Intermittent Fasting Basics: How to Improve Health by Eating Less OftenApr 29, 2022 ● By Sheila Julson
Fasting has been part of religious and cultural practices since ancient times, but now it is entering into everyday American eating habits. Intermittent fasting (IF), which involves restraining from eating for periods ranging from hours to days, was the most popular dietary strategy among Americans in 2020, outpacing low-fat keto diets and “clean eating”, reports the International Food Information Council. About 10 percent of survey respondents reported that they were following IF diet procedures, usually for weight loss and better health.
“Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle,” says Jerron Hill, an anesthesiologist, in Plano, Texas, who has practiced it for two years and found himself with more energy. “Many metabolic syndromes and diseases can be avoided by making IF a way of life.”
Research on the health benefits of IF is ongoing, but Hill says that advantages include stabilized blood sugar levels, because insulin levels rise after eating meals. “In a fasted state, insulin levels fall, blood sugar stabilizes and fat stores can be utilized as a source of energy,” he says. Other benefits he cites include lowered blood pressure, decreased low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” LDL cholesterol, and lower triglycerides
There are several IF methods. The 16/8 method is most popular and involves fasting for 16 hours and eating within an eight-hour window each day. The 5:2 plan is for those that would rather fast twice a week and eat regularly the other five days. Another method known as OMAD involves eating one meal a day. While most IF models do not restrict specific foods, they encourage the consumption of nourishing, satiating, whole foods. Snacking is discouraged.
Women’s Fasting Needs Differ
“In the United States, 90 percent of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. Fasting is one of many strategies that can help people improve their metabolic health. That translates to being a healthy weight and having balanced hormones,” says Cynthia Thurlow, a nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Everyday Wellness Project, an online subscription plan. Her new book, Intermittent Fasting Transformation, integrates IF with women’s hormonal needs during every stage of life.
“Women need to fast differently,” Thurlow emphasizes. “A woman in peak childbearing years under age 35 has to account and fast for her menstrual cycle, meaning her body is much more sensitive to macronutrient depletion or changes than a menopausal woman. Younger women need to limit fasting if they are already lean. They need to avoid fasting five to seven days prior to their menstrual cycle and remain attuned to messages their bodies send them in response to sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise.” In general, once women reach menopause, they experience less hormonal fluctuation and thus more flexibility to fast on a daily basis, she says, although they, too, should keep an eye on their experiences with sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise.
Planning for Success
The word “fasting” often conjures up thoughts of hunger and starvation, but proper planning will leave us full and satisfied while practicing IF. “When you’re eating a balanced diet and not necessarily following a particular fad or specific type of diet, you can enjoy nourishing meals without restrictions and still practice IF,” says lifestyle coach Laura Fuentes, of Madisonville, Louisiana, author of the e-book Intermittent Fasting for Women.
Fuentes recommends starting with the 16/8 model, because approximately half of the 16-hour fasting time is spent sleeping. “There’s also downtime in the evening while you’re preparing to sleep. In the morning, most of us are getting ready for work or getting kids off to school, and we don’t eat right away. Those hours are generally not focused on food.”
When it’s time to eat, fasts should be broken with satiating, nutritious food, not a light snack. The first meal of the day should be nutritious, with protein and healthy fats. Breaking a fast with just an apple, or carrots and hummus, will lead to hunger and eventual snacking.
A common misnomer is that we must eat ketogenic or low-carb diets while practicing IF. While carbs need to be considered, Thurlow emphasizes eating nutrient-dense, whole foods and fewer processed foods, whether they are part of keto, paleo, omnivore or vegetarian diets.
Some people practice “clean” fasting by consuming only water, black tea or other calorie-free beverages during the fasting time. Others prefer “dirty” fasting and might consume a handful of grapes, walnuts or other foods or beverages containing less than 50 calories during the fast. “I like patients to understand the value of a clean fast,” Thurlow says. “People might think 50 calories doesn’t count, but that is food, and that does break a fast.”
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.
Recipes to Support Intermittent Fasting