The Power of Intermittent Fasting – A Guide for Beginners
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The Power of Intermittent Fasting
You may have heard of a health trend in recent years called intermittent fasting.
Proponents of the intermittent fasting (IF) diet claim it supports weight loss, improves metabolic health and even extends lifespan.
Have you found yourself wondering if this method could help you transform your own eating habits or stabilize your weight?
This intermittent fasting guide will teach you the basics of IF and demystify this pattern of eating to determine whether it may be right for you.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
The first thing to understand about intermittent fasting is that it is not really a diet in the typical sense.
Unlike many modern diets, there isn’t a list of food to avoid or foods to incorporate.
Instead, intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating with the goal of allowing the body time to burn fat.
The core philosophy behind intermittent fasting is scheduling your meals so that you get the most out of them.
Intermittent fasting doesn’t change what you eat. It changes WHEN you eat.
The most common intermittent fasting schedule involves a daily 16 hour fast, but there are also others that include fasting for a full 24 hours once or twice a week.
Fasting has been a huge part of human culture for centuries.
Fasting is undertaken regularly throughout the world as a part of religious beliefs or as a result of a lack of food availability.
Humans are built to endure periods without having food.
Contrary to how it may feel, not eating for a few hours can’t actually harm the body.
If you think about it, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sometimes had to wait (and intermittently fast) for days between meals and were able to survive and thrive.
If anything, fasting from time to time hearkens back to the way our ancestors’ bodies worked and is more “natural” than the typical modern pattern of eating three meals a day.
Much like the paleo diet, this trend follows the philosophy of tapping into the way our ancestors ate.
Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
Since the 1990s doctors have been prescribing intermittent fasting as a remedy for diabetes, epilepsy, and obesity.
However, you might be wondering whether there is any science behind reported intermittent fasting results.
As with all diets and patterns of eating, it is best to try out intermittent fasting for yourself in order to see if it works for you.
In order to understand the science behind it and what intermittent fasting results you might see, it is important to take a closer look at why this food protocol works for a lot of people.
When a person is following an intermittent fasting schedule, they alternate between two states: fed and fasted.
The fed state is when your body is actively absorbing and digesting the food you have consumed.
This state lasts for 3 to 5 hours after eating. Most of us eat every 3-5 hours, so for many of us we are constantly in the fed state while we are awake.
During this time, it is hard for your body to burn fat because your insulin levels are high. In other words, your body is working on processing the food you consumed and burning those calories for energy instead of tapping into the fat stored in your cells.
After the fed state, we enter a post absorptive state.
This happens between 8-12 hours after your last meal.
Many of us enter this state during sleep.
After this 12-hour mark, you are fasted. Many of us who do not follow an intermittent fasting protocol never spend much time, if any, in this fasted state.
During the fasted state, it is much easier to burn fat because insulin levels are low.
The longer you stay in this state, the more fat you passively burn as you go about your daily activities.
The balance of the fed and fasted states contributes to intermittent fasting weight loss.
If you spend more time in the fasted state, you burn more fat which results in weight loss.
Besides burning more fat, several other changes also occur in the body during intermittent fasting.
Your hormone levels change to make stored body fat more accessible.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) increases as much as 5 times during a fast.
This has benefits for both fat loss and muscle gain.
Your body becomes more sensitive to insulin and your insulin levels drop dramatically.
This also allows for your body to access stored fat more readily.
Increasing insulin sensitivity also helps to regulate your blood sugar.
When fasting, your cells engage in a cell-repair process.
This includes digestion of old and dysfunctional proteins.
In effect, fasting lets your body “clean out” old cells by giving it a break from digesting food.
Ultimately, intermittent fasting can help teach your body how to use the food it consumes in the most efficient way possible.
While intermittent fasting, your body can learn to burn fat as fuel when you deprive it of new calories to constantly pull from.
What are the Benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is all-the-rage right now because of its reported benefits.
There are several intermittent fasting benefits, especially as compared to calorie-restriction and other mainstream “diets”:
The most commonly cited benefit of intermittent fasting is ample weight loss.
