Serendipity can be interpreted as “finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” Intermittent fasting, a health trend that is growing rapidly in popularity, is one great example of this.
Intermittent fasting and calorie restriction have unquestioned health benefits but even the language is daunting and foreign for many people. Whenever I bring it up with someone, their immediate reaction is to say, “there’s no way I could do that, I’d pass out” or “that’s got to be unhealthy.” I am the first person to say I completely understand their where they are coming from, however, if I can do it, they can too! I’ve always had that low-blood sugar, sick feeling (or I get “hangry”) if I don’t eat regularly, however after gradually getting myself onto a fasting schedule, there’s been no looking back and I feel better than I have in months!
“Intermittent fasting” means that the fasting is for specific and quite short periods, which is far less intimidating but carries most of the same health benefits as fasting for longer period of time, of which compliance rates are much higher. And depending on the particular format, “fasting” doesn’t necessarily mean going without food completely during the fast. Going without food for 24 hours is simply too severe for most people. For more information, check out Brad Pilon’s Book, Eat Stop Eat. It’s extremely helpful for people interested in learning more!
Variations of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting can take any of several forms. The most popular are:
1. The 5:2 diet. This is really popular in the UK for weight loss. It is a schedule where for 5 days a week you eat “normally” but for two non-consecutive 36-hour periods you eat only 500 (women) or 600 (men) calories, total. Drinking water, tea, coffee, or bone-broth is considered OK during the fast (but, coffee and tea should be unsweetened and with little or no milk or cream). This is great because you don’t need to change your weekly routine up, but can finish or start your week off on a positive, healthy note.
2. Alternate day fasting. As the name suggests, “eat normally” days alternate with “fasting days” where you can have roughly 500 calories in the day. A single 500-calorie meal has proven more effective than multiple snacks in terms of lowering the temptation to “cheat.” I do want to note that “eating normally” does mean healthy, as best as you can.
3. The 16:8 approach. In this format, for 16 hours a day you eat nothing at all, although of course you can have drinks of water, bone broth, no-sweetener and no-milk tea or coffee. Then in your 8-hour “eating window” you can eat normally — some people prefer 2 meals, some 3 and some 1, in this “window.”
Now, if the thought of a 16 hour fast gives you concern, it’s actually easier than you’d think. For example, someone eats dinner at 8 PM. Goes to bed midnight. Sleeps until 8 AM. Skips breakfast, and eats lunch at noon. That’s a 16 hour fast, timed from the first bite of the last meal, and in fact the skip-breakfast route is a preferred approach for many.
Concerns of Intermittent Fasting
If you share one of the most common objections – that if you don’t eat regularly, you feel awful, headaches, hunger pangs etc – be aware that these symptoms disappear quite quickly; usually in a few days, certainly in a couple of weeks. Also keep in mind you don’t have to jump-in straight away to 16:8; you can start with 12:12, then adjust it to 14:10, and 16:8 over a few days.
Another common concern is fear of what the lack of food can do to your energy levels; perhaps it’ll also leave you with a “foggy brain” or even lightheadedness. In fact, freeing-up your body from constantly being in a digestive state actually releases a great deal of energy to you; no kidding you will actually feel more energized through the fast than you usually do when you’re eating normally. And a bonus is a very high degree of mental clarity.
The good feeling from intermittent fasting almost becomes addictive; if you DO have a day where you return to normal eating, AND fill it with unhealthy garbage food, you feel awful and can’t wait to get back to the fasting protocol! This holiday season was a big demonstration of this for me!
The 16:8 approach has become the preferred approach by athletes and body builders, and it’s what I’ve found to be the most successful for me.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
This is where “Serendipity” comes in — because there are so many diverse health benefits all arising from the same practice.
The first is weight loss. What happens is that the human body typically finishes processing a meal in 5 – 8 hours, rarely 10 or 12 hours. After that, there is no ‘fuel” in the system from the meal. So the body turns to stored fat for fuel. It burns fat to fuel the body.
