what is intermittent fasting?

A phenomenon called intermittent fasting is currently one of the world’s most popular health and fitness trends.

It involves alternating cycles of fasting and eating.

Many studies show that this can cause weight loss, improve metabolic health, protect against disease and perhaps help you live longer.

This article explains what intermittent fasting is, and why you should care.


What Is Intermittent Fasting?

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting.

It does not say anything about which foods to eat, but rather when you should eat them.

There are several different intermittent fasting methods, all of which split the day or week into eating periods and fasting periods.

Most people already “fast” every day, while they sleep. Intermittent fasting can be as simple as extending that fast a little longer.

You can do this by skipping breakfast, eating your first meal at noon and your last meal at 8 pm.

Then you’re technically fasting for 16 hours every day, and restricting your eating to an 8-hour eating window. This is the most popular form of intermittent fasting, known as the 16/8 method.

Despite what you may think, intermittent fasting is actually fairly easy to do. Many people report feeling better and having more energy during a fast.

Hunger is usually not that big of an issue, although it can be a problem in the beginning, while your body is getting used to not eating for extended periods of time.

No food is allowed during the fasting period, but you can drink water, coffee, tea and other non-caloric beverages.

Some forms of intermittent fasting allow small amounts of low-calorie foods during the fasting period.

Taking supplements is generally allowed while fasting, as long as there are no calories in them.

Why Fast?

Humans have actually been fasting for thousands of years.

Sometimes it was done out of necessity, when there simply wasn’t any food available.

In other instances, it was done for religious reasons. Various religions, including Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, mandate some form of fasting.

Humans and other animals also often instinctively fast when sick.

Clearly, there is nothing “unnatural” about fasting, and our bodies are very well equipped to handle extended periods of not eating.

All sorts of processes in the body change when we don’t eat for a while, in order to allow our bodies to thrive during a period of famine. It has to do with hormones, genes and important cellular repair processes.

When fasted, we get significant reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as a drastic increase in human growth hormone.

Many people do intermittent fasting in order to lose weight, as it is a very simple and effective way to restrict calories and burn fat.

Others do it for the metabolic health benefits, as it can improve various different risk factors and health markers.

There is also some evidence that intermittent fasting can help you live longer. Studies in rodents show that it can extend lifespan as effectively as calorie restriction.

Some research also suggests that it can help protect against diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and others.

Other people simply like the convenience of intermittent fasting.

It is an effective “life hack” that makes your life simpler, while improving your health at the same time. The fewer meals you need to plan for, the simpler your life will be.

Not having to eat 3-4+ times per day (with the preparation and cleaning involved) also saves time. A lot of it.

Types of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting has become very trendy in the past few years, and several different types/methods have emerged.

Here are some of the most popular ones:

  • The 16/8 Method: Fast for 16 hours each day, for example by only eating between noon and 8pm.
  • Eat-Stop-Eat: Once or twice a week, don’t eat anything from dinner one day, until dinner the next day (a 24 hour fast).
  • The 5:2 Diet: During 2 days of the week, eat only about 500–600 calories.

Then there are many other variations.

Take Home Message

As long as you stick to healthy foods, restricting your eating window and fasting from time to time can have some very impressive health benefits.

It is an effective way to lose fat and improve metabolic health, while simplifying your life at the same time.


How Intermittent Fasting Can Help You Lose Weight

There are many different ways to lose weight.

One strategy that has become popular in recent years is called intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that involves regular, short-term fasts — or periods of minimal or no food consumption.

Most people understand intermittent fasting as a weight loss intervention. Fasting for short periods of time helps people eat fewer calories, which may result in weight loss over time.

However, intermittent fasting may also help modify risk factors for health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, such as lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Choosing your intermittent fasting plan

There are several different intermittent fasting methods. The most popular ones include:

  • the 16:8 method
  • the 5:2 diet
  • the Warrior diet
  • Eat Stop Eat
  • alternate-day fasting (ADF)

All methods can be effective, but figuring out which one works best depends on the individual.

To help you choose the method that fits your lifestyle, here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of each.

The 16/8 method

The 16/8 intermittent fasting plan is one of the most popular styles of fasting for weight loss.

The plan restricts food consumption and calorie-containing beverages to a set window of 8 hours per day. It requires abstaining from food for the remaining 16 hours of the day.

While other diets can set strict rules and regulations, the 16/8 method is based on a time-restricted feeding (TRF) model and more flexible.

You can choose any 8-hour window to consume calories.

Some people opt to skip breakfast and fast from noon to 8 p.m., while others avoid eating late and stick to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.

Limiting the number of hours that you can eat during the day may help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure.

Research indicates that time-restricted feeding patterns such as the 16/8 method may prevent hypertension and reduce the amount of food consumed, leading to weight loss.

