If you have tried everything to reach your fitness goals and keep plodding along, you might want to try intermittent fasting. This technique is an effective way to balance out what you eat while maintaining muscle mass. If you plan ahead and track your progress, you can make intermittent fasting, or IF, work for you.
What Is Intermittent Fasting, And Why Is It Gaining Popularity?
Intermittent fasting is fairly simple. You just avoid eating for a certain number of hours periodically.
We all do this while we sleep. Our morning meal literally refers to breaking the nighttime fast.
If you’re practicing IF, you might not eat from noon one day until noon the next or dinnertime to dinnertime. Some people fast until about 11 a.m. every day or a few days a week, skipping breakfast and eating only two afternoon meals.
The schedule is up to the individual. We’ll talk more about that later.
Intermittent Fasting Takes You Out Of The Diet Mindset
Many people turn to diets to get lean or lose weight. Cutting calories can reduce your potential for muscle gains and make your energy drop. Plus, you usually end up putting the pounds back on because you can’t keep up many diets forever.
Intermittent fasting is not a diet. You won’t really change the number of calories that you take in or the foods that you eat. What you’ll change is the frequency of your meals.
Many traditional diets require you to change a lot of things at once. You might change what you buy at the grocery store, what you snack on, what you drink and when you eat.
That requires a lot of willpower. According to the American Psychological Association, willpower is what keeps most people from implementing healthy routines in their lifestyles.
If you’re trying to be healthier, boost your metabolism or lose body fat, you probably understand this all too well. You can only change so many habits at once and make them stick.
Intermittent fasting changes your patterns of eating, but that’s it. You modify when you eat, but you don’t really have to change anything else.
In fact, one study found that mice that had access to the same food as other mice but could eat it whenever they pleased gained twice as much weight as rodents that fasted but ate the same overall number of calories. Mice that could only eat during a nine-hour period gained 26 percent of their weight, but those that could eat the same number of calories in a 24-hour period gained 65 percent of their weight.
Intermittent Fasting Is Not A Fad Cleanse
When you hear the word “fasting,” you might think of trendy cleanses that involve lemon juice, green drinks, cayenne pepper or other random ingredients. While these regimens usually help you lose some weight and eliminate bloating, they also make you lose water weight and muscle mass.
The Chopra Center explains that fasting has been done for centuries. So has detoxing by using specific foods, herbs or remedies to purify the body. However, juice cleansing is relatively new to the diet scene.
Fasting has been practiced by just about every society. It is still a tradition in certain religions. It’s an ancient healing ritual that encourages your body to rejuvenate itself from the inside out.
Hippocrates said, “To eat when you are sick, is to feed your illness.” He often prescribed a period of fasting to cure ailments.
This Forbes article explains that ancient Greek philosophers obliged their students to fast so that they could become more focused. Real Clear Science talks about Benjamin Franklin as a fitness guru. He once said, “A full belly makes a bad brain.”
Fasting has long been considered a remedy for building a healthy foundation. As food has become more plentiful, easy to get and chemically processed, however, many people don’t even know how to recognize the basic signs of hunger.
Why Is Intermittent Fasting So Popular?
There are many reasons why intermittent fasting is becoming more popular again. First of all, it’s relatively easy to implement. You don’t have to skip several meals a day, and you don’t have to go several days with a restrictive diet.
In fact, intermittent fasting isn’t so much restrictive as it is a slight change. That’s it; you can just start by skipping breakfast one day. You don’t have to count calories, keep track of what you eat at other meals or limit your nutrients.
It also produces rapid results. If you’ve been following the guidelines that tell you to eat small meals throughout the day to keep your metabolism going, you haven’t given your digestive system a break. A one-night fast can instantly reduce bloating, inflammation and that unexplainably round stomach that you can’t seem to flatten.
The Proven Health & Lifestyle Benefits Of Fasting
Medical News Today claims that IF can help people lose weight. It also has other health benefits, including:
Fasting has even been proven to help with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, according to experts.
Fasting Can Help Your Body Use Insulin
A 2011 study found that people at high risk for diabetes improved their bodies’ ability to metabolize glucose by fasting one day a week.
The implications for fasting on insulin levels are significant. Eating anything increases insulin levels in the body. Therefore, avoiding food can lower insulin levels.
It’s a little more complex than that, though. When you digest food, your bloodstream absorbs certain sugars.