Because your body burns fat rapidly during the fasted state, intermittent fasting promotes fat loss.
Fat loss in turn results in weight loss, particularly in those interested in burning unwanted fat.
For most people, especially those interested in losing weight, an intermittent fasting regimine automatically causes a reduction in calorie intake by having you eat fewer meals.
Because of changes in hormones such as HGH, short-term fasting can actually increase your metabolic rate, further promoting weight loss.
2. Take bad weight off but leave good weight on
Unlike many deprivation diets, intermittent fasting allows your body to burn the fat that it doesn’t need without depriving your body of the calories it needs to thrive.
Athletic or underweight women can also benefit from the diet as the fat burning will lead them to be leaner and more toned and support efforts in the gym rather than depleting their muscle and making it hard to bulk up.
3. Little behavior change required
Many diets require a drastic change to your daily habits or routine.
When trying to go gluten-free or follow an 80:10:10 diet for example, you have to keep close watch of everything you eat and make sure that each thing you consume does not fall into the area of “bad” foods you should be avoiding.
When following an intermittent fasting schedule, you can eat the same foods that you regularly consume.
You don’t have to limit yourself or remove foods you enjoy. Instead, you simply adjust when you eat.
4. Make your day simpler
One of the most underrated intermittent fasting benefits is that eliminating a meal simplifies your day.
Do you hate waking up early to have breakfast before work?
Intermittent fasting allows you to skip it, guilt free!
Do you hate making dinner after a long day?
Maybe you can adjust your fasting schedule to so that you eat breakfast and lunch and fast through the night.
Either way, this eliminates one meal’s worth of planning, preparation and stress.
Are you the kind of person that gets edgy and testy when it’s been too long since your last meal?
Intermittent fasting allows you to better control your own response to hunger.
All the mental energy that you might devote to when and where you might eat next can be better spent on productive tasks.
This way, you will focus less on food and more on other aspects of your day.
You can retrain your brain that hunger pangs are not cause for alarm and gain a sense of calm even while hungry.
This reprogramming can help reduce stress and improve mental health.
6. Increase your mental clarity
Have you ever felt yourself fall into a food coma?
Then you are probably familiar with how sluggish and tired overeating can make you feel.
In mammals, mental activity increases with hunger and decreases with satiation.
This is a natural response related to our motivation as hunter-gatherers to seek food when we are hungry.
Fasting and hunger can help activate you towards a goal just as our fasting ancestors were motivated towards their goals while hungry.
In these modern times, instead of putting this energy into food, you can put it into work or passion projects instead.
Learn more about how fasting affects the brain here.
7. Other health benefits
There is currently a lot of research being done involving the long-term benefits of intermittent fasting.
There are recent studies testing the longevity and cancer risk in small animals who follow intermittent fasting schedules.
Though there are no concrete scientific claims as to the notion that intermittent fasting supports longevity and cancer avoidance, there is significant personal data and scientific hypothesis that intermittent fasting is one way to support a long, healthy life.
There have also been studies suggesting that intermittent fasting may help with insulin resistance in hypoglycemia and type 2 diabetes, reducing inflammation in many chronic diseases, as well as promoting heart health, brain-health and anti-aging.
Learn more about the potential health benefits of intermittent fasting here.
Who is Most Likely to Benefit from Intermittent Fasting?
There has recently been a lot of discussion involving intermittent fasting for women.
Some fitness journals report that intermittent fasting is more helpful for men, particularly for physically fit, athletic men.
However, in recent years it has begun to seem that this is not the case.
Intermittent fasting has proven beneficial for many women, ranging from overweight/obese women to the most athletic of women.
Though there are ample anecdotal reports of women thriving on the intermittent fasting diet, there is also an abundance of reports of women who stopped menstruating while attempting intermittent fasting.
For this reason, women should be careful when it comes to intermittent fasting.
Keep an eye out for any negative side effects.
If you have problems with fertility or are trying to conceive, consider holding off on IF for now.
Intermittent fasting is certainly not for everyone.
If you are underweight or have a history of disordered eating, you should not attempt intermittent fasting without consulting a health professional.
