Credit: Kirill Tonkikh via Unsplash

Intermittent fasting: healthy or hindering?

By Margaret Hartness

Features columnist Margaret Hartness discusses the pros and cons of intermittent fasting.

CW: weight loss, calorie counting, eating patterns

I’m sure most of us have been there, researching ways to improve our lifestyle (because it turns out having tea and biscuits at midnight isn’t good for you). In online searches for the best ways to lose weight, “intermittent fasting” frequently pops up, the popularity of this new method increasing as it is tried and tested on social media. Despite its sudden attention, intermittent fasting is not a new phenomenon, having existed for centuries within cultural and religious practices. It is an allocated period in which we purposefully choose not to eat.

There is no single approach to intermittent fasting, and while studies conducted usually prefer one over the over, it is more important to select which feels right for you and your needs.This could be eating within a selected period of time, such as a 16:8 window, where you refrain from eating for 16 hours and have an eight hour window to eat. This approach is one I personally practise, from 10am-6pm, and it can be managed by intermittent fasting apps like Fastic.

Another option is completing a full 24-hour fast during a regular day of the week or month. If breakfast at 9am is the meal of the day that you love, you would abstain from eating until your 9am breakfast the following day.

Lastly, you can choose particular days of the week in which you’ll consume a certain number of calories but eat as normal during the other days. For example, the 5:2 diet, where for five days you eat your typical calorie intake, then for two days you consume 25% of your regular calories.

Intermittent fasting is understood to be beneficial because through sustained periods of not eating, our insulin levels decrease, and our fat cells can release their stored sugar for energy usage. So, we begin to “burn” weight off. Beyond weight loss, benefits include insulin sensitivity improving, cellular repair, changes in gene expression and- if practicing fasting long enough- autophagy, where cells digest and consume old and dysfunctional protein which build up inside cells.

Intermittent fasting is generally safe, providing you are eating a balanced diet. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens for BBC Good Food suggests that for our “eating windows” to be of high nutritional value, and should include “essential fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds, lean sources of protein, wholegrains and starchy carbs and plenty of fruit and vegetables to supply dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals”.

Of course, the safety of intermittent fasting depends on an individual’s personal health. If you suffer from diabetes, a history of eating disorders, or other such medical conditions you should consult your doctor before making these changes – or just avoid this method. And definitely do not partake if you’re still growing.

Assuming you are like me and prefer the 16:8 approach, intermittent fasting may be one of the easier approaches to adopting a better lifestyle that can be sustained rather than trying to engage with fads like the “Keto” diet. It helps adopt a routine of set mealtimes, and while it’s hard to resist the urge to reach for the tea bags and cookie jar during a particularly stressful study session, it means you enjoy the fulfilling, healthy meals you do have. Cut back a bit on the carbohydrates and sugar, throw in a bit more protein, fruit, and vegetables, and it really makes a world of difference to how you look and feel about yourself. But, like any lifestyle alteration, ensure you’re in a good headspace when making changes!


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