Intermittent fasting can be considered one of the most discussed and debated dietary protocol of the last years. It is not a diet since it doesn’t include calories counting or division of macronutrients but it consists in paying attention to the way, especially the time, in which we consume our food intake. There has been a lot of controversy around intermittent fasting lately, it is one of the hottest topic in the nutrition as well as fitness world because IF (Intermittent Fasting) in a certain sense, imposes you to eat in opposite direction to the classic assumptions and advices that have been advocated for years and years. One common assumption is that to lose fat and gain lean muscles it is needed to eat as many meals as possible, usually 6 per day in order to continuously keep the metabolism active. It also goes against other suppositions, which the majority of us spent the last decades believing to be true; namely “skipping breakfast will make you fat” or “skipping meals will make your body activate the starvation mood and you will lose muscles”.
Before discussing the main controversies, let’s introduce briefly what intermittent fasting is.In a nutshell, the protocol consists in dividing the daily hours into two main windows, the feeding window and the fasting one. Hence, alternating intervals of not eating (fasting) with moment when you are allowed to eat. The length of each interval can vary according to the type of IF you decide to apply but the main protocols are 16-8 and 20-4. The most widely adopted one is known as “lean-gains” and it consists of 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of feeding.
The word “fasting” can frighten a lot of people but we all already do some fasting intervals during our day. Just think about every time you do not eat, you are actually fasting; the longest interval is every time we sleep, when we fast for at least 6-8 hours. The breakfast, literally means “break the overnight fast”. The main problem is that most of us aren’t on structured timetable of fasting and therefore few people enjoy the benefits of it but they feel the negative sides (e.g. missed-meal cramps), the important fact is that fasting randomly and uncontrolled will not benefit in any case your body composition neither your weight, only having a set diet pattern can beneficially improve your body as well as your health.
Just out of curiosity, one of the research that supported the importance of breakfast was based on the fact that on average who has breakfast is fitter than who skips it, for instance he is less likely to be overweight and more likely to be in the ideal weight range. But this result is, statistically speaking, biased. In fact, a lot of the components of the sample taken for the “no-breakfast” side are people with irregular diet habits, that were used to eat in an improper manner and without an appropriate education about food. Therefore, there is not a clear relationship between breakfast and body composition. Another fact that researchers pointed out is that if you skip breakfast you are more likely to reach high sugar and fatty snacks during the day. Again, this doesn’t show a consequence of not having breakfast in itself but strengthen the bottom line idea, that is all a matter of diet and food education. Especially providing the nutrients needed by the body, preventing lack of elements and subsequent food craving.
In a controlled fed state, the human body uses insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas) to bring sugar into cells to produce energy. During fasting period, the level of glucose (sugar) in our blood significantly decreases, consequently decreasing the insulin release needed to our body to use the sugar in order to produce energy. Therefore, since both glucose and insulin level are lower, IF can lead to loss of weight as a decrease in insulin release results in increased fatty acid oxidation.
Simply speaking, our body allows us to do two main activities. Either we store food energy or we burn it. As a consequence, our body can use the fat reserves as a source of energy only when we don’t introduce further food, it is clear then that if we keep on eating from the minute we get out of bed until when we go to sleep, we don’t furnish time to our body to burn food energy. Both the one held as a reserve and the energy introduced by the daily food intake.
The simply way to increase energy consumption is to increase the time of our body spend on burning energy (fasting). That is, after all, what our body is born and designed for. This is what animals do, and at the end aren’t we animal? Therefore, fasting shouldn’t sound weird because there is nothing wrong with that.If you are constantly eating, as is often promoted, your body will only use the incoming food energy and never burn the body fat reserve.
Obviously, the scientific processes underneath are a myriad, but I won’t bore you with that (for the moment). Some of the main evidence-based as well as possible benefits are:
- Decreasing body fat
- Gaining lean muscles
- Increasing mental focus and clarity
- Decreasing “food craving”
- Reducing insulin resistance
- Lowering diabetes type-2 risk
- Decreasing Oxidative stress
- Decreasing body inflammation
- Preventing Hearth diseases
- Inducing cellular reparation
- Preventing cancer
- Improving brain health
- Preventing Alzheimer’s diseases
Now, Intermittent fasting may sound like a sort of life elixir but the idea behind is to reproduce those ancient patterns where food might have been scarce until the next hunt or gathering. Even though it is being discussed recently, this habit has been practiced throughout all of human history until it has been virtually forgotten. As a proof, there is a vast literature about fasting for spiritual and religious purposes.
In my opinion, although there is still lot of room for further progress and research, hitherto evidence makes it worth to try it because the positive benefits highly overcome the negative ones (if there are any).
There are different patterns of IF that can be applied to your daily life, making it real flexible and easy to do for the average people. In fact, if we consider that the latter usually have just a coffee and croissant for breakfast and then nothing until lunch, it is easy to understand that this dietary protocol can be applied effortlessly by the many. It is simply a matter of habit.