In these cases, IF can be extremely harmful.
If you have any medical complications or conditions, you should consult with a doctor before trying intermittent fasting.
That being said, there are definitely some personality types that might benefit strongly from this kind of diet:
The All-or Nothing Personality
If you’re the kind of person likely to fall of the wagon with lifestyle changes because of a single mistake, IF may be great for you.
You never have to worry about what you are eating, only about when. In this way, mistakes are easier to face.
If you mess up fasting one day, you can just fast the next day, regardless of what you ate the day before.
The “I’m Always Hungry”
If you find yourself eating too fast and too much before your brain even knows it’s satisfied or you just never seem to be full, intermittent fasting can help you regain control of your hunger.
IF can help you balance your hormones and let your brain know when you are satisfied by refusing to give in to the brain’s impulse to eat continuously.
Intermittent fasting can help your cells become more sensitive to insulin, which can help combat on setting diabetes.
People who are prediabetic are insulin resistant, which means that insulin isn’t working properly and your blood sugar stays elevated.
Going longer between eating may help because it gives your body a break from pumping insulin, allowing your cells to become more sensitive to when insulin is present.
If You Just Can’t Lose Those Last 10 Pounds
Intermittent fasting is especially effective when combined with a health whole-foods based diet.
If you are already eating healthy and exercising, IF can help kickstart your metabolism, and aid you in losing those final few stubborn pounds.
Intermittent Fasting for Beginners
There is an abundance of internet resources for those interested in intermittent fasting.
There is an active all-female Facebook page that is free to join called Fierce Fit Fearless where women who are actively following intermittent fasting schedules can answer any questions you may have should you be interested in giving IF a try.
This can be a great resource if you’re trying to find more information on intermittent fasting for women.
It is important for beginners to know that as with all lifestyle changes, you may need to adjust intermittent fasting protocol to fit your body and your life.
Maybe it’s better for you to eat for 10 hours, and fast for 14?
The best way to find out what works best for you is to simply try a few variations.
Through trial and error, you will find what works best for you.
For beginners interested in giving fasting a try, keep these tips in mind to make your first steps into fasting easier:
Drink a lot of water:
Staying well hydrated will make you feel less hungry during your fast.
A lot of the time, feelings of hunger can be confused with feelings of thirst.
Make sure to keep water handy at all times to help fill your stomach and help you through your fasting periods.
Beginners should aim to fast overnight.
This way, you will sleep through the majority of your fast, which will make it easier to stick to.
Think of Fasting as Taking a Break
Instead of deprivation, learn to think of fasting as a break from eating.
Letting your stomach take a break from its long regimen of breaking down your food is a courtesy you extend to yourself.
This can also be a way to break up the monotony of always worrying about when and what you will eat next.
This kind of mindset will help you ease into a long-term plan.
Make Yourself Busy
It’s best to start fasting when you are busy.
This way, you won’t be laying on the couch during your fast dreaming of food.
Instead, you will be going about your busy schedule and food will not be as present in your mind.
Hit the gym
As with all health-promoting plans, pairing intermittent fasting and working out will yield the best results.
You don’t have to become a hardcore athlete.
Your work out regime can be as simple as performing a full-body strength training set two to three times a week, or working on a yoga practice a few days a week.
Beginners may find that they have the best results when they work their way up instead of jumping straight in to popular intermittent fasting schedules.
You could try starting with just a few days a week with fasting for 12 hours.
Then you can slowly increase your fasting time to 14 and then 16 and so on.
This can be much easier than jumping right into an intense fasting schedule because it gives your body a chance to adjust to fasting.
Intermittent Fasting for Women
While intermittent fasting may sound like the perfect way to kickstart weight loss, it is important to recognize that there are some risks associated with intermittent fasting, especially when it comes to women.
If you are considering using IF, it is extremely important that you perform it correctly and are aware of potential risks.
Fasting, when done improperly, can lead to hormonal imbalance in women.
This means that intermittent fasting can lead to reproductive health and fertility issues down the line.
When women dive straight in to strict intermittent fasting, it is often hard to avoid the cycle of undereating and overeating.
