As waistlines expand, pear shaped bodies deemed unhealthy, obesity an unwelcome guest on our frame, the search is on for that one quick solution that will help us shed scores of pounds in the shortest time span. Not just weight, the general lack of fitness, getting tired easily, never alert and agile, slow metabolism and constant fatigue, all indicate that something is not quite right within. Little wonder then, every few months a new revolutionary diet appears on social media, with rave reviews, and a growing list of followers, who claim to feel good inside out. The rush is not just to lose weight to look better, even though appearances remain important, the larger issue is the health hazards that come with weight issues, the looming threat of diabetes, heart problems, hypertension and more. Laziness caused by fatigue and lack of strength just take the fun out of life, and not being at ease carrying the hundred plus pounds of weight, all add to the frenzy building up, to address the weight issue.
Enter Intermittent Fasting, a recent success story being recommended by doctors and dieticians to lose weight and improve general health, not through the typical diet revamp route, but by rescheduling our existing diets. There are no restrictions imposed, no foods prohibited, the only change recommended is, when to eat. Intermittent fasting literally means, taking a break from food in-between, an all-encompassing term for eating patterns that involve long gaps between meals.
Interesting, how timing can have an impact on our health, fitness and body weights. But if we turn the clock back to 70-80 years ago, people did unknowingly, follow the intermittent fasting route, eating in the morning before setting out for the day, and then not having any food for 12-14 hours, till dinner. Eating at dawn and dusk, and nothing in between, was also followed by the working class, and helped them stay healthy.
Perhaps it is the fasting concept that works. Fasting may now have become a fad, but traditionally, it was linked to religious rituals, and these continue even today. The Islamic ritual of fasting during Ramadan, the Hindu concept of vrat (fasting in Hindi) on certain festivals and specific days of the week, Yom Kippur fasting in Judaism, and Buddhist fasting practices, are all familiar, and people proclaim to feel fitter and lighter subsequently.
How it works
Intermittent fasting is supposedly effective in helping people become lean and lose excess fat, without having to go on crash diets, zero-calorie days and having to starve even as the body longs for nourishment. Experts who recommend intermittent fasting say that it keeps the good weight and helps to shed only the bad component of flab in the body, without too much fuss and effort, only by stretching the time gaps between meals. A gap of over six hours is needed before one eats again, because it takes six hours to digest the food eaten and get stored, and eating before six hours means that one is using up the fresh store of energy, so there is no question of burning the calories stored from the previous meals.
The human body stays in a ‘fed state’ after food, and a ‘fasted state’ once the food has been digested and absorbed. The period while we are eating and the food is being digested and absorbed, is the fed state, that lasts for up to 6 hours. During these six hours it is extremely tough to burn fat since insulin levels are high. After six hours, what was eaten has been fully absorbed, and this post-absorptive state is the fasted state, when there is nothing to digest or absorb, and insulin levels reduce. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. It is during this time that the body can burn the stored-up fat, the fat that was not accessible during the fed state. Since most people eat more frequent meals and snacks, they never reach the fasted state, and their fat deposits can never burn, and they stay at the same weight levels or even see it increase. Fasting brings changes at the cellular and molecular level in the body, and hormone levels get adjusted to make the fat deposits more accessible, while also initiating important cell repair processes.
All this makes sense and seems to be a rational explanation of the way our body uses what we eat. Each morsel of food is broken down by enzymes in our gut, and the tiny molecules eventually enter our blood stream to be carried to various parts of our body. The refined sugar, white flour, rice and other carbohydrates are broken down into sugar which provides the body cells with energy. Whatever the cells do not use, gets stored as fat in the fat cells. The sugar enters the cells with the aid of insulin, and it is responsible for bringing sugar to the fat cells and keeping it there. If we avoid snacking between meals, the insulin levels reduce and the cells can then release the stored sugar to be used for energy. But fresh intake of food perks up insulin levels and the stored sugar does not get used. This means that insulin levels need to go down substantially enough, and for long enough, for the fat cells to release what has been stored in them, for energy.
Types of Intermittent Fasting
As the name reveals, the root of the plan lies in fasting, or abstaining from eating, ideally extending the nighttime fasting duration till midmorning. This is in keeping with the body rhythm of working during the day and eating, and resting at night, which also includes abstinence from eating. This has become our day and night cycle, called circadian rhythm- which controls our metabolism.
Intermittent fasting can be done on a daily or weekly basis. There are many types followed by people, some of the popular ones are listed below:
- The 16-8 method – this is known as the leangains protocol, that involves skipping breakfast to extend the night-time fasting gap to nearly 16 hours, and restricting eating any number meals within a span of 8 hours.
- Eat-stop-eat – this involves eating one day and fasting the next day, that is, not eating anything between dinner today and dinner tomorrow, at least twice a week.
- The 5:2 plan – this is a weekly plan which involves eating just 500-600 calories a day on two non-consecutive days of the week, but eating normally on the other five days.
- Alternate day fasting – This involves fasting on alternate days and consuming just 500-600 calories on those days.
- The warrior diet – As the name suggests, this involves eating like warriors, nothing during the day, but heavy feasting at dinner time which stretches for more than a couple of hours. The fasting duration is expected to be around 20 hours.
Finally, skipping meals whenever one feels like, is also a form of intermittent fasting.
Whichever pattern is followed, a few common rules are beneficial. These focus on the types of food consumed, like avoiding refined grains and sugar. It is healthier to eat more fruits, vegetables and natural foods rather than processed foods. A diet rich in beans, lentils, whole grains, lean meats and healthier fats is beneficial across age groups. Eating at night must be avoided. Staying active holds the key to burning stored fat.
Intermittent fasting has yet to face extensive research for extended periods since it is relatively new. But experts are convinced that even if weight loss is not evident, it does improve the metabolism, makes the person feel lighter, fitter and more energetic, and therefore perhaps worth a try.