- Before we can discuss intermittent fasting benefits, we must first know what intermittent fasting is. Intermittent Fasting (IF) is the self-imposed abstaining from food for a specified period, usually about 16 hours with a window of 8 hours to consume meals. Most commonly, this is achieved by skipping breakfast and having the first meal of the day at around noon, but some people take intermittent to mean abstinence of anywhere from 12 to 18 hours.
Intermittent Fasting Benefits: Is Intermittent Fasting Just Another Fad?
The short answer is no. Although not a lot of human studies have been done about Intermittent Fasting, this is in no way a new phenomenon. In 1900, an American physician by the name of Edward Hooker Dewey wrote a book called The No-Breakfast Plan and Fasting Cure.
The premise of his book, which in its entirety reads like a human experiment, is that a lack of hunger indicates Nature’s need to heal and digest existing food and to successfully function and fight against the disease, there must be adequate time given for Nature to run its course.
He suffered from headaches and digestive upset most of his life until he awoke one day and went without his breakfast, which he most often had out of habit rather than hunger. It was the first day he felt truly well, and he adopted the No-Breakfast Plan for himself.
How is Intermittent Fasting Different Than Other Fasts
While there is likely calorie reduction during Intermittent Fasting, it does not focus on this aspect. Instead, the focus is on giving the digestive tract a chance to eliminate and heal properly. Intermittent Fasting is a lifestyle, whereas other fasts are incorporated into a lifestyle occasionally for specific, often short-term dietary goals.
Four Types of Fasting
- Juice Fast: This type of liquid fast is usually undertaken for cleansing and weight-loss purposes. Unless there are specific health restrictions which disallow for solid foods, there is no fixed rule for when or how often juicing fasts can occur. Individuals may choose a strict regimen of only fruit or vegetables for one to ten days; others try it for longer. Many people turn to this type of fast after holidays or after a period of binging to detox.
- Cleansing Fast: Feeding the body something to expedite elimination and dispose of toxins is commonly practiced by many people. Cayenne and lemon is one example of this, as is aloe vera.
- Alternate Day Fast (ADF): This type of fast is often compared with IF in terms of decreasing the digestive load, but it is more in line with a calorie restricted diet leading to possibly more difficulty in adhering to it. With IF, athletes and those requiring a specific amount of calories can still obtain those within the 8 hour period.
- 16:8 Fast: In this type of intermittent fasting, people will restrict their eating time to eight hours per day, while fasting for the remaining 16. People will consume all their calories for the day between, for example, 10am and 6pm or 12pm and 8pm. Technically, people are allowed to eat whatever they want within that window, but we suggest sticking to natural whole foods to achieve maximal results. Experts also suggest, as reported by Prevention, starting your eating window earlier in the day because blood sugar control and metabolism tend to be higher in the morning. This will help burn calories more efficiently.
Studies to Support Intermittent Fasting Benefits
Other than Dr. Dewey’s accounts of treatments for his patients nearly 120 years ago, there aren’t many studies done on humans alone in our time. Obviously more human studies need to be done, but the following are extremely promising. Most thus far conducted are on mice, rats, and fruit flies. They are still noteworthy in relation to the beneficial effects of IF.
Improved Cognitive Function
A vital protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps to produce new brain cells and protects these cells from premature cell death. Studies show that a deficient amount of BDNF has been present in instances of impaired learning, depression, and even Alzheimer’s. Early studies show that Intermittent Fasting can increase levels of BDNF.
A 2014 study conducted on rats and published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation showed BDNF reduction was prevented and brain inflammation was suppressed in the subjects on a 30 day IF regimen.
Initially, IF appears to be another calorie restrictive diet, and some people treat it as such, but one indication is that a benefit to IF-induced weight loss is that it is visceral fat being lost, and not just wasting muscle or water, as in a crash diet or prolonged illness.
One study compared 2 groups of healthy, resistance-training males over an 8 week period to find that those put on an IF diet (consuming three meals in an 8 hour period at 1pm, 4pm, and 8 pm) “showed a decrease in fat mass,” even though both groups measured the same in maximal strength and measurements of arm and thigh muscle areas. The IF group also showed “testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 decreased significantly” while there were no changes in either of those to the control group (who consumed 3 meals in a 24 hour period at 8am, 1pm, and 8pm)
Early studies have found that IF could aide in the prevention of Type 2 diabetes, according to an article published in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine. When comparing calorie restrictive (CR) diets to alternate day fasting (ADF) and intermittent fasting, the CR subjects have more weight loss, but all three had a comparable visceral fat loss, and reductions in fasting insulin, and insulin resistance. Given that CR is a more difficult diet to adhere to and often not realistic in terms of lifestyle, this is optimistic for type 2 diabetes treatment and prevention. (5)
Improved Cardiovascular Health
The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry published an article in March 2005 linking heart and brain health to both CR and IF diets. Rodents on IF diets had higher resistance to heart and brain damage after heart disease or stroke episode. This is linked to “reduced oxidative damage and increased cellular resistance.” (6)
Is Intermittent Fasting Worth Trying?
Preliminary studies (as well as a text more than a century old) point to the following resulting from IF:
- Increased cognitive function
- Weight loss/maintenance
- Diabetes prevention
- Cardiovascular strength
Giving our bodies a chance to digest, heal, and function optimally is the goal. With proper planning, the intermittent fasting benefits could be fantastic.