By Kathy Abascal
Intermittent fasting has been trendy for some time. On this type of fast, people eat freely for 8 hours and fast the remaining 16 hours of the day. While this fast can be very healthy if done properly, many have implemented it in a way that is not.
For example, many skipped breakfast and began eating between 11 a.m. and noon. They then ate freely until 7 or 8 p.m. What they chose to eat in that time frame was not prescribed or limited. Being able to socialize around dinner time without having to worry much about what was being served made this form of intermittent fasting very popular – but ultimately unhealthy.
People were led to believe that the physiologic changes that take place during fasting would fully make up for the negative, inflammatory effect of eating less-healthy foods. However, studies soon established that this was not so. For instance, these fasts did not improve peoples’ blood fats, blood sugar levels, or other laboratory indications of health, and when people lost weight, they lost muscle, not fat. A study that compared this type of intermittent fasting with eating three fixed meals a day found that intermittent fasters did not do better. Again, any weight lost while fasting was muscle, not fat. Not a beneficial outcome at all. As a result, the popularity of intermittent fasting began to wane.
But an improved form of intermittent fasting is now trending. This variation focuses on the importance of eating breakfast and not eating later in the day. We are told that what one eats does matter, but the timing of meals is most important. I agree that we should eat most of our meals early in the day, but disagree that when one eats matters more than what one eats.
Frankly, some of the arguments in support of this fast should be taken with more than a teaspoon of salt. One author claims that mice who ate only during an 8-hour period were “completely protected” and their diseases “reversed,” even though they were eating their usual “unhealthy diet.” Compared to mice who ate off-and-on over a 24-hour period, they fared better, but that is far from proof that an intermittent fast will protect us from disease regardless of what we choose to eat.
Another questionable claim is that our body needs 6 hours of fasting before it can begin repairing cellular damage. This means that a person eating between say 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. will not begin repairs until 1 a.m., leaving at most 6 hours to remedy damage done during the day. Given how flexible and sophisticated the human body is, that makes no sense to me. While we can dedicate more energy to repairs while resting, we begin to repair damage as soon as it occurs. Historically, humans did not rigidly fast 16 hours a day. Picture a hunter/gatherer who one summer evening in the land of the midnight sun came upon a lovely patch of berries or a nest of eggs. Our ancestors did not automatically stop eating in the later afternoon, and we do not have to, either.
What we eat, when we eat, how much we move, what stress we are under, and how well we sleep all matter. Given our steady access to ready-made foods, we tend to eat too much and too often. Having times when we do not eat makes sense. However, we are also constantly exposed to toxins and the compounds in healthy foods are needed to help the liver process those toxins. Not all nutrients are stored, so there are likely benefits to not always being in a fasted state when out and about the world.
Plus, for many, trying to fast at a time when friends and family do most of their eating (in the evening) will prove too difficult. Others with poor blood sugar control may find the fast too challenging and will experience headaches, cravings, poor sleep, etc. It is important to remember that, in the long run, simply choosing to eat well and not constantly snack, especially before bedtime, will accomplish just as much as intermittent fasting.
Kathy Abascal teaches online classes on how to quiet inflammation. She is a professional herbalist and has written several books. You can learn more about her, her work, and her classes at TQIDiet.com.