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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.
I know many health experts who 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, 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 (see sources below). Researchers at US National Institute on Aging report that animal and human studies about caloric restriction show that when calories were 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. There are many ways to approach this (which we will cover in this post). 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:
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. Yes, if the body (and brain) are used to running on a constant supply of fast carbs, cutting these out may lead to brain fog and sluggishness. However, if the body is getting the proper nutrients and an adequate supply of beneficial fats and proteins, it is more likely to adapt without negative symptoms.
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. This is how it works: 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 personally I take my cues from Dr. Pompa’s research, among others (also check out Valter Longo and the Fasting Mimicking Diet).
There are some important factors to keep in mind 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 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: 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
Also called time-restricted eating (because you eat only at certain times), 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.
I go into my approach to time-restricted eating in this post, and this is a great place to start for most moms/women.
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?
Tips for Fasting
It can be difficult to adjust if you aren’t used to fasting. Here are some tips that can help you stay the course:
- Drink lots of water. Lots!
- While I don’t generally recommend any beverages other than water on a fast, Pique Tea has some fasting-specific blends that can help you get through withdrawal symptoms and support the fasting process.
- If anxiety or emotions come up (which happens), try tapping.
Learn more specifically from Cynthia Thurlow on What Makes Fasting Unique for Women in this podcast episode.
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!
Discussion (132 Comments)
The way I am fasting is during the day i don’t eat and drink(water or juice), only in the night before i go to bed. My weight used to be 220 lbs and now i am weighting 172 lbs and i feel prettier than ever
Hello, if you don’t mind, can I ask you how long it took you from 220 to 172 pounds to lose that amount of weight? Also, what time should I eat at night? I usually eat around 7/8 pm. It’s a little straight forward, but I really need to know.
I didn’t see your anserw how long did it take to lost weight. And what do you eat at night. And do you just drink veg drink and water or fruit drink ..
Since there is no answer to the above question, I’m going to give you my answer instead. I went from 208 to 150 in about 8 months using IF and adopting a whole foods, plant based diet with no processed sugar or flour and no vegetable oil. I’m definitely not perfect and have had lots of setbacks but I have also gone from almost confined to a bed or wheelchair to up, gardening, taking care of my house and family and volunteering extensively at my church. I had systemic yeast for years and a huge sugar addiction which I have finally broken by fasting 20 hours a day. I also had problems with memory and brain fog that caused me to lose almost all memories for around a decade but today I’m bright again! A huge chunk of my daily calories comes from eating organic coconut butter for optimal brain health.
Intermittent fasting is a great way to get a handle on your appetite and what you eat. I love it, but I wouldn’t make it a new way of life like some do. I couldn’t see doing it for months at a time. I enjoy breakfast too much and feel like crap when I skip that first meal of the day. But fasting is great for when I am trying to lose a few pounds because I find that I eat less when I only have 8 hours to do so. LOL. Funny how people overeat when they have too much time on their hands isn’t it.
I enjoyed this article and the research you showed to support your stance. I just started intermittent fasting and so far it’s okay. Would you say that it’s okay to drink tea during the fasting window? In the past I just had random days where I fast because I was trying to focus on hunger and not appetite. I guess I’ll have to stick it out a few weeks to see how it goes
Thank-you Wellness Mama! Can anyone start fasting? Or should we wait until we are not glucose dependent?
Anyone can, but I’d suggest getting past the first couple of
weeks…. it gets a lot easier at that point!
I wonder if it’s safe to fast when breastfeeding?
Or just follow the same rule when pregnant and
Eat when hungry.
My religion is very into fasting, and we say not to fast while pregnant or nursing. You have another little person that is depending on you for calories, so we just don’t mess with that.
Hi. In my case , fasting for a spiritual reason while nursing isn’t too bad but shouldn’t be drastic. For instant, nursing mothers in our church can break their fast around 2pm instead of the 4 or 6pm that others do for the sake of the baby. Yes there is someone involved but I don’t think we should use that as an excuse to humble ourselves .#myopinion .
