I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that I’m a sucker for seeing what’s up in the world of wellness. What new foods and products and habits are people buying? Is it just a fad, or is there evidence to back it up?
That’s when we come to a seemingly overnight trend toward something called intermittent fasting. The name alone leaves lots of questions hanging, but we’ll get there.
What is intermittent fasting?
Rather than necessarily changing how much you eat, intermittent fasting changes when you eat. You’re eating the same amount as if on a normal day, just in a different time frame. There are many ways to go about it, but the most common is to eat within an eight-hour window during the day.
A lot of the benefits you’ll find for IF is, of course, weight loss. You’re most likely not eating as many calories, especially at times of the day that you don’t need food, like right before bedtime. However, there is also research into overall health benefits, even extending lifespans by changing the way cells function. During the fasting phase, many cells die and stem cells turn on, which starts a regeneration process and gives rise to new, younger cells. This leads to a reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammation, and cancer.
Why aren’t we all intermittent fasting?
Yeah, a lot to swallow. Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. For many people, it’s not sustainable or could even be harmful. Besides the fact there isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all lifestyle that works perfectly for everyone, the principles behind IF can be detrimental to physical and mental wellness.
If you’re reading this, chances are you know my background and general mindset. I am in what I call constant recovery from anorexia on top of my other chronic conditions. This means I’m viewing the world surrounding food and eating from a much different perspective than most. I am always hyper-aware of what situations raise alarm bells in my head. It’s why I don’t own any fitness tracker, nor do I weigh myself on any regular basis; I know that doing so would turn into a major trigger to immediately rebound into restriction.
The word “fasting” raises immediate alarm. Basically, on a regular basis, you are paying attention not necessarily to a calorie count, but the clock. You’re controlling when you eat rather than intuitively eating when you’re hungry. Even if you’re not going to extreme means to fast and essentially go into a biological starvation mode, it’s the premise behind it that could lead to actually extreme habits.
And just because you’re controlling what times of day you eat doesn’t mean you’ll eat nutritious foods at reasonable portions with a healthy mindset during that period. By forcing yourself into a schedule your body and mind aren’t sustainable on, your chances for all-out binging when allowed to eat is quite high, causing both physical and mental problems. The strict divide between eating and not could exacerbate overeating and accompanying guilt, shame, and other problems that only become worse over time.
Along with binging, you’re most perceptible to the obsessive thoughts common in disordered eating. Our hunger cues came from evolutionary progress meant to keep us alive. There’s a reason we cannot stop thinking about food when we’re hungry. So if you’re defying your body’s hunger cues to hop on the intermittent-fasting bandwagon, your day can become centered on your eating window. Hunger changes the way we think and behave, changing the neurological pathways we need for decision-making and focus.
Not just a problem for disordered eating.
Beyond the potential for disordered eating, or at least serving as a crutch to mask an underlying issue, your body might not even healthily accept occasional fasting. Our cortisol, a stress hormone, levels raise when fasting. Scientists have studied cortisol and its effects when elevated, finding it can interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and mental illness. For women especially, this could even mean throwing off other hormones required for a healthy menstrual cycle.
Overall, I’d say if you’re at all considering intermittent fasting, do your research. There are a lot of studies showing pros and cons either way, but even if that in mind, you have to do what’s best for your own body. Many people find IF extremely straight-forward and very helpful, while others could struggle to get used to this habit and face more harm than good.
Regardless of when you eat, your priority should simply be to eat nutritious foods that nourish you and make you feel good. Eat when you’re hungry, whether that’s in a select time frame or not. Support yourself however you know best.
What have you heard of intermittent fasting? What are your thoughts about it?
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie