Intermittent fasting seems to be everywhere these days. This eating method, allegedly, can help control eating habits, discourage grazing and produce weight loss. But what exactly are the scientifically proven benefits of intermittent fasting, and what are some downsides that can come with it? Let’s find out.
The Basics of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is restricting when you eat to a specific time frame (hours of the day, days or the week, a certain period of the year). According to the National Institute of Aging (NIA), there are various kinds of intermittent fasting:
- Time-restricted feeding. Meals are during a specific time frame of the day. For example, a typical time-restricted fast involves 16 hours (mostly overnight) of fasting and eating during an 8-hour window during the day.
- Alternate day fasting. This fasting method involves alternating between an entire day of fasting and a day of unrestricted eating. The fasting day involves consuming very few to no calories.
- 5:2 fasting. This fasting pattern involves eating unrestricted for five consecutive days, followed by two days of restricting your calories. On your two restricting days, a common calorie goal can be as much as 500 to 600 calories.
- Periodic fasting. Lastly, this fasting method restricts calories for multiple days in a row, and the other days are entirely unrestricted. An example could be restricting calories for four days straight, two times a month, then freely eating the other remaining days.
Besides the fasting methods mentioned above, individuals also fast according to their religious practice. A well-known example is fasting for Ramadan, an Islamic fast that lasts 28 to 30 days. During this fast, food and drink are not allowed during the day, but unrestricted eating happens at night.
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Another example is fasting for Lent, which is a 40-day fast. Lent involves abstaining from meat on Fridays (fish is allowed) and choosing to give up something until Lent is over. Some everyday things that I have seen my friends give up during Lent are alcohol, sweets, smoking, sleeping in, excessive social media usage, gossiping, and caffeine.
Consider the following pros and cons if you are looking to adopt intermittent fasting as a way of life.
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The Pros of Intermittent Fasting
Now that we are familiar with fasting and the many methods you can participate in a fast let’s get into the possible benefits.
- Simple to follow
- Involves unrestricted eating periods
- May help with blood glucose control
Pro #1: It’s Simple to Follow
Specific diets can be challenging to follow because they may involve various rules to follow, foods to avoid, and foods to include. As a Registered Dietitian, I have worked with individuals following one of the most challenging diets to stick to, the renal diet for their end-stage renal disease. The stress and struggles of sticking to a complex diet are very real.
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With intermittent fasting, the rules are simple. You eat during your eating window and fast during the fasting period. No looking at the nutrition facts label for specific ingredients or referring to a list of food you can or cannot eat. Depending on your fasting method, your fasting period may include minimal caloric intake or complete fasting.
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Pro #2: Involves Unrestricted Eating Periods
Commonly, diets can heavily restrict what is on your plate—for example, regulation and control of portion sizes, types of food, and cooking methods.
But for intermittent fasting, the free eating periods give you free rein and choice over what you eat. Who wouldn’t like to hear that you are entirely free to eat whatever you please?
Some people may choose to fit in 3 or more meals during their eating window. Others may focus on 1 large and nutrient-dense meal, while others may choose to have smaller meals or graze.
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Pro #3: Blood Glucose Control
If you have been diagnosed with type 1 or 2 diabetes, intermittent fasting may be a way to help control your blood sugar levels. Intermittent fasting has been associated with weight loss and decreased insulin requirements in limited human studies.
The results from the few studies on this topic are promising, but more research is needed overall to discover any risks.
The Cons of Intermittent Fasting
After going over all the possible benefits of intermittent fasting, you may want to know about any downsides. Let’s explore them.
- May promote unhealthy eating and overeating
- Can cause extreme hunger
- Medication timing
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Con #1: Intermittent Fasting Can Cause Extreme Hunger
Hunger is the most apparent downside to intermittent fasting. It can be very jarring how hungry you can feel while fasting if you are used to grazing or regularly eating spaced-out meals.
Personally, I get hangry (hungry and angry) FAST, so I always carry a little snack with me. But other individuals may not have such a strong reaction to being hungry for long periods.
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Con #2: It May Promote Unhealthy Eating and Overeating
The evidence of the long-term effects of intermittent fasting on weight and specific health conditions is lacking. But some evidence shows a relationship between delayed eating and the risk of overeating and binge eating.
Fasting may make you more likely to overeat and eat more indulgent foods. It may not come as a surprise but, delaying eating can cause a person to go all out during their eating window. Think about it this way, when deprived of something, it can make it all the more tempting.
Con #3: It Can Be Difficult to Time Your Medications
Many individuals take daily medication. Some may require administration with food to be effective, making staying on top of your medication regimen difficult due to delayed intake. Speak with your primary care physician before starting a new diet, especially if it can hinder taking your medications effectively.
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The main pros of intermittent fasting include simplicity, unrestricted eating windows, and possibly better blood glucose control. And the main cons include extreme hunger, possibly overeating and eating unhealthy things, medication timing.
When considering intermittent fasting, the possible benefits may outweigh the risks or vice versa. It is important to consider your reason you want to start a particular diet. For weight loss? Better control around food? As a sense of creating balance? Before beginning a fast, speak with your primary doctor to see if it can negatively affect you due to a health condition or medication timing.
Remember, there is no one size fits all for diets. Intermittent fasting and the many other diets out there may be tempting. But the risks of simply eating well-portioned, healthy meals are minimal. Good luck, the choice is yours!
Kaelyn Johnson is a Registered Dietitian from Southern California who has worked as a clinical dietitian and is now a freelance writer. She has written for WebMD, produced an e-book, and written case studies for healthcare practitioners.