This cycle this greatly affects women’s hormones.
The hormones that regulate key functions such as ovulation are incredibly sensitive to energy intake.
In both men and women, the HPG (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal) axis acts like an control system.
This HPG axis controls most hormone function and is triggered by the energy we intake.
Women are particularly sensitive to the signals of starvation sent to the HPG.
If the body senses that it is being starved, it will ramp up production of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin.
When women experience insatiable hunger after undereating, they are actually experiencing the increased production of these hormones.
This is the body’s way of protecting a potential fetus, even when a woman is not pregnant.
Ignoring hunger cues can often cause women to binge later in an attempt to rebalance these hormones.
However, a woman on IF will likely try to follow that with getting back on track and undereating.
This cycle wreaks havoc on your hormones and can even halt ovulation.
Risks of Hormonal Imbalance due to Intermittent Fasting:
When done improperly, women can experience the following negative side effects of a hormonal imbalance caused by intermittent fasting:
1. Disrupted menstruation
Energy balance is integral to the regulation of ovulation and menstruation.
This energy balance can be disrupted by all sorts of stressors— from emotional stress to overworking to over exercising or undereating.
If you’ve ever heard of female olympians having disrupted menstrual cycles during training, this is the same sort of stress-based menstrual interruption that can occur from improper IF.
You may have even personally experienced your own period stopping in times of stress.
If this is the case, you will understand how much this affects the entire body and sense of wellbeing.
2. Worsened eating disorders
Hormonal fluctuation on IF can cause unavoidable patterns of under and over eating.
This pattern can be especially dangerous in women who have previously struggled with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorders.
It can be extremely hard to avoid sinking back into disordered eating patterns when the body is naturally going through these harmful cycles triggered by IF.
The female reproductive system and metabolism are deeply intertwined.
If you’re missing periods, it is safe to assume that your hormones have been disrupted.
Intaking less calories and protein can cause the uterine wall lining to thicken and reduce fertility.
Human females are unique in that nearly all other mammals can terminate or pause pregnancy whenever they need to, but human females cannot.
This means that the baby is determined to survive no matter what the cost to the mother.
Once a woman becomes pregnant, barring events such as miscarriage, that is that.
Fertility at the wrong time— like during a famine, could be fatal.
For this reason, conception during times of starvation is less likely.
This can even trigger early onset menopause in some women.
We have estrogen receptors all throughout our bodies.
We have them in our brains, GI tract, and bones.
Changing the estrogen balance can change metabolic function all over the body, meaning affected cognition, moods, digestion, recovery, protein turnover and even bone formation.
Even if you are never planning on having children, anything that affects your reproductive health affects your overall health and fitness.
How Can Women Use Intermittent Fasting Safely?
A conservative and slow approach to starting out with intermittent fasting may be the best way to combat these potential negative side effects.
You might consider choosing an IF strategy that only requires you to fast a few days every week instead of every day, in order to avoid the under-eating, binge-eating cycle and allow your body times of “normal” eating.
One such strategy is called “crescendo fasting”.
This strategy has you start by fasting on 2-3 non-consecutive days per week.
On fasting days, you’ll do only yoga or light cardio, no heavy workouts.
When you fast, you’ll fast for 12-16 hours, as with most other IF strategies.
Eat normally on your other days. You might find it helpful to eat more frequently on these days to avoid binge eating.
These days you can have more intense workouts and focus on athletic training.
If this crescendo fasting works well at first, you can consider adding more days.
This crescendo type fasting can help avoid dramatic hormone changes by easing your body into fasting.
You might also consider taking 5-8 grams of BCAAs during your fast.
A branched chain amino acid supplement provides fuel to muscles and can take the edge off of hunger and fatigue while containing few calories.
Listen to your body.
Estrogen is known to depress appetite by decreasing sensitivity to food cues.
There are likely periods of a month where you will find fasting harder or easier.
If it becomes overwhelmingly hard, stop.
There is no reason to force your body to fast if you are feeling sluggish or sick from hormonal imbalance.
