Intermittent Fasting for Beginners

We've all encountered that gorgeous, naturally svelte person who casually frets, "ugh … I've been so busy, I forgot to eat today." Yah, right. We hate you. Those of us who are naturally human not only remember to eat, we neglect to develop the habit of not eating. Enter intermittent fasting and how plant-based “clean” food can help.  

What is Intermittent Fasting?

Intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating where you alternate between periods of fasting and periods of eating. During the fasting periods, you significantly reduce your caloric intake or avoid eating altogether, while during the eating periods, you eat normally and, ideally, healthfully.

How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?

Intermittent fasting works by not only reducing the overall number of calories consumed, but by altering the way our bodies respond to food, particularly the macro-nutrients that include fat, fiber, protein and simple and complex carbohydrates. The mechanisms behind the benefits of intermittent fasting are complex and, like so many aspects of our health and metabolism, are centered around how food impacts the hormones produced by our endocrine system.  

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Although various forms of fasting have been practiced through the ages, the overall understanding of modern intermittent fasting (IF) is continuing to evolve as medical and wellness practitioners study and adopt the various forms of this lifestyle approach to food and diet.  Some the benefits that have been reported and are continuing to be studied in clinics around the world include:

Weight loss

Intermittent fasting can lead to weight loss by reducing the overall number of calories consumed and altering the timing of eating. Although the percentage of weight lost with IF has not been shown to differ materially from other calorie restricted diets, many people find that it better supports more mindful eating patterns for ongoing weight management.

Improved insulin sensitivity

Insulin is a key hormone in regulating metabolic health.  Intermittent fasting, especially when combined with fiber-rich, low sugar food choices, can improve insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and related metabolic diseases.

Increased cellular repair

One of the major underlying benefits of IF is triggering a natural  phenomenon called autophagy. This is the process by which the body clears out old, damaged cells and produces healthy, new ones.

Reduced oxidative stress

Stress is an unavoidable and necessary part of life but excessive and unmitigated stress adversely affects physical and emotional health, wellbeing and longevity. Intermittent fasting has been shown to support the body’s resilience and ability to recover from oxidative stress.  

Better brain function

One of the primary reasons many have adopted IF as part of their lifestyle is that it has been shown to improve cognitive function, including memory and focus.  We’ve all heard the term “food coma” related to a sluggish state of being following a rich, indulgent meal.  On the other hand, hunger is known to increase activity in the regions of the brain associated with attention and motivation.  This is believed to be a throwback to our ancestral roots when it was necessary to be alert and resourceful when food sources were scarce.

Two Popular Intermittent Fasting Schedules

There are many variations of intermittent fasting.  The key to success is to ease into a program. Many begin with trepidation, fearing that the hunger will be overwhelming, but are delighted to find that they quickly adapt to a timed eating schedule. So if you’re used to eating at the start of your day and have a habit of falling into bed with a full stomach, you might want to start your IF journey by eating a late breakfast, or even skipping breakfast altogether. Then stay away from the kitchen after 8:00 PM.  Within a few weeks, you will find that your brain adjusts to this new schedule and you may even be inclined to extend your fasting practice.

16:8 Method

This involves fasting for 16 hours and eating within an 8-hour window. For example, you may choose to stop eating at 7 pm and not eat again until 11 am the next day. This is a popular and relatively easy-to-follow method for beginners.

5:2 Diet

This involves eating normally for 5 days of the week and restricting calorie intake to 500-600 calories on the other 2 non-consecutive days. For example, you may choose to eat normally Saturday and Sunday when you’re more likely to be socializing and choose two weekdays, such as Monday and Thursday, for caloric restriction. 

It's important to remember that intermittent fasting is not for everybody.  If you’re dealing with any chronic health conditions, it’s a good idea to consult your healthcare provider prior to adopting any new dietary programs.  If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, intermittent fasting is probably not right for you. Although IF is proving to be an effective dietary practice for many people, a first rule of wellness and longevity is to be proactively involved in your health.  Do your research and listen to your body; nobody can know your body as well as you know it.   

Food for Fasting

As Ann Wigmore once said, “the food you eat can either be the most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.”  The specifics of what to eat during an intermittent fasting schedule can vary based on your personal preferences, keeping in mind that even a perfectly disciplined eating schedule cannot overcome the metabolic impacts of constant consumption of highly processed, pro-inflammatory foods.  A diet high in plant-based fiber and nutrients and low in added sugar is always a good idea to keep your gut and brain happy.  You may have heard that the health of your gut and brain are closely related thanks to their respective effects on hormones.  It's also important to stay hydrated during fasting periods and to drink plenty of water and other calorie-free beverages. 

Does Intermittent Fasting Really Work?

The degrees of satisfaction you experience with intermittent fasting will depend on your intention and expectations. Are you hoping to lose weight? To improve your energy and mental acuity? To establish more mindful eating practices?  To support an anti-inflammatory lifestyle?   There is a growing body of research that suggests that intermittent fasting can have a number of health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity, reduced inflammation, and weight loss. However, it's important to keep in mind that it’s not permission to indulge in otherwise unhealthy eating habits.  Results will vary and not all health benefits associated with intermittent fasting have been definitively established. 

Additionally, some people may not be good candidates for intermittent fastings.  If you’re pregnant, underweight, or have a history of eating disorders you should definitely consult a doctor, dietician or other healthcare professional before starting any calorie restriction program.

The good news is that if intermittent fasting is right for you and you’re ready for life in the fasting line, you’re not alone.  There is a rapidly growing community of intermittent fasters and resources including apps, journals, podcasts and blogs to support you.  You might also discover that fasting can make eating an even more pleasurable experience!

Lori Bush is a wellness and beauty industry innovator and thought leader.  She has authored a number of papers dealing with health, beauty and business leadership and is a co-author of a best-selling beauty and wellness book.