If there is one area of diet and nutrition that also has strong scientific evidence to support its use it is intermittent fasting – the phenomena that sees dieters restrict calories for set periods of time to achieve both weight loss and significant reductions in inflammation in the body. So what is the go with fasting? Are there real benefits from it and if so, what is the right way to do it?

The 5:2 Diet

In recent years the concept of regular fasting has gained significant attention off the back of the work of British scientist Dr Michael Mosely who authored the 5:2 Diet.  The 5:2 Diet incorporates 2 non-consecutive days of very low calorie eating, just 500-600 calories or ¼ of your regular calorie intake, followed by 5 days of regular, normal, non-restrictive eating. Early results from studies investigating this unique dietary approach, said to mimic the ‘feast and famine’ lifestyle of hunter gatherers, are promising. While short term in nature only, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin levels appear all to benefit significantly from regular periods of low calorie eating, as does weight, with advocates reporting safe and sustainable weight loss results from the data currently available.

Fasting options

Since the release of this diet there has been a number of variations to the 5:2 model as diet experts and self-proclaimed gurus attempt to grab a piece of the fasting diet book pie. One such program suggests limiting food consumption to just 8 hours of every day; another to not eat until lunchtime hence supporting a prolonged overnight fast or limiting food consumption to just one meal per day. Each of these variations, depending on compliance potentially offer benefits as research suggests that any prolonged period without eating or eating very few calories for short periods offers anti-inflammatory benefits. The issues of course, as is the case with most diets is compliance, as sometimes cutting back on calories is easier said than done.

The 5:2 approach

In the case of the researched 5:2 approach, it is suggested that females consume just 500 calories on two non-consecutive days each week and makes 600 calories. Ultimately this means that on two days of the week you will not be eating very much. For example, 500-600 calories spread over 2 meals equates to 1 poached egg with 1 cup vegetables, a piccolo coffee in one meal and just 80-100g fish and vegetables or salad in the other. For non-eaters, such as busy businessmen or shift workers, this may not seem that extreme but for the average person, who tends to eat several times a day, such an enormous shift in eating habits may not prove that easy, particularly in social situations. My experience thus far is that followers tend to eat more like 800-1000 calories per day while fasting, as an extra coffee or snack slips in, which unfortunately negates the benefits of the ‘fast’.

The second issue that can present when individuals adopt diets that are restrictive in nature is that psychologically it can prime us to think about food more and more. In this context, the simple act of aggressively restricting calories, especially after a lifetime of being ‘on’ and ‘off’ various diets, triggers the deeply entrenched thoughts that accompany the start of yet another diet. In this instance, the mere notion of being restricted, even for a very short period of time if enough to drive individuals to think about food, or rather the lack of it more and more, makes it almost impossible to maintain long term.

Just limit your eating times

If severe calorie restriction is not for you, another option is to simply limit the number of hours you consume food each day. For example, eating only between 8am and 4pm or 10am and 6pm. In these examples while you are not limiting calories to an extreme level, you are allowing an extended period of time for the body’s hormones to return to baseline levels without constantly being disrupted with numerous feeding occasions. While research examining this exact approach is limited, any regime that limits calorie intake via clear daily structure is likely to support weight loss while avoiding extreme diets and calorie restriction.

Is fasting for you?

A crucial point when considering including a regular fast in your weekly dietary regime is what your energy demands are like. If you sit down in front of a computer for many hours each day, and are not overly interested in food, cutting back for a couple of days is unlikely to cause any major issues. On the other hand, if you are a busy mum with 3 kids and you go to the gym every day, chances are cutting your calories back that much when your energy demands are high may leave you feeling tired, irritable and battling extreme hunger and cravings, even if it is just for a day in total.

Perhaps the key thing to know about fasting is that the published research shows that the overwhelming benefits are related to inflammatory conditions in the body such as blood glucose levels, cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin levels as opposed to weight loss. This is not to say that you will not lose weight rather weight loss tends to be a secondary outcomes for individual battling inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, insulin resistance and fatty liver.

As is the case with any diet, no matter how positive the results are reported to be, is to make sure it is sustainable, and most importantly doing no damage. So, if you know that your body and metabolism will benefit from such an extreme diet kick start, by all means, give fasting a try. On the other hand, if cutting back your calories so aggressively seems a little too extreme for you, why not just try cutting back a little – drop the snacks, have a smaller portion of dinner and have a salad for lunch. You may be surprised to find that you can also lose a few kilos just be cutting back slightly, every single day.

Prefer to cut down on carbs in your diet? Click here for 5 ways to eat less carbs…the right way!