What views do we have on intermittent fasting? Is it as faddish as the South African flag covers for your car side mirrors over the 2010 World Cup? Or could it actually have lasting health benefits? In this article, I explore what intermittent fasting is, who it could help and how it can benefit you. To set the scene, The South African Medical Research Council (2016) has published data that paints a grave scene for diseases of lifestyle in South Africa:
South Africa, has the highest rate of people who are overweight and obese in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 70% of women being overweight. Research has also proven that five out of every 10 adults in South Africa suffer from hypertension
So how could intermittent fasting combat lifestyle diseases? Read on to find out more.
What is intermittent fasting?
It’s an extended period of not eating. As simple as that. We already do it while we sleep, for about 9 hours, sometimes 12. You eat dinner around 7 and eat again the next day at a similar time, for break-fast. Twelve hours of not eating. It is important to note that fasting is the voluntary abstinence from eating – and therefore different to starvation.
It is called the “ancient secret” of weight loss. The theory dates back thousands of years, and is older than any other dietary technique (Fung and Moore, 2016). It is called a lifestyle rather than a diet. Is it unhealthy? No, it has enormous health benefits. Will you lose weight? For most people, as quick as 1-2-3. It is effective, flexible, simple, practical and cheap!
How does it work?
Your body requires energy to function and it most easily gets it from our glucose storages. When we eat, we often ingest more food energy than we need to use right now. This signals for insulin to be released. Insulin helps the muscles and brain to use the food energy immediately and also helps us to store unused energy in the form of glycogen in the liver. Once the liver’s limit is reached, the body stores glucose as fat. Bring on the love handles.
When fasting, the process above happens in reverse. This is when the magic happens. Insulin levels drop, a signal for the body to start burning stored energy. Glycogen in the liver is the most easily accessible energy source and can provide enough energy for about 24 hours. After that, the body starts breaking down stored fat for energy. Two to three days after beginning fasting, the body enters ketosis. This process breaks down fat for energy. Fatty acids are used for energy for almost the entire body except the brain. How does our brain function? The body uses fatty acids to produce ketone bodies which are able to cross the blood brain barrier and are used by the brain for energy.
What I have just described is a process of switching from burning glucose to burning fat. Fat is the body’s stored food energy. It is an entirely natural and normal process. What’s more, over centuries, the human race has gone through times of feeding and fasting.
When is fasting not a good idea?
In some states, it can do more harm than good. Intermittent fasting may not be right for you, if you
- Have thyroid dysfunction
- Are underweight (your BMI is less than 18,5) and have an eating disorder
- Are pregnant, or you’re trying to maximize your fertility, or
- Have significant stress in your life
- Have chronic fatigue or HPA-axis dysregulation
What will intermittent fasting “give” me?
Decrease your insulin levels
Regularly lowering insulin levels improves insulin sensitivity. I have a few clients with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) with associated insulin resistance. Insulin resistance causes weight gain and is also the primary problem in Type II diabetes. It has been linked to diseases such as
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Abdominal obesity
- High cholesterol
- Sleep Apnea
Therefore, fasting will significantly reduce your risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle that is so prevalent in society.
Regulate your hormones
Firstly, Fasting will increase your adrenaline and speed up your metabolism. When you talk to people about fasting, most will tell you that they don’t want to because they expect that it will leave them feeling tired and low in energy. However, in reality, people experience the exact opposite. They feel energized and revitalized during fasting. The body continues to be fueled, and adrenaline levels increase to facilitate fat burning. Increased adrenaline gives us energy and stimulates metabolism. Furthermore, studies have shown that after a 4 day fast, resting energy expenditure increased by 12 percent (Zauner et al, 2002).
In addition, fasting also results in an increase in growth hormone. Growth hormone, along with cortisol and adrenaline, signals the body to increase the availability of glucose. This counters the effect of insulin and makes glucose available for energy. It also has anti-aging effects (Rudman et al., 1990), and higher levels of growth hormone are associated with less body fat and more muscle mass (Velloso, 2008).
How to fast
Where do you start? Most fasts allow non-caloric drinks only. You are allowed to drink water, black coffee, tea and home-made bone broth during the fasting period. No honey, sugar, agave or artificial sweeteners. Remember to stay hydrated throughout your fast. Aim to drink 2 litres of water and other fluids daily. All teas are allowed: green, black, oolong, rooibos. Green tea is an especially good choice during a fast because it suppresses the appetite and may aid weight loss by encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut (Dey et al., 2019).
