What Exactly Are The Benefits Of Fasting?
“Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that focuses on when you eat, rather than what you eat. Research suggests there may be health benefits to IF, including possible weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity (i.e. better blood sugar control) and heart health. There is some evidence to suggest that it may also reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol levels, and slow the rate of ageing. However, it’s important to keep in mind that research on intermittent fasting is still in its infancy, and many of the studies showing the benefits have been carried out on animals, which doesn’t always translate to humans.” – Aliza Marogy, nutritionist & founder of Inessa
Are There Any Benefits That Are Exclusive To Women?
“Fasting can be a great opportunity to give your insulin levels a rest, which could lead to an improvement in insulin sensitivity. This can be beneficial for women dealing with PCOS or perimenopausal symptoms, as both are conditions that can lead to insulin resistance. Improving insulin sensitivity is paramount when it comes to hormonal health, as well as weight loss.” – Hannah Alderson, nutritional therapist
What Are The Most Popular Ways To Fast?
“There are several ways to practise intermittent fasting. The 5:2 is one of the most popular. On this diet, women eat less than 500 calories for two non-consecutive days per week. So, you might have a 500-calorie day on Tuesday and Thursday and then eat normally for the rest of the week. With the 5:2, you don’t need to eat certain foods, you just limit how much you eat during certain periods of time. However, there are pitfalls to the 5:2 – not only can the low-calorie days leave you feeling fatigued and affect mood, but it can also set you up to overeat on your unrestricted days, which could ultimately sabotage weight loss. Alternate day fasting is a more extreme version, where dieters abstain from food for a full day, followed by a day of unrestricted eating. However, this method is not sustainable as it encourages disordered eating and deprives the body of nutrients needed to perform at its best. Meanwhile, a time-restricted feeding window is becoming an increasingly popular way to fast. This involves abstaining from food for a set number of hours – usually 12, 14 or 16 hours a day. The 12:12 version of this (12 hours a day fasting, 12 hours eating) is the easiest fasting method and is far less restrictive.” – Aliza
Is Fasting Safe?
“Fasting acts as a stressor on the body – our day-to-day lives tend to be full of stress already – so if done to extremes, fasting can lead to health issues associated with prolonged periods of cortisol. The question is, what type of fasting are you doing? Are you fasting for hours or days? There is a big difference, and the latter may end up being very stressful for the body and counterproductive if done to the extreme. When it comes to female hormonal health, I’m not a fan of 5:2 or going long stretches in the morning with no food, especially fasted workouts. This can be stressful for the body, leading to elevated cortisol levels, which will then in turn cause a domino effect of issues with your hormones. At the same time, you should avoid fasting if you are trying to conceive and most definitely when pregnant and breastfeeding.” – Hannah
So, Are Some Forms Of Fasting Safer Than Others?
“Yes, especially for women. If you want to protect and nourish your hormones, the most effective way to fast is in between meals. Eat a nutrient-dense breakfast, lunch and dinner with no snacking in between – this is a form of intermittent fasting but has been overlooked in recent years by more excessive forms of restriction. By not snacking, you give your body a rest at sending out insulin. When you constantly snack, there is more circulating insulin, which hinders the use of glucose, making it hard to use the energy we are eating, and drives up levels of uric acid, which increases blood pressure. Sticking to three main meals can help you avoid the constant deluge of insulin around the body, which can drive insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to weight gain, hormonal dysfunction and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.” – Hannah
“From an overall health perspective, the 12:12 is the safest way to practise fasting, and studies show the health benefits attributed to IF are also found in those observing a 12-hour fast daily. This is proof you don’t need to take things to the extreme to reap the benefits. Eating within a 12-hour window avoids the risks associated with prolonged food restriction and is easy to adapt to. In fact, if you’re the kind of person who loves to skip breakfast, you’ve probably been fasting intermittently without even realising.” – Aliza
When Fasting After Any Length Of Time, What Should You Be Eating?
“If you’re breaking a fast that has spanned between 12 and 16 hours, there’s nothing specific you need to do to adapt, though it’s best to start the day with a low glycaemic load meal made of healthy whole foods so you’re not undoing the benefits of the fast. Good options are porridge topped with fresh fruit and nuts, muesli with yoghurt, and wholegrain toast with avocado and an egg. Avoid sugary foods and meals heavy on refined white carbs which will spike your blood sugar.” – Aliza
Do Tea And Coffee Break A Fast?
“Technically any number of calories will break a fast, although most experts take a flexible approach and allow for small snacks of up to 50 calories, if it helps keep you on track. Herbal and caffeinated teas and coffee are fine if they don’t contain milk or sugar.” – Aliza
Can You Exercise When Fasting?
“Yes, but it’s important to modify your activity level and timing. During a fasting window, it’s best to avoid strength training as you need protein and carbs to repair muscle and encourage recovery, so stick to intense weight training when you’re able to eat to support your body nutritionally. Many believe that cardio done fasted may increase the rate of fat loss although studies have shown conflicting results, and as cardio depends on carbs for fuel, I’d advise against it, as fasted cardio puts the body under increased stress. Consider timing your rest days for when you’re fasting, and if you really must exercise when fasting, keep it low intensity – very gentle yoga, Pilates or a walk.” – Aliza
The Bottom Line?
“Fasting can be safe for women, but the practice needs to be adapted. Women’s bodies are more sensitive to stressors caused by caloric restriction, meaning that IF needs to be undertaken with caution, especially if you are of reproductive age. Fasting for long periods (more than 16 hours) has been shown to impact hormonal balance and raise cortisol levels. The most obvious effects are mood changes, acne and irregular cycles; less obvious, although arguably more impactful, is the longer-term disruption to reproductive health. To avoid this, women shouldn’t be fasting for periods longer than 16 hours, and for those looking to maintain hormonal balance, it’s safest to stick to a 12-hour fast.” – Aliza
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