A 2016 study found that when combined with resistance training, the 16/8 method helped decreased fat mass and maintain muscle mass in male participants.

A more recent study found that the 16/8 method did not impair gains in muscle or strength in women performing resistance training.

While the 16/8 method can easily fit into any lifestyle, some people may find it challenging to avoid eating for 16 hours straight.

Additionally, eating too many snacks or junk food during your 8-hour window can negate the positive effects associated with 16/8 intermittent fasting.

Be sure to eat a balanced diet comprising fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and protein to maximize the potential health benefits of this diet.

The 5:2 method

The 5:2 diet is a straightforward intermittent fasting plan.

Five days per week, you eat normally and don’t restrict calories. Then, on the other two days of the week, you reduce your calorie intake to one-quarter of your daily needs.

For someone who regularly consumes 2,000 calories per day, this would mean reducing their calorie intake to just 500 calories per day, two days per week.

According to a 2018 study, the 5:2 diet is just as effective as daily calorie restriction for weight loss and blood glucose control among those with type 2 diabetes.

Another study found that the 5:2 diet was just as effective as continuous calorie restriction for both weight loss and the prevention of metabolic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

The 5:2 diet provides flexibility, as you get to pick which days you fast, and there are no rules regarding what or when to eat on full-calorie days.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that eating “normally” on full-calorie days does not give you a free pass to eat whatever you want.

Restricting yourself to just 500 calories per day isn’t easy, even if it’s only for two days per week. Plus, consuming too few calories may make you feel ill or faint.

The 5:2 diet can be effective, but it’s not for everyone. Talk to your doctor to see if the 5:2 diet may be right for you.

Eat Stop Eat

Eat Stop Eat is an unconventional approach to intermittent fasting popularized by Brad Pilon, author of the book “Eat Stop Eat.”

This intermittent fasting plan involves identifying one or two non-consecutive days per week during which you abstain from eating, or fast, for a 24-hour period.

During the remaining days of the week, you can eat freely, but it’s recommended to eat a well-rounded diet and avoid overconsumption.

The rationale behind a weekly 24-hour fast is that consuming fewer calories will lead to weight loss.

Fasting for up to 24 hours can lead to a metabolic shift that causes your body to use fat as an energy source instead of glucose.

But avoiding food for 24 hours at a time requires a lot of willpower and may lead to binging and overconsumption later on. It may also lead to disordered eating patterns.

More research is needed regarding the Eat Stop Eat diet to determine its potential health benefits and weight loss properties.

Talk to your doctor before trying Eat Stop Eat to see if it may be an effective weight loss solution for you.

Alternate-day fasting

Alternate-day fasting is an intermittent fasting plan with an easy-to-remember structure. On this diet, you fast every other day but can eat whatever you want on the non-fasting days.

Some versions of this diet embrace a “modified” fasting strategy that involves eating around 500 calories on fasting days. However, other versions eliminate calories altogether on fasting days.

Alternate-day fasting has proven weight loss benefits.

A randomized pilot study comparing alternate-day fasting to a daily caloric restriction in adults with obesity found both methods to be equally effective for weight loss.

Another study found that participants consumed 35% fewer calories and lost an average of 7.7 pounds (3.5 kg) after alternating between 36 hours of fasting and 12 hours of unlimited eating over 4 weeks.

If you really want to maximize weight loss, adding an exercise regime to your life can help.

Research shows that combining alternate-day fasting with endurance exercise may cause twice as much weight loss than simply fasting.

A full fast every other day can be extreme, especially if you’re new to fasting. Overeating on non-fasting days can also be tempting.

If you’re new to intermittent fasting, ease into alternate-day fasting with a modified fasting plan.

Whether you start with a modified fasting plan or full fast, it’s best to maintain a nutritious diet, incorporating high protein foods and low calorie vegetables to help you feel full.

The Warrior diet

The Warrior Diet is an intermittent fasting plan based on the eating patterns of ancient warriors.

Created in 2001 by Ori Hofmekler, the Warrior Diet is a bit more extreme than the 16:8 method but less restrictive than the Eat Fast Eat method.

It consists of eating very little for 20 hours during the day, and then eating as much food as desired throughout a 4-hour window at night.

The Warrior Diet encourages dieters to consume small amounts of dairy products, hard-boiled eggs, and raw fruits and vegetables, as well as non-calorie fluids during the 20-hour fast period.

After this 20-hour fast, people can essentially eat anything they want for a 4-hour window, but unprocessed, healthy, and organic foods are recommended.

While there’s no research on the Warrior Diet specifically, human studies indicate that time-restricted feeding cycles can lead to weight loss.

Time-restricted feeding cycles may have a variety of other health benefits. Studies show that time-restricted feeding cycles can prevent diabetes, slow tumor progression, delay aging, and increase lifespan in rodents.

