Understanding the benefits of intermittent fasting

In the never-ending quest for better health and wellbeing, humans are constantly redefining how we approach diet and exercise. Among the countless trends – some of which work, and many that don’t – intermittent fasting stands out as a particularly effective strategy.

But exactly how easy is it to try intermittent fasting? And what are the benefits, and potential drawbacks, of this lifestyle change? Let’s explore how practising it correctly has been found to boost your metabolism, increase cognitive function, reduce stress levels and more.

What is intermittent fasting and how does it work?

When it comes to eating healthier, we tend to focus on the types of foods we eat and restrict. But intermittent fasting does the complete opposite. Rather than telling you what you can and can’t eat, this intermittent eating pattern focuses entirely on when you eat.

“Essentially, it’s a strategy that involves going for extended periods of time with little or no energy intake, with controlled periods of regular food intake on a recurring basis,” says Anjali Tiscia, Accredited Practising Dietitian & Nutritionist at NSS Team.

Anjali says there are numerous forms of intermittent fasting, including: 

  • 16/8 method: This involves restricting your daily eating period to eight hours, and then fasting for 16 hours in between. For example, eating from 10am to 6pm and fasting from 6pm to 10am. This is also known as time-restricted feeding and can be modified to 14/10, 18/6, etc. depending on your lifestyle and goals.
  • 5:2 diet: This involves consuming 500–600 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week and then consuming a regular diet on the other five days. 
  • Alternate-day method: This involves alternating fasting days with no energy intake and then eating as usual the following day.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?

While the act of fasting is not a new concept by any means, more and more people are taking advantage of its benefits within a structured daily life setting. Anjali says this can lead to some wide-ranging health benefits such as:

  • Reduced blood sugar and insulin levels, thus reducing risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduced total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and triglycerides, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduced levels of dangerous visceral fat (fat around the organs) and increased retention of lean muscle mass.
  • Improved brain and cognitive function with increases in synaptic plasticity, autophagy (clearing away damaged cells that can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s) and neurogenesis (growth of brain cells).
  • Reduced blood pressure and resting heart rate.
  • Reduced inflammatory markers that are responsible for numerous chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases.

Here are some of the major health benefits that are possible with intermittent fasting:

1. Enhancing metabolic health and insulin sensitivity 

By incorporating fasting periods in your weekly routine, your body has the opportunity to use stored glucose and fat. This process enhances insulin sensitivity, which helps regulate your blood sugar. Improved insulin sensitivity can not only reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes but also help with weight management.

2. Boosting cognitive function 

Intermittent fasting isn't just about your physical health – it can also benefit your brain. Fasting triggers a process called autophagy, where the body removes damaged cells and regenerates new ones. This extends to brain cells, potentially enhancing cognitive function and protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. Fasting can also stimulate the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein associated with learning and memory function.

3. Reducing inflammation and stress 

Inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases, from heart disease to cancer. Intermittent fasting can influence the production of inflammatory markers in the body, and even reduce oxidative stress, which is linked to ageing and other health issues. By giving your body periods of rest from having to digest food, intermittent fasting lets it focus on repair and detoxification.

4. Balancing hormones and managing hunger 

Hormone regulation must be strong if you want to boost your overall wellbeing. Ghrelin, often referred to as the ‘hunger hormone’, is affected by fasting and can lead to decreased hunger sensations. Additionally, fasting can boost the release of norepinephrine, which is a hormone that can break down fat.

When is intermittent fasting not a good idea?

However, Anjali says that there are some instances where intermittent fasting will not be the most appropriate way to manage your weight.

“In pregnancy, your nutritional needs are much greater and thus restricting eating periods through intermittent fasting can potentially cause malnutrition and negatively impact the developing baby,” she says. “Fasting can also cause excessive cortisol exposure to the foetus.”

“For diabetics, long periods of fasting can have a negative impact when you are trying to regulate your blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes and are considering intermittent fasting, this must be done with the guidance of your doctor and dietitian.”

“Finally, nutritional restrictions can disturb critical stages of physiological growth in children. And for those with a history of disordered eating or if you are currently diagnosed with an eating disorder, intermittent fasting is not recommended as it encourages potentially harmful caloric restriction.”

Guide to starting intermittent fasting

While the benefits of intermittent fasting are compelling, you need to approach such a major dietary change with care. Here’s how you can get started:

  • Choose a fasting window: There are lots of different ways to do intermittent fasting, such as the 16/8 method (fast for 16 hours, eat during an eight-hour window) or the 5:2 method (eat normally for five days, restrict calorie intake on two non-consecutive days). Choose a fasting pattern that aligns with your lifestyle and preferences.
  • Stay hydrated: During fasting periods, it’s particularly crucial that you stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, herbal teas and other non-caloric beverages to ensure you remain well-hydrated throughout the fasting window.
  • Eat nutrient-dense foods: When breaking your fast, opt for nutrient-dense foods that will give you all the essential vitamins, minerals and macronutrients your body craves. Focus on whole foods like lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • Listen to your body: Intermittent fasting won’t be suitable for everyone, especially if you have a particular medical condition or specific dietary needs. Listen to your body and speak to your healthcare professional before making any big changes to your diet.
  • Make the transition gradual: If you're new to intermittent fasting, consider gradually increasing the duration of your fasting periods. Start with shorter fasts and slowly work your way up to longer intervals.

Taking the first step 

While intermittent fasting has plenty of benefits, you’ll want to approach it with mindfulness and an understanding of what your body needs. As you embark on your intermittent fasting journey, trust that you are taking a proactive step towards improved wellbeing and long-term health.

And while you’re making a positive change to your lifestyle, now could be a good time to consider your life insurance needs. Talk to Guardian Insurance today or request a life insurance quote online.