Intermittent fasting has been around for hundreds of years. From a neuroscience perspective, caloric restriction and intermittent fasting can have significant positive effects on both the brain and body. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine states that intermittent fasting can have broad-spectrum benefits for many health conditions such as obesity, and heart and neurologic issues. Sustained fasting regimens maintained over months or even years may also improve memory executive function, and overall cognition.
While many choose to adopt an intermittent fasting diet for weight management, there are plenty of other health reasons to consider it. Interestingly enough, research suggests that fasting may also help support healthy blood sugar levels, support a healthy response to inflammation, and keep your heart and brain healthy and strong. From fasting for a few days every week to simply switching up your eating schedule, intermittent fasting (IMF) is a simple strategy that can help you make major strides in your health.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Also known as cyclic fasting, intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that has risen in popularity in recent years. Unlike other diet plans, an intermittent fasting diet doesn’t set any strict standards, rules or restrictions on which foods are permitted or how much you can eat, although eating a healthy diet is always wise. Instead, it requires you to revise your eating pattern and abstain from eating altogether during specific windows of time. Although it’s only recently started popping up in mainstream media, intermittent fasting is hardly a new concept. In fact, fasting has been used for centuries during times when food was scarce and it even plays a central role in many major religions.
How Does It Work?
There are several different variations of fasting, making it easy to find an intermittent fasting plan that can work for you. Here are a few of the most popular types:
- 16/8 Fasting — This method requires you to fast for 16 hours every day and limit your eating to an eight-hour window. Typically, this involves not eating anything after dinner and skipping breakfast the next morning.
- Alternate-Day Fasting — This involves eating every other day. On fasting days, some eat no food at all and others eat a very small amount, usually around 500 calories. On non-fasting days, you should follow your usual, healthy diet.
- Eat-Stop-Eat — This variation involves picking one or two days out of the week in which you fast for 24 hours, then eat nothing from dinner one day until dinner the next day. On the remaining days, you should follow a regular diet.
- 5:2 Diet — For five days of the week, you eat normally. During the remaining two days, you should restrict your caloric intake to between 500-600 calories daily.
What Happens When You Practice Fasting?
Restrictive fasting allows for metabolic switching in the body, going from glucose burning to fat burning. It gives the body time to go through all the glucose stored in the liver (500-700 calories) and then begin burning stored fatty acids and ketone bodies (ketosis). Ketone bodies are not just fuel for the body, they influence factors of health and aging.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting for the Brain & Body
Not only does intermittent fasting help with weight loss, but recent research and clinical trials suggest that sustained fasting regimens maintained over months or even years may also improve brain and general health. Here are a few of the top benefits of intermittent fasting:
- Boosts Weight Management — Many people turn to intermittent fasting for weight management, and for good reason. Not only does it help reduce your overall caloric intake by restricting your eating window, but it can also rev up fat-burning by pushing your body into ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body uses fat for fuel instead of sugar. Similar to the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting works by depriving your body of its main source of energy, forcing it to start breaking down fat cells instead.
- Maintains Heart Health — Much of the emerging intermittent fasting research has focused on its ability to help with heart health. In fact, studies show that intermittent fasting can positively influence heart health factors, including supporting healthy cholesterol levels and triglycerides. It may also support a healthy response to inflammation, another major factor that can benefit a healthy heart.
- Supports Healthy Brain Function — Although current research is mostly limited to animal models, some studies have found that intermittent fasting could support brain health. Recent research and clinical trials suggest that sustained fasting regimens maintained over months or even years may also improve memory executive function, and overall cognition.
- Supports Already-Healthy Blood Sugar — Intermittent fasting is a great tool for supporting already healthy blood sugar levels. Plus, it can also help support healthy insulin levels, which can benefit the body’s ability to use this important hormone efficiently in its normal function of transporting sugar from the bloodstream to the cells.
- Supports a Healthy Response to Inflammation — Inflammation is a normal immune response designed to protect the body against injury and more. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can lead to chronic issues. Promising research suggests that fasting may help support a healthy response to inflammation. Plus, it can also support a healthy response to reduce oxidative stress throughout the body.
So what exactly does an intermittent fasting schedule look like? And what should you be eating on the days that you aren’t fasting? Here’s what you need to know. Although your exact schedule can vary quite a bit depending on which specific type of fasting you choose, 16/8 fasting (or time-restricted feeding) is often considered the best choice for intermittent fasting for beginners. You can adjust this form of fasting to fit your personal preferences and schedule. However, the easiest method involves simply skipping your evening snack after dinner and skipping breakfast the next morning as well. If you don’t eat between 8 p.m. and noon the next day, for instance, you’ve already completed a 16-hour fast.
Keep in mind that fasting may not be a good fit for everyone. If you have any underlying health conditions or are taking medications, it’s important to talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet or routine.