The Science-Backed Benefits of Fasting Broken Down
The world of health and wellness has unfortunately been hijacked by frauds, fads, and far-fetched ideals. In a culture that is notorious for constantly evolving “health trends,” it can be hard to distinguish between the habits and lifestyle changes that actually work, and those that are a bunch of BS (I’m looking at you, weight loss pills.) Intermittent fasting is one of the health trends taking the world by storm. It’s time to break down all things fasting, so we can distinguish between the hard facts and the fiction. Fortunately, fasting isn’t a fad, and when done safely, it can reap some tremendous benefits for both the body and mind. Here are some of the science-backed benefits of fasting broken down.
- As opposed to a typical diet, intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that alternates between eating periods and fasting periods, and it is meant as a lifestyle change rather than a temporary fix.
- Some of the benefits of fasting include blood sugar control, decreased inflammation, improved heart health, decreased risk of neurodegenerative disorders, and weight loss.
- There are three main methods of fasting, but there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to partake.
What is intermittent fasting?
Most diets focus on what you can eat, but intermittent fasting focuses on when you can eat. This means, contrary to popular belief, intermittent fasting is actually considered an eating pattern, not a diet. This eating pattern cycles between fasting periods (avoiding all food and drinks aside from water, black coffee, or tea) and eating periods (eating nutrient-dense meals.) Essentially, fasting cycles can last anywhere from a few hours up to a few days.
It may seem crazy to go 24 hours without eating, but our bodies have evolved to handle the pressures of fasting. Our prehistoric ancestors had to withstand longer periods of time without eating, as hunters and gatherers next meals were often unpredictable. Now “resurfacing” as one world’s most popular health trends, intermittent fasting is often praised for its correlation with higher energy levels, decreased risk of heart disease, and increased weight loss, among a multitude of other benefits (hint: we’ll dive into those later.)
Intermittent fasting is a safe, effective, and healthy way to care for your body. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, studies do suggest that it is a beneficial approach to reduce inflammation in the body and ultimately improve conditions related to inflammation (such as Arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and Asthma.)
Those that should avoid intermittent fasting are:
- Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Those who are under 18.
- Those who have a history of eating disorders.
- Those who suffer from blood sugar issues or Diabetes.
Before we dig into the benefits, it is also important to note that intermittent fasting can affect everyone’s body differently. Often, side effects include hunger, nausea, fatigue, headaches, and unusual anxiety. If you experience any of these symptoms upon starting to fast, make sure to consult a doctor or registered dietitian.
Benefits of Fasting
- It supports blood sugar control and reduces insulin resistance
Here’s the breakdown: when you eat, most of your food is broken down by glucose, which raises your blood sugar levels, thus increasing insulin levels. With that being said, when you’re eating all the time, you’re raising your insulin levels all the time.
Constant exposure to insulin can lead to insulin resistance, which happens when your cells are unable to remove glucose from your bloodstream. Over time, insulin resistance can increase blood sugar levels. As this pattern continues, your pancreas fails to meet the incessant demand for insulin, causing blood sugar levels to spiral, and inciting a chain reaction of negative events throughout your body, including a risk of diabetes.
If I lost you (this stuff gets confusing!) just know that research has shown a correlation between fasting and improved blood sugar control. Keeping blood sugar levels under control keeps other serious health problems under control, including heart disease. Sounds like a winner to me!
- It fights inflammation
Chronic inflammation can wreak some serious havoc on your health. Research highlights that inflammation is a big contributor to other chronic conditions, including but not limited to heart disease and cancer. Fasting has been linked to reduced inflammation; it decreases levels of inflammation-causing cells (monocytes.)
In today’s culture, we are constantly over-fueling our bodies, and time-restricted eating has been cited as a way to reduce inflammatory pathways. This isn’t to say that food is bad by any means– it is necessary to fuel our bodies. It’s just all about moderation and limiting over-consumption.
- It improves heart health
Heart disease is infamously known as the number one cause of death worldwide, as it is estimated to have contributed to the death of 31.5% of the global population. Studies have linked fasting to decreased levels of “bad” cholesterol and fatty-acids. The American Heart Association has referenced the association between regular fasting and a lower risk of heart failure, and in other studies, fasting was associated with a lower risk of coronary artery disease and a lower risk of diabetes. Regardless of the research, each study has something in common: each one finds fasting to be linked to improved heart health.
- It may help prevent nuerodegenerative disorders
It is known that fasting is linked to decreased inflammation throughout the body. There is also strong evidence from research on mice that intermittent fasting can delay the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In the studies, fasting has been shown to improve cognitive function, and has been linked to a delayed onset of neurodegenerative diseases in animal models. More studies are certainly needed to understand fasting on brain function in humans, but so far, the data looks promising.
- It helps with weight loss by boosting metabolism
Essentially, fasting helps lower your insulin levels and increase boost levels of human growth hormone and norepinephrine. These both lead to fat being burnt more easily and can contribute to weight loss.
Specifically, high insulin levels can make it hard to lose weight and have been linked to health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Intermittent fasting has been linked to decreased insulin levels by 20-31%. Human growth hormone is an important hormone for promoting fat loss and saving muscle mass. Increases in norepinephrine allows more fat to be burned.
Aside from all of these benefits, intermittent fasting plays a big role in resetting your gut health, which is critical for healthy digestion, immune system functioning, and mental health. As long as intermittent fasting is done safely and effectively, there are minimal drawbacks.
Fasting methods and final thoughts
There is not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” way to approach fasting. The most common methods are as follows:
The 16/8 method
This approach is often followed daily, and it involves skipping breakfast (yup, the “most important meal of the day.”) The eating period is limited to 8 hours (and thus, the fasting period is 16 hours.) For example, the daily eating period could fall between 11 in the morning until 7 at night. We’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but this approach explores the benefits of skipping it!
The eat-stop-eat method
This method should not be done more often than once or twice a week on nonconsecutive days. It requires fasting for 24 hours at a time, and eating a normal eating pattern on off days. An example could be eating breakfast one morning and not eating again for the next 24 hours.
The 5:2 Method
This approach consists of normal eating for five days a week, but requires you only eat 500-600 calories a day on the other two days a week. Again, this method should be spread out across the week and should not be completed on consecutive days.
If you choose to partake in the world of intermittent fasting, it is critical that you properly fuel your body during your eating periods with plenty of nutrient-dense, whole foods. Filling your eating periods– and your body– with excessive junk foods won’t allow your body to truly absorb the benefits that fasting provides. Remember to get your fill of proteins, complex carbohydrates, and fats during each meal to give your body some TLC.
Written by Morgan Taylor