Intermittent fasting, or IF as it is commonly referred to, is nothing new. It has been around since ancient times and has been utilized by practically every different civilization for one reason or another. Fasting has been used not only for religious purposes but also for treating a laundry list of ailments. Hippocrates postulated that the keys to curing most illness could be found by observing nature. He wrote, “To eat when you are sick, is to feed your illness”.
When most animals including humans beings are sick, the last thing they want to do is eat. Think about the last time you were ill, did you really feel like eating? This is why fasting is commonly called the “physician within”. In addition to improving everyday illnesses, fasting is believed to contribute to weight loss, extension of lifespan, prevention of Alzheimer’s, prevention of insulin resistance, and slowing of the aging process. It is important though, to understand exactly what fasting is and more importantly, what it is not.
Fasting vs. Starvation.
As useful a tool as something like fasting can be when used properly, there will always be misuse and misinterpretation. Unfortunately for fasting, it has gained momentous popularity lately because of its role in the ketogenic diet. For this reason, doctors and medical professions are quick to dismiss its merits for fear that it will be abused and end up doing more harm than good. And they would be correct in their trepidation.
Many people believe that fasting is synonymous with starving, this is simply not the case. Starving is the involuntary absence of food. Starving people are not neglecting to eat by choice. Fasting is a purposeful abstinence from food base on religious, dietary, or health reasons. When used improperly, fasting can mimic a starvation like condition which ultimately has the opposite effect of its intention. There is a time to fast and time to feast, and it’s important to know the difference.
Not that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get into why we IF.
Why intermittent fast?
IF is a pattern of eating that really is supposed to emerge naturally. It is not recommended that you IF on any diet plan until you are adjusted to the new way of eating. Keto is no exception. As we progress into being fat-adapted, appetite naturally starts to diminish. A lot of ketoers report going all day and simply forgetting to eat. I do it quite often.
The body normally fasts every night while we sleep. We generally go from after dinner to breakfast without eating, which usually ends up averaging about 12 hours of fasting. A common fast is a 16/8 scenario, where you eat during an 8 hour window, and refrain for the remaining 16 hours of the day. Some people use a 24 hour fast, where one day out of the week they go a full 24 hours without eating. It’s important to remember that you still need to meet your macro counts for the week. So if you are doing a 16/8, be sure to meet your intake requirements in those 8 hours. For a 24 hour fast, make sure to incorporate the missing macros into the rest of the weeks goals.
A lot of keto followers use IF as a means to break through a plateau. It’s common to stall as your body goes through the adjustments of weight loss and its various effects on health. It’s actually a good thing to hit a plateau occasionally, your system needs this time to reconfigure. If after about 6-8 weeks or so, you are still struggling to get things moving again, fasting may be taken into consideration. IF forces your system in ketosis at a rapid rate. As your glycogen stores deplete, the body goes from being in a fed state which means you are processing food, to a fasted state where you are burning fat for fuel. This takes anywhere from 8-12 hours depending on how your body works.
For people who are already fat-adapted, fasting can provide a reigniting of their weight loss if they are stuck in a stall. Remember though, fasting should come naturally. It’s easy to fast when your are not truly hungry. If you are trying to force a fast and find yourself struggling with hunger, you need to eat. That is your body telling you that now is not the time to deprive yourself.
Another reason people may IF, including myself, is control. I am a stress eater, always have been. I have used food for comfort, to cure boredom, to help a hangover, etc. This has contributed to my weight fluctuations throughout my life. I’ve found that the use of IF has helped me to regain the control that food has sometimes had over me. Again, don’t get it confused, when I’m hungry I eat. But if I find myself wanting to eat but realizing that I’m not actually hungry, resisting that urge can be a powerful thing. And anytime you successfully exert control in a tempting situation like that, it has a emanating effect on the other areas of your life.
IF has been attributed to other psychological benefits as well, such as improved mental clarity and decreased depression, as shown in a 2009 study conducted by Michalsen and his colleagues. They believe this is due to the release of endorphins similar to a runner’s high, designed to make you feel good when facing a metabolically stressful event. In addition, the increase in serotonin levels occurring during fasting has been linked to the improvement of migraines.
Autophagy is another believed benefit of fasting. This is the process where older neurological structures and waste materials are broken down and used to create new ones. This “cleaning out” of neuronal cells is thought to help slow the progression of some neurological disorders. There are a number of other health benefits that have been tied to fasting such as regulating blood glucose, controlling blood lipids, reducing the risk of coronary disease, reducing the risk of cancer, and on and on. While these are some great reasons to give intermittent fasting a go, there are some instances where it is just not a good idea.
Sometimes it really seems like women have gotten the shit end of the stick, doesn’t it? We have to bear the children, slay the monthly dragon, make the sammiches (that’s a joke), and endure the roller coaster of hormonal hell. Because we are wired differently, we have to be cautious when exploring this new path. This is not to say of course, that all women are banned from the fasting game. I have not personally had any issues so far, and I’m about 8 months in. But for many women, fasting disrupts their hormones to such an extent that they may have to take a modified approach to IF.
Hormones are touchy, temperamental little buggers who do not particularly enjoy their agenda being altered. More specifically, the hormones which regulate reproduction functions like ovulation, are easily thrown out of balance when they perceive danger to a fetus (either current or potential). Women are especially sensitive to anything that seems like starvation, and our bodies will ramp up production of the hunger hormones leptin and grehlin. When this happens, some women may find the urge to eat or overeat too much to fight. This could in turn start a dangerous cycle of under and over eating, and possible eating disorders.
The answer to this dilemma may rest with something called “Crescendo fasting”. Crescendo fasting is pretty much what it sounds like, and involves fasting occasionally at first, then increasing as time goes on. It’s a way for your body to slowly get used to the idea of fasting and train your hormones to go along for the ride. You start out by only fasting 2-3 times per week for 12-16 hours. If you work out, it’s recommended to only do light exercise on the days you are fasting, and reserve more intense workouts for days when you eat normally.
Make sure to stay hydrated as dehydration is a problem all on its own without it piggybacking off of another possible stressor. If after about two weeks, you are tolerating the fasting well, try adding another day to the mix. Always wait and see how your body responds, don’t push it too hard. For many women, this works out really well and they are able to successfully add IF to their routine.
If this still doesn’t help you, don’t despair. IF is absolutely NOT necessary to successful keto. And you should stop IF if you experience symptoms such as:
- menstrual irregularity
- excessive hair loss
- heart palpitations
- skin problems
- lowered immune system
- extreme mood swings or emotional distress
- or anything else that seems out of the ordinary for you.
At the end of the day, you have to do what works for you. Some people love fasting and enjoy great success using it, others decide it’s just not their cup of tea. As with everything, education is paramount. Do your research, experiment with different approaches, and choose the path that’s right for you. I hope you found this information helpful, and your questions and comments are always welcomed.