So, if you’re on a 16:8 regime then for 4 – 11 hours, your body is burning fat for energy, instead of using the fuel you’ve put your body in via food! So, weight loss tends to be fast and steady.
But there’s a subtle issue here: this isn’t just weight loss. It’s FAT loss. Up until approximately 18 hours, your body burns fat. So a lot of athletes and body-builders adopt the 16:8 diet NOT to lose weight, but simply to reduce their percentage of body fat. Body builders in particular don’t want to lose weight, they’re happy to gain it — providing it’s lean muscle they gain, at the expense of fat.
The next serendipitous aspect of this for fitness is that combining exercise and intermittent fasting amplifies the fat loss but also boosts fitness; fasting has been shown to trigger a rise in HGH, Human Growth Hormone aka “the fitness hormone” by as much as 1300% in women and 2000% in men.
Workouts performed in “a fasted state” are counter-intuitive in that many athletes report that workouts close to the end of the fasted period are the best they’ve ever experienced – I can speak from experience that once I got into a regular fasting and workout routine, I have great workouts! And beyond the simple ‘feeling” factors, there are significant cellular factors and catalysts whose impact is maximized by the combination of fasted-state exercising.
A third element is that intermittent fasting places the body in a non-inflammatory mode. Many athletes report that long-standing inflammation conditions such as tendinitis, simply disappear. My father is one of these people! And this is only the superficial impact; bodies being pushed to the limit always open the door to inflammation, but more importantly most major health problems are linked to inflammatory conditions. Heart disease, and stroke, for example. are not proven to be caused by inflammation — but inflammation is a very common factor.
A fourth is that while it’s not common knowledge, cancer feeds on sugar. And when combined with a correct nutritional program and exercise program, intermittent fasting helps to create an environment in the body where cancer is starved. Meaning, the risk of contracting it is greatly reduced; and the growth rate of any existing cancer is minimized or even stopped cold in its tracks; and the chances of a previous cancer recurring are minimized.
Healthy Nutrition for Intermittent Fasting Success
This last topic brings into the discussion the one subject that cannot be under-emphasized – healthy nutrition. Too many people negate the benefits of intermittent fasting by either eating too much during the eating phase, or eating a very poor diet. And a high-carb, low-fat diet — yes, the one that was considered healthy for decades — is an example of the worst of all diets.
Now, beyond simply “eating healthy” athletes need to adapt to the unusual demands placed on their body. For example, endurance events might need the athlete to load-up on carbohydrates if the strenuous activity is going to be longer than a couple of hours (up to that point, fat-burning is probably the best fuel). And intense exercise might call for protein-heavy meals to ensure that muscle repair and growth is supported.
Who is Intermittent Fasting For?
Is there anyone that shouldn’t try intermittent fasting? Yes. Now of course, the standard caveat applies here; nowhere in this article am I offering medical advice, and I am explicit here that I am not qualified to do so. Your medical doctor should be your first line of support for questions before you embark on something like this.
So, who shouldn’t try this, or who should be very cautious in their approach? While studies (based around Ramadan) have indicated that fasting doesn’t hurt a growing fetus, it’s probably safer to simply recommend against it (fasting) for pregnant women. Some people take medications that demand certain eating schedules; but also, for anyone who has issues with blood sugar regulation, or who suffer from hypoglycemia, or who have diabetes, intermittent fasting is more complicated. In these cases, and if you have any concerns whatsoever, you absolutely should check with your doctor or dietitian before adjusting your eating schedule.
And finally … what if you try it and it feels awful, day after day? Well, the fanatics probably wouldn’t approve but the most sensible advice I’ve seen seems to be, walk away from it! The serendipitous benefits are terrific but this isn’t a silver bullet approach where it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Over the past 100 years people have lost a lot of weight, gained strength and incredible levels of fitness without ever being aware of intermittent fasting! So if it’s not for you … hey, life’s too short, walk away and try something else that is proven healthy.