What if I told you that there was a special trick you could start implementing today that would help you burn fat and build muscle? And that you wouldn’t have to reduce the amount that you eat? And on top of that, you’d experience an increase in mental clarity as well as anti-inflammatory benefits? Well that “special trick” is very real, and it’s not a product you can buy at a store. It’s called intermittent fasting, and it simply involves adjusting the window of time in which you eat. Whether it’s the 16:8 method or an occasional 24 hour fast, intermittent fasting can bring you amazing health benefits on both a physical and mental level.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting means regularly going for prolonged periods (usually more than 12 hours) without food. There are a couple different ways to go about this. Let’s go over the basic methods before going over exactly why intermittent fasting is so powerful.
The most common method of intermittent fasting is commonly referred to as ’16:8.’ This means that every day, you do all your eating within an 8 hour window, while abstaining from food for 16 hours.
It’s important to understand that the 16:8 style of intermittent fasting is not a diet. All you do is take your normal eating habits (which are hopefully already healthy!) and adjust the timing.
Let’s say you normally eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and maybe a couple of snacks, which all add up to roughly 2,000 – 2,500 calories a day. You have your first meal at around 7am, with your last meal or snack at 8pm. That’s a 13 hour window. But with intermittent fasting, you’d be reducing all your eating into a shorter window of 8 hours. Most people find success with skipping breakfast and not eating until around noon, while having their last meal at around 7 at night.
You can also take it further and change up the ratio, like doing 18:6 or 20:4. Regardless, this is a schedule you’ll ideally be carrying out daily, or at least 3 or 4 times a week.
The 24-Hour Fast
Some people instead choose to eat normally (as in three or more meals spread out throughout the day) on most days, but fast for a period of 24 hours one day per week. This means consuming zero calories and drinking nothing but water, or maybe a coffee or tea.
Other people even do a couple 24-hour fasts per week, or even every other day! While a single 24 hour fast is not going to give you the same benefits of a multi-day water fast, keeping this up regularly is certainly going to have its benefits over time.
Some people also switch it up by going a few days in calorie restriction mode. For example, choosing two or three days out of the week in which they only eat 500 calories. This can also be combined with the 16:8 method.
In this article, we’ll mainly be focusing on the 16:8 method, as that seems to be the most common and easiest for people to stick with long-term. The benefits mentioned below should largely apply to the various methods of intermittent fasting, however.
At the end of the article, we’ll be going over some tips and advice on how to get started with intermittent fasting. But first, let’s go over the numerous benefits.
Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss: Why it Works
“But I thought the only factor in weight loss was calories burned vs calories eaten?”
It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Our bodies normally run on glucose for energy. Excess glucose that doesn’t get used as fuel gets stored in the body as fat. Only when our bodies are deprived of glucose, will they turn to stored fat to use as fuel, resulting in weight loss.
When you eat throughout the day, even if it’s not an especially high amount of calories, your body will receive a constant stream of glucose. When glucose is introduced into the system, the pancreas then produces a hormone called insulin which transports the glucose to the cells to use as energy.
But having the body pumping insulin all throughout the day can have some adverse effects. Insulin encourages the body to store more fat and it even helps block the production of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is responsible for building muscle and slowing down the aging process.
So burning fat is more than just overall caloric intake. A lot of it has to do with the presence of glucose and insulin in the system. And insulin is produced every time we eat – not only when we consume sugar or carbs.
As an example, let’s look at Person A, who eats roughly 2,000 calories per day, spread out amongst four or five smaller meals. They’re going to have their pancreas pumping out insulin for most of their waking hours. Compare this with Person B, who eats the same amount of calories and macronutrients, only all within a single 8-hour period.
If Person A and Person B also exercise for the same amount of time, who’s going to burn more fat? It’s going to be Person B. Not only that, but Person B will also build more lean muscle. While everything else was the same, their results are going to be different due to the varying amounts of certain hormones in their systems. And this difference is all simply due to the different way in which they timed their meals.
While all intermittent fasting is beneficial, you can burn the most fat by skipping breakfast. And even more so by exercising in the morning before your first meal. According to Dr. Mercola, we experience a circadian cortisol peak in the mornings. So eating right when we wake up can result in even higher insulin secretion than normal. (1)
“But Wait, I Thought Breakfast was the Most Important Meal of the Day?”
One of the reasons that many are reluctant to consider intermittent fasting is that for years, we’ve constantly been hearing from “experts” that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But is that really true?
A recent study conducted by Germany’s University of Hohenheim tested a group of adults who alternated their eating patterns. Each day, they ate the same amount of calories with the same macronutrient breakdown. However, they changed the timing of their meals day to day. It turned out that the subjects burned more fat on the days that they skipped breakfast. (2)
And from personal experience, as I’ll go over further down below, I experience the most mental clarity in the mornings when I don’t eat breakfast. Intermittent fasting has boosted my morning productivity tremendously, and many others have claimed the same thing.
So how did this whole idea of breakfast being so important for health ever come about in the first place? A lot of it had to do with ad campaigns by food companies like Kellog’s trying to get you to buy their sugary, processed cereal.
Ok, to be fair, there are some studies which indicate that skipping breakfast could potentially lead to higher mortality rates. But there’s still a big difference between a controlled intermittent fasting regimen and otherwise unhealthy people who skip breakfast for various other reasons. That’s a distinction that most of these studies fail to address. Yet they’re still often cited by opponents of intermittent fasting as “proof” that skipping breakfast is bad.