Your pancreas secretes insulin to balance out the glucose in your system. The insulin helps your other cells use that glucose for energy, balancing out blood sugar levels.
Insulin resistance occurs when you have a condition that makes your body delayed in its response to insulin. Diabetes can cause this. So can eating too much sugar, carbs and processed foods, which is a problem in this country.
When you have an excess of glucose in your bloodstream most of the time, your cells become resistant to insulin. Insulin is pumped out so often that your body gets used to it.
Therefore, your cells stop responding to it. They don’t absorb the glucose and insulin as easily.
The pancreas secretes higher levels of insulin to try to get you to metabolize the glucose, but it can’t always keep up. Over time, the excess glucose gets stored as fat and contributes to other health problems.
Fasting gives your bloodstream a break from glucose. Without blood sugar fueling you, your body looks for an alternative source of fuel. It can turn to your fat cells and cholesterol molecules and burn fat instead of sugar.
IF Can Reboot Your Body’s Mechanisms
Cellular degeneration occurs when your body doesn’t get a chance to go through this waste elimination process. If you can help your cells get rid of waste, may protect your brain cells. Fasting is a long-recognized way to induce this cellular turnover.
Avoiding calories also reboots your immune function. Extended fasting can transform dormant immune cells into active ones that are constantly renewing themselves. In the study referenced here, mice experienced significant replenishment of worn out immune cells when they fasted for 2 to 4 days.
You Can Improve Your Muscle Structure By Fasting
When you fast, your body releases more human growth hormone.
Human growth hormone is crucial for building and retaining muscle mass. One study showed that human growth hormone is associated with some signs of aging, including the reduction of lean muscle, increase in body fat and thinning of the skin. Having higher levels of the substance in your body can help you look fit even as you experience more birthdays.
Fasting Can Lengthen Your Life
IF might even help you live longer. Some experts have discovered that fasting can protect healthy cells from damage. In people with cancer, restricting food might prevent cancer cells from spreading. When you do live to a ripe old age, restricting calories or fasting periodically can protect your nervous system against degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, according to this study.
Lifestyle Change Made Easier
So many health and fitness programs tout the importance of changing your lifestyle. However, that’s difficult if you have to purchase different items at the grocery store, plan out 3 to 6 meals each day and keep track of a specific diet plan. Scientists have found that some people find it easier to do IF than cut their calories in a more traditional manner.
Busy parents or professionals know that even if you’re not on a diet, it can be hard to make time for a healthy meal. If you’re doing IF and only eating twice a day, you’ll have more time to do the other things that you enjoy.
You will also probably save money because you don’t need to put together varied, well-rounded meals as frequently. Many people don’t make up for the missed meals. If you’re not replacing the eliminated calories elsewhere, you might be able to cut your grocery bill by about one-third.
How Fasting Can Help You Achieve Fitness Goals
If you’ve tried to lose weight and plateaued or gained it all back, traditional methods may be to blame. For years, we’ve been told that we should eat fewer calories than we burn if we want to lose weight. It’s a basic mathematical formula. However, there’s more at play than math when it comes to fitness goals.
Your hormones and metabolism affect the rate at which you burn calories. It’s not just a numbers game.
Some of the excess sugar that circulates in your bloodstream is converted to glycogen. Your body uses glycogen for fuel before it starts to pull from your fat cells. When you sleep, you naturally fast.
During this time, your brain uses a lot of glycogen for fuel. As insulin levels drop, your body turns to fatty acids to supply it with energy, according to NutriDesk. Of course, if you eat a lot of food before bedtime, your body just uses that glucose for energy.
If you perform intermittent fasting, you can make your body burn more fat by reducing glucose and glycogen stores. Studies show that people can reduce their blood glucose levels by 20 percent or more when they’re fasting. This quickly depletes the amount of glycogen stored in the liver.
Regular Diets Put You Into Starvation Mode
When you restrict your diet or exercise excessively, you might be burning more calories than you take in. Although this is the generally accepted way to lose weight, it can also put your body into starvation mode.
Your body doesn’t get enough calories to fuel its productivity, so it tries to conserve energy. It does this by lowering your metabolism. As soon as you stop burning so many calories or consume more than you expend, your weight creeps back up.
