Intermittent Fasting Explained

Can postponing meal times be beneficial to our health?

Different rules hold sway when it comes to healthy eating and while some experts swear by sticking to six small balanced meals a day to keep your metabolism up and running, others demand you go easy with the meals and postpone meal times. These do not only sound like mixed messages, but run against decades of health advice to eat regularly in order to stay healthy, but the evidence behind Intermittent Fasting (IF) suggests that avoiding eating around the clock could provide valuable health benefits.

However, it appears that health experts are divided on how IF stacks up among obesity related evidence and research based facts with regard to what constitutes a healthful eating pattern. Moneybags journalist Ochega Ataguba investigates this phenomenon to find out how Intermittent Fasting works and whether it can actually boost your health when properly applied.

Intermittent Fasting

Over the past couple of years IF has been arguably one of the most topical weight management strategies and despite contradicting evidence it has continued to receive media attention while other weight loss myths are being debunked.

One explanation for this, says Dr Arien Van Der Merwe, owner of Healthy Living Space in Pretoria and author of Managing Diabetes and related health challenges is that “it is research based, tried and trusted and has been around since millennia.”

Several studies have suggested that the secret to improving your health and attaining longevity is to extend the time you go without food, or fast, which is why IF has been getting a hit.

“People are looking to evolve, they are looking to better their wellbeing but are often discouraged by regimented meal plans and restrictive diets. But the beauty of IF is that you don’t even have to be so accurate, once you are able to rewire your brain to this new eating pattern it becomes easier to do.  It’s critical though to understand the way intermittent works in order to reap the maximum benefits it provides,” says Van Der Merwe.

What puts most people off is the idea that they may have to skip meals and starve themselves while doing IF. While going without food for extend periods sounds pretty distressing and downright tortuous, Van Der Merwe expresses that it doesn’t have to be so. IF can be introduced in a cautious manner.  She explains further that with IF you are not necessarily skipping breakfast but postponing it instead. Some people tend to not feel like eating first thing in the morning when they wake up, so such people will do well with IF. People who have tried out IF claim that once they mastered the act, it was much easier to unwind their obsession with food.

What exactly is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is a research based method of eating where you postpone your meals or crunch the time within which you eat. This means that for extra hours each day you go without food, explains Van Der Merwe. In other words, this practice consists of repetitive bouts of short-term fasting.

How it works

There are five ways to go about intermittent fasting but the 16 hour window is the most practical and manageable of them all, says Van Der Merwe. The rationale behind this is that it takes 12 to 16 hours for the body to breakdown all the stored carbohydrates in the body. After the 12 hours the body starts breaking down fats stored in the body for fuel. This way people lose weight easier and they get to a stage where their blood sugar goes down.

Van Der Merwe illustrated that when doing the 16 hour fast you are allowed an eight hour eating window during which you can have breakfast at 11:00, you must have had your last meal the previous evening between 18:00 and 19:00.

Van Der Merwe adds that this way of eating is equally good for the digestive system and it slows down the aging process. This is partly because our bodies find it harder to deal with fats and carbohydrates later in the evening which can increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And when you do this you are giving your body a much needed break to recover, rebalance and restore.

Natalie Mat, registered dietician and spokesperson at the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), highlights that this is because our metabolism changes throughout the day, and earlier in the day our body will find it easier to metabolize meals.

People who have tried out IF claim that once they mastered the act, it was much easier to unwind their obsession with food.

Further,  Van Der Merwe explains that “postponing the time period within which we eat is not only beneficial to our health, intermittent fasting has been proven recently as one of the best ways to lose bad weight and keep on good weight and to reverse diabetes and the risk of heart diseases.”

What are the benefits?

According to Van Der Merwe, IF is one of the best things for people who struggle to lose fat and people who struggle to bring their blood sugar and glucose levels down. The notion that people with diabetes have to eat early in the morning has been turned on its head. Many people struggling to bring their blood glucose levels down can do well to postpone breakfast.

IF can prevent type 2 diabetes and even reverse it entirely, says Van Der Merwe. This is because people can manage their blood sugar levels just by practicing IF. Protein is more satiating and can curb over eating.

If, like me, you lead a busy life with very little time in your hands for exotic meal preparations and culinary indulgence then maybe it’s time to give IF a try. This way of eating could possibly be cost effective as you won’t have to shop for groceries and cook meals as often as you normally would

Is IF for everyone?

However, Mat explains that pregnant women should not fast for more than ten hours as this can lead to ketosis, the point when the body burns predominantly fat. This is because Ketones are not considered ideal for the developing brain of the foetus.

Dr Irene Labushane, dietician at Stellenbosch University, agrees that there is research to show that fasting for two days a week (alternate day fasting), (preferably) together with a moderate energy-restricted diet or the person’s normal diet without restrictions, delivers the same, or even better results than standard energy-restricted diet over seven days. Both diets improve metabolic markers such as insulin levels, cholesterol, blood pressure, leptin and others.

However, Mat warns that “people with diabetes should only consider fasting under medical supervision as their medication and/or insulin schedule has been developed for when they are eating. Critically low blood sugar levels can be experienced by insulin dependent individuals if there is a mismatch between their blood sugar levels and insulin use which can lead to brain damage and death’’

“I fear that intermittent fasting perpetuates an all or nothing approach to food, counters Mat. You are either eating very little or nothing, then gorging on everything. My secret to success is eating healthy most of the time. We should eat regularly so that we are either starving or about-to-pop full. Healthy eating is not about an “all or nothing” approach. Instead of thinking in black and white terms, healthy eating is a light grey earth.

But Van Der Merwe believes that IF can facilitate weight management and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. This is because when we fast we stop burning fuels from outside our body and start burning our internal sources of fuel (stored carbohydrates, proteins and fats).

Recent studies have found that fasting can lower the risk of chronic diseases and is more powerful in reversing some chronic diseases than drugs, she says. “However, when you break your fast you must ensure that you do not eat very little. It sounds contradictory, Van Der Merwe says, but if you eat too little, your body goes into survival mode and when this happens the body will begin to [panic] and it begins to hold back by storing fat for survival instead of burning it for fuel.”

But like Banting, IF is not a one size fits all, people must trust their body and listen to it determine what works for them, however, most people can do very well to postpone breakfast, Van Der Merwe maintains.

Before starting any diet, consult a medical professional to discuss the risks and possible side effects that it can cause, especially if you are suffering from a pre-existing condition.