You may have already heard about this without even realizing what it is: intermittent fasting, new buzz words for weight loss enthusiasts. It is not a conventional diet that typically tells you what to eat, including the restriction of certain types of foods. Rather, intermittent fasting, or IF, tells you WHEN you should eat foods.
“I started out only eating during a six-hour period from 11 a.m.–5 p.m. every day for the first week,” Keith Kurtz, a 34-year-old owner of a production company and co-owner of the Bourbon Street restaurant Saints & Sinners, said. “For three days, it was horrible, but after the first three days, I got used to it and lost four pounds in the first week.”
Kurtz admits that he never fasted for an entire day and figured that the dramatic loss of the initial first week was attributed to water weight. He then tried the 16/8 fasting method (16 hours of fasting and an eight-hour period of eating) for another week and noticed additional results.
“Before I would diet, I would have no energy and no strength,” Kurtz explained. “With intermittent fasting, I would have two huge meals with chicken breast and vegetables on a tortilla, which would keep my energy up throughout the day. But, I still had coffee in the morning and that was working for me.”
Eventually, Kurtz reduced his mealtime period to merely a four-hour span, only eating between noon and 4:00 p.m. “I began cutting my big meals down to see more results,” Kurtz, who also followed a strict strength training program while doing the intermittent fasting, said. “I did no cardio, but noticed an additional weight loss of around 10 pounds while keeping up my strength.”
Common intermittent fasting methods involve splitting the day or week into eating periods and fasting periods like the 16-hour fasts or fasting for 24 hours, two days a week. Our ancestors have practiced these types of eating patterns because food was not always readily available, nor could it be stored for long periods of time.
“People believe that intermittent fasting was an ancestral way of eating, looking for food when they did not have any,” Blythe Peters, RDN, LDN, owner of Competitive Nutrition Education, L.L.C., said. “The age of mortality was much lower than today. However, fasting means different things for different people. It is so fluid. That is why the IF method has to be individualistic, tailored to the individual’s needs, schedule and ability level.”
In some contexts, fasting allows the consumption of a limited amount of low-calorie beverages such as coffee or tea. Along with Kurtz, Karen Skific, a neonatal nurse practitioner in Orleans parish, follows the 16/8 method, also known as “Leangain”. Her schedule allows her to skip breakfast, begin eating at noon and end at 6 p.m. She fasts from 8 p.m. to noon of the next day.
“I was following a restricted caloric diet and exercise plan, which initially resulted in a good rate of weight loss, but then I hit a plateau,” Skific said. “For me and my lifestyle, the intermittent fasting on most days was easy. Over 7–8 weeks, I lost 9.2 pounds. I really felt like it helped break my plateau. And I am not a big breakfast eater. During the school year, my morning schedule is busy and it’s hard to fit in a mid-morning snack.”
Skific acknowledged that during her intermittent fasting commitment, she spent a total of two weeks traveling, which may have impacted her overall eating plan and results. But, she stands firm that the IF method was effective for her with little side effects.
“I honestly felt fine. I never really felt an energy lag or any adverse effects,” Skific said. “My best results happened while limiting my carb intake to less than 100 grams per day and including protein at 100 grams per day. I was taking in 1200 calories a day and no starchy carbs at night.”
Other IF methods include “Eat-Stop-Eat” which involves a 24-hour fast once or twice per week. An example of this intermittent fasting would be to fast from dinnertime (6 p.m.) on one day until the next day at dinner time (6 p.m.).
The 5:2 IF method is also very popular, which requires two non-consecutive days of fasting days and then five normal days of eating. For women, the meals of those fasting days comprise only of 500 calories, while for men, 600 calories for fasting days. It is not restrictive of the selection of days of the week as long as there is one non-fasting day in between two fasting days.
Generally, there is limited research on the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Some studies claim that intermittent fasting can improve insulin sensitivity, increase human growth hormone levels, and even initiate cellular repair. However, most of the research obtained is gathered from animal subjects and is not considered to be longitudinal studies.
“It is so variable,” Peters, registered and licensed dietician who primarily works with the elderly population, said. “On the fasting days, many of these dieters are eating 30% of their total normal calorie intake with the IF plan. Intermittent fasting leads them to get comfortable with smaller portions. To me, this is another tool in helping people lose weight.”
Peters also cited a few studies, beginning with the latest research from Dr. James B. Johnson, a Louisiana-based physician who promotes intermittent fasting in his book. Dr. Johnson conducted a study in 2007 on overweight asthma patients using an alternate-day fasting plan, basically restricting their caloric intake every other day (540 calories on fasting days and 1600-2400 calories on non-fasting days). Based on his results, the subjects demonstrated a weight loss of 11–13 pounds and dramatically improved their asthma symptoms over a short period of time.
In a review study found in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Research (October 2014), the concentration was on intermittent fasting vs. daily calorie restriction for type 2 diabetes prevention, involving human subjects. The results indicated a weight loss of 3–8% over periods of 3-24 weeks, with a significant reduction of 4–7% of their waist circumference. The evidence concluded from these findings that the subjects lost substantial amounts of the harmful “belly fat” that builds up around the organs and causes disease.
However, keep in mind, the main reason why intermittent fasting can work for some people is because it helps individuals eat fewer calories. According to Peters, the intermittent fasting has its advantages because it encourages the consumption of real food vs. packaged food and it can be customized to a person’s hectic schedule, whether he/she is a nighttime shift person or erratic eater. However, she cautions that those individuals who have eating disorders, severe health issues, take medication with food, pregnant women, and children are advised not to partake in this dietary method of fasting and should speak to their physician.
“Anyone who is looking to see a substantial weight loss, of more than 10 pounds, should talk to their doctor first about the IF method, “ Peters said. “You simply cannot put people into categories. Intermittent fasting is individualistic and yet another tool to use for weight loss. People should develop a lifestyle, not a quick fix. And find out what works best for them. Moderation is key. This is just a new spin on an old weight loss method.”