One commonly cited study was conducted on adults in Japan, and it found that the breakfast-skipping test subjects met overall earlier deaths, usually at the hands of circulatory system diseases. But Japan is one of the most overworked societies in the world. How many subjects who skipped breakfast were purposely intermittent fasting, and how many were simply so overworked and sleep-deprived that they normally didn’t have time to eat in their rush to work? (3)
Furthermore, we also don’t know how many of the breakfast-skippers were consuming sugary canned coffee drinks or even snacks on the train in the morning. This study, then, tells us little to nothing about the effects of intermittent fasting. Especially when conducted on a population where heart failure caused by overwork is becoming an increasingly common cause of death.
Beyond Weight Loss: Other Awesome Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Nowadays, intermittent fasting is especially popular in bodybuilding, weight loss and ketogenic diet circles. A lot of emphasis is placed on the aesthetic benefits of fasting, which is undoubtedly a plus. But looking at intermittent fasting from a holistic perspective, is it really good for us other than simply helping us look good?
The answer is yes, and here are some of the reasons why:
Intermittent Fasting Boosts Mental Clarity
Intermittent fasting is even good for the brain! And some studies have shown that not only can it boost mental clarity, but it can also help prevent the onset of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. (4)
When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for our brains to perform better when we’re in a slightly hungry state as opposed to a bloated and full state. Back when our ancient ancestors needed to hunt and forage for all their food, their minds needed to operate at a heightened level of awareness and focus to get what they were after. Their very survival depended on it.
But when we’re full, there’s just not as much reason for our bodies and brains to perform as efficiently. We’ve just given our systems the sustenance they need to survive for awhile, and now they can finally tune out for a bit.
Even in our era of 24-hour convenience stores, we can improve our alertness and sharpen our focus by “tricking” our bodies during these daily periods of fasting. This also brings up another important point. Intermittent fasting can be considered as a much more natural way to eat than our modern-day three meal standard. Our ancient human ancestors certainly didn’t have access to food at all hours of the day!
Intermittent Fasting Gives the Digestive System a Rest
When we’re constantly eating throughout the day, our digestive systems are also constantly working. Our bodies use a tremendous amount of energy and resources to break down the food we eat (of course, this also depends on the food).
One of the great things about intermittent fasting, whether you’re going for 16 or 24 hours without food, is that it gives the digestive system a much-needed rest. Not only will this help increase your energy levels, but this rest period frees the body up to concentrate on healing and detoxification.
Intermittent Fasting Reduces Inflammation and Aids in Detoxification
Inflammation is at the root of most diseases. Certain types of inflammatory responses are perfectly normal and healthy, such as when we get a cut or a bruise. But prolonged inflammation can result in all sorts of diseases. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders and even cancer, have all been linked to prolonged inflammation.
A study conducted on lab rats found that extended periods without food significantly reduced inflammatory markers in the test subjects. And it also boosted their cognitive ability while reducing their body fat percentage at the same time! (5)
This is likely due to the body’s switch from glycogen to ketones (broken down fat storage) as fuel. The release of ketones in the system can help prevent inflammatory responses by the immune system. (6)
Regards to detoxification, your daily or weekly break period will also give your body some time to repair itself and remove dead or old cells. The longer you fast for, the more of these dead cells will be cleared out. Over time, you may even notice certain skin blemishes or aches and pains just vanish.
Obviously, what you eat is also hugely important when it comes to reducing inflammation. As this article only focuses on when you eat, we won’t be covering anti-inflammatory foods right here. If you’re interested, check out this book for an overview of healthy anti-inflammatory diets. And be sure to take a look at our articles on nutrition to learn more about what type of foods you should be eating on a regular basis.
How to Get Into Intermittent Fasting
As mentioned above, there are several different ways to intermittent fast. But the most common method is the 16:8 which most people do most easily by skipping breakfast. Everyone’s at a different point in their lives, and if you’ve been eating breakfast regularly for years and years, this may be a difficult habit to get into.
Like with anything challenging, you’ll want to get into it gradually. Start skipping breakfast and eating all your meals within an 8 hour window on your free days. Then, once it becomes easier, increase the number of days per week that you intermittent fast.
Drinks During the Fasting Period
Personally, I find that a morning coffee or green tea really helps in the morning, as caffeine can work as a mild appetite suppressant. This might not work for everyone, though, as coffee can sometimes be harsh on an empty stomach.
Also, be careful not to drink too much coffee during your rest period. Lots of caffeine can cause adrenal stress, which can eventually trigger the release of cortisol. This, in turn, can trigger the release of insulin. And be sure not to add any sugar or cream to your coffee! (7)
How Many Days per Week?
I try to do intermittent fasting every day, but it usually ends up being around 5 or 6 days a week. Sometimes you’ll end up meeting a friend for a late dinner, or you might go on an early morning hike and choose to eat breakfast for fuel beforehand.
Again, do what works best for you, but try to keep it up for at least 3 or 4 days a week if you really want to reap the benefits.
Another method is by skipping dinner instead. And Muslims who observe Ramadan are also very familiar with intermittent fasting, only they do it by not eating anything during daylight hours.
The Occasional 24 Hour Fast
As for the weekly 24 hour fast method, this can be even trickier for the inexperienced. In a previous article, I wrote about the benefits of, as well as how to go about a water fast. While a 24 hour fast is much lighter and easier than a 3 to 4 day fast, some of the same principles still apply. I suggest you read that article if you’re new to what water fasting is all about.
The 24 hour water fasting method is going to be more difficult if you tend to eat heavier foods, so you’ll want to transition to an overall lighter diet before trying it out.
From weight loss to mental clarity to reduced inflammation, there are so many positives to intermittent fasting. And, with most methods of intermittent fasting, you don’t even need to start eating less to reap the benefits! Furthermore, it’s also a completely free way to boost muscle. While it may take awhile to get used to, you can start trying it out right away. If you have experience with intermittent fasting, either good or bad, feel free to let us know in the comments.