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3-Minute Mini-Guide to Intermittent Fasting: Your Questions Answered

Maurice Beer M.D.
August 18th, 2021 · 6 min read

In this article:

  • What is fasting?
  • What is intermittent fasting?
  • Why on earth would you choose to deprive yourself of food?
  • Will intermittent fasting help me lose weight?
  • Are there other benefits to intermittent fasting besides weight loss?
  • What are the downsides to intermittent fasting?
  • How can I stay hydrated while practicing intermittent fasting?
  • What’s the best way to get started with intermittent fasting?

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TAKE QUIZ
You may have heard of “IF” since it has gained major popularity with health enthusiasts lately. All the intermittent fasting Reddit chatter or testimonials on Twitter may have you curious to learn more. Read on to learn about this eating practice and why you might want to give it a shot.

Takeaways:

  • Intermittent fasting is the practice of abstaining from food for regular periods of the day or week.
  • Our bodies are adapted to the fasting of ancient humans, which is why intermittent fasting may be beneficial to our health.
  • Intermittent fasting may be a good alternative to traditional diets for those trying to lose weight.

What is fasting?

Before we get to the “intermittent” part, let’s define “fasting.” The term refers to abstaining from food (which is why the name of the first meal in the morning indicates a break of your overnight fast). Some fasting purists argue that water is the only thing you can consume on a fast. Others maintain that zero-calorie beverages like coffee or tea are acceptable as long as you skip the cream and sugar (and think twice before using an artificial sweetener).
Various forms of fasting are practiced in many religions and cultures. In recent years, fasting has also become popular with health enthusiasts who abstain from food for multiple days (or even weeks!) with goals like weight loss or healing the body.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting (“IF” for those in the know) is the practice of fasting for certain periods of the day or the week. Technically all humans are always doing this (unless you have some kind of superpower that allows you to eat while you sleep) but IF refers to fasting periods that are longer than the hours between traditional meals.
As an example, the so-called “16/8 method” means you fast for 16 hours every day and eat during the remaining eight hours. If you avoid eating anything until noon and then finish eating at 8pm, you will be fasting for 16 hours every day. Another pattern is to fast for a complete 24-hour day once or twice per week. There are many additional popular methods.

Why on earth would you choose to deprive yourself of food?

Comedian Conan O’Brien tweeted a joke pointing out the irony of this trend: “I’m grateful to my ancestors for fleeing the famine in Ireland, so I could practice intermittent fasting here in America.”
To some it may seem crazy to willingly “starve” yourself, especially when conventional wisdom used to be that frequent snacking was healthiest. Humans have spent generations developing the agriculture and technology necessary to feed our growing ranks and yet many people today still struggle with inadequate access to food. If you are privileged enough to have an abundant pantry, why abstain?
Our ancestors’ struggles to find food is actually the reason intermittent fasting can make good health sense. Think about the daily lives of ancient hunter gatherers. It’s not like they could grab a Go-Gurt from the cave fridge or peddle their stone cars to the golden arches for a McRib. Each day required major physical effort to forage and to hunt for meat. Our ancient bodies were designed to withstand periods without food and also to gobble it all up when we were so lucky to score some.
Fast forward to today and instead of sprinting around to catch an armadillo, we’re laying on the couch and ordering takeout from Grubhub. And boy, that Pad Thai smells so good and your body’s instinct is to eat it all up in case tomorrow’s “hunt” doesn’t go as well. But of course, most humans today have unlimited access to food, so that instinct can often cause us to overeat. And the types of foods we’re eating today are not what our bodies were designed to consume — as far as we know, the ancient world had no Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bushes. Not only that, but eating all day long keeps your body in a constant state of digestion, overworking organs like your liver.
Bringing our bodies back to a pattern of eating more similar to our ancient habits is one reason some health enthusiasts practice IF. (This rationale also explains the popularity of combining intermittent fasting and keto diets.)

Will intermittent fasting help me lose weight?

If you’re trying to manage your weight you may find that diets don’t seem to work. IF is different than a traditional diet and can help in multiple ways.
If your eating tends to be based more on habit than actual hunger, simply cutting out a chunk of the day when you’re eating might reduce your overall intake quite a bit. If hunger is what drives your eating, you may find that the effect of IF on your hormones and insulin sensitivity will help you avoid overeating.
It can be difficult to lose or maintain weight on a traditional diet because your metabolism adapts. For an extreme example, a study of contestants from the TV show “The Biggest Loser” found that participants had lower resting metabolic rates six years after they finished competing, meaning they would need to eat hundreds of calories less than usual to maintain their weight. In contrast, the short periods without food in IF are brief enough that your body can’t adapt in that same way and your resting energy expenditure can increase.

Are there other benefits to intermittent fasting besides weight loss?

Practicing IF can foster other health benefits related to weight loss (for instance, a study showed intermittent fasting to be effective at helping to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes).
Animal and some human studies have shown that fasting may also help delay aging and prevent or treat certain diseases (especially inflammation-based ones). IF has been shown to improve brain function in animals (a finding that rings true for many human IF proponents who report increased mental clarity). Other potential benefits such as cancer prevention and increased heart health require more human study.
You may also find that IF simplifies your nutrition plan and is much easier than most traditional diets that require measured portions or an encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients.

What are the downsides to intermittent fasting?

IF is not for everyone, and you should consult your healthcare provider before trying it.
Those with a history of eating disorders may also find that IF is not a mentally healthy option for them. (Some critics even argue that recent fads like IF and celery juice cleanses are just “socially acceptable” forms of disordered eating.)
One recent study found more muscle mass loss in IF subjects than in three-meal-per-day subjects, but more research is needed, especially since participants were not instructed to exercise during the study.
Intermittent fasting also changes the balance of electrolytes in your body, so dehydration is a risk.

How can I stay hydrated while practicing intermittent fasting?

If your first thought was “drink water,” that’s a good start! Besides keeping you hydrated, you may find that sipping water helps curb any hunger you may feel during your fasting window.
However, even if you manage to glug that entire gallon jug you cart around all day, you might still be low on important electrolytes that are crucial for hydration. There are plenty of supplements recommended by dieticians that can help. A few to try:
  • DripDrop — these convenient packets come in a variety of flavors and can be added to a water bottle for “medical grade” dehydration relief.
  • Liquid I.V. — this natural drink mix will not only “multiply your hydration” but will also provide you with five essential vitamins.
  • Hydrant — this brand hydrates you with great-tasting flavors with “minimal ingredients.”
If consuming supplements during your fasting window, read the labels to make sure you are not accidentally breaking your fast with ingredients like sugar.

What’s the best way to get started with intermittent fasting?

Following general tips for healthy habits can help you find success in practicing IF.
Start small to allow your body to adjust to the new habit. For instance, if you are planning to follow the daily 16/8 plan, start with 12/12 and work your way up to 13/11, 14/10, and so on.
For those who need a little help with willpower, forums like the Reddit intermittent fasting subreddit offer accountability check-ins. There are also plenty of intermittent fasting YouTube videos to offer inspiration and motivation.
Using a habit tracker can also be a powerful way to not only see your progress but reward yourself for each fasting period you achieve. This will keep you motivated to continue on with your intermittent fasting journey.

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