Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CSCS
A technique to kickstart weight loss
Throughout history, going long periods without eating or fasting is a therapeutic technique that has been used for millennia to promote wellness and purge the body of toxins and disease. From an evolutionary perspective, our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have been without food for long periods of time and feasted after a big catch. Today, you don’t need to hunt or gather as convenience food is everywhere and typically loaded with simple and processed carbs.
You’ve likely heard the common refrain that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” You’ve also probably read articles that say skipping meals is bad for your metabolism and health. But, what if skipping a meal might actually be good for you?
If you are overweight, out of shape, or in poor health then a novel approach to eating called intermittent fasting (IF) may be just the kickstart you need. It’s a strategy that effectively shrinks the number of hours in the day when you’re “allowed to eat” and expands the number of hours you don’t eat or “fast”. Can simply changing when you eat exert a significant impact on your waistline and overall heath?
More and more research is uncovering the benefits of IF for not only weight loss but myriad of other health benefits.1 Intermittent fasting has shown potential for boosting your brain function, cooling inflammation, improving heart health and slowing the ageing process. It seems the wisdom from our ancestors may unlock some powerful health benefits!
Intermittent Fasting (IF) 101
There are many different IF protocols used in the scientific literature, but the most common include the 16/8 plan, 20/4 plan or alternate day fasting.
The 16/8 plan effectively means 16 consecutive hours of fasting and 8 consecutive hours of eating. How does it work? Simply delay your breakfast until 10:00am, eat your next meal around 2:00pm and eat dinner at 6:00pm. That is your eight-hour eating window. Then, from 6:00pm to 10:00am you don’t eat, fasting overnight and into the next morning. You can also adjust this 8-hour window to suit your schedule more appropriately.
At first glance fasting for 16 hours can sound intimidating but it when you take into account you’ll be asleep for 7-8.5 of those hours (hopefully), it’s not as demanding as you might thing.
That said, the 20/4 plan is a little more intensive requiring 20 consecutive hours of fasting and only 4 consecutive hours of eating. Clients would typically delay breakfast or their first meal until later in the day, between noon and 3:00pm, and eat more substantial meals over the next 4 hours. This type of fasting can lead to greater cravings and mood swings in the short-term as the body adjusts.
The final protocol is “alternate day” intermittent fasting. This protocol starts with a normal day of eating on Monday, then fasting the entire day Tuesday. On Wednesday you would return to a normal eating schedule, followed by another fasting day Thursday. This type of protocol can provide dramatic improvements in the short-term, but is harder to follow (i.e. cravings, irritability, fatigue) and difficult to sustain in long-term.
Intermittent fasting isn’t just for losing weight. Let’s take a closer look at how IF can upgrade your health as well.
Inflammation is considered to be the root cause of almost every chronic disease. The journal Obesity recently found that fasting induced a significant anti-inflammatory effect on the body, improving fatigue symptoms and immunity.2 IF can help cool chronic inflammation that is holding you back from better health.
Improve Heart Health
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and common causes include weight gain, lack of exercise, diabetes and high blood pressure. A recent study showed that fasting can dramatically improve heart health and delay the chances of heart attack and stroke.3 If you’re overweight or out of shape, excessive carbohydrate and/or caloric intake will worsen your situation.
Supercharge Your Brain
Fatigue, brain fog, and inability to stay on task are common complaints people experience throughout the day. Intermittent fasting may hold the answer for you, as a new study showed much greater learning and memory scores in animals who fasted regularly.4 They also had dramatic improvement in the structural function of their brains.
Trendy supplements and medications are available to help you look and feel younger, but food exerts the most powerful influence on your body when it comes to anti-ageing. A recent study in animals found that fasting significantly reduced oxidative stress and fibrosis, two key characteristics for ageing tissues.5
Guidelines for Intermittent Fasting
My preferred protocol is the 16/8 routine, where you fast for 16 hours and eat as per normal the remaining 8 hours. It works well because clients simply have to delay breakfast until 10:00am (often freeing up precious morning time to get work done, or the kids off to school), push lunch back to 2:00pm and eat dinner at 6:00pm. (The toughest part of this regime is not eating after dinner, but it’s also likely the reason why clients get leaner following this approach.) If your schedule doesn’t allow for eating dinner at 6:00pm, simply push back the 8-hour eating window by an hour or two (e.g. breakfast at 11:00am, lunch at 3:00pm, dinner at 7:00pm).
Before you decide to dive in head first, there are a few scenarios where IF is not a good option. First, if your diet is poor and made up of processed and convenience foods then get your nutrition in line before starting. Next, if you struggle to fall asleep or don’t sleep through the night, then IF may not be the best fit for you. Lastly, if your stress levels are high, hold off on intermittent fasting until things settle down because it can exacerbate stress hormone responses.
Intermittent fasting is a novel approach to weight loss and upgrading overall health. It offers a potentially desirable lifestyle change that frees up more time in the morning (when people are generally more productive) to work or spend time at home. Clients tell me all the time they’re too busy to prepare food and always grab unhealthy breakfast options on-the-go in the morning on their way to work. IF solves this problem quite nicely.
If you’re looking for spark to improve your health or overcome a weight loss plateau, try IF for 3-4 weeks and see how yourself how it can upgrade how you look, feel and perform. This ancestral approach to eating may be just the thing you need to fight cravings, improve your health and supercharge productivity during the day.
Dr. Marc Bubbs, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor, Strength Coach, Speaker, Blogger, and Author of The Paleo Project – A 21st Guide to Looking Leaner, Getting Stronger, & Living Longer. Marc also serves as the Sports Nutrition Lead for the Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team and believes that diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors have the most profound impact on your overall health and performance.
- Klempel M et al. Intermittent fasting combined with calorie restriction is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in obese women. Nutr J. 2012 Nov 21;11:98.
- Lavin, D et al. Fasting induces an anti-inflammatory effect on the neuroimmune system which a high-fat diet prevents. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Aug;19(8):1586-94.
- Salah Mesalhy A. Role of Intermittent Fasting on Improving Health and Reducing Diseases. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2014 Jul; 8(3): V–VI.
- Li L, Wand Z, Zuo Z. Chronic intermittent fasting improves cognitive functions and brain structures in mice. PLoS One 2013 Jun 3;8(6):e66069.
- Castello L et al. Alternate-day fasting protects the rat heart against age-induced inflammation and fibrosis by inhibiting oxidative damage and NF-kB activation. Free Radic Biol Med. 2010 Jan 1;48(1):47-54.