More research is needed on the Warrior Diet to fully understand its benefits for weight loss.

The Warrior Diet may be difficult to follow, as it restricts substantial calorie consumption to just 4 hours per day. Overconsumption at night is a common challenge.

The Warrior Diet may also lead to disordered eating patterns. If you feel up for the challenge, talk to your doctor to see whether it’s right for you.

How intermittent fasting affects your hormones

Intermittent fasting may help you lose weight, but it can also affect your hormones.

That’s because body fat is the body’s way of storing energy (calories).

When you don’t eat anything, your body makes several changes to make its stored energy more accessible.

Examples include changes in nervous system activity, as well as major changes in the levels of several crucial hormones.

Below are two metabolic changes that occur when you fast:

  • Insulin. Insulin levels increase when you eat, and when you fast, they decrease dramatically. Lower levels of insulin facilitate fat burning.
  • Norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Your nervous system sends norepinephrine to your fat cells, making them break down body fat into free fatty acids that can be burned for energy.

Interestingly, despite what some proponents of consuming 5–6 meals per day claim, short-term fasting may increase fat burning.

Research shows that alternate-day fasting trials lasting 3–12 weeks, as well as whole-day fasting trials lasting 12–24 weeks, reduce body weight and body fat.

Still, more research is needed to investigate the long-term effects of intermittent fasting.

Another hormone that’s altered during a fast is human growth hormone (HGH), levels of which may increase as much as five-fold.

Previously, HGH was believed to help burn fat faster, but new research shows it may signal the brain to conserve energy, potentially making it harder to lose weight.

By activating a small population of agouti-related protein (AgRP) neurons, HGH may indirectly increase appetite and diminish energy metabolism.

Intermittent fasting helps you reduce calories and lose weight

The main reason that intermittent fasting works for weight loss is that it helps you eat fewer calories.

All of the different protocols involve skipping meals during the fasting periods.

Unless you compensate by eating much more during the eating periods, you’ll be consuming fewer calories.

According to a 2014 review, intermittent fasting reduced body weight by 3–8% over a period of 3–24 weeks.

When examining the rate of weight loss, intermittent fasting may produce weight loss at a rate of approximately 0.55 to 1.65 pounds (0.25–0.75 kg) per week.

People also experienced a 4–7% reduction in waist circumference, indicating that they lost belly fat.

These results indicate that intermittent fasting can be a useful weight loss tool.

That said, the benefits of intermittent fasting go way beyond weight loss.

It also has numerous benefits for metabolic health, and it may even help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Although calorie counting is generally not required when doing intermittent fasting, the weight loss is mostly mediated by an overall reduction in calorie intake.

Studies comparing intermittent fasting and continuous calorie restriction show no difference in weight loss when calories are matched between groups.

Intermittent fasting may help you maintain muscle mass when dieting

One of the worst side effects of dieting is that your body tends to lose muscle along with fat.

Interestingly, some studies have shown that intermittent fasting may be beneficial for maintaining muscle mass while losing body fat.

A scientific review found that intermittent calorie restriction caused a similar amount of weight loss as continuous calorie restriction — but with a much smaller reduction in muscle mass.

In the calorie restriction studies, 25% of the weight lost was muscle mass, compared with only 10% in the intermittent calorie restriction studies.

However, these studies had some limitations, so take the findings with a grain of salt. More recent studies haven’t found any differences in lean mass or muscle mass with intermittent fasting when compared with other types of eating plans.

Intermittent fasting makes healthy eating simpler

For many, one of the main benefits of intermittent fasting is its simplicity.

Rather than counting calories, most intermittent fasting regimes simply require you to tell time.

The best dietary pattern for you is the one you can stick to in the long run. If intermittent fasting makes it easier for you to stick to a healthy diet, it will have obvious benefits for long-term health and weight maintenance.

How to succeed with an intermittent fasting protocol

There are several things you need to keep in mind if you want to lose weight with intermittent fasting:

  1. Food quality.The foods you eat are still important. Try to eat mostly whole, single-ingredient foods.
  2. Calories still count. Try to eat normally during the non-fasting periods, not so much that you compensate for the calories you missed when fasting.
  3. Just as with any other weight loss method, you need to stick with it for an extended period if you want it to work.
  4. It can take your body some time to adapt to an intermittent fasting protocol. Try to be consistent with your meal schedule, and it’ll get easier.

Most of the popular intermittent fasting protocols also recommend exercise, such as strength training. This is very important if you want to burn mostly body fat while maintaining your muscle mass.

In the beginning, calorie counting is generally not required with intermittent fasting. However, if your weight loss stalls, calorie counting can be a useful tool.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, intermittent fasting can be a useful weight loss tool.

