If you’ve done any reading about productivity, budgeting or lowering your stress, you’ve likely run into the idea that planning your meals will improve your life. At the end of the day, you won’t be standing in front of the fridge wondering what to make for dinner. Your grocery list will be made up of foods needed to complete your meal plan. 

There are a lot of benefits to making a plan of any kind, but did you know that it’s not only important to pay attention to what you eat, but also when you eat. In the past, nutritional experts have made many dietary recommendations that range from suggesting you graze throughout the day, use a high protein snack at night, follow a low-fat diet or eat three full meals a day. 

Yet, despite a number of recommendations that were meant to improve our health and reduce the struggle with weight management, the number of people who are overweight, continues to rise. Across the world, obesity has nearly tripled from 1975 to 2016. In the U.S. 42.4% of adults were obese in 2017-2018. Obesity increases your risk of several health conditions, including diabetes, stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure.

What if you could improve your overall health, and more easily manage your weight, by combining what you eat with when you eat it?

What Intermittent Fasting Is … and Isn’t

The term used for timed eating, or eating during specific hours of the day is intermittent fasting. Let’s start with what this means and what it is. Some people use the terms calorie restriction and intermittent fasting interchangeably. However, they aren’t the same. Both have health benefits; can help you lose weight and both can be taken to unhealthy extremes. 

Calorie restriction happens when you lower the average number of calories you eat everyday below what you typically eat, without depriving yourself of essential nutrients or becoming malnourished. This means a person who typically eats 2,000 calories a day is practicing calorie restriction when they lower their average intake to 1700 calories per day. Yet, this restriction is not so much that it would trigger malnutrition or deprive them of essential nutrients. 

When taken to extremes, calorie restriction can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, ill health and muscle loss. Experts believe most women should not fall below 1,200 calories in the day and men below 1,500 calories in a day. Of course, this is an average number of calories in a day. When your calorie intake falls below this it is difficult, if not impossible, to get enough nutrients to maintain health.

A person who practices intermittent fasting limits the times of day, or days in the week, they eat. In some instances, the practical effect may be to eat fewer calories, but intermittent fasting does not necessarily mean you’re eating less calories than you did before. It does mean those calories are eaten during a limited number of hours during the day.

The Science Behind the Strategy

While research has shown that calorie restriction can slow the aging process and lengthen your life, intermittent fasting with or without calorie restriction also has some of the same benefits, and more. Intermittent fasting can be practiced in a number of ways, which you’ll find below. The idea is to mimic the eating habits of our ancestors who did not have access to food at grocery stores and in their home around the clock. Since they could not run to the grocery store for a snack or to satisfy a craving, they had to cycle through periods of feasting and famine as food was available.

By altering the timing of your meals, it can dramatically change the way your body operates. One of the benefits is to improve cardiometabolic abnormalities. These are changes in the heart system and metabolism that can lead to a condition known as metabolic syndrome. Doctors use this term to identify a cluster of health conditions that show up together and increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The health conditions associated with metabolic syndrome include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol levels and excess body fat around the waist.

Intermittent fasting has a significant effect on the development of these conditions because it affects how your body burns fuel. Your body has the ability to burn glucose or fat for fuel. When a person is able to switch easily between burning fat or glucose it’s called having metabolic flexibility. With greater metabolic flexibility comes a lower risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

One of the ways fasting accomplishes this is by normalizing your insulin, leptin and ghrelin levels. These are three hormones that affect how your body uses glucose and how hungry you feel. When the body uses sugar as the primary source of energy it promotes insulin resistance, which in turn is a primary driver of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Through intermittent fasting you encourage the body to burn fat for fuel, which normalizes these hormones as well as reduces your triglyceride levels, normalizes cholesterol and reduces inflammation.

However, while there are multiple benefits to using this strategy, it is not a panacea for poor diet choices. In other words, it’s not a good idea to try intermittent fasting when the majority of the food you eat is processed foods. Your body requires good nutrition to build healthy cells. Processed foods are high in sugar, chemicals, artificial colors and sometimes trans fats. Without enough healthy fat in your diet, you won’t get the benefits of this time restricted eating pattern.

Healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, and grass fed, organically raised meat and dairy. Although grain and grass-fed animal products may look the same on the outside, the nutritional profile of each is different. Grass fed beef is higher in essential omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that helps reduce your body fat and improve your blood sugar control.

More Benefits to Your Health and Longevity

There are even more benefits to intermittent fasting. For instance, it boosts the production of growth hormone in your body by as much as fivefold. Growth hormone helps to burn fat, gain muscle, protect your brain and slow aging. This happens without the side effects associated with the use of human growth hormone drug administration that can include joint and muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and high blood sugar.

You might be thinking about intermittent fasting to help you lose weight, but did you know it can also help you lose belly fat?

