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Fasting myths: the truth behind intermittent fasting

Curious about Intermittent Fasting (IF) and whether it's more than just a trending topic? Discover the truth behind this popular health practice. We delve into the science of IF, exploring its potential benefits and debunking common myths.

Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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Fasting myths: the truth behind intermittent fasting

In the world of health, one buzzword continues to catch attention: Intermittent Fasting, or IF for short. It's often seen as a magic solution for weight loss, and it's a hot topic in health circles all over the globe. But, is it really something we should be adding to our daily routine, or is it just another weight loss trend getting more hype than it deserves? 

We're going to take a deep dive into IF, aiming to clear up any myths and misconceptions that might be floating around. 

We want to shine a light on what IF really is, the good it can do, and the not-so-good. We're here to arm you with knowledge so you can make a well-informed decision about whether or not IF is a good fit for your personal health and wellness journey. 

So, let’s get stuck in and find out what IF really is.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting (IF) describes when people follow an eating pattern whereby they alternate between periods of eating and fasting. The hope with IF is that by eating in this pattern, you’ll benefit from various health benefits. 

Unlike more typical diets, which only focus on restricting the amount of food eaten or a focus on eliminating a specific food group or type, IF focuses on changing the time of eating to a smaller window, and often the consequence of this is eating less anyway. This method has gained popularity for this very reason as it doesn’t involve any changes to what someone is eating, and is suggested to have potential health advantages.

The 4 types of intermittent fasting

The IF approach and periodic fasting are based on the idea that our bodies were created to function in periods of food scarcity, something in today’s evolved society many do not experience. It’s suggested by allowing the body to enter a fasting state, various metabolic processes are triggered, and this can have health benefits!

There are many different ways someone might go about IF, and each type of IF has its unique schedule, so let's discuss some of these.

  1. The 16:8 plan. This is where you would fast for 16 hours and then have an 8-hour eating window. In the fasting window, you can still have fluids like water, tea, and coffee, to keep you hydrated. 
  2. The 5:2 plan. This type of intermittent fasting is when someone eats their usual way five days a week and then reduces their calorie intake to around 500/600 calories on the other two days of the week.
  3. Alternating fasting. This form of IF is to alternate days of eating and fasting, so you’d end up having a full 24-hour fast every other day. 
  4. Weekly (or monthly) 24-hour fast. This popular form of IF is to fast for 24 hours once a week or maybe even monthly.

There are various documented health benefits of IF. Weight loss, cardiovascular, and insulin sensitivity tend to be the ones researched and discussed most. 

There still needs a lot more evidence to be carried out before we know for certain how these benefits play out long-term, as most research looks at following IF for months or is based on animal studies. So there is still so much we need to uncover yet, as well as a lot of individual factors that can impact if someone would benefit from IF.

What happens in my body when I fast?

Fasting triggers numerous biological processes, including hormonal changes, autophagy, cellular repair, and metabolic shifts, all of which can potentially benefit our bodies.

Various hormones are said to be impacted when fasting, such as cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone (HGH), to name a few.

Fasting lowers blood sugar and promotes fat burning

One of the most noticeable hormonal changes during fasting involves insulin, which regulates our blood sugar levels. Normally, insulin levels increase when we eat so that glucose can be absorbed for energy use or storage. However, during fasting, insulin levels naturally decrease, and the body starts breaking down fats into fatty acids and glycerol for energy. This process can promote weight loss and improve metabolic health.

Your body starts self-repairing cells

Autophagy, or the self-regulation and removal of damaged or old cells, is another process that occurs during fasting. The lack of nutrient intake prompts cells to initiate an autophagy response, potentially leading to cellular rejuvenation. This process is associated with various health benefits, including reduced inflammation and potential cancer prevention. However, an increased autophagy response can also have negative effects, and much about this process remains unknown.

Cellular repair is activated during fasting since the body focuses on repairing and maintaining existing cells. This includes removing damaged proteins and synthesizing new ones. The increased production of HGH during fasting promotes cellular repair and is thought to enhance muscle preservation and overall tissue health.

Your body starts changing how it uses energy

Fasting also impacts metabolism, particularly affecting the metabolism of glycogen, lipids, and amino acids.

With glycogen metabolism, lower blood sugar levels during fasting trigger a glucagon release from the pancreas, causing a decrease in insulin levels and leading us to rely on our energy reserves. Fasting also influences lipid metabolism, as hormonal changes trigger the breakdown of fats and the process of ketogenesis, similar to what happens when someone follows a keto diet. This causes the body to use fat stores for energy, leading to fat loss.

Lastly, amino acids can be metabolised through various routes during fasting, providing an additional energy source. These shifts in metabolism explain why weight loss often occurs during fasting.

So as you can see there is a lot that goes on when we fast, and this is the reason that IF is so complex, and why we need to know so much more about it.

Is Intermittent Fasting healthy?

We've explored the body's response to intermittent fasting (IF) and its benefits, but the question remains: is IF healthy?

Let's debunk some common myths.

Myth: IF slows down metabolism

Many believe IF slows down metabolism. However, no evidence supports this claim. The body can readily access other energy stores during fasting, eliminating the need to slow metabolism.

Myth: Fasting is starving

Another popular myth compares fasting to starving. As previously mentioned, your body can use stored energy during a fast, so it's not like you’re going without food for days - you still have energy.

Myth: Fasting leads to nutritional deficiency

Some people worry that fasting or skipping meals could lead to nutrient deficiencies. While this could be true with a poor diet, a healthy balanced diet would avoid this, especially given that only partial calorie restriction is involved, and for most IF forms there is only a small reduction in calories generally. 

So, there are a few debunked health myths, but what about the research behind IF?

The research behind intermittent fasting

Considerable research supports IF and its potential health benefits. However, much of this research is short-term, often no longer than a year, and may not reflect real-world behaviour.

Despite these limitations, studies have found IF is associated with numerous health benefits, such as weight loss, improved metabolic markers, enhanced cellular repair, heart health, and brain function.

That said, IF is not suitable for everyone. People who are pregnant, have or have had eating disorders, or have type 1 diabetes should avoid IF. Moreover, IF's effects vary among individuals. Some may experience irritability, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating, while others may thrive on IF.

Is IF safe for you?

The answer is personal. If anyone advocates IF for all, be skeptical. Before starting IF, consult a healthcare professional, like a GP or one of our healthcare professionals at Embla. Our team includes doctors, nurses, and registered nutritionists who can offer personalised, evidence-based advice, recommend suitable fasting methods, and ensure IF aligns with your overall health goals and lifestyle.

So, while IF can potentially be healthy, much remains unknown. Always consult a healthcare professional first and regularly check in with yourself to see how you feel on the new regime.

Fasting and weight loss: truths and misunderstandings

As we've noted, intermittent fasting (IF) is often misunderstood. Fortunately, we're here to clarify these misconceptions.

A common misconception is that IF leads to muscle loss. However, when done correctly, IF targets fat stores, leading to weight loss without loss of muscle mass. We at Embla recommend focusing on protein-rich foods and regular strength/resistance training to maintain muscle mass.

It's also mistakenly believed that IF is solely for weight loss. While IF can aid in this, it also improves insulin sensitivity, supports heart health, and positively affects brain function. It's important to consider these overall health benefits rather than focusing exclusively on weight.

There's a misconception that those who fast will still consume the same, if not more, food. But with IF, weight loss occurs because during fasting periods, the body uses its stored energy, eliminating the need to eat more during feeding periods. Moreover, while a person might consume more at lunch if they skip breakfast, they generally won't eat the equivalent of two meals in one sitting. This highlights the importance of nutritional support alongside IF to ensure the consumption of nourishing foods that leave you feeling full.

As we've emphasised, a personalised approach is crucial. Some may achieve their goal weight with IF while others may find the eating windows challenging or unsafe.

This personalised approach also applies to the type of IF plan chosen. Whether it's the 16:8 plan, 5:2 plan, alternating fast, or 24-hour fast, each protocol offers flexibility. Choose one that suits you best, perhaps even experimenting with a few, before you find the right balance.

While we recommend seeking professional healthcare advice, here are some general tips for fasting:

  • Stay hydrated during both feeding and fasting periods
  • Choose nutrient-dense foods
  • Take a gradual approach. You don't have to become an intermittent faster overnight.
  • Practice mindful eating
  • Maintain a balanced diet

Like any health journey, it should be sustainable for your lifestyle. If it's not, you won't stick to it, which may lead to feelings of failure.

Fasting should be seen as a long-term lifestyle change, not a quick fix. It involves more than merely changing meal times. A balanced diet, regular physical activity, and other elements of a healthy lifestyle are also crucial.

The Embla approach to weight loss

When working with IF, Embla always takes a personalised approach. We understand the diverse needs and preferences of individuals on their health and wellness journeys, not to mention that everyone lives a different lifestyle.

Our healthcare professionals at Embla tailor guidance to individual needs, ensuring a sustainable and effective approach to periodic fasting, if that’s something you really want to do.

So I hope you now feel a little more clued up on IF and are clear it should never be advised for all. Individual factors need to be taken into account and a healthcare professional can help you consider these. Sometimes it might not be safe for you to do, or it might simply just not fit with you and your lifestyle. 

There is also a lot more research that needs to be carried out before we can make recommendations for it to treat certain conditions, for now, if it works for you then that’s great!

Whether you're exploring IF for weight loss or overall well-being, focus on your unique health goals. 

Embla is designed to support you on this journey, offering a range of resources and expert advice. Your journey to a healthier, balanced lifestyle can begin today with Embla.

In this article
Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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