For thousands of years, fasting – the practice of voluntarily abstaining from food and drink for a prescribed period – has been used for religious reasons, to make political statements, as a form of protest, self-expression, to rest the digestive system, or to minimize the effects of overdoing it at the buffet table.
More recently though, fasting has become bigger than ever, but, with a critical twist – now it’s about meal timing, not merely not eating. Fasting’s latest incarnation is the easier-to-manage, health-enhancing protocol commonly known as intermittent fasting or ‘IF’.
So, what is IF? In its simplest form, it’s about doing dinner early and breakfast late.
Why do it? Because IF is the greatest thing since sliced, grain-free, low-carb bread! It’s an amazingly simple, hassle-free way to improve health basics like blood sugar, blood pressure, weight management and cut disease risk. For some people it can even eliminate the need for pharma drugs. Intermittent fasting is powerful way to help reset your metabolism, so here’s why I encourage all my patients to take advantage of this simple and effective practice.
Grazing is for cows – not people
Since the dawn of mankind, humans have feasted, and fasted, depending on how successful the hunt or the growing season turned out. These days, however, most people in the developed world are feasting just about all the time, with no food-free periods or metabolic downtime. Unlike our bovine brethren, in humans, all that grazing leads to the weight and metabolic problems so many are currently grappling with. If you’re one of them, it may be time to quit grazing – or more likely flooding your body with a constant stream of food – and start intermittent fasting.
Put weight, blood sugar – and aging on notice
By phasing deliberate periods of fasting into your routine, which mimics how the human body evolved, you can return metabolic regulation to a more balanced state. This 16-hour digestive downtime lets your body enter a prolonged “fasting state” that keeps insulin levels low, reduces blood sugar and signals your body to burn fat stores – a metabolic trifecta! In addition, as you fast, you’ll help increase cellular repair processes like autophagy which removes waste material from cells and helps dampen inflammation. That can help slow aging and optimize mitochondrial function which means greater protection against many of the diseases we fear most, such as cardiac problems, cancers and neurological decline. With IF, there’s a lot for your body to like!
Not into starving? Neither are we
So, what’s involved in IF? Little more than waiting about sixteen hours between the meals that start and end your day. That means if you finish dinner by 7 pm, then you should ‘break the fast’ 16 hours later, at about 11 am. If you finish at 9 pm, then breakfast will be at 1 pm. If you need to ‘snack,’ during your 16-hour window, think liquids: tea, bone broth or coffee can help fill the gap.
School your hormones and use IF to your advantage
Intermittent fasting, or ‘IF,’ isn’t about dropping 50 pounds overnight. It’s about re-educating your hormones so they can function optimally as part of a longer-term weight-loss process. Done consistently, IF can help normalize blood glucose, blood pressure, and liver function. Some people use IF weekly as a preventive tool against modern scourges like heart disease, stroke, cancer, fatty liver, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. For those with weight and/or metabolic issues, a more intensified version of IF can be used to mitigate and manage diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity. Another bonus? IF can also help you reframe your relationship with food, re-learn what hunger really is (versus boredom or thirst), and help you balance out occasional indulgence without feeling the need to resort to dietary fads or extremes.
Fast intermittently, on a schedule that works for you
For most people, doing IF once or twice a week is great for basic prevention. If experimenting with a 16-hour fasting window feels too rigorous, focus instead on following the golden “12-hour Rule’ of good digestion – leave at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast. That time will give your body the downtime it needs to initiate autophagy, aka the clearing out of the cellular ‘trash,’ make repairs, heal and detoxify.
Fast like a pro
To get started, here are a few of my favorite IF tips, plus a few from my friend and noted fasting expert and author of The Obesity Code, Jason Fung, MD:
Practice makes perfect
As with any new skill, the first few times fasting can be a challenge. As the saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. In the beginning you may experience cramps or headaches or constipation, but many or all of these common side effects will go away as your body acclimates to the new routine.
Boredom is a fast-killer, so stay busy to keep you mind of food, or the lack thereof. Fasting during a busy morning at work is infinitely easier that fasting on a lazy Sunday morning when you’ve got more time on your hands.
Ride the hunger wave
If you eat frequently throughout the day, you probably will feel hungry, especially at your accustomed meal times, but the pangs will pass. Hunger isn’t a continuous build. It passes like a wave. Ignore it, and your hunger will fade. And, when it is time to eat, go for moderate portions of healthy foods. Don’t over-do it or gorge in an attempt jam more food into fewer hours.
Boost your fat intake
Sticking to a low-carb, high-fat diet – as in, good, healthy fats from things like avocados, nuts, wild salmon, grass-fed meats and olive oil –makes the 16-hour fasting window a lot easier because the good fats help keep you satiated longer than quickly-digested carbs.
Go about your business
Continue your usual exercise routine. Your body will be able to draw plenty of energy from the fat you eat as well as the your body fat (assuming you’ve got some to spare).
Keep in mind, as fantastic as IF is for overall health, there are several groups of people who should avoid it: pregnant or breastfeeding women; children under 18; the malnourished or underweight, or those with eating disorders. For those on prescription meds, always consult your physician beforehand to get the all clear.