Experts aren’t sure how long metabolic damage can last. One study found that people who experienced malnutrition in developing countries were more likely to have abdominal fat, high blood pressure and lower metabolisms. That’s a dramatic way to make this point, but it goes to show that starving yourself without taking breaks doesn’t help you achieve your fitness goals.
Rev Your Metabolism With IF
Your body responds differently to IF than to cutting calories. Proponents of overall calorie reduction say that fasting is just a dramatic version of a traditional diet.
If you skip one meal a day, you instantly cut out 500 to 800 calories. People who focus on reducing calories from each meal by trading food options or eating smaller portions might eliminate 100 to 200 calories from their diets per day. Over the course of a week, they’ll reduce their caloric intake by the same amount as the people who fasted.
But it’s the frequency of mealtimes that makes a difference, not the time-honored calories-in, calories-out theory. In other words, cutting 200 calories per day is different than reducing 1,000 calories at once.
Medscape describes a study that found that only 1 in 210 obese men and 1 in 124 obese women lose weight and keep it off with traditional calorie-cutting diets.
Even contestants on “The Biggest Loser” don’t tend to maintain their weight loss goals. According to the New York Times, their bodies were fighting the calorie reduction by reducing their metabolism. They were actually burning 500 fewer calories per day than was expected.
The key to successful weight loss is to maintain your metabolism. Fasting makes that happen through the mechanisms that we have already discussed.
The Hormonal Adaptations That Make Fasting Effective
The hormonal changes that occur when you’re fasting help you lose weight without lowering your metabolism. Those don’t happen when you’re eating throughout the day even if you reduce your food intake slightly.
We’ve already discussed how IF helps your body regulate insulin and increase human growth hormone. Intermittent fasting has been found to affect other hormones in the following ways:
Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone. It may seem counterintuitive that raising the chemicals that make you feel hungry can help you lose weight. It also seems obvious that fasting may make you hungrier.
However, a ghrelin boost increases dopamine levels in the brain. This contributes to a good mood, which can help you find the motivation to keep up your fitness goals. Ghrelin also increases levels of human growth hormone, according to this study.
Improving Leptin Sensitivity
Leptin works with ghrelin to regulate hunger. It’s a hormone that is produced by your fat cells. Leptin tells your body to use fat for energy.
Inflammation makes your body resistant to leptin. It doesn’t receive the signals as efficiently, so it doesn’t burn as much fat for energy. Instead, it might burn lean muscle or sugar. Dr. Axe explains that fasting can reset your leptin sensitivity.
Choosing A Fasting Schedule That Works For You
Now that you know the benefits of intermittent fasting, you might wonder how to get started. Your body’s fed state, during which it is digesting, processing and absorbing food, lasts about 12 hours. Most IF plans are at least 12 hours long to help your body take advantage of the fat burning. The longer you fast, the smaller your eating window will be.
There are six popular fasting schedules. Each has its pros and cons. Read more about them to determine which one will work best for your lifestyle.
The 16/8 Method
This is also referred to as the Leangains protocol. It’s one of the easiest ways to get started with fasting. It involves 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8-hour eating period. Hugh Jackman used this method to get lean for his role in Wolverine.
Most people choose to skip breakfast. They might fast from 7 p.m. to 11 a.m. Then, they’ll eat three meals, refraining from eating after 7 p.m.
This 24-hour fast is usually done once or twice a week. You eat normally for one or two days, and then you fast from dinnertime one day until dinnertime the next.
The 5:2 Diet
This is the most popular method of intermittent fasting, according to Healthline. You don’t have to eliminate food completely. Instead, you choose two days a week to restrict your caloric intake to only 500 or 600 calories.
The Alternate-Day Diet
This method involves severely restricting calories every other day. On your fasting days, you’ll eat nothing or up to 25 percent of your regular daily caloric intake.
This plan involves eating less than you need to during the day and more than you need to at night. According to Livestrong, the diet’s creator claims that this is how people naturally ate in pre-industrial times.
Spontaneous Meal Skipping
Most people already do this type of fasting from time to time. It’s not planned and just involves skipping a meal here and there.
Maximizing Gains By Eating Smart
Just because you’re generally allowed to eat what you want when you’re not fasting doesn’t mean you should binge on junk. When you are fasting, you can consume calorie-free liquids, such as herbal tea, black coffee and water. A splash of milk in your coffee won’t be detrimental.