Don’t ignore the negative signs, and stop IF if you experience:
- Your cycle stopping or changing
- Problems with sleep
- Hair loss
- Skin changes like acne or dryness
- Injuries are slow to heal
- Decreased immunity
- Mood swings
- Heart rate increase
- Decreased sex drive
- Feeling cold constantly
Potential hormonal imbalance is not a reason for women to completely write off the potential of IF to be right for them.
It is, however, a reason to exercise caution when attempting IF and to ease into the process rather than to dive in headfirst.
Women can absolutely succeed on IF, but there are also some women for whom IF is too hard on their hormones and are better off seeking out other patterns of eating that fit better with their own body.
Always, always , always check with your physician or health professional before embarking on a new dietary regimen to ensure it’s suitable for you.
Concerns You Might Have About Intermittent Fasting
Do I have to do this indefinitely?
Trial fasting is helpful in practicing managing hunger.
This involves short term bouts of intermittent fasting.
If you are interested in giving fasting a try, there is no harm in giving yourself a trial period to see how you feel while fasting instead of diving into a more permanent change.
Intermittent fasting does not have to be a permanent change, but it can be for those who find it helpful.
Can I have ANYTHING while fasting?
In fact, you should be drinking fairly regularly during your fasts (except while sleeping, of course).
You should be consuming ample water during every fast. It is also completely fine and won’t break your fast to have tea, black coffee, water or any other drink with no calories.
Don’t add sugar to your drinks.
Coffee can be particularly beneficial during a fast because it can help stave off hunger.
But, breakfast is the most important meal of the day!
This claim is largely a food myth perpetuated by breakfast food manufacturers.
In truth, there is no data that eating breakfast actually makes you healthier or thinner. In fact, eating frequently doesn’t necessarily boost your metabolism either.
“I could never skip breakfast!”
You don’t have to!
Your first meal of the day can always be breakfast if you want, just adjust the time.
You can still start your day of eating with yogurt and fruit, cereals, eggs or whatever breakfast food suits your fancy!
Just because you aren’t eating at 8am doesn’t mean your first meal of the day can’t be full of the breakfast foods you love.
Won’t I have low energy in the morning if I’m not eating?
Often, people worry that they will spend their entire fasting period being uncomfortable and hungry.
They think that they will be miserable at work and ineffective at daily tasks.
It is definitely true that intermittent fasting is not for everyone and that the initial jolt to the system to make the change might be difficult.
However, once your body gets used to functioning on burning stored fat, fasting will become easier.
Many people report finding increased mental clarity during their fasting periods.
I’m always grumpy when I don’t eat breakfast.
A lot of our mood changes that are related to eating are caused by past eating habits.
If you are used to eating every three hours, your body will start to get hungry every three hours and expect food.
Once you retrain your body, these side effects become less of an issue.
How is fasting different from starving yourself?
While on an intermittent fasting diet, you are not starving yourself.
You should still be shooting to consume an adequate number of calories for your body composition.
Fasting is a choice, whereas starvation is either due to a lack of food availability or disordered eating.
Intermittent fasting and working out
Is it safe to exercise on an empty stomach?
For the most part, yes.
Exercising in a fasted state often leads to better mental clarity and drive to push yourself in the gym.
Instead of feeling light-headed and sluggish many people feel even more energized and ready to go.
This makes sense if you think about it.
Who wants to go for a run after they’ve had a full meal?
Exercising in a fasted state can also increase your body’s fat-burning potential.
Remember that during your fasted state, your body naturally burns more fat.
Exercising in this state allows our bodies to burn even more fat.
Without a ready supply of glucose and glycogen to burn from having eaten recently, your body will adapt and pull from the only source of energy available— fat from your cells.
With your glycogen depleted from fasting and working out, the meal you eat following your workout will be stored in the most efficient way possible.
During this period, the food you consume will be used in a few different ways.
It will be converted to glycogen and stored in your muscles or burned as energy immediately to help with exercise recovery with minimal amounts stored on the body as fat.
How can I schedule working out into my day?
There are many ways to schedule a fasted workout into your day.
If you follow daily intermittent fasting by skipping breakfast, you can work out fasted right before you break your fast for the day.
