So, that happened. Pizza, wine, and fries—literally ALL of the allegedly “bad” foods were consumed over the course of a single weekend. Now it’s Monday and you feel like crap—physically and emotionally a wreck. Time for a juice cleanse, fed intravenously and STAT.
If the scenario above sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
Most diets, cleanses, etc. are rooted in the idea that you’ve messed up and need to fix it…tomorrow. They profit off of our perceived shortcomings, our inability to be “perfect.”
While restrictive behaviors, such as dieting and juice cleanses, might sound really attractive in a desperate moment to “correct” our ef-ups, they actually do more harm than good to our bodies, and can wreak havoc on our hormones and metabolism.
You may have heard of leptin, a hormone made by fat cells that decreases our appetite, and ghrelin, which increases appetite. Over time, when our body is thrown out of balance too frequently, we can develop leptin resistance, which means our brain stops receiving the message that we’ve had enough to eat.
It’s a complicated process, but you should know this…there is a silver lining: You have the power to rebalance your blood sugar and turn your bod into a fat fighting machine…with Intermittent Fasting (IF).
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Simply put, it refers to short periods of an extended fast. Nothing crazy hard and Gandhi-esque. You simply draw out your normal overnight fast for a specified period of time and narrow your feeding window to four, eight or 12 hours.
If you think about it, you already fast at night when you sleep. The trick with IF is planning out an extended foodless time, ensuring the window isn’t too short or too long—this part is key, as the goal isn’t “punishment.” It isn’t a diet or cleanse. It’s a reset/rebalancing tool to get our blood sugar, hormones and metabolism back on track, and our bodies functioning optimally.
Data show that when IF is done properly, it might help extend life, regulate blood glucose, control blood lipids, maintain body weight, gain (or maintain) lean muscle mass, and more.
It does this by improving appetite control through changes in ghrelin, increasing insulin sensitivity, and improving cardiovascular function. These long-term health benefits far outweigh any short-term punishment/reward behaviors and thoughts that usually accompany diets and cleanses.
So how often should you fast? For how long? Should you restrict calorie intake? Should you eat the same amount of food on non-fasting days that you normally would, or should you eat more?
The answer to all of these questions is—it depends on the IF program you choose. Let’s break them down:
Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) — 36 hour fast/12 hour feed
This plan involves fasting every other day. For example, on Monday, you’d eat within a 12-hour window (say, 8 am to 8 pm). Then, you’d fast overnight on Monday, and all day/overnight on Tuesday. You’d eat again from 8 am to 8 pm on Wednesday, and so on.
Scared of going a full 36 hours without eating? Don’t stress: most variations of this IF version include a “modified” fast, where you may eat up to 500 calories a day or strictly raw fruits and veggies. It is recommended that alternate day fasters make good eating choices on fasting days, but can eat whatever they want on non-fasting days.
Best for: If you prefer days of not giving AF about what you eat — especially on weekends — this is a good option. Your “days off” allow for eating what you want, which makes this a very flexible option, but it could also encourage binging behavior. So, ADF would not be a good fit for someone who has a history/problem with binging.
Meal Skipping — Random
Some IF aficionados think we should eat how our ancestors did (time travel anyone?). Which is, randomly. Our intake during Paleolithic times was not consistent and was based on availability. So, we ate what we hunted, storing fuel in the reserve tank until our next meal opportunity. Our activity level was fueled by necessity. With Meal Skipping, you randomly skip the occasional breakfast or dinner about twice a week.
Best for: You might incorporate this IF method if weekend indulgence is a regular occurrence but you like to keep things more balanced, albeit low-maintenance, during the week.
Leangains — 16 hour fast/8 hour feed
This is one of the most popular IF options, made famous by well-known fitness expert Martin Berkhan. If you eat your last meal at 8 pm and don’t eat until 12 noon the next day, you’ve hit your goal.
For people who can’t function without breakfast (raises hand), an even better option is eating dinner around 5 or 6 pm, say, on a Monday, then eating breakfast on Tuesday at 9 or 10 am.
This method does require healthy eating, and preferably a higher protein diet. It often incorporates carb-cycling (cycles of low and high carb consumption) and nutrient cycling (eating the bulk of your nutrients after exercising).
Best for: If you’re a fit babe who enjoys letting her hair down on weekends but keeping things more structured during the week, this is a good option. You’re probably already keeping it pretty healthy most days and just need a little reset.
Warrior Diet — 20 hour fast/4 hour feed
Fitness guru Ori Hofmekler is the mastermind behind this IF method, which involves eating small amounts of vegetables and fruits during the day and one big meal at night, eaten during a four-hour window. It’s recommended to eat a more “paleo-friendly” diet of whole, unprocessed foods.
Best for: This IF method is best for the super controlled/structured eater. While balance is always the best option, people who have a hard time “allowing” themselves the occasional indulgence might benefit from the awareness that having a super clean day to look forward to might bring. It may also help reduce negative self-talk attached to non-clean eating choices.
*If “control” is a real issue for you, though, I highly advise talking to your doctor and getting a dietitian referral to address it, plus NOT incorporating any IF method in your life.
There isn’t clear research on which type of IF method is best for certain goals. It’s really a matter of trial and error, finding the best method that works for you. Because in the end, the whole goal of regulating your “diet” is to find what works internally for YOU and makes you actually FEEL good – fueled, full and happy. You might find that through IF, but if it ever feels like it’s steering you down a different kind of path to punishment, check back in by giving yourself an intuitive eating pep talk.
And, as with any diet change, you should consult your doctor before implementing one of these options into your life, and of course, always listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right and isn’t serving you, DON’T DO IT. No six-pack or buns of glory are worth feeling crappy. Health comes first.