You might want to stay away from artificial sweeteners, which can make you hungrier. Eating a high-protein meal before you fast can help you stay full for longer. Lean proteins, like chicken, fish and low-fat beef, are often good choices.
Legumes, like beans, contain a lot of carbohydrates and can make you feel hungrier. However, they’re a good plant-based source of protein. Consuming a decent amount of protein and carbohydrates after working out can replenish you.
Fat is satisfying. Don’t limit it completely. Cooking your food in olive oil and eating healthy fats like avocados can help fill you up.
It’s surprising that we might crave a food as bland as white cheese when we have a rainbow of vegetables at our disposal. Take advantage of the variety of produce that’s available.
If you fill your plate with lots of different vegetables, you’re less likely to feel like you’re restricting yourself when eating healthy. Plus, you’ll consume a wide variety of nutrients, which can help you reach your health goals.
Guide To Consuming Supplements While Fasting
Taking supplements can help you maintain the balance of nutrients that you might miss out on while fasting. They can also help you keep up your energy and recovery properly after a workout.
According to Livestrong, the most effective supplements to use while fasting are:
You can take BCAAs throughout the day. Caffeine, beta-alanine and EGCG are ideal to use before a workout.
Pairing A Fasting Schedule With Popular Diets
If you’ve already committed to a certain diet, you might wonder if you can also work in IF. That’s usually not a problem.
The Atkins, Zone, Paleo, Alkaline and Ketogenic diets limit your carbohydrate intake. When you follow those diets, you push your body toward burning fat instead of glucose. You won’t typically experience a spike in insulin levels, so you don’t need regular meals anyway.
You might find that IF helps you get over plateaus when you’re following other diets. You’re also less likely to binge when you do eat because you’ve established a healthy eating habit by following those food regimens.
Tracking Progress During Fasting
One of the reasons why sporadic meal skipping doesn’t work as well as other fasting methods is because people who do that aren’t always tracking their progress. Research shows that setting goals not only motivates you but also helps you feel more satisfied with your achievements. When you set goals, you’re more likely to keep up your healthy habits.
However, you’ll never know if you reached your goals if you don’t track your progress. Tracking also helps you make sure that you don’t overdo it. Collecting data can help you fine-tune your technique and even share information with your medical professional.
Fortunately, monitoring your advancement is easy with modern tools.
Mobile Fasting Trackers
There are a few trackers that you’ll find to be helpful in your IF journey.
Zero For iOS
Zero is named for the amount of food that you eat while fasting. It is an easy way to keep track of your daily progress. Choose from predefined fasts or customize your own.
With this app, you can keep track of the hours that you fasted. You can export the data to see trends over time. This can help you increase or decrease the number of hours per day or days per week that you fast.
Vora For Android
If you don’t have an iOS device, you can use Vora on an Android operating system. It’s also available for iOS.
You can choose whatever fasting method you want. Just enter all of your fasts into the app, and you can track the last seven.
Other Mobile Weight Tracking Tools
Keeping track of your weight as you go through a wellness regimen lets you pat yourself on the back when you’re doing well. It can also take your mind off of planning your meals and counting your calories.
Lose It! For iOS/Android
Lose it is a powerful but user-friendly system of keeping track of weight and calories consumed. You can enter your goals and even predict future weight loss. Enter your exercise and get an idea of the number of calories you burned.
It also involves a social aspect. You can join teams or connect with other users for accountability.
Fitness & Bodybuilding For iOS/Android
This is one of the best bodybuilding apps available. You can take the stress out of planning your workouts by following the preset plans for fitness, bodybuilding and powerlifting. Choose the muscle groups you want to work, and follow along to get through your exercise routine.
Tracking Tools For IF With Specialized Diets
If you are trying to incorporate IF into a specialized diet, you can use one of the following apps to help you along.
Atkins And Zone Diets
Glooko is a blood sugar app that monitors your blood sugar levels. You can see how your diet and activity levels affect glucose. This app is free when it’s sponsored by a medical professional, insurance company or employer.
Pooptime helps you track your bathroom usage. While this may seem kind of gross, it’s important for people with chronic gut issues.
If you’re on a Paleo diet to improve your digestive health, you probably want to monitor more than weight loss. This app can help you do it. You can also use it to evaluate how your fasting improves your elimination.
Many people who suffer from epilepsy benefit from going on a ketogenic diet. Seizure Tracker is a free app that can be used to track seizure activity, appointments and medication schedules.