Maybe you’ve heard the often-repeated advice to eat small, frequent meals. Apparently skipping meals (even breakfast) is a surefire way to wreck your blood sugar and your metabolism. Moreover, even with our sedentary modern lifestyle, if we don’t eat every 2-4 hours and graze constantly we won’t have the energy to make it through the day. We must always carry 100-calorie packs in case hunger strikes, lest brain fog ensue.
Umm … no.
I know many health experts who who would disagree with this approach, and my own experience (not to mention scientific research) tells me that this just isn’t so. There are great health benefits to fasting for periods of time (skipping meals), if done in an informed way.
Health Myth: Eat Small, Frequent Meals
Here’s a few more “myths” you can ignore:
- Eating small meals throughout the day keeps the fire of our metabolism burning and should we miss a meal, our body will jump into starvation mode and scavenge our muscle and brain tissue to survive.
- Skipping meals leads to a slowed metabolism and certain weight gain.
- Breakfast, being the most important meal of the day, should never be skipped, or one is at risk of tremendous overeating throughout the day, brain fog and impaired mental state.
- To keep our bodies running optimally, we must eat small meals throughout the day of carefully portioned amounts of 600 calories or less, preferably from “healthy whole grains” and lean proteins.
- This will also keep us from that ever dreaded feeling of hunger which we all know causes us to shift into animal existence and eat everything in sight, especially chocolate cake.
Sounds logical enough, right? I believed it all for a long time.
The problem is: research and experience don’t back it up. In fact, discovering what the research really says about the topic of intermittent fasting (a.k.a skipping meals) was some of the most freeing information for me personally on my own health journey.
Health Truth: Give Eating a Rest
Conventional wisdom says that our bodies need a constant supply of food to keep running steadily and have stable blood sugar. While it is true that a constant supply of carbohydrates (which the body breaks down into glucose/sugar) will keep the blood sugar constant, it will be constantly elevated.
In all fairness, some people do succeed at losing weight with the grazing system, but it is a difficult model to follow as it necessitates constant access to food and many people eventually find that they hit a plateau. This plateau makes a lot of sense metabolically, as the body gets used to a constant supply of food and down-regulates the metabolism since it can count on a steady supply of the same amount of calories.
It’s not exactly easy to hear in a world where snacks and packaged foods abound, but some studies have shown very positive benefits from caloric restriction diets. Animal and human studies about caloric restriction show that when calories are reduced by 30-40%, the subjects tended to live a lot longer — 30% longer actually.
When You Eat, Eat Fat
That alone might make a case for caloric restriction and small meals, except for one thing that every low-fat dieter knows: the subjects (animal and human) were miserable and showed signs of depression and irritability.
Ever felt that way on a diet? Unfortunately, the study that showed benefits from overall caloric restriction also included a low-fat diet, often recommended for weight loss. Fat does contain more calories per gram, so it was the logical source to cut down on. In primate studies, cutting down fat and dietary cholesterol caused problems including making the primates more violent. The body actually vitally needs fats for hundreds of processes throughout the body, so when caloric restriction became fat restriction, health problems followed.
What if there was a way to accomplish the life-extending benefits of caloric restriction without bypassing real meals or saying goodbye to steak forever? Thankfully, there is!
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting basically refers to occasionally reducing or eliminating food intake for a period of time. In studies, this was often done with alternate-day fasting, though there are many ways to incorporate fasting. When I first heard of it, intermittent fasting seemed to go against all the health advice I’d ever heard. Emerging research is showing that fasting is not a threat to overall health, but it actually has many health benefits.
Here are some of the biggest benefits of skipping meals:
Cancer and Heart Disease Prevention
Studies have shown that the benefits of caloric restriction can be obtained in ways besides just reducing overall calories (especially by cutting fat) and that some other methods might be more effective. One study found that when lab animals were allowed to eat freely on every other day, they actually consumed the same total number of calories as a group that was allowed to eat freely every day. The difference was that the group that fasted every other day showed longer life, increased resistance to disease, and improved insulin sensitivity.
Human studies back this up too showing that when human subjects fasted on alternate days they not only showed the same benefits as caloric restriction groups, but also showed an increased ability to lose weight and improvements in coronary heart disease risk factors. Studies (like this one) have even demonstrated a reduced proliferation of cancer cells in subjects who practiced intermittent fasting, and another study showed that alternate day fasting led to better reception of chemotherapy in cancer patients and a higher cure rate.
It turns out that fasting occasionally can be good for mental health and repair also. As the study from the National Institute on Aging found:
Although all cells in the body require energy to survive and function properly, excessive calorie intake over long time periods can compromise cell function and promote disorders such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and cancers. Accordingly, dietary restriction (DR; either caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, with maintained vitamin and mineral intake) can extend lifespan and can increase disease resistance. Recent studies have shown that DR can have profound effects on brain function and vulnerability to injury and disease. DR can protect neurons against degeneration in animal models of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases and stroke. Moreover, DR can stimulate the production of new neurons from stem cells (neurogenesis) and can enhance synaptic plasticity, which may increase the ability of the brain to resist aging and restore function following injury.