Its related weight loss is primarily caused by a reduction in calorie intake, but some of its beneficial effects on hormones may also come into play.

While intermittent fasting is not for everyone, it may be highly beneficial for some people.

6 Popular Ways to Do Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting has recently become a health trend. It’s claimed to cause weight loss, improve metabolic health, and perhaps even extend lifespan.

Several methods of this eating pattern exist.

Every method can be effective, but figuring out which one works best depends on the individual.

Here are 6 popular ways to do intermittent fasting.

1_The 16/8 method

The 16/8 method involves fasting every day for 14–16 hours and restricting your daily eating window to 8–10 hours.

Within the eating window, you can fit in two, three, or more meals.

This method is also known as the Leangains protocol and was popularized by fitness expert Martin Berkhan.

Doing this method of fasting can actually be as simple as not eating anything after dinner and skipping breakfast.

For example, if you finish your last meal at 8 p.m. and don’t eat until noon the next day, you’re technically fasting for 16 hours.

It’s generally recommended that women only fast 14–15 hours because they seem to do better with slightly shorter fasts.

For people who get hungry in the morning and like to eat breakfast, this method may be hard to get used to at first. However, many breakfast skippers instinctively eat this way.

You can drink water, coffee, and other zero-calorie beverages during the fast, which can help reduce feelings of hunger.

It’s very important to primarily eat healthy foods during your eating window. This method won’t work if you eat lots of junk food or an excessive number of calories.

2_The 5:2 diet

The 5:2 diet involves eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 for 2 days of the week.

This diet is also called the Fast Diet and was popularized by British journalist Michael Mosley.

On the fasting days, it’s recommended that women eat 500 calories and men 600.

For example, you might eat normally every day of the week except Mondays and Thursdays. For those two days, you eat 2 small meals of 250 calories each for women and 300 calories each for men.

As critics correctly point out, there are no studies testing the 5:2 diet itself, but there are plenty of studies on the benefits of intermittent fasting.

3_Eat Stop Eat

Eat Stop Eat involves a 24-hour fast once or twice per week.

This method was popularized by fitness expert Brad Pilon and has been quite popular for a few years.

By fasting from dinner one day to dinner the next day, this amounts to a full 24-hour fast.

For example, if you finish dinner at 7 p.m. Monday and don’t eat until dinner at 7 p.m. the next day, you’ve completed a full 24-hour fast. You can also fast from breakfast to breakfast or lunch to lunch — the end result is the same.

Water, coffee, and other zero-calorie beverages are allowed during the fast, but no solid foods are permitted.

If you’re doing this to lose weight, it’s very important that you eat normally during the eating periods. In other words, you should eat the same amount of food as if you hadn’t been fasting at all.

The potential downside of this method is that a full 24-hour fast may be fairly difficult for many people. However, you don’t need to go all in right away. It’s fine to start with 14–16 hours, then move upward from there.

4_Alternate-day fasting

In alternate-day fasting, you fast every other day.

There are several different versions of this method. Some of them allow about 500 calories during the fasting days.

Many of the test-tube studies showing health benefits of intermittent fasting used some version of this method.

A full fast every other day can seem rather extreme, so it’s not recommended for beginners.

With this method, you may go to bed very hungry several times per week, which is not very pleasant and probably unsustainable in the long term.

5_ The Warrior Diet

The Warrior Diet was popularized by fitness expert Ori Hofmekler.

It involves eating small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day and eating one huge meal at night.

Basically, you fast all day and feast at night within a four-hour eating window.

The Warrior Diet was one of the first popular diets to include a form of intermittent fasting.

This diet’s food choices are quite similar to that of the paleo diet — mostly whole, unprocessed foods.

6_ Spontaneous meal skipping

You don’t need to follow a structured intermittent fasting plan to reap some of its benefits. Another option is to simply skip meals from time to time, such as when you don’t feel hungry or are too busy to cook and eat.

It’s a myth that people need to eat every few hours lest they hit starvation mode or lose muscle. Your body is well equipped to handle long periods of famine, let alone missing one or two meals from time to time.

Thus, if you’re really not hungry one day, skip breakfast and just eat a healthy lunch and dinner. Or, if you’re travelling somewhere and can’t find anything you want to eat, do a short fast.

Skipping one or two meals when you feel inclined to do so is basically a spontaneous intermittent fast.

Just make sure to eat healthy foods during the other meals.

The bottom line

Intermittent fasting is a weight loss tool that works for many people, though it doesn’t work for everyone.

Some people believe it may not be as beneficial for women as for men. It’s also not recommended for people who have or are prone to eating disorders.

If you decide to try intermittent fasting, keep in mind that diet quality is crucial. It’s not possible to binge on junk foods during the eating periods and expect to lose weight and boost your health.


Source: healthline.com