I started skipping breakfast 1964 when I was 34 yrs old. It greatly improved my health. And many times I also skip dinner, with still better results. Two or three times I fated for 72 hours. I dont believe i doctors which have been a complete disappintment in my case. No
pills or medicine whatever. Kind regards, H. Breidenbach.
Thank you for this post! I believed all those myths, too. What you say makes complete sense, though. I look forward to practicing intermittent fasting as the occasion arises.
Let me know how it goes!
oh boy! I fast each day from about 8 at nite to noon the next day–I may eat some veggies ( smoothie) at noon and then naything at about 6 in the evening – I do this each day – fast for about 16 hours and then one bigmeal and then the ” smoothie” make sense to you? I hope so – any comments– Please – i need suport –thnaks
What is your purpose of fasting this way? Is it a hectic schedule or a voluntary fast? This type of fasting could be really good for weight loss or helping with some certain health issues, as long as you are sure you are getting enough nutrients in the meals you do eat. Veggies smoothies are great, especially if they are only veggies and not sweetened with fruit. What do you typically eat for dinner? As long as you are getting enough protein (70-100 g depending on your size) and enough healthy fat (about half your calories) in the evening, you should be fine eating this way. If you ever find yourself really hungry during the fasting window, you could occasionally add a few eggs with some veggies. This would help get in the protein and good fats and shouldn’t hinder weight loss or health improvement at all. Feel free to email if you have more detailed questions though!
I love IF. I have always been plagued with low blood sugar and was told I needed to eat every 2-3 hours so breakfast became a must for me. I started IF when I started following a more Keto/paleo diet. If you consume a lot of fat in your diet, then you are not as hungry. On most days I fast from 7pm the night before until lunch (12:30-1:30pm) the next day. Initially when I started it was difficult because I felt hungry. I have been doing this for over 2 years and now I have to remind myself to eat! and all of my low blood sugar issues have disappeared! On a normal day I eat 2 meals plus one small snack and I am completely satiated.
The information in No. 2 above has me confused. If you do as you describe “from 6 pm one day to 6 pm the next day, you fast, and alternate fasting days and eating days” then I cannot understand how you then can say “you are never going a day without eating.” What am I missing here? I count that as 24 hours and you certainly are going without eating for an entire day. So how does this differ from No. 3? Or is there a misprint in the information somehow?
I see how that could be confusing! You would never go a day (for instance, Monday 12 am to 12 am Tuesday) without eating, though you would go 24 hours without eating. In other words, since you would fast between 6pm one night and 6pm the next night, you would eat breakfast and lunch before 6pm on the first day, and dinner after 6 pm the next day. You would never be eating breakfast/lunch and dinner on the same day if you were fasting this way ,but you would always eat breakfast/lunch or dinner.
Perfect timing… I started a fast yesterday after lunch and will fast until dinner tonight. I slept well and full of energy this morning. I appreciate your article reinforcing intermittent fasting. Thank you!
Hello wellness mama. On the fast 16/8 are you allowed to drink acv and black coffee? Will this ruin the fast?
Katie - Wellness Mama
It depends on who you ask. For a block fast/water fast, those aren’t allowed but most people think they are fine on IF as long as they don’t spike glucose.
I’m so glad to read this. When I practice the types of fasting that you describe I feel so much better, have loads of energy, think more clearly and creatively, and the weight falls off. When I have tried to eat the recommended way by snacking all the time all that I think of is food and I pack on the pounds and feel miserable. I know this is all anecdotal but I’ll continue to do this as it obviously works for me. Ate roast chicken and a veggie saute for lunch which I’m thinking will be all for today except for water and herb tea.
I’m avoiding snacks today, per Ash Wednesday standards, and eating smaller meals. In the past, this day has been very, very hard for me. But since giving up sugar for health reasons two months ago, fasting between meals isn’t hard at all. I often don’t even have the cravings I used to have. I’m interested to see how eliminating grains affects this.
Ya. Refined sugar seems to be the main culprit in driving binge eating I think. I’m trying to remove it from my diet too.