Over the past century, intermittent fasting has been tested time and again by researchers to see if it could possibly ring true as an effective weight loss program. Recently, the public has rediscovered intermittent fasting and somewhat glamorized it as the latest and greatest dieting fad. Whether it is a healthy or dangerous practice in regard to weight loss is a different conversation entirely.
Intermittent fasting is defined by the Harvard School of Public Health as fasting for a large portion of the day while leaving a specific window of time to eat. This eating time frame could be anywhere between eight and 10 hours at a time, wherein the fasting window would be 14 to 16 hours at a time.
Freshman Marc Abelman intermittently fasted for six months in 2019 and was able to lose close to 35 pounds.
“I wanted to get healthier," Abelman said. "That's the reason a lot of people do it. They want to get healthier or change their diet without having to take away the foods they enjoy."
Abby Chan, a registered dietitian and co-owner of EVOLVE Flagstaff, said she sees that there are both positives and negatives when it comes to intermittent fasting as a practice. One of the larger reservations that Chan has with weight loss trends or new diets is the faults in initial research and testing.
“There was just an article posted in the New England Journal of Medicine on intermittent fasting and all the benefits, and I think one of the hard things is that the majority of studies are generally done on men and sometimes they’re done on a mix, but they’re never really done just on females," Chan said. "When you clump these genders together, it gets really murky because [men and women] are completely different beings on a hormonal level.”
Chan said females and their hormones can be harmed very intensely by certain diet trends. It doesn’t matter if it is a low carbohydrate diet, intermittent fasting or simply extreme exercising with little to no break. Each practice could have the means to cause physical, hormonal and mental harm to any participant, but especially those who are female.
Chan said she regards herself as a non-diet dietitian and in her line of work, she tries to take the focus off weight. She attempts to readjust her client's mindsets so they strive for the health of their bodies and metabolic functions, rather than a certain number on a scale.
“I think a lot of people don’t have other words for ‘I want to be healthy’ so they say, ‘I want to lose weight,'" Chan said. "I like to look at actual health markers as opposed to just weight and restriction as my sole focus and actually feed people the things that they need to eat."
Kathy Thames, an NAU assistant clinical professor and registered dietitian, said she has similar thoughts when it comes to intermittent fasting used as a weight-loss agenda.
“Weight loss, I never encourage. Healthy eating, I’m all about," Thames said. "So, if you focus on nutrient density and not that number on the scale you’re going to be so much better off in the long run.”
While Thames said she would not consider weight loss a healthy goal for intermittent fasting, she does understand there have been studies that suggest it may aid in a healthier metabolic profile for certain people. Thames said many research studies have shown that intermittent fasting may help those with Type 2 diabetes.
Chan also said that when it comes to intermittent fasting, there have been some benefits found for those with cardiac diseases or who are postmenopausal.
Despite rising health concerns, restrictive dieting is often easier for people to comprehend and undergo than other diets. Chan said humans often find it easier to stick by certainties, like rules, instead of exercising moderation and in the case of nutrition, balancing their meals and eating intuitively.
“I feel like it’s easier for the human brain to have a bunch of rules on things you can’t do because our brain wants to know what not to do as opposed to what actually to do,” Chan said.
Though it may be easier to integrate nonrestrictive diets into one’s daily life, there are mental blocks that go along with them. Intermittent fasting is fasting. An individual in the beginning stages of intermittent fasting may find that the initial hunger and yearn for food occupy all of their thoughts. Abelman said hunger is a primal instinct and when it is initiated, it is able to distract an individual’s mind from anything and everything.
"It's difficult. At the beginning it is very, very difficult," Abelman said. "Like you are hungry and it's tough because if you're hungry, then it gets very hard to focus on anything. You can't read or do homework, so you kind of have to worry about when you're gonna eat your meal and kind of work that around your homework.”
Chan said food has a very strong dopamine response for just about everyone. However, people who are in a fasted or dieting state are affected much more strongly by this dopamine response when eating.
"[Fasting] re-ingrains that pathway that food is a reward rather than food is life and we need it," Chan said.
It can potentially be very difficult to start a program or diet such as intermittent fasting and there are consequences that follow if one neglects to take care of their body while doing it. Chan said if someone is counting down the minutes of their fast until they can eat again, they are most likely in a very ravenous state of mind. Chan said this primal mindset makes her think that they are likely not making the most conscious decisions of what they are putting into their body.
Chan said most people are often not mindful or intuitive when it comes to how they fuel their bodies. A lot of people tend to eat late at night or constantly throughout the day when they might not necessarily be hungry. Generally, when people eat late at night or stress eat, they consume more processed, non-nutritious foods such as chips, ice cream and cookies.
"You probably don’t need to have those every single day and if you’re stressed then let’s figure out why you’re stressed and not cope with food,” Chan said.
Thames said that nature provided humans with a natural fasting mechanism called the circadian rhythm, which dictates that when the sun is up, humans should be eating and awake. Thames said when the sun sets and the moon emerges, the body's natural rhythm dictates that humans should be asleep and therefore not eating at that time. Circadian rhythms are generally very healthy because it is a way for the body to recuperate and for the metabolic system to rest.
Through the years, eating has become somewhat of a sociocultural engagement in the eyes of dietitians and nutrition professionals like Thames and Chan. Social eating and the practice of simply eating when one is bored have become more and more common among both the youth and adults. Modern society has molded the idea