Photo by Filip Mroz
Your diet isn’t perfect but it’s certainly better than most. You hit the gym regularly and do your best to get plenty of rest. Yet, you’re not seeing the progress you’d hoped for. Those stubborn love handles just won’t disappear and you still suffer from the inevitable mid-afternoon crash. It’s discouraging. Believe, me I know. This was my Groundhog Day for years. Despite focusing onsleep and experimenting with a variety of diets, my performance was suffering at work, at home, and in the gym.
It wasn’t until listening to a podcast with Dr. Jason Fung that I learned my energy crisis was likely attributed to when I was eating, not what. Dr. Fung, one of the world’s leading experts on fasting, explained that by simply timing when we eat (or don’t eat), our bodies respond favorably by boosting brain function, burning fat, decreasing inflammation, and even protecting us from disease. It sounded too good to be true. All I had to do was not eat? The rewards seemed well worth the effort so I gave it a try and have been reaping the benefits of intermittent fasting for over a year now.
What Is Intermittent Fasting and I How Do I Start?
I learned quickly that there was a little more to fasting than simply not eating. There are many different kinds of fasts, each differing in length and the benefits they offer. Depending on how much you want to commit and what your goals are, you can generally break it down into two main categories: intermittent fasting and extended fasting. I decided on the approach that seemed easiest to implement and offered the most bang for my caloric buck: intermittent fasting.
The 16/8 Plan: Time Restricted Eating
Made popular by Hollywood powerhouses like Hugh Jackman and Terry Crews, the most common method of intermittent fasting, also known as time-restricted eating, is the 16/8 plan: restrict eating to eight hours, fast with water or other non-caloric beverages for the other 16. It’s simple. Start the fast after dinner, say 8:00 pm. Sleep through the night, skip breakfast, and eat lunch at a normal hour, around noon. Boom... You’ve just fasted for 16 hours. You now have an 8-hour window to consume the normal allotment of daily calories. There are several other methods of intermittent fasting but the appeal of 16/8 is its simplicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a school teacher, IT guy, or high-powered CEO; intermittent fasting is easy to incorporate into your life regardless of schedule and other lifestyle constraints. Since implementing, intermittent fasting has undoubtedly benefited my life.
3 Benefits of Intermittent Fasting and How It's Improved My Life:
Photo by Freddie Marriage
1. Intermittent Fasting Increases Productivity
Most people scoff at the mention of fasting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Why are you starving yourself?” or “Ugh, I wouldn’t have the energy to get anything done.” In actuality, one of the greatest benefits of fasting I’ve experienced is mental clarity and the ability to focus and achieve goals at work. It’s important to point out that fasting, when done properly, is not starving yourself; it’s a healthy process that provides a myriad of benefits for both body and mind. Only within the past couple hundred years has food been readily available. Before that it was common to go long periods of time without food. If our ancestors couldn’t function when they were hungry, we wouldn’t be here. Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging points out that--because we’ve evolved for success in seeking and acquiring food--our innate instincts actually drive our brain to function best when we are hungry and physically engaged.
After a brief adaptation phase when you first start fasting, those hangry moments will become fewer and fewer. It takes a couple of weeks to get your body used to deriving its energy from fat as opposed to carbohydrates (in the form of a sugary snack every few hours). The average person eats 3 meals, 2-4 snacks, plus caloric drinks over the course of a single day. I’m not going to lie, in the beginning getting past cravings can be a hurdle. I found that a combination of green tea (straight, no sugar) was what I needed to take the edge off. Water, green tea, and black coffee are are all zero calories and won’t break the fast. They can supplement your cognitive boost. When lunchtime does roll around, it’s important to break the fast with a nutrient dense, low-carb option. This will help to sustain energy and maintain the cognitive enhancing effects of the fast. It’s amazing how much more productive a day can be when you’re not constantly fighting off a sugar crash.
Photo by Sam Owoyemi
2. Intermittent Fasting Burns Fat and Builds Muscle
When fasting, you’re dipping in and out of ketosis and your body burns stored fat for energy. In one research study, after a 16-hour fast mice could eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted for the next few hours without gaining any weight. Sounds nice, right? Just skip breakfast, eat what you want, and all of sudden you’ve got abs like Adam Levine. Well, just remember that humans and mice have very different metabolisms. For optimal results, break your fast with healthy whole foods and stay away from sugar whenever possible.
One concern I had when beginning my first fasting protocol was losing muscle. We’ve all heard the gym science. If you’re not eating 6 meals a day, you won’t be able put on muscle. I was pleased to find out that is not true at all. Research proves that fasting triggers a cascade of hormonal responses that prep the body to preserve and build muscle. This is primarily due to boosts in muscle-building hormones like LH and testosterone. Even growth hormone increases, preserving muscle during the fast and priming the body to build new muscle after the refeed. Within 8 weeks of fasting I noticed a considerable difference in my body composition: less body fat and more muscle. Some of this could also be attributed to the extra energy I had in the gym due to regeneration of mitochondria (the energy factories of the cell) that allowed me to work out longer and harder.
Photo by Charles Cheng
I love looking and feeling better and having the increased energy that fasting provides in the short-term. But the most beneficial effects of fasting may actually be over the long-term. Remember those mice? Well, a wealth of research has shown that mice not only improve body composition when fasting, but also live significantly longer! This is due to a process called autophagy where your body recycles old and damaged cells. This process of cellular cleanup and repair is the key to anti-aging. Since the body is ridding itself of damaged cells and replacing them with new ones, autophagy is well-known to be effective for cancer prevention. Other studies have shown autophagy to have cardioprotective effects. There are brain benefits as well. An increase in BDNF, a protein that helps the brain grow, improves the bond between neurons and how the brain communicates with cells. In other words, it keeps you sharp and has been linked to the prevention of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
While I can’t personally tell you that I feel younger or have proof that I’ll live any longer, I certainly feel healthier in the present. Since starting intermittent fasting, I don’t get sick. This is likely due to the fact that, when fasting, your white blood cells are recycled, resetting your immune system and becoming more resistant to stress.
When it comes down to it, we’re all different. Some may find they benefit from a 16/8 approach, while others may prefer the occasional multi-day fast. For me, I’ve found intermittent fasting on a near daily basis to be sustainable, simple, and easy to integrate into my daily routine. The rewards far outweigh the tiny bit of effort it takes. Give it a shot. It might change your life. You may find that you do better on alternate day fasts, or that fasting just isn’t for you. Self-improvement is all about exploring new things. Some stick, some don’t. Just remember, it’s all about the journey.
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