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What You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting

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Although I typically eat rather healthily, I know there is always room for improvement. Throughout the years, I’ve come across numerous people singing the praises of intermittent fasting (IF). It wasn’t until the pandemic that I thought I could actually pull it off. With no press events, dinners with friends, or any enticing plans at all involving food, I finally thought the time had come to see if it lived up to the hype. I’ve never been a fan of juice cleanses or fasting, in general. However, the science/idea behind intermittent fasting made sense to me, and I couldn’t help but think how I had practiced a variation of it years ago not knowing it had an actual name.

In my 30s, I had the opportunity to visit Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand. While there, I decided to use my visit as an opportunity to revamp my eating habits. While I had never thought of myself as overweight, I knew I could spare to lose a few extra pounds. The fact that I was consuming a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie ice cream every night before bed wasn’t helping in my pursuit of health and wellness. When I returned home, I was determined not to fall back into bad habits. Instead, I came up with a list of new rules I resolved to follow. First, my days of bingeing on Ben & Jerry’s was over. Second, once I had eaten dinner, that was it for the day, no late-night snacking. And this last one, which I admit, wasn’t all that healthy, was that I’d weigh myself every morning to ensure I was staying on track.

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Before long, the pounds were melting off. I’m sure cutting out the daily pint of ice cream I was stress eating made the most significant impact. I also found myself eating earlier in the evening and then going for 12 or more hours without eating. It wasn’t all that challenging considering I was asleep for at least eight of those hours. While I hadn’t set out to practice intermittent fasting, I had stumbled onto it. Looking back, I wanted to know how I might resurrect the practice and benefit from it once again. As a result, I began reaching out to others who had also experienced positive results from timing when they ate.

Si Si Penaloza, a spa and wellness writer as well as executive travel editor and director of strategic partnerships at JETSET magazine, discovered intermittent fasting after being invited to attend a themed press trip at the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara (CA). She didn’t immediately rush to jump on the bandwagon. “I had also been encouraged by my partner Doug Olear, an actor who shed 22 pounds of weight on a 10-day lemon and cayenne juice fast, before shooting the final season of HBO’s The Wire,” says Penaloza. “He boasted that Beyonce had smashed a 22-day version to prepare for Dream Girls; and that if she could do that, I could give 10 days to reinvent myself and my fitness narrative. But this seemed way too extreme and punishing—a ripe arena for self-sabotage.”

Fasting Methods

When most people think of fasting, they think of deprivation. While there is some truth to that sentiment, there is also so much more. Fasting is defined as when you willfully refrain from eating and drinking, limiting calories completely. Hydrating with water is usually allowed. According to Lauren Munsch Dal Farra, M.D., CEO of Palm Health, there are a variety of fasting methods, typically ranging between 12 and 24 hours of not eating. She notes the 16/8 method, which involves you fasting for 16 consecutive hours in a 24-hour period, as being one of the most popular. The idea is to choose the eight hours to eat that makes the most sense for your lifestyle.

“For example, if you start eating at 11 am, you will stop eating by 7 pm,” says Dal Farra. “Fasting for more than 13 to 14 hours can increase cortisol, so it is not advised for those with adrenal dysfunction to fast for more than 12 hours at a time. If individuals do not tolerate fasting for 16 hours, even fasting for 12 hours between dinner and breakfast can be beneficial.”

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit, that Penaloza found the perfect opportunity to try intermittent fasting. “Growing up in a robust Asian family of entrepreneurs, hoteliers, and restaurateurs, culinary hedonism has been an Olympic sport all my life,” she says. “These early-age international ‘dining out decathlons’ formed my earliest ‘reviews,’ which later certainly informed my career in travel writing and publishing. Food has comforted me all my life, in a manner engrained from birth.”

As the world grinded to a halt, Penaloza was finally able to put her self-care needs first. “Intermittent fasting gave 2020’s darkest pandemic days the critical infrastructure I so desperately needed,” she says. “The practice of fasting and yoga continues to give even my most stressful days a kind of elevated grace and meaning.”

For Penaloza, the 16/8 method proved to be life changing. “I feel reborn, finally in control after a lifetime of crippling issues associated with food and body image,” she says. “It’s become a life management tool of the highest order. More meaningful, it has evolved into a profound form of self-love that I am only beginning to comprehend.”

Health Benefits

Beyond the self-love that Penaloza experienced, there are also a host of health benefits associated with intermittent fasting. “Studies demonstrate that intermittent fasting may be beneficial to prevent obesity, lower cardiovascular risk factors, improve insulin resistance, decrease inflammatory markers in the bloodstream, and preserve learning and memory,” says Dal Farra. “Studies also show increased levels of the protective hormone adiponectin during intermittent fasting. Adiponectin plays a crucial role in protecting against insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.”

