What Is Intermittent Fasting (And Is It Safe)?

What Is Intermittent Fasting (And Is It Safe)?

Diet fads are a dime a dozen nowadays. From adopting a wheat-free state of mind to eliminating carbs to consuming nothing but juice, it feels like every week another sparkly new diet promises to help us shed the baby weight or churn out abs of steel with no exercise.

Are we buying it? We're skeptical. But do we try it anyway? Absolutely.

Still, there's one that is attracting more than just skepticism-It's attracting picky eaters by the droves. It's the journey of fasting … to lose weight.

While the practice of fasting has been around for centuries for religious purposes, intermittent fasting (IF) has gained hype in nutrition circles for boosting weight loss, leaving many quick to criticize.

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While there are many different approaches, essentially, intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating where you alternate between periods of fasting and not fasting. Some intermittent fasting plans encourage you to fast for a full 24 hours on two non-consecutive days a week, while another popular approach instructs you to eat all your daily calories in an 8-hour window thereby fasting for 14 to 16 hours a day.

While our gut reactions may be to dismiss these plans as acts of dietary insanity, an increasing number of physicians and nutrition experts are saying intermittent fasting just might hold the key to optimal health and vitality.

To get a better grasp of the potential health benefits of intermittent fasting, it's best to start with what it's not. Like any other healthy, balanced diet, it is not about starving yourself and then binge eating to lose weight. Simply put, total calories still matter on any diet, so if you eat all the calories you "fasted off" in the previous hours, you won't see any change in your weight or overall health.

Rather, the goal with intermittent fasting is to time your meals-with a focus on healthy food choices and less simple, refined carbohydrates-to allow for lengthier periods of fasting, or not eating. Why does this turn your body into an efficient fat burning machine? When you feed your body, it has to constantly produce insulin to normalize your blood sugar. The production of insulin, in turn, stops our bodies from using fat as a source of energy, in favor of sugar. Therefore, when you limit yourself to smaller, infrequent meals every day, you limit the overproduction of insulin, which shifts your body into burning fat as its main source of fuel, rather than sugar. Later, frustration-and hello to a lighter you!

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With that in mind, new science is showing that there are plenty of health benefits associated with intermittent fasting aside from just weight loss. According to Dr. Stephen Freedland, associate professor of urology and pathology at the Duke University Medical Center, intermittent fasting can reduce your risk of chronic disease, such as cancer, by normalizing insulin. Mark Mattson, senior investigator for the National Institute of Aging, also found in one study that patients' inflammation declined after cutting their calorie intake by 80 percent on alternate days for eight weeks. Additionally, once your body makes the switch from burning fat instead of sugar, you won't crave as much sugar. So, say goodbye to those hunger pangs responsible for weight gain.

Should You Try Intermittent Fasting?

Let's face it: Intermittent fasting is not for everyone. Those with Type 1 Diabetes or issues with blood sugar, should first focus on stabilizing blood sugar by improving the quality of their diets before attempting a fast. Also, women who are breastfeeding or pregnant are also advised to avoid any type of fasting before consulting with their physician.

Existing health issues aside, experts admit that, for some, intermittent fasting may just be too hard to integrate into their lifestyles.

"I know, from working with many hundreds of people in this area, that most people aren't going to be able to do it [fasting]," says Richard Bloomer, chair of health sport sciences at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. "Wake up tomorrow and try not to eat until three in the afternoon. And then do that every day. Most people need to have a life, too.'"

Still, if you want to give it a go, fasting advocates suggest going for 12 to 16 hours with only drinking water, and then see how your body feels. Remember, if you eat your last meal at 8 p.m. and wake up at 8 a.m., you have already successfully gone 12 hours without eating. Try staving off a few more hours by pushing off breakfast. (It may be easier than you think.) When you do eat, the goal is not to hit the fast food drive-thru, but to make healthy food choices by replacing carbohydrates with healthy fats such as avocado, eggs, nuts, and oils. If you like how you feel, you have a number of intermittent fasting programs to choose from, such as Brad Pilon's über popular "Eat Stop Eat."

Remember, life is short and meant to be enjoyed to the fullest-this includes enjoying what you eat. Intermittent fasting may just be one approach to finding a healthier, happier, lighter you. 

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