An amazing tool for health, intermittent fasting is a free and easy way to hugely improve your immune system, brain function, energy levels, cravings and weight.
The 16 / 8 Fast
There are lots of different types of fasting, but my favourite one (and by far the easiest) is the 16 / 8 fast. This means fasting for 16 hours a day, and eating within 8 hours. This doesn’t necessarily mean less food, but usually ends up being so because you just don’t have the time. An example of this would be between midday and 8pm. So you just have to get through the morning without food and you’re set for the day! Or if you’re an early dinner person, between 10:30am and 6:30pm. Easy! Disclaimer: this is all calories and not just food, if you’re a glass-of-wine-after-dinner kind of person factor that into your 8 hours.
Why it makes sense
It’s well known that after a certain amount of time without eating, between 8 and 12 hours, your body goes into starvation mode, holding onto its fat and sugar stores. However after about 12 hours, your body moves into action mode. This is where everything speeds up (including your metabolism) and starts working more efficiently. Evolutionarily speaking, in times of fasting in between hunting/gathering, it doesn’t make sense for your body to slow down and stop working, it’s in your best interests for survival for your brain to work better in order to calculate the best way to get food and for your muscles to have a supply of energy so you can go and get it.
Orexins and Leptin
This is due to the orexin hormones which are released to encourage food intake and are responsible for wakefulness and apetite. When they’re released into the bloodstream, they promote alertness and hunger, so this means during your fast you’re likely to feel super awake! It’s also the reason for the infamous ‘carb coma’. This is when you eat a very carb heavy meal and it leaves you feeling lethargic, heavy and cloudy-minded, this is because orexins are inhibited by glucose in the blood (what ALL carbs are broken down into, even potatoes), and are also inhibited by Leptin, which is called the satiety hormone – the hormone you get when you’re full and don’t need more food. So to sum up, hunger = alertness, fullness = sleepiness.
Why your cells will love you for it
On a cellular level, fasting promotes autophagy, which is where your cells aren’t getting the nutrients they need so they upcycle their own cellular machinery in order to provide itself with nutrients. This achieves toxin detoxification and fixing faulty proteins. It’s a fantastic way to force your body to clean itself from the inside out.
There is some evidence to suggest the fasting can help with certain types of cancer. Normal, healthy cells are well equipped to deal with stress (e.g. hunger) and have mechanisms in place to ensure survival; however cancer cells are stuck on the ‘on’ mode in terms of cellular proliferation/growth, and in the absence of necessary nutrients may start to die. There are also studies which suggest that fasting prior to chemotherapy may enhance its effects and decrease the side effects. This isn’t suitable for everyone however, and it’s worth making sure with your doctor that it’s safe to do this.
There’s also evidence that shows that the occasional fast can improve insulin sensitivity and secretion which will help prevent against the onset of Type 2 Diabetes and also in some cases help to manage your lifestyle with T2 Diabetes. There are risks involved so fasting needs to be done carefully and under supervision.
After your fast, start your eating with something highly nutritious and fatty. You want to provide your body with as many vitamins and minerals as possible to aid the repair process and restock depleted stores, and you want to pair that with some nice healthy fats (for example coconut oil or avocado) to enable all the good stuff to be absorbed into your cells efficiently. Stay away from protein first thing as protein stops autophagy as it’s a building molecule which encourages cell growth (rather than autophagy). Ideally, you want to save your proteinous meal for a little later in the day.
Here’s a bit of inspiration for delicious meals to end your fast with:
- mixed berries with grated dark chocolate;
- a big salad with nuts and seeds;
- a hearty vegetable soup with some coconut or olive oil mixed in (if it’s olive, make sure you stir it in after the soups cooled down a little to prevent the healthy olive oil fats from oxidising);
- a smoothie or juice blended with dry chia seeds/flaxseeds/nuts;
- and just any other combination of low-carb, high-fat nutritious foods.
This isn’t something that has to be done every day by any means, even once or twice a week will make a big difference long term! If you’ve tried this already and want to try some more extreme types of fasting, google: 1 day fast, 3 day fasts and 5 day fasts; but be prepared that the actual period of time where your diet changes is around triple the amount of days you’re fasting for. This is because it takes time before and after the fast to adjust your eating and slowly acclimatise your body into a new routine.
Why I love it
When I first learned about 16 / 8 fasting I was so excited! Having tried a million and one diets in the past and hating 95% of them, this seemed like something that might actually work for me. It was the concept that I didn’t have to eat less / stop snacking / have smaller portions; I just had to eat within a time frame. Instead of feeling deprived 24/7, I saw the morning as a challenge to get through and the afternoon as complete freedom to eat what I want! The biggest challenge for me was getting used to the idea that this meant skipping breakfast. There’s a lot in the media that tells you that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ but there’s a lot of research which contradicts this, and most importantly, you need to find what works for you. There’s such a huge variety in the way people put on weight that there is no one solution fits all. A few examples of what makes us all different are: metabolism speed; gut microbiota; intolerances; allergy’s; fitness; jobs; lifestyle; height; bone density; diabetes and other diseases; food available within a culture and lots more things that distinguish each individual and the way they process nutrition.
Whether you’re looking to detox, loose weight, boost your immune system or generally improve your overall health, the occasional fast may be the way forward. A lot of people do it without thinking! Go to sleep without dinner, wake up late and miss breakfast, forget to bring food/money on a long journey; whether it’s a conscious choice or an accident, rest assured it’s good for you.
One more thing: life is about balance.
Yes, fasting is healthy, but starving yourself isn’t! On the days you’re not fasting, eat balanced nutritious meals and feed your body what it needs! Healthy doesn’t mean skinny.
If you’re an extremely active person, fasting can still be beneficial but you’ll need to find a more tailored fast to get the best out of it and fit around your training/exercise schedule.
If you’re overweight and using the fast to loose weight, remember that just because you’ve done your 16 hours of no eating doesn’t give you an excuse to overeat when the fast is over.
Another tool in your toolbox
View intermittent fasting as another tool in your toolbox for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. When it doesn’t suit you to fast, don’t worry about it. When the perfect opportunity presents itself, go for it! You could do it with a friend or your partner to encourage each other through it, and it’s good to do if you feel a cold or flu coming on, kick-start your cells into detoxifying mode!
Find the fast that works for you, you’ll feel healthier and happier and you’ll see some really positive health benefits if you do it properly.