Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey eats one meal a day and fasts all weekend. While this is an extreme version of intermittent fasting, it’s not exactly unprecedented. In fact, many doctors and personal trainers recommend it for its proven health benefits.
To be clear, intermittent fasting is not technically a diet. It’s about restricting your window of food consumption to certain hours.
An ancient lifestyle habit, intermittent fasting can be traced back to the time of hunter-gatherer societies. Food was not always readily available and people had to adapt to long periods without sustenance. People have also fasted as part of religious practice for thousands of years.
Unlike the Islamic fasting during the month of Ramadan, intermittent fasting allows the body to follow its natural circadian rhythms. Additionally, it has no restrictions on water intake.
Why people do intermittent fasting
When intermittent fasting was tested on lab rats, they not only shed weight but showed improvement in levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure. In 2012, a trio of journalists popularised the idea that it would work just as effectively for humans.
BBC broadcast journalist Dr. Michael Mosley’s TV documentary Eat Fast, Live Longer and book The Fast Diet caused quite a stir in 2012. Hot on the heels of Mosley was journalist Kate Harrison’s book The 5:2 Diet, which was an account of her own experience. Lastly, Dr. Jason Fung’s 2016 bestseller The Obesity Code launched the trend on a path of success.
In 2015, a Singaporean study investigated how intermittent fasting could improve the lives of overweight patients. Patients who underwent intermittent fasting by fasting two consecutive days a week lost an average of 3.9kg over 3 months. The control group of 10 patients, who received general diet and exercise advice, lost an average of only 500g.
Other studies also show that intermittent fasting can have positive effects on your cardiovascular health, particularly in terms of blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
How is intermittent fasting done?
There is more than one style of intermittent fasting. One method is called the 16-8, which involves eating normally within an eight-hour window and fasting for 16 continuous hours. That means no breakfast, lunch at noon and dinner before 8pm. Alternatively, one could have breakfast at 8am, have lunch in the late afternoon and stop all eating after 4pm.
The other method is 5-2. It involves subsisting on a 600-calorie diet for any two days of the week, and eating moderately on the other five days. To give you some perspective on how restrictive 600 calories is, that’s less than 50% of the average adult’s daily total intake!
In the aforementioned Singaporean study, the fasting group had three packets of Optifast, a meal replacement product which supplied you with no more than 570 calories per day.
Other intermittent fasting practitioners can choose to fast every other day. That, or fast for a full 24 hours once or twice in a week.
The science behind intermittent fasting
The idea of intermittent fasting is to force our bodies to tap into its stored energy, which can use up excess fat in the process.
When we eat, we take in more food than we can immediately expend. This causes a spike in insulin levels, which helps to chop up the carbohydrates into smaller units of glucose. These units are meant to be stored in the liver or muscles as glycogen.
But glycogen, which are long chains of glucose, consume too much space. The liver takes care of the excess glycogen by converting it into fat, and storing it all over the body for future use. And that is where your flab deposits come from.
To reverse this process, all you need is to stop eating. Without a spike in insulin levels, the body starts burning stored energy since it knows that no more food is coming through. Blood sugar goes down, which prompts the body to release its stored glycogen. This will fuel the body for about 24 to 36 hours.
When there is no more glycogen left, the body will start burning fat.
Intermittent fasting allows the body to maximise whatever calories it has more efficiently. When you are grazing on snacks every three or four hours, your body is constantly using the incoming energy instead of using your fat reserves.
You don’t want that, because that’s how people become overweight!
Should you give intermittent fasting a go?
By this theory, it sounds like we would all benefit from the occasional fast. This may be true… except for pregnant women, patients with diabetes, kidney or liver disease, low blood pressure, mental disorders, and nutritional deficiencies.
If you’d like to opt for intermittent fasting, remember that it’s not a passport to binge-eat on the days you’re not fasting. You should still be eating complex carbohydrates, lean protein and fibre on a regular basis. This will provide you with longer periods of satiety. It is also critical to stay hydrated during fasting.
When it’s all said and done, the downside of intermittent fasting is that weight loss is only most noticeable within the first two months. As with most weight loss methods that rely on dieting, your progress is likely to plateau once your body has acclimatised to the new eating habit.
Little is known about the effects of intermittent fasting beyond six months, or how safe or sustainable it is.
But why starve yourself?
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