However, you can include a small amount, 1-2 tablespoons, of pure fats in your coffee. For example, coconut oil, cream and butter. Some people feel that eating fats help to reduce hunger and make fasting easier. Enter the “bulletproof coffee” trend where MCT oil, coconut fat or butter is added to coffee. Virtually all calories are derived from fats, therefore insulin is not stimulated and bodily processes mimic fasting.
What to eat when you’re not fasting
Make sure you follow a nutritious diet during non-fasting times. Stick to a diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrates. If you’re trying to lose weight, following a low carbohydrate diet that’s high in fats can help your body stay in fat-burning mode and make fasting easier.
Above all, when you’re doing a longer fast you’ll want to ease into your eating. Start with a snack, say a couple of almonds, an hour before your meal.
Intermittent fasting is flexible and differs from person to person. All it is, is periods of fasting between periods of normal eating. The fast length can vary widely. Choose the one that works best for you. Shorter fasts are generally done daily, while longer fasts- twenty-four or thirty-six is usually done two to three times a week. There are short fasts (less than 24 hours) or extended fasts (longer than 24 hours).
Shorter fasts are used generally by those we are more interested in weight loss than treating type II diabetes, fatty liver disease or other metabolic disease. Shorter fasts fit well into social life – eating dinner with friends or family. You can always mix up your fasting regime: switch between different lengths, take a break or try a three day extended fast. But, take note, there is an adjustment period to fasts. Your body takes time to get used to it and the first few days are always difficult. You can do it.
16- Hour fasts
This regimen includes a 16 hour fast into your day. You might end your eating window at 8pm and start again the following day at 12pm. It’s an 8 hour eating window. On this schedule most people skip breakfast. How many meals you eat in your eating window is up to you. Some people choose 3 and some do 2, slightly larger meals. Best advantage: it’s easy to incorporate into daily life. More than that, it can make daily life easier. You don’t have to think about breakfast. And, what’s more, most people don’t feel hungry when they wake up anyway.
Longer periods of fasting
Longer periods of fasting are also an option: 24 or 36 hour fasts. There are health benefits to longer fasts and also more risk of complications for diabetics and those we are taking medications. Longer fasts are helpful in treating type II diabetes and obesity. They are typically more powerful than shorter fasts. If you are in this group, it is important for a healthcare practitioner to monitor your blood pressure, vital signs and blood work closely (Fung and Moore, 2016). However, if you do not feel well at any point, just stop the fast. Hypoglycemia, especially if you are taking the same dose of medication on a fasting day, can be very dangerous. Importantly, you must speak to your physician about this, and in general, medication doses are adjusted on fasting days.
24 hour fasts involve fasting dinner to dinner. Dinner will be a larger meal than normal – eat until you are full. For a 36 hour fast, you do not eat for the entire day, then go to sleep and eat next at breakfast. These work well twice a week for diabetic clients (Fung and Moore, 2016). Remember, it’s important to be monitored by a health care practitioner is you’re attempting longer fasts, especially if you have diabetes.
Call to Action
Let’s help South Africa, and the world, get on top of it’s health stats. It’s up to us, in our everyday life, to take care of our health. If you think you’re a good candidate for intermittent fasting, vas byt and give it a go. If you’d like to give it a try, but don’t know where to start, health coaching might be more you. Contact me here.
South African Medical Research Council. (2016). 2nd National Burden of Disease Study reveals noteworthy changes in mortality trends for South Africa. [online] Available at: https://www.mrc.ac.za/media-release/2nd-national-burden-disease-study-reveals-noteworthy-changes-mortality-trends-south [Accessed 22 May 2019].
Dey, P., Sasaki, G., Wei, P., Li, J., Wang, L., Zhu, J., McTigue, D., Yu, Z. and Bruno, R. (2019). Green tea extract prevents obesity in male mice by alleviating gut dysbiosis in association with improved intestinal barrier function that limits endotoxin translocation and adipose inflammation. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 67, pp.78-89.
Fung, J. and Moore, J. (2016). The complete guide to fasting. Las Vagas: Victory Belt Publishing.
Rudman, D., Feller, A., Nagraj, H., Gergans, G., Lalitha, P., Goldberg, A., Schlenker, R., Cohn, L., Rudman, I. and Mattson, D. (1990). Effects of Human Growth Hormone in Men over 60 Years Old. New England Journal of Medicine, 323(1), pp.1-6.
Velloso, C. (2008). Regulation of muscle mass by growth hormone and IGF-I. British Journal of Pharmacology, 154(3), pp.557-568.
Zauner, C., Schneeweiss, B., Kranz, A., Madl, C., Ratheiser, K., Kramer, L., Roth, E., Schneider, B. and Lenz, K. (2000). Resting energy expenditure in short-term starvation is increased as a result of an increase in serum norepinephrine. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(6), pp.1511-1515.