Decreased inflammation may be the most exciting long-term benefit related to intermittent fasting. “An excellent study demonstrated intermittent fasting improved biomarkers for cardiovascular and inflammatory disease in women,” says Dal Farra. “It was also equally effective as continuous caloric restriction. More studies are being done to investigate the benefits and safety of intermittent fasting as an effective diet for people with various inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, such as arthritis and lupus.

One benefit that was new to me was the increase in human growth hormone (HGH) that intermittent fasting can produce. HGH is a key hormone that helps regulate metabolism, cell repair, and other important functions. It helps improve healing after an injury, build muscle, and burn fat, all of which sounded good to me. According to numerous studies, HGH levels can double or triple in just two to three days of fasting. In fact, in one study, HGH levels increased 1,250 percent after just one week. Ariane Resnick, a special diet chef and certified nutritionist, began intermittent fasting to increase her HGH levels. “After a half decade of chronic illness, my human growth hormone level was very low for my age, at less than 100,” says Resnick. “I’d heard IF could increase it along with other benefits.” And it did just that, Resnick’s HGH level nearly tripled, landing her on the high-end average for her age group.

Another appealing benefit is the clarity and focus IF can provide. “Fasting can also help keep people’s energy levels up and improve mental clarity,” says Dal Farra. “When we fast for more than 12 hours, our bodies burn through all available sugars for energy. The we start to burn fat for fuel. The ketone bodies produced by our fatty acids in this process help us think more clearly, solve problems, and have more energy.”

One thing that is not a given, however, is weight loss. According to Dal Farra, the quality and quantity of food consumed during the eating window still matters. She suggests avoiding foods high in refined carbohydrates, which may spike your blood sugar, to make the fasting period easier. She also recommends avoiding diet sodas and no-calorie sweeteners, which can wreak havoc on the blood sugar. “Consequently, I recommend people eat plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and lean proteins and limit the number of processed foods and refined sugars consumed,” says Dal Farra.

A Word of Caution

Despite all the benefits, IF isn’t for everyone. Resnick, who spent several years practicing IF, found it worked for her until it didn’t. Eventually, she moved into intuitive eating. “The idea that you can’t when your body is legitimately telling you its hungry began to feel silly, so I stopped,” she says. “It’s been a couple of years since then. Eating what I want, when I want, based on what my body tells me, serves me better than any restricted eating plan ever did.”

Resnick also cautions that it can be a slippery slope for anyone struggling with orthorexia, the fear of unclean food, and other eating disorders, such as anorexia. “While I do appreciate that it focuses on timing versus what foods to eat or not eat, I think it’s risky for a population already hyper-focused on diet,” she says.

Mindfulness in Action

For those who stand to benefit from IF, mindfulness may be one of the best takeaways. “I realized that 25 percent of what I ate on most days was out of idle boredom, or sheer rote ritual—popcorn with late-night movies,” says Penaloza. “I clearly didn’t need the sustenance or calories, eating late into the night or first thing in the morning was purely driven by emotional comfort. Intermittent fasting inherently cuts out midnight snacking, so nocturnal eaters are bound to see and feel benefits and big changes.”

Looking back at my own eating habits, I couldn’t help but think how most of the “unhealthiest” calories I consumed were after 7 pm. My before-bed snacking routine definitely wasn’t doing me any favors. “Eating crunchy Cheetos at 10 pm used to be my guilty pleasure,” says Penaloza. “Now I just indulge once every three months or so to get my fix, as long as it’s around lunch time.”

While the 16/8 method wasn’t right for me, I did eventually adopt the 12/12 method. For me, I found it helpful not to stress eat my way through the pandemic. It also made me much more mindful of what I was eating throughout the day, which probably proved to be the most beneficial to eating more healthily.

“Fasting can lead to increased resistance against disease and support the central nervous, digestive, and cardiovascular systems,” says Dal Farra. “However, it needs to be done smartly by following a diet incorporating lots of healthy foods, limited processed foods, and minimal refined sugars.”

About The Author
Heather-Mikesell-author-1

Heather, co-founder of Well Defined and the former editor-in-chief of American Spa, is an award-winning journalist and content strategist, skilled in writing, copyediting, and media relations. She is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Elite Traveler, Islands, Kiwi, Luxury Travel Advisor, Organic Spa, Porthole Cruise, Travel Agent, abcnews.com, jetsetter.com, outside.com, and wellandgood.com, in addition to various custom publications. She is frequently called upon to comment on various spa and wellness trends for various media outlets.