By Hannah Meier
You may have heard of caloric restriction and the myriad benefits it supposedly brings to the metabolic table. New research suggests that intermittent fasting could be a safe way for people to improve their health, but before you adopt this eating pattern, read up on six common mistakes to avoid.
The newest diet to gain popular attention isn’t much of a diet at all. It is something that most people who adhere to a traditional sleeping and waking cycle are already primed to do—and, proponents would argue, is something humans have been doing successfully for centuries. Intermittent Fasting (IF) has garnered support in the fitness community as a weight management tool for bodybuilders and other fitness enthusiasts. Recently, a growing portion of the scientific community has begun to also regard IF as a feasible way to improve metabolic health and perhaps even extend one’s lifespan.
Instead of eating many times throughout the day, between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm for example, Intermittent Fasters will couple periods of extended fasting (from 14 to 24 hours) with shorter periods of eating. This can be achieved by a change as simple as lengthening the overnight fast by a few hours each day. Different variations of IF propose reducing intake to 500-600 calories for just two days of the week; others recommend one full, 24-hour weekly fast. There are no particular restrictions on the type of foods allowed to be consumed, as long as meals are kept within the “eating window” and consumption does not surpass the feeling of comfortable fullness.
Experimental studies in rats have suggested that providing the body with an extended fast (up to 24 hours) is physiologically beneficial, potentially improving insulin sensitivity, decreasing resting heart rate and blood pressure and reducing body wide inflammation—all of which could contribute to a longer expected lifespan. Further, adapting to a shorter eating window may help to moderate overall calorie intake. Randomized controlled trials demonstrating benefits in humans have yet to be published. Because humans share an evolutionary adaptation to generations of unpredictable periods of fasting and feasting, however, scientists are eager to tease out this connection in future studies.
Still, many nutrition professionals are hesitant to advocate IF as superior to other diets or as a safe and effective approach to weight loss. At the end of the day, reducing calories consumed and increasing energy expended through physical activity is what matters for losing weight, and there are many ways to achieve this goal that do not require adopting a rigid eating schedule. It is important to consider your lifestyle, motivation, and sacrifices you are willing (or not willing) to make in order to reap the potential benefits of intermittent fasting. Like any diet, adherence is key to success. Here are six common mistakes to avoid if you think intermittent fasting sounds like something you want to try.
Six Mistakes Most People Make When They Begin Intermittent Fasting
- Giving up too soon
It is normal to feel more irritable or sluggish as the body adapts to a longer fasting period and adjusts its hormonal signaling (most scientists believe this adaptation underlies many of the health benefits of IF). Intermittent Fasters will likely find that true hunger feels different than the hunger pangs and uptick in heartbeat associated with fluctuating blood sugar, which we experience when we are used to frequent eating—learn to recognize it.
- Forgetting about quality
Even though IF does not restrict the type of foods allowed to be consumed during the eating period, it’s essential to maintain proper nutrition. Metabolic improvements like insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation could very well be negated if fasters neglect nutritional balance and decide to eat foods high in salt, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates exclusively, avoiding fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. You may still lose weight if you’re consuming fewer calories overall, but the efficiency of your body systems will suffer—and you probably won’t feel too well, either.
- Forgetting to hydrate
Hydration is key, especially during periods of fasting. Adequate hydration is necessary for pretty much every function in the body and will keep you feeling energized and alert. During fasting periods water, tea, coffee and no- or low-calorie beverages are allowed (just watch out for added cream and sugar). Keep tabs on the color of your urine as a gauge for hydration status: if it is darker than the light-yellow of hay you need to drink more fluid.
- Exercising too much
Some athletes swear by intermittent fasting as a means to improve performance, burn more fat, and even increase endurance. However, none of these benefits have consistently been backed up with controlled human studies. In fact, many observational studies of Muslim athletes during Ramadan show evidence of decreased performance (some athletes practicing IF might not maintain a fasting pattern requiring them to train during a fasted state, so these experimental differences could be important in interpreting results). Moderate and consistent exercise is encouraged for general health, but excessive exercise on top of prolonged fasting may send the body in to a state of chronic stress which can lead to inflammation, lean tissue breakdown, insulin resistance and injury.
- Not working with your schedule
There are different variations of IF and the only thing that makes one program more effective than the next is whether or not you can stick to it. For example, don’t decide to fast for 24 hours if you know missing your nightly family dinner will cause mental and social strain. There are many methods for reducing calorie intake for weight loss, and intermittent fasting may not be right for you if it leads to feelings of isolation and reduced quality of life.
- Believing that if some is good, more is better
Just because a little bit of fasting may be healthy does not mean that a lot of fasting is healthy. Going too long without food can lead the body into a state known as “starvation mode,” which greatly slows the metabolic rate, begins breaking down muscle for energy, and stores a greater majority of consumed calories as fat. Further, fasting for too long can lead to severe feelings of deprivation and preoccupation with food, culminating in uncontrollable or disordered eating behavior including binging and even anorexia. If you sense your relationship with food is becoming abnormal because of IF, make necessary adjustments and seek help if needed.
Because IF can represent a major shift in metabolism and routine, most nutrition professionals are hesitant to recommend it as an intervention for just anyone. It is important to work with a licensed professional who understands your needs and who can help you maintain optimal nutrition, physical activity, and mental health during periods of prolonged fasting. Preliminary studies show that IF, when done right, may be a great tool for improving health, but it is not the only option to boost endurance and lose weight.
Hannah Meier is a first-year, second-semester NUTCOM student, registered dietitian and aspiring spokesperson for honest, scientifically driven and individualized nutrition.