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Does Intermittent Fasting Make Us Healthier?

Diet, Health

Does Intermittent Fasting Make Us Healthier?

The Dirt

Fasting has been shown to help prevent age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, but it’s difficult to put into practice. Although it might be challenging, can time-restricted feeding, or just eating during an 8 to 10-hour period during the day, offer just as many health benefits?

Despite the re-openings of parks, beaches and restaurants, many of us find ourselves in a slump between bad news and worse news. Exacerbating our uneasy feelings is how hard it’s been for some of us to break up with hourly visits to our refrigerators and pantries.

But is there much research on the effects of not snacking all day on my long-term health? I’d like to lose my “COVID 5” around my midsection, but also do something that will make me healthier for longer, and also happens to be a sustainable way for me to eat, year after year.

It’s a lot to think about all at once, but as good ol’ Ben Franklin wisely said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. And as this mom of two kids enters – gasp! –  middle age, I’ve gotta start getting serious about this, like, now.

So I perused our diet posts and reread our article on intermittent fasting from three years ago. More recent research released from clinical trials and academic institutions continue to tout intermittent fasting as a way to not only manage weight, but also prevent age-related diseases, like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Additional benefits include combating the age-related increase in fat tissue and decrease in muscle mass.

Though many, but not all of these studies are based on animal trials, they may hold true for us as well, as inferred from several human clinical trials.

Why Fasting?

“Fasting”…doesn’t sound very fun, does it? It makes me think of something you’re forced to do before a medical procedure – ugh. However, fasting has been practiced for millennia due to its medicinal purposes and to permit the body time to heal itself without distraction. But the thought of going days without food not only sounds daunting but unhealthy.

Another option that’s been shown to have positive results for aging? A calorie-restrictive (CR) diet. That’s when you limit the daily intake of calories to about half of what you normally consume. But this has been associated with long-term loss of lean muscle mass, immune suppression, and participant non-compliance. Ummm…no thanks. And shouldn’t we be strengthening our immunity right now?!

Meeting in the Middle

Not to fear: recent studies have shown a way for the body to reap the benefits of fasting without the daunting task of not eating (or eating enough) for days. And it’s achievable in our modern-day lifestyle.

Time-restricted feeding (TRF), a form of intermittent fasting, limits the number of continual hours you eat during the day – every day. Similar to its fasting and CR counterparts, TRF allows our bodies to have time to actively regenerate stem cells, thus positively affecting aging. But unlike CR, TRF results in a more dramatic drop in insulin levels while increasing our cells’ protection from oxidative stress. These attributes can play a role in cancer risk reduction, thus making time-restricted feeding a great consideration for long-term health.

And for women, the benefits extend even further. Analysis from Women’s Healthy Eating and Living study found that female participants in a breast cancer survivor study who didn’t eat for at least 13 hours overnight had a 36% reduction in the risk of recurrence. Furthermore, they were 21% less likely to experience breast cancer-related mortality.

Why it Works

Research shows that time-restricted feeding is a naturally efficient mechanism for eating, as it logically works with our sleep cycle to provide the digestive “break” our bodies need to regenerate cells. This “break”, ranging from 12-16 hours in length, includes overnight hours and can either start early in the evening or extend through the morning.

When you think about eating from, say, 9am to 7pm, you’re fasting for 14 continual hours. This also means you’re completely doing away with late-night eating, which is associated with a higher risk of diabetes and obesity. And you’re allowing your body to have a more restorative sleep without being distracted with digesting your late-night snacks with Seth Meyers.

Fasting 101

Much research has been conducted on the various ways of restricted feeding and fasting and its myriad benefits. The most well-known researcher, Dr. Valter Longo, discovered the foundation of a time-restricted diet with his fast-mimicking diet, which has been shown to prevent cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity among its 100 participants, one of the larger human studies conducted in this field.

To understand how fasting can lead to keeping you healthy, let’s first start with a quick bio-nutrition lesson:

When fasting, the body uses its glycogen stores in the liver for energy. Once available glycogen is depleted, triglycerides are then broken down to produce fatty acids, which the liver converts to ketones for fuel. Ketone levels begin to rise after 8 to 12 hours without food.

Once our energy source switches to ketones, our bodies become better at glucose regulation, stress resistance, inflammation suppression, and restoring mitochondria health. Furthermore, in a fasted state, damaged molecules are repaired or removed. Endurance, coordination, and balance are increased and muscle mass is maintained despite the regular period of fasting.

Should you do it?

Do you want the full effects of intermittent fasting? Then be prepared to do this for the long haul. And not to binge after each fast.

Researchers, including Longo, urge us to make these intermittent fasting practices a permanent lifestyle change and not as a “diet”, per se. Many of us turn to diets for a quick way to lose weight, so avoid fasting diets where you “starve and feast”, eating whatever you want after the fast is completed. Those diets, like the Every Other Day Diet, just encourage poor eating habits with low nutritional value.

More importantly, intermittent fasting may not be appropriate for everyone, particularly if you are underweight or recovering from a long-term illness. Significant lifestyle changes like this should be conducted under the supervision of practitioners you trust.

How to do it?

Ok, so you’re ready to feel amazing for a very, very long time. But…how do you start? If you’re like me, you reallllllly look forward to your three-square meals a day, with maybe a snack or two in between. You can still have your meals – they will just be condensed in a shorter period of time.

First, let’s start with the foundation for any good diet: lots and lots of veggies and fruits. The MIND Diet serves as a helpful foundation here. It is a research-backed program that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by half and keep the brain years younger. The diet centers on “brain-healthy food groups”, like leafy greens, vitamin-packed veggies, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and – wait for it – wine! By getting used to filling your plate with nutrient-dense foods, they will keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Are you a snacker? Time to elevate your game by cutting out your mid-meal snacks. Yes, I’m sorry…this includes that random bowl of cereal, too – no matter how healthy it is.

Now that your diet is on point, it’s time to start a simple form of time-restricted feeding. At first, try limiting your fast to 12 hours. Most of this time can easily be done while you sleep. Cut off your food by 8:00 pm and then have breakfast at 8:00 am. Gradually increase your fasting hours from 7:00 pm to 9:00 am. Ready to keep going? 16 hours is really the limit for most people. Some people eat all their food for the day in one sitting. We tried that once, and were left miserably hungry for 23 hours.

Whichever you choose, be sure to start your fast well before bedtime so you sleep properly and let your cells do their work!

A Few Notes…

Just like when you cut out sugar, carbs, or caffeine from your diet, there is a period of discomfort as your body adapts to this new way of eating. But with some small changes taking place over a few months, you can reduce the negative side effects and find this to not only be a manageable way of eating, but also helpful in making you feel better and have more energy.

Oh, and by the way, you can drink water, tea, and black coffee during your ‘fasting’ period. It is recommended that if you want a splash of milk, it won’t hurt to have fewer than 50 calories. Also, stevia will not trigger an insulin response, unlike some other sweeteners.

Now it’s time to let down your refrigerator gently…it’s not a full break-up, after all 😉

The Bottom Line

Practicing time-restricted feeding has been shown to reduce the incidence of many long-term illnesses while restoring health and wellness to our cells. However, a diet rich in produce, legumes and lean proteins is foundational to this feeding regimen and will help you reap the full benefits for years and years to come.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line