Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 October 2020

Everything you wanted to know about intermittent fasting, including the pitfalls

While immensely popular, intermittent fasting raises its share of questions. We turn to experts for answers.
Even with intermittent fasting, when it is time to eat, it’s important to pick healthy options. Getty Images
Even with intermittent fasting, when it is time to eat, it’s important to pick healthy options. Getty Images

You may already be familiar with intermittent fasting, and perhaps are in the middle of a month-long fast for Ramadan. While this in itself is a form of intermittent fasting, there is a big difference in restricting eating for religious reasons and choosing fasting as a weight-loss tool. It is the latter we are talking about.

From claimed benefits such as rapid fat loss to reports it could lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer, intermittent fasting has sparked a great deal of debate. Regimes such as the 5:2 Diet, which encourages consuming only 500 calories twice a week while eating the “normal” number of calories the other five days, or the Eat, Stop, Eat method, which includes 24 hours of fasting up to twice a week, are popular worldwide.

“Intermittent fasting is not a diet, it is a pattern of eating,” explains Phil Smith, a trainer at Haddins Sports Consultancy & Studies in Abu Dhabi. Haddins combines intermittent fasting, a Paleo diet and training as part of its Primal Transformation programme. Participants fast for a total of 16 hours a day – for example, not eating past 8pm and then waiting until 12 noon the following day to eat their first meal – with great results. “It doesn’t change what you eat, rather it changes when you eat. Fasting puts your body in a fat-burning state that you rarely reach during a normal eating schedule.”

Many people have been advised to “never skip breakfast – it is the most important meal of the day”, and there is concern that going for long hours without food could lower the metabolism or send them into starvation mode. However, this is one of the common misconceptions, according to advocates of intermittent fasting.

According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it would take about 84 hours of complete fasting for blood sugar levels to drop low enough to affect your mental state. Volunteers in this study actually experienced a rise in metabolic rate; by day three, it was up by 14 per cent.

Smith also points out that during fasting, insulin levels drop and human growth hormone increases. According to a study published in 2014 in the medical journal Translation Research, in human studies into the effect of intermittent fasting on the prevention of type 2 diabetes, blood sugar levels dropped by up to 6 per cent, while fasting insulin was reduced by 20 to 31 per cent. However, other reports prove somewhat inconclusive, with one 2005 study by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in the United States revealing that blood sugar levels actually worsened in women involved in a 21-day intermittent fasting regime.

Salma Ganchi, dietitian and health and wellness coach at Optimal Fitness, Dubai, points out that another benefit is that periods of fasting can be beneficial in teaching self-control and self-discipline. “It can rightly affect your hunger and cravings in the long term. Embarking on an intermittent fasting way of eating can also make you more mindful of what goes in your mouth.”

A study by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, California, put mice on a strict eight-hour feasting versus 16-hour fasting regime. The mice experienced a drop in their weight, blood sugar levels and a heightened sensitivity to insulin, a factor that could help lower the risk of diabetes. It also didn’t matter that the rodents gorged themselves on fatty foods during non-fasting hours. This raises the question: can intermittent fasting lead to that “all or nothing” binge, diet, binge mentality?

This is a definite concern, says Dr Anita Das Gupta, chief clinical dietitian and head of department at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi, who feels that intermittent fasting diets are no substitute for long-term healthy eating habits. “It distracts people from the real message of how to eat healthily and in moderation,” she says. “Doing this solely for weight loss carries other health risks, especially if you are not already eating a healthy diet, have liver or kidney problems, or any kind of compromised immune system. Your body needs vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from food to stay healthy. If you don’t get enough, you can experience symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, constipation and dehydration. It is definitely not advisable for children or the elderly, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or anyone with a chronic disease or eating disorder.”

Ganchi agrees: “There is not much point in trying intermittent fasting if the one meal you are eating is of the fast food, processed variety. It should not be a licence to live on junk food. Be mindful not to binge-eat on non-fasting days as cyclical fasting and binge eating are a recipe for disaster and could promote all sorts of unhealthy habits. There is a definite detoxification process that occurs with intermittent fasting, but this is dependent on the types of foods you consume when you are not fasting.”

The goal at Haddins is to provide a lifestyle change, says Smith. “Our programme has seen some great transformations over four weeks, but this is not a quick fix. It is sustainable long-term, but you will need to make it suit your lifestyle – pick fasting times that function with your family or work. It is also not the end of the world if you adjust or even take the weekend off to enjoy yourself.”

Overall, while intermittent fasting may be a way of shifting the extra pounds, the resounding advice is clear: redefine your eating habits first, before you think about refining the amount of time you eat.

Updated: June 16, 2016 04:00 AM

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