I recently met with my naturopathic doctor who advised me to start intermittent fasting as a tool to improve my health based on my most recent lab work. My numbers were all off despite doing all the right things for health otherwise. Due to some health issues I was having, I needed to balance my cholesterol, insulin levels, and hormones. The conventional model would say to put me on various types of medications that would artificially do this for me but wouldn’t treat the root cause to ultimately overcome these issues.
Intermittent fasting was something I had at least heard about as it has gained some cultural popularity recently with adherents dramatically changing their health for the better and losing a significant amount of weight. The more I researched it for myself, the more I learned about the vast the benefits that can be used as a tool for almost anyone to improve their health.
We have all heard the statistics that most Americans fall into the overweight and obese categories. And for a country that spends more than most countries in the world on healthcare, we have one of the poorest outcomes in terms of health. Even more surprising, most illnesses that plague the US are considered lifestyle diseases, meaning they are due to what and how we eat and drink, exercise, manage stress, and sleep (or lack thereof). This becomes all the more pronounced during the holidays. In one month, we redecorate our homes, jam pack our weekends with one holiday event after the other, consume far more sugar than normal, and are exposed to the least amount of sunlight in the whole year (which is critical for vitamin D levels which supports our immune systems). You can quickly see how collectively we gain weight and become sicker.
By merely adjusting when we eat, we can signal to our bodies when to either burn fat as energy or store it within the body. Insulin is a fat storing hormone. This is how our bodies are designed to work. When we eat or are in a “fed state”, our insulin levels go up, signaling the body to store some food energy as fat. The higher our insulin levels are, the more fat is stored in our bodies. Continuous eating throughout the day, including eating when we are not hungry, is a big driver of high insulin levels. Conversely, when we give our bodies natural times of fasting, during “a fasting state”, our bodies redirect our food and stored fat to be burned as energy. Eating when we are biologically hungry coupled with gentle and natural breaks from eating is how we stay in a fasted state. We need the natural ebb and flow of both throughout the day, and it’s important to keep these balanced- not eating or fasting for too long. While other dietary factors influence insulin, this article will focus solely on intermittent fasting.
General guidelines for intermittent fasting
First and foremost, it is crucial that before you begin any dietary changes you consult with your doctor or a healthcare professional. This is not medical advice, and it is important to discuss this with your doctor to see if you could personally benefit from intermittent fasting or not. Although it is a wonderful tool, not everyone is a candidate for it. For example, if you are recovering from an illness or surgery, pregnant or breastfeeding, or already underweight, this is not a good time to begin fasting. That being said, if your doctor gives you the green light, here is a good place to start.
- Decide on your eating and fasting windows every day. This will look different for everyone based on your individual needs. It is generally recommended that women fast 10-14 hours, while men can go as long as 16 hours. It is also important to work your way up to this, as you may not be able or used to fasting this long every day. Benefits generally begin in the 10–12-hour window, so I recommend starting there and increasing your window by 1 hour as you can tolerate it. Think of your eating windows as either your fasting hours or eating/fed hours.
- During your fasting hours, stick to black coffee or plain green or black tea. Purists would say absolutely nothing in them, others say that if it is less than 50 calories, a little splash of milk in your black coffee won’t break your fast. Another strategy is to try bulletproof coffee to help buy you a little extra fasting time as you start out. The fat will have almost no effect on your insulin levels, while keeping you satiated until you are ready to break your fast. This is when you blend 2 tbs of grass-fed butter with 1 tbs of MCT coconut oil into black coffee with a blender. It may sound gross, but don’t knock it until you try it!
- It is important to drink plenty of water and limit sugary drinks. Your body is made up of primarily water and staying hydrated without the insulin spikes of sugar is crucial, especially while fasting.
- Generally speaking, it is best to eat your biggest meal earlier in the day. It is really personal how you decide to do this and what you find works best for you. Once you decide what you're eating and fasting hours will be, you may find eating earlier vs later or visa versa works best for you. Or even when your biggest meal in the day should be. Listen to your body- eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.
- Remember that it is natural to have times of feasting and times of fasting. It’s ok to occasionally have that slice of cake on your birthday or enjoy that big meal with friends. It matters more what you are doing the majority of the time than what you do some of the time. It’s all about finding a realistic and sustainable balance that can be maintained over the long run.
I have found intermittent fasting is to be a great tool for overall health, especially during the holidays. In my experience, I have been able to enjoy the occasional Christmas cookie or holiday drink from Starbucks without gaining extra weight when I give my body the rest from digestion that it needs to signal a state of fat burning. It doesn’t have to be rigid, but just more of a way and lifestyle of eating over time that helps create the balance and moderation in our diets that we all strive for. You really can have your cake and eat it too!