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Understanding Intermittent Fasting Benefits & Risks

Intermittent fasting focuses on the timing of meals, not what they can or cannot include. The eating pattern is promoted to benefit the body and simplify lifestyles. Read on to learn more.


Fasting has been practiced for religious and spiritual reasons for thousands of years. However, intermittent fasting is now one of the most popular diets for weight and fat loss.

Other health claims of intermittent fasting include increased muscle mass and the reduction of heart disease. One may choose to intermittent fast beyond health benefits, especially to simplify their lifestyle.

But is intermittent fasting good for you? Read on to learn everything you want and need to know about intermittent fasting.

What Is Intermittent Fasting?

Unlike most diets, intermittent fasting is actually an eating pattern. Intermittent fasting focuses on the timing of meals and not the foods that meals can and cannot consist of.

A typical pattern is six to eight hours feasting with the remaining hours fasting. With such a large window of fasting, meals become skipped. Breakfast, which is said to be the most important meal of the day, is often the meal that gets missed.

However, there are different types of intermittent fasting one might consider trying. For instance, some fast every other day and feast for the days in between in alternate-day fasting. Others may fast 24 hours a couple of times a week or limit feeding to a 4 hour window.

What's more, not all intermittent fasting is intended for diet and nutrition control. For example, people celebrate religious holidays, such as Ramadan, also fast.

Regardless of the intermittent fasting schedule, there are several claims of benefits for the eating plan and schedule.

Intermittent Fasting Benefits

From weight loss to heart health, there is a bounty of research exploring the benefits of intermittent fasting.

Weight & Fat Loss

The hope to lose fat and weight is one of the biggest motivators for following any eating plan or schedule. Even though weight loss is achieved with a calorie deficit, intermittent fasting does not promote calorie restriction.

However, a reduction in calories can run parallel with such a short eating window. Existing research also suggests intermittent fasts plus energy restriction is best for weight loss.

Weight and fat loss may likewise be the result of stabilizing hunger hormones.

Hunger Hormone Stability

Ghrelin and leptin are two hormones that help to control appetite and food intake. Ghrelin stimulates hunger while leptin helps to induce satiety.

If they become uncontrolled, leptin reduces and ghrelin increases, ultimately growing the risk of excessive food intake. The claim is that intermittent fasting stabilizes these hormones, in turn, managing hunger and weight.

A link between insulin and hunger also exists. Insulin is a fundamental hormone required to use glucose as energy. It assists in glucose entry into the cells following carbohydrate intake.

Insulin resistance can heighten hunger and cravings, especially to foods rich in carbohydrates and sugar. Being resistance to insulin likewise makes it difficult to lose weight and easier to gain it.

Intermittent fasting, however, shows to improve insulin sensitivity. This can help control hunger and make weight loss more manageable and effortless. Being more sensitive to insulin lowers the risk of diabetes, too.

Intermittent Fasting Muscle Gain

Intermittent fasting is vastly explored for weight loss, which is essentially opposing for gaining muscle.

A caloric surplus is needed to gain muscle. Think of muscle growth as building a house, in which it requires bricks to build a strong structure. Without enough bricks, the house cannot be built.

That being said, a large component of gaining muscle is diet. Muscle tissues also grow in the presence of resistance training, in which they undergo damage and stress. Following a workout, the muscles need adequate rest and fuel to regenerate and grow.

Research is limited regarding the effects of intermittent fasting on muscle gain. However, a study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine researched modified IF during resistance training in healthy resistance-trained males. The IF group consumed 100 percent of energy needs in an 8-hour period, in which they fasted the remaining 16 hours. The other group consumed meals and matched calories throughout 12 hours.

Paired with resistance training, intermittent fasting resulted in decreased fat mass, while maintaining muscle mass and strength. It is also important to mention the athletes still maintained energy intake and scheduled workouts.

Ultimately, those wanting to gain muscle can benefit from an IF eating pattern if ensuring appropriate nutrient needs.

Decreased Risk of Heart Disease

Heart disease is often a risk in those considered overweight and obese. With weight loss occurring in some intermittent fasters, a decrease in heart disease sounds convincing.

There is some research indicating intermittent fasting lowers triglycerides more than regular diet. Additional research shows fasting may reduce total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides and increase HDL levels. Improving these biomarkers can lower the risk of heart disease.

However, some research has indicated better heart health and lower "bad" cholesterol levels in those who fast. Conversely, one research study conducted on mice found the muscles of the heart thickened over six months of intermittent fasting.

Research published in the Journal of the American Society of Hypertension suggests IF may improve blood pressure variances. More specifically, intermittent fasting decreased BP values in terms of office and ambulatory blood pressure monitoring (ABPM) measurements.

Intermittent Fasting Side Effects & Risks

The benefits of intermittent fasting are none-the-less compelling. Besides, there is research that supports such intriguing claims.

However, whereas most IF methods are considered to be safe, consult with a clinician before starting any diet or eating regimen. This is to ease any side effects and risks of IF, including fatigue, dizziness, shakiness, and brain fog.

Intermittent fasting may not be suitable for the following populations and those with specific health conditions such as:

• Women who are trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding

• Children and adolescents

• People with a history of or current eating disorder

• Those managing diabetes and low blood sugars

• People considered to be underweight

Prospective followers should likewise consider the potential downfalls of intermittent fasting. For instance, devoting time to not eating can be a social stressor with work dinners and family holidays. Exercising while in the fasted state can lead to plummeted energy, too.

If choosing to fast, consider these tips for a safer, more effective transition:

1. Identify a fasting plan suitable for personal preferences, health goals, and schedules. A doctor and/or dietitian can also help determine which type of intermittent fasting may work best.

2. Especially if first trying intermittent fasting, ease into the plan. This may include skipping breakfast, and in time lunch and other meals, dependent on the chosen fasting method.

3. Use certain periods of time as an advantage. For instance, pair fasting and sleeping times together rather than longer stents of awake time that may trigger food temptation.

4. Though intermittent fasting does not promote a specific diet, including nutrient-dense foods. Recommended sources include whole grains, produce, lean and plant-based protein, and healthy fat sources.

5. Drink water to make fasting periods easier to get through. Sugar-free tea, black coffee, and herbal teas are also viable options. Besides, staying hydrated is key for overall health in the absence of an IF schedule!

6. If recommended in the intermittent fasting plan, eating fruits and veggies throughout fasting days to lessen the risk of feeling hungry. Water and gum can come in handy in these sorts of instances.

7. Strategically allot eating and workout times to ensure and optimize pre- and post-workout fuel and recovery. Doing so can maximize physical performance and results.

8. If interested in intermittent fasting, give it a fair shot give before throwing in the towel. The longer practicing this sort of lifestyle, the easier it will become.

Pursuing intermittent fasting is up to the person after weighing the pros and cons. Ultimately, the best diet is one that is sustainable in the long run.

Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on December 20, 2015. Updated on October 01, 2019.


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