If you're not familiar with intermittent fasting, it's not a diet but rather a pattern of eating. You choose a part of the day to refrain from eating, called your fasting window, and the other part of the day to eat, which is your eating window. The most common type of IF is known as the 16:8 plan, where you fast for 16 hours and you eat from noon until 8 p.m.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is gaining popularity, most notably because it can help people lose weight. That's not the only positive effect, though! Here are six common health benefits you'll experience from intermittent fasting.
Many people who've failed at other diets or workout programs find success with intermittent fasting. Stephanie Ferrari, a registered dietitian with Fresh Communications, said, "The formula for weight loss is actually very simple. When the number of calories you eat is less than the number of calories you burn, you will lose weight." Since you're not eating for long periods of time, there are fewer opportunities to consume calories, which is why IF helps people eat fewer calories effortlessly. Stephanie also shared a meta-analysis from 2014, which "shows that when using an IF eating pattern, people reduced bodyweight by three to eight percent over three to 24 weeks."
Both Stephanie and Dr. Luiza Petre, a weight-loss specialist and board-certified cardiologist, also note that intermittent fasting raises growth hormone levels and lowers insulin levels, both of which help burn more fat. Stephanie added, "Insulin decreases when you fast, and lower levels of insulin results in burning more fat."
"The most important benefit of fasting is increasing insulin sensitivity," Dr. Petre said. "That means that cells are able to metabolize the carbohydrates better and the doors to the fat deposits are open vs. being locked as in insulin resistance syndrome." She added that your metabolic rate increases by four to 14 percent. "Intermittent fasting will reset your body from burning sugar as fuel to burning fat."
Improved Digestion and Decreased Bloat
Intermittent fasting can encourage healthy eating habits, and since digestive issues and bloating tend to be caused by overeating or eating unhealthy foods, doing IF can help relieve these issues. Stephanie noted, "You'll be drinking more water, which is often the unsung hero to many digestive issues. More water will help keep your digestion regular and will also keep the bloat away!"
Your gut bacteria also benefit from IF. Dr. Petre said it "improves the gut bacteria profile, as it gives microbes a break from their duties." She added that "the fasting period allows the gut lining to heal, recover, and improve its barrier function vital in filtering toxins and pathogens ingested."
Intermittent fasting can also boost your energy levels. "As your body is using fat for energy, it is slowly digested and delivered to the liver for processing (ketones). Then it can be utilized for energy," Dr. Petre explained. "This process has no ups and downs and is consistent and steady, which equals more energy, higher cognitive function, and concentration levels."
Stephanie added that people tend to eat lighter when intermittent fasting. Think of how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner compared to eating a big salad. "IF helps remove that weighted-down feeling so many people experience after overeating."
Improved Focus and Mental Clarity
While intermittent fasting can initially make people feel tired, be lightheaded, or experience headaches, once your body adjusts, many people love intermittent fasting because it gives them increased focus and mental clarity. Dr. Petre shared that it's a result of "catecholamines, a stimulant hormone that is released during fasting." Your brain also gets a boost from IF because "metabolic features that are key to brain health, such as a reduction in insulin resistance and blood sugar levels, as well as reduced inflammation, are all improved with intermittent fasting."
Disease Prevention and Autophagy
This may be the most beneficial (and exciting!) benefit of intermittent fasting. Dr Petre explained that "intermittent fasting aids autophagy, a cell-based self-cleaning function that tears down and recycles molecules that are damaged." Autophagy is low when insulin is increased, so when you're fasting and insulin levels drop, autophagy significantly increases. Cellular damage accumulates as you get older and autophagy decreases, but when fasting, autophagy rates can be increased to that of someone younger.
Studies suggest that intermittent fasting can help prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. Weight control, reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure, better blood sugar control, less oxidative stress, reduced cholesterol, and autophagy all play a role. Dr. Petre also shared that research shows that intermittent fasting can decrease carcinogenesis and slow tumor growth.
Help Overcoming Food Addiction and Sugar Cravings
Stephanie shared that intermittent fasting can help curb sugar cravings if you do it long enough. Surprisingly, not eating as often reduces hunger, and since you have fewer hours during the day when you're eating (and consuming sugar specifically), those cravings diminish. That's because the less sugar you eat, the less you crave it. If you're dealing with a sugar addiction, intermittent fasting is a great tool to help overcome it.
Stephanie said, "Your relationship with food is about as unique as your relationship with a loved one. Intermittent fasting shakes things up and causes you to see your relationship with food from another perspective. Sometimes this can help you break free of habitual behavior around food, like eating ice cream every night, for example."
Dr. Petre warned that not eating for certain periods of the day, especially when you first begin intermittent fasting, can cause cravings, which can result in overeating. Because of this risk, Stephanie suggested, "Anyone struggling with eating disorders related to food addiction (like binge eating) should steer clear of IF."
Stephanie suggested being mindful about what you eat. When your eating window rolls around, resume a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Enjoy a small bit of the foods you crave so you can quench those craving before they cause you to binge. Above all else, listen to your body and don't allow the clock to rule your day. If you're hungry an hour or two before you're supposed to eat, go ahead and eat! The beauty of intermittent fasting is that it allows you to be flexible with your eating during your feeding window, and it's OK to be flexible with when your window begins.