Unlike many other trendy diets that have taken the wellness world by storm as of late, intermittent fasting isn't actually a "diet." Or at least, not in the traditional sense of the word our society is used to. In effect, it's a practice or pattern of eating which strategically manipulates when and how often we eat in order to strategically maximize our body's detoxification and digestion processes. Sounds intriguing, no?
As holistic nutritionist and founder of Kore Kitchen Meryl Pritchard explained in a comprehensive overview of the subject, intermittent fasting can be defined as adopting a different schedule of eating in which we give ourselves longer periods of time between consuming food. Essentially, she says, the idea is that by giving our body a break from eating and digesting, we're in turn allowing it more bandwidth to detox, burn fat, and rev up our metabolism. However, as with any wellness practice (especially when it comes to essential, life-supporting functions like eating), intermittent fasting is a bit more complex than just restricting our eating windows and the number of times we nosh per day. And while there is a multitude of benefits we may potentially reap from the practice (don't worry, we'll dive into those shortly), there are also some concerns and considerations that need to be acknowledged in order to ensure intermittent fasting becomes a healthy (versus restrictive) lifestyle choice.
"In Ayurveda (in which intermittent fasting has been an ancient pillar of practice for thousands of years), they say it's good to feel hunger, but if you're ever really hungry, then you should eat," Pritchard confirms. However, she does point out eating late at night can disrupt our sleep (not to mention mess with our natural fast), so it's best to avoid midnight snacking if at all possible. Additionally, Pritchard made it clear to me that if someone is underweight or depleted in any way, intermittent fasting might not be the best thing for the body. Plus, as always, it's imperative to speak with a healthcare professional before attempting any type of intermittent fasting on your own. Ahead, the must-know benefits of intermittent fasting and what you need to know in order to reap them and ensure the practice is a good fit for your unique body.
"In Ayurveda, we believe that the body (the microcosm) is a reflection of nature (the macrocosm)," explains Pritchard who recently spent time in India studying the ancient lifestyle. "Throughout the year we go through periods of feast and famine—feast would be the summer and fall months when lots of fresh fruits, grains, starchy squashes, and root vegetables are available. These nutrients are then stored as fat, to help insulate the body and provide energy during the coming colder months when fresh produce won't be as abundant."
Then, she continues, the start of spring becomes the natural fasting season in which our bodies naturally fall into a famine mode. According to Pritchard, as humans, we've historically thrived during times of famine which has thus served as the inspiration for fasting as a means of weight loss—precipitating such infamous weightloss-associated diets as Keto, Atkins, Paleo, or anything else low-carb in which our body is forced to burn fat for fuel. "Spring is also Kapha in nature, which is heavy and wet. Eating less helps balance this dosha and makes you feel lighter. So while fasting has certain health benefits, it also allows us to live in alignment with nature," Pritchard cites for additional Ayurvedic background.
Of course, intermittent fasting has been celebrated more recently as a strategic means for weight loss—Pritchard explaining to me that a fast essentially forces the body to burn fat as fuel since it is not receiving anything else to burn up. That said, according to Ayurvedic tradition, the practice actually provides a slew of other promising benefits that have nothing to do with our waistline such as stress reduction, cellular repair and regeneration, clear skin, increased energy and immunity, improved cognitive function and memory, and even reduced risk of disease.
"Fasting and calorie restriction has been shown to potentially prevent and treat cancer, and this may be true for other diseases as well," Pritchard says. "When my clients get sick from a cold or flu, I always tell them to eat less and just focus on warm liquids (to help drain their lymphatic system). So from minor to major diseases, calorie restriction can be very beneficial."
Additionally, Pritchard shared with me that when she was studying Ayurveda in India earlier this year, she learned that 60% to 70% of the energy we gain from the nutrients we eat is used to digest your next meal. "This just goes to show how much energy is required for digestion and why intermittent fasting can really help free up our energy reserves so that the body can focus on healing instead!" she says.
Factors That May Help or Hinder Benefits
Help: As Pritchard explains to me, in order to successfully implement intermittent fasting, it will require some motivation and commitment. After all, in order to gain benefits from intermittent fasting, you'll have to stick to the window and schedule of eating you decide on. "The body loves routine," she emphasizes. As a fair warning, it may impact your normal social MO. "Intermittent fasting can leave you feeling anti-social since you could be eating at different times of the day, or fewer meals overall than your family or friends," she explains. That said, sticking to your routine and not bending for family and friends will help you reap the rewards. For some, it might feel healthier and more fulfilling in the long run to have the freedom to eat with your loved ones whenever you so choose. Again, it's important to be open-minded and in tune with your own unique needs when it comes to making drastic changes to your eating approach. While intermittent fasting might be a great option for some, it might not be healthy—or best—for you.
Hinder: According to Pritchard, the temptation (and natural habit) of snacking throughout the day is probably the most prominent obstacle when it comes to the success of intermittent fasting efforts. "It may be harder for people who are used to snacking throughout the day because that's how you've trained your body to utilize energy as opposed to one to three larger meals a day," she points out. That said, and as we pointed out before if you're really, truly hungry (aka not just wanting to snack out of boredom or emotion), you should listen to that intuitive hunger and feed yourself.
Will Everyone Experience the Same Benefits?
When I asked Pritchard if everyone who tries intermittent fasting will experience the same types of benefits, she made a couple of important points. First of all, like any adapted way of eating, intermittent fasting isn't recommended for everyone.
"Although many people will benefit from intermittent fasting, the specific benefits they may experience will vary from person to person. We're all different, and all research that has been done on intermittent fasting is subjective to the group of people they chose for the study," she quickly clarifies. Additionally, intermittent fasting might biologically be a better fit for men versus women—a finding that's also been said for low-carb diets. (Sorry, it's just how we're wired!)
"This is not black-and-white, but historically, men, who are evolutionarily designed as the hunters and gatherers, can go for longer periods of time without food, whereas women's hormones need nourishment as we were designed to create new life," Pritchard explains. Now, this is not to say that women won't experience benefits from intermittent fasting, but Pritchard emphasizes the fact that it's important to understand your own body and listen to its needs.
How Long Do You Need to Implement Intermittent Fasting Before Noticing the Benefits?
When talking with Pritchard, I was curious to know if someone who is interested in trying intermittent fasting has to adopt the practice permanently to experience benefits or if the practice can be implemented more casually on an "as-needed" basis.
"You can intermittently fast for a short or long period of time and still receive the benefits," Pritchard answered. "But again, it depends on your own unique constitution. Some people may benefit from eating two meals a day if they have slow digestion and a hard time losing weight, whereas someone who is lighter and has fast digestion may benefit from occasional intermittent fasting once a week or once a month." The writing on the wall? Successfully trying your hand at intermittent fasting will likely require some experimentation and trial and error. And again, make sure to pay attention to how the practice makes you feel and to consult a healthcare professional before diving in. After all, if the specific pattern of eating feels overly restrive or just plain icky, it's likely not the best option for your personal constitution, which, mind you, is perfectly okay and healthy to recognize in and of itself.