This type of fat is also known as visceral fat found inside the abdominal cavity. A person who carries much of their weight around their waist has abdominal fatty deposits. Visceral fat is metabolically active and has been linked to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers.

One of the steps that promote aging and chronic disease is oxidative stress. Evidence shows intermittent fasting can help the body reduce the effects of oxidative stress, and fight inflammation which is another driver of chronic disease. Part of the function of intermittent fasting is to help the body remove cellular waste. This is a process called autophagy and happens when old cells break down and are metabolized by the body. By improving the normal process of autophagy, you protect yourself against disease and some forms of dementia.

Types of Intermittent Fasting

That was a mouthful of scientific evidence! But it’s important to know that there is evidence that supports the fact intermittent fasting is one way of achieving metabolic flexibility, better health and weight loss. As you well know, maintaining your motivation to make changes in your exercise or nutrition habits happens more readily when you understand the reasons why. So, now you do!

There are several different types of intermittent fasting you can try. The phrase is an umbrella term to cover a variety of different schedules. As was mentioned before, intermittent fasting does not have to mean calorie restriction. However, since you are restricting the number of hours during the day you eat, it is also easier to then reduce the number of calories if that’s also your goal. 

One of the easiest ways to start intermittent fasting is to simply restrict the number of hours each day that you eat. And, the simplest way to accomplish that, is to do it gradually. Most people get up every morning and have breakfast, grab lunch, maybe have a snack in the middle of the afternoon and then dinner. The idea behind time restricted eating during the day is to choose a 6 to 8-hour window in which to consume all your calories. 

Consider starting gradually by extending breakfast to 10 a.m., grabbing a light lunch and waiting until dinner to eat again. Over time it gets easier to wait longer in the morning to eat. Eventually, you’ll want to skip breakfast, eat lunch at 12 or 1 p.m. and finish dinner by 7 p.m., which means you’ll be eating 7 hours and fasting for 17. This gives your body the ability to shift from burning sugar to burning fat as the primary fuel. 

As your body shifts into fat burning mode, you’ll find you’re also not as hungry and if you had sugar cravings, they disappear. This makes waiting a little longer not such a big deal. Once you’re comfortably eating in a six to eight-hour window each day, your body has become accustomed to burning fat and you can begin experimenting with other schedules for your intermittent fasting if you want.

It is important that you choose a schedule that works best for you. Knowing about intermittent fasting and doing it are two different things. Obviously, you get the benefits only when you do it!

If you’re interested in trying a different schedule, consider the 5:2 intermittent fasting plan. During the week, you fast for two days, taking in no more than 500 calories for a woman on 600 calories for a man. The remaining five days you eat your normal amount of food. The fasting days should be separated by at least one normal day. It’s important to drink plenty of water on all of your days, but especially on the fasting days.

Another form is alternate-day fasting. In this schedule you fast one day on and one day off. This could mean you go without food for as much as 32 to 36 hours. This can be tough for most people, at least in the beginning. Some people would rather spontaneously skip meals in a way that normally happens in everyday life. Without using a structured plan, you can still reap some of the benefits. In the end, the best schedule you can choose is the one that you will stick with.

Who Shouldn’t Use Intermittent Fasting

It is a myth that you need to eat every few hours or you’ll begin to starve or lose muscle. In fact, your body is well equipped to go for long periods of time without eating, so missing one or two meals is not impractical. However, it is vitally important that you pay attention to the food you’re eating, when you are eating.

People who should not try intermittent fasting are those who want to continue to eat processed and ultra-processed foods. Women who are pregnant and nursing should also wait to use an intermittent fasting program. People who are using insulin to control Type 2 diabetes should work with their doctor to undertake an intermittent fasting program so their insulin can be adjusted as needed. Many find that by switching to a healthy diet and timed eating they can reduce or eliminate their dependence on insulin to control their blood sugar.

Also, while there are health benefits to intermittent fasting that do not include weight loss, people who are underweight or malnourished should not attempt intermittent fasting. Because children have a higher need for nutrients for continued growth and brain growth, it is far safer for them to cut out refined sugars and grains, rather than fast.

Use Intermittent Fasting to Your Advantage

Intermittent fasting is a powerful tool that can help you facilitate better eating habits, weight loss and reduce your risk of chronic diseases. The process does not have to be difficult. Many people find beginning gradually increases the potential for success. Intermittent fasting should make you feel good, not weak or lethargic.

When you do eat, be sure to include healthy proteins in moderate amounts and minimize your net carbohydrate intake. This helps your body become more metabolically flexible, burning fat in your diet for fuel. It may take a few weeks, but once you are burning fat you can easily fast for 17 or 18 hours and not feel hungry. In fact, nearly every aspect of your health will also begin to improve.