This way, you work up an appetite right before you get the chance to eat again.
If you instead skip dinner, you can work out fasted as soon as you wake up and then you can immediately break your fast with the day with breakfast.
Intermittent Fasting Methods
There are several different intermittent fasting schedules that are currently popular.
These different methods work best for different people, and it’s best to experiment to figure out what works best for you.
1. Daily Intermittent Fasting
This is the most popular method and is perhaps easiest for beginners or for those hoping to make a more sustainable and lengthy change to their eating habits.
This method is also called the 16/8 method and Leangains method.
This method involves a 16 hour fast and an 8 hour eating period.
It doesn’t matter when the 8 hour eating period starts throughout the day, so you can adjust this time to whatever works best for you.
During the 8 hours you can eat 2, 3 or more meals depending on what works for you.
The most common way to complete daily fasting involves skipping breakfast.
Say your last meal is at 8pm.
Then you would fast for 16 hours until noon the following day.
Your eating window would begin at noon and last until 8pm.
Then your fast would begin again.
These hours can be shifted however you want to best fit your schedule.
Another popular pattern to follow is to skip dinner.
This involves eating from 7am or so until 3pm and then fasting for 16 hours until 7am the next day.
This method is particularly helpful for those who do not like to sleep on a full stomach and prefer to sleep fasted and be able to eat as soon as they wake up.
2. Weekly Intermittent Fasting
Weekly intermittent fasting is less “disruptive” than daily intermittent fasting because your fast only affects one to two days per week.
This is also known as the “Eat-stop-eat” method.
For example, following this protocol you might eat lunch on Monday and then fast until lunch on Tuesday.
This is a great option if you aren’t trying to lose weight but rather want to aid in toning your body and reap the other benefits of IF.
This way your intermittent fasting results will not include as dramatic weight loss because you only miss out on two to four meals per week instead of 7.
3. Alternate Day Intermittent Fasting
This method involves longer fasting periods more frequently throughout the week.
The most common way to perform this type of IF is to fast for 24 hours every other day.
For example, you would eat lunch on Monday and then stop eating until Lunch on Tuesday.
Then you would eat normally until lunch on Wednesday and then stop eating until lunch on Thursday.
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4. 5:2 Fasting
5:2 fasting involves eating normally 5 days out of the week and, fasting/restricting calories on 2 days.
Some people who follow the 5:2 fasting protocol eat up to 500 calories on fasting days, while others avoid eating completely.
5. Warrior Method
The Warrior method involves fasting for 20 hours during the day and eating during a 4 hour window at night.
The philosophy behind this method is based on feeding the body in sync with circadian rhythms.
Some believe that our species are naturally nocturnal eaters and are inherently designed to eat at night.
The fasting phase of this intermittent fasting diet involves “undereating” more than true fasting.
During the 20 hour fast, you can eat small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables.
Then you break the fast with a huge meal at night.
6. Spontaneous Meal Skipping
This method is without a doubt the easiest intermittent fasting schedule to stick to because it is completely dictated by you.
This method simply involves skipping meals when convenient.
Don’t have time for dinner one night?
Don’t feel like making breakfast this morning?
With spontaneous fasting you can still reap the benefits of entering the fasted state without planning or strict adherence to a schedule.
Like all diets and lifestyle changes, intermittent fasting may not be right for you.
But it is a relatively safe and easy diet change that yields ample results for a lot of people.
If you are interested in drastically changing your body’s fat composition while decreasing your caloric intake without eliminating the foods you love, it is definitely worth giving intermittent fasting a try.
But always, always, check with your doctor prior to starting any new diet or eating regimine.
For many, intermittent fasting is not just a diet but rather an avenue for self-improvement.
It ultimately allows you to rewire your relationship with food and gain control over your hunger as well as physically aiding your body in fat loss.
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Kimberly Clay is the founder and creative force behind What She Say. She’s a business professional, writer and editor who’s been creating and managing digital content for nearly twenty years. Her work is now focused in the areas of self-improvement and personal development, and she is passionate about helping other individuals, especially women, to find a path for living their best life.