A few years ago, my wife, Diana, and I became interested in the research on intermittent fasting for various health benefits, and decided to try it ourselves. Fasting for various lengths of time has been shown by studies to help prevent or treat heart attacks, diabetes, certain cancers, and premature death in animals.
“Intermittent fasting” does not mean the complete avoidance of food and drink. Instead, you markedly reduce your intake of food during certain periods. The benefits can be seen as long as you significantly reduce your total caloric intake during those periods, as found by a 2006 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses.
Intermittent fasting appears to work by increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin and reducing an overactive immunity, called inflammation. Various programs of intermittent fasting have been shown to:
- lower blood pressure
- lower cholesterol and triglycerides
- reduce body fat
- lower insulin
- lower blood markers of inflammation
- increase speed and endurance in athletes
Types of Intermittent Fasting
Different researchers and authors have used different definitions of intermittent fasting for their studies:
- Daily limited-time fasting, such as eating only between noon and 6PM, eating three meals (morning, noon and early evening) and then fasting overnight from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., or eating only twice a day at the times of your choice
- Various combinations of fasting and non-fasting days in each week, such as fasting on alternate days, or 5:2 (five normal days and two fasting days, on the days of your choice)
- Monthly variations, such as fasting five days each month
Research has not yet been able to prove that any one method of intermittent fasting is superior to other methods.
Our Version of Intermittent Fasting
Diana and I chose to follow a liberal alternate-day program of “fasting” because we can do it without keeping a calendar or making special schedules. When we have lunch or dinner dates with our friends, we let that take precedence and just skip that day or make the next day a fast day.
We eat a plant-based diet, with fish two or three times a week and occasionally cheese. For breakfast every day, I eat oatmeal made with water and added raisins, and Diana eats cooked black beans. On “non-fast” days, between noon and 3 p.m., we go out to eat our second meal, typically vegetables, salads, soups, seafood, and fruit, with no limits on portion sizes. On “fast” days, we do not eat that second meal. Whether it is a fast day or not, we snack on nuts, fruits such as oranges, and vegetables such as tomatoes or cauliflower, as often as we like. We know that no one can depend on will power, so we do not keep any other foods in our kitchen. We do not snack after 7 p.m.
Note that we eat only two meals a day on our regular days. We decided many years ago that the three-meals-a-day pattern was just too much food for our needs and I think that is true for most people over 40, 50, 60, or whenever the weight starts to creep on. We live in a large retirement community where we are surrounded by older people and what a sad picture it is; at least 80 percent and maybe 90 percent are overweight.
What This Program Has Done for Us
After a bicycle accident that required major surgery, Diana found that she had lost more than three inches in height from compression fractures in her spine. She decided to use a strict program of intermittent fasting to bring her weight down to match her new height. She lost 15 pounds in six weeks, so where she had been 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds, she is now under 5 feet 6 inches and 120 pounds. I was so impressed with her results that I decided to try it myself. I am 5 feet 10 inches tall, and after just a few months on the program, my weight had dropped from 168 to 138.
When we reached our goal weights, we went to our more relaxed program and have since maintained our weights without much effort. Diana exercises vigorously every day even though she has severe rheumatoid arthritis, and she believes that staying active and keeping her weight down help to control the pain.
I have to keep my weight low because of my genetic predisposition to store all my fat in my belly. I have very narrow hips. I had high blood sugar levels when I weighed 168 pounds, my father died of diabetes and my brother is diabetic.
Storing fat in your belly, rather than your hips, increases your risk for diabetes because it shows that you are storing fat in your liver. When blood sugar levels rise too high, your pancreas releases insulin, which lowers blood sugar levels by driving sugar from the bloodstream into the liver. Fat in your liver prevents the liver from accepting sugar from the bloodstream to keep blood sugar levels high.
Almost everyone with a large belly and small hips already has high blood sugar levels and is at high risk for diabetes and heart attacks. In a 2014 study published in the journal Translational Research, intermittent fasting markedly helped decrease belly fat.
Not for Everyone
Certain conditions may be complicated by fasting, so be sure to check with your doctor if any of the following apply to you:
- have diabetes
- have low blood pressure
- take medications
- are underweight
- have an eating disorder
- are under age 14
- are pregnant or breast feeding, or may become pregnant