Not just extended lifespan but better resistance to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s as well as stroke! The study also found that intermittent fasting had a positive anti-aging effect on the brain. Life altering diseases aside, won’t restricting calories through fasting lead to the mental fog and sluggishness that we’ve been warned about (and perhaps even experienced) from not eating regularly?
I suggest that, when done correctly, logic points to intermittent fasting actually being better for mental clarity and energy levels. It doesn’t make sense that fasting, which we just saw can improve brain health, would also make the brain foggy or sluggish. That being said, if the body (and brain) are used to running on a constant supply of fast carbs, cutting these out will lead to brain fog and sluggishness. If the body is getting the proper nutrients and an adequate supply of beneficial fats and proteins, it is used to running on these types of fuel, and when it doesn’t receive calories from the diet it will turn to fat cells for energy.
On to more benefits!
Fitness and Health
Besides the benefits in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and neurological problems, fasting actually helps facilitate weight loss and muscle growth. This actually seems logical if we think about it. If a person has consumed food (especially carbohydrates) right before working out, the glucose from this food is still floating around in the bloodstream or is in the liver and muscles as glycogen. This is a fast fuel for the body, and it will choose to burn through this before resorting to burning fat cells, which take slightly more effort to break down.
When a person eats immediately after working out, these glycogen receptors and stores are refilled and some of the positive effects of the workout are cut off. After a resistance training workout, the body naturally produced growth hormone for several hours. Growth hormone is that all-important hormone that kids make in abundance but that declines as we age. The right kinds of high-intensity and resistance workouts can increase the body’s own natural production of growth hormone and slow aging. When food, especially food containing fructose, is consumed after workouts, it binds to the same receptors as growth hormone and prevents uptake of all the growth hormone the body has made.
Fasting for at least an hour before and after working out can ensure the most uptake of growth hormone, and contrary to popular belief, does not cause muscle wasting or inability to work out effectively.
How to Incorporate Intermittent Fasting
When it comes to fasting, there is no single method that is best for everyone, but there are some important factors that make fasting more effective and beneficial.
Fasting is easiest and most effective if the body is used to utilizing fats and proteins and is not dependent on fast-acting carbohydrates for energy. If the body is used to that constant supply of fast energy, total fasting will not be a pleasant experience. If, however, you have eliminated the grains and sugars and your body is a fat-burning machine, fasting can actually be refreshing and energizing. It gives your body a break from digestion and lets it focus on cell regeneration and waste removal.
This is logical too, think about times you have been sick and naturally didn’t eat because you weren’t hungry. This gave your body a break from digestion so it could use its resources to fight your illness. The great news is that you don’t even have to go without food for a whole day to reap the benefits of intermittent fasting. There are several easy ways to incorporate small fasts with minimal effort:
16-Hour Fast/8-Hour Eating Window
This is one of the easiest forms of fasting to start with, and you can still get the benefits listed above. You also get to eat each day, and in my experience feel only mildly hungry if at all. The basic idea is that you eat all your meals during the day in an 8 hour window (10 am to 6 pm for instance) and don’t eat late at night or during the night if you wake up.
This gives you a 16-hour fast during a 24-hour period with only minor adjustment to your normal eating schedule. This also seems to be the best option for women, as extended fasting can actually be counterproductive.
24-Hour Fast Still Eating Each Day
I heard this one from Dr. Eades, one of the top bariatric doctors in the country. The basic idea is that from 6 PM one day to 6 PM the next day, you fast, and alternate fasting days and eating days. The benefit here is that you can eat dinner after 6 PM one night and then eat breakfast and lunch the next morning, so you are never going a day without eating. This type of alternate day fasting is what is referred to in many of the studies above with the highest cancer and heart disease benefits.
Full Alternate-Day Fasting
Some people think that for the first couple weeks, it is good to do a full alternate day fasting to help the body rid itself of toxins. If you want to attempt this, simply use the 24-hour fast method above and repeat for two weeks.
You can also just try the novel approach of eating only when you actually get hungry, not just when you crave food. Let your body feel hunger every once in a while. If you aren’t hungry in the morning, don’t eat. If you aren’t hungry at dinner time, don’t eat. It seems like such a novel concept, though really, shouldn’t it be common sense?
Bottom Line on Fasting
Our bodies came with great built-in feedback mechanisms, and to think that we must eat constantly to keep from being hungry (our body’s way of telling us to eat) isn’t even logical.
As I said, finding all this information was incredibly freeing for me personally. I no longer felt guilty when I skipped meals, especially breakfast, just because I wasn’t hungry. No longer did I feel forced to eat on a certain schedule. I also wasn’t worried I was cannibalizing muscle tissue by skipping a meal. I personally also slept much better and lost weight once I started incorporating fasting into my routine.
If you decide to try fasting, make sure to use common sense and ensure that when you do eat, you are getting enough nutrients and protein. Small children and pregnant women should eat an optimal diet and should let hunger guide their eating.
If you’re just getting started, I’d also recommend checking out the Zero fasting app, which can make getting started a lot easier and help you to stick with a fast longer via the built in timer.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Mariza Snyder, a functional practitioner. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have I freed you from the bonds of snacking? Are you open to trying fasting? Perhaps you are fasting today, like I am? Let me know below!