Intermittent fasting (IF) is the new in-thing among weight watchers. It is simple to follow, does not require a lot of thought and more importantly, gives a break from the cumbersome calorie counting. Bollywood and Hollywood celebs—Hrithik Roshan, Alia Bhatt, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few, have shared their success stories with the routine and swear by it. And rightly so as the results are unbelievable! Quick weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity and lowered blood pressure and risk of heart diseases. So, have our prayers finally been answered and acche din of weight loss arrived? Well not quite. As the wise saying goes—a truth half-known is more dangerous than a lie. And so, intermittent fasting must be done with the correct knowledge of the dos and don’ts.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
What has become an instant favourite and a quick weight loss remedy among fitness enthusiasts around the world is, in reality, an eating pattern and not a diet. Intermittent fasting constitutes alternate periods of fasting and eating. In simpler terms, the emphasis is on when you eat, than what you eat. “This pattern of eating may mislead people into thinking that they can eat anything they like in the eating periods,” says Shivani Sikri, founder and chief nutritionist of Delhi based Nutri4verve. But that is not so. Stick to fresh, homemade meals cooked with healthy oils, with plenty of vegetables, fresh fruits, seeds and nuts . Deep-fried and sugar-laden foods should be a rare indulgence. “They take longer to digest and assimilate in the body, and may entirely defeat the purpose of fasting,” says Sikri.
Benefits of the ancient practice of fasting
“The voluntary withholding of food for spiritual, health or religious purpose is fasting. It has been an ancient healing practice in human history and exists in most cultures and religions,” pointed out Dr Shilpa Joshi, national vice president of the Indian Dietetic Association, at the 3rd International Diabetes Conclave 2019. “Fasting allows the body to repair, clean and lower the blood insulin levels and eventually, in managing weight,” adds Sikri.
Also Read: Your Expert Guide to Fasting
The most common methods of intermittent fasting
The popularity of intermittent fasting is also thanks to the flexibility it offers. There are various patterns of eating that you can follow, at your convenience and preference. Here are a few common patterns:
The 16:8 or Leangains method: This is one of the most convenient plans for intermittent fasting. It involves keeping a 16 hour fast and an 8-hour eating window. Which means that if you have your dinner at 8 pm, your next meal should be at noon the next day. It’s the easiest to follow because out of the 16 hours, at least 6-7 hours go in sleeping. No wonder Jennifer Aniston loves it so much!
The 5:2 method: In this method, you can follow your usual diet for 5 days a week and bring about a calorie restriction of 500-600 calories on the remaining 2 days. You can either alternate the normal eating and restricted eating days or simply keep your weekends aside for measured eating. But if you love your weekend binges, this is probably not the plan for you. After all, even Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t keep up with it!
The Warrior Diet: As the name suggests, this pattern of eating requires you to eat like a warrior. Back in time, warriors would fight during the day and so eat very little in daylight. But at night they would feast and relish on a divine and diverse spread. Similarly, this diet requires you to keep a 20 hour fast during the day and eat a good and heavy dinner. It’s best to be cautious while following this plan as it is not backed by any scientific study.
Eat-Stop-Eat: This plan involves keeping a 24 hour fast once or twice a week. It requires a lot more self-control, so it’s best you give the 14 -16 hour fast a try first, and only then move on to the 24 hours fast. Fluids such as water, vegetable soups, coconut water and coffee are allowed during the fast. On other days you may eat your regular portions.
Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
Look closely and you will realize that intermittent fasting does not place any special emphasis on breakfast. On the contrary, plans such as the 16:8, the warrior diet or even the eat-stop-eat may require you to skip your breakfast altogether. Now before you call this concept preposterous, take a moment to reflect on where was the last time you read that breakfast is a must. Chances are that it may have been an advertisement for breakfast cereals or a new range of flavoured instant oats. In fact, a report published in Time magazine earlier this year reveals that according to new research, breakfast was found to not be a reliable way to lose weight. Nor does skipping breakfast leads to weight gain. We most certainly cannot rule out the possibility that breakfast as a weight-loss concept has been hyped and promoted by cereal company funded research and their advertising strategies.
Ahmedabad based diabetologist
Dr Banshi Saboo pointed out at the 2019 Diabetes Conclave that not many Indians
consume breakfast regularly. And those who do consume it regularly, do not have
a fixed quantity or quality of breakfast. According to a 2018 review study, any
modification of a diet that suggests consumption of breakfast might not be a
great strategy for weight loss. It further says that caution must be taken
while recommending breakfast to adults for weight loss as it could also have an
opposite effect. The easy way out, recommends Saboo, “Is to not have breakfast if
you are not habituated to it. But if you do, that’s ok too. All you need to do
is add in some curd, sprouts, milk or nuts to make it protein-rich.”
If you want to follow the eat-like-your-grandmom philosophy, then have an early lunch, before you leave for work.
The good part of intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting has some evidence-based and proven health benefits that make it a trusted tool for weight loss. However, do not go to extremes, do not starve yourself, and preferably, “follow the advice of a professional health expert or doctor,” says Sikri.
Initiates cellular repair process: According to a research paper on the effects of short term fasting published in a peer-reviewed journal Autophagy, food restriction helps in discarding waste materials from the cells and improves its capacity to repair any damage that occurs within the cells. “During intermittent fasting, the body’s resistance to fight the harmful compounds gets enhanced. It also gives your cells a break to carry out their internal repair work and halt the ageing process,” says Sikri.
Helps in weight management: According to Dr Joshi, our bodies have evolved and adapted to food scarcity by first exhausting the stored glucose(glycogen) from muscles and liver and then mobilizing the stored fat in the body to provide energy to the various body systems. This helps in losing fat and ultimately losing weight. “IF decreases the hunger hormone ghrelin and increases the satiety hormone leptin. Because of this, you feel full faster and hungry less often. And this leads to reduced calorie consumption and weight loss” adds Sikri.
Helps in managing lifestyle disorders: “Intermittent Fasting lowers the blood insulin levels which help in the management of obesity and diabetes. It also brings down blood cholesterol levels. Since the insulin level goes down, it lowers the risk of brain cell dysfunction that causes Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” says Sikri
Regulates hormones: “The human growth hormone increases 5-fold during intermittent fasting which facilitates fat burning and improves muscle gain” explains Sikri.
How sustainable is intermittent fasting?
“Whatever diet you embark on has to be a lifestyle approach. It should be an eating habit that you can follow today, tomorrow and forever. And so, the results too stay with you for longer,” saïd celebrity nutritionist Pooja Makhija, speaking at a media event recently. “The only question that you need to ask yourself is—will I be ok with not eating for 16 hours a day and eat only in the 8-hour window period for the rest of my life? If yes, then go ahead. Do it, if it makes you feel happy, content and energetic but not if it makes you anxious, irritable, snappy or hangry,” she adds.
When to not follow intermittent fasting
“In case of pregnancy, lactation, eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, chronic stress and anxiety, depression or sleeping disorder, intermittent fasting is not recommended,” warns Sikri. “When the hormones are topsy-turvy, especially the thyroid hormone, I would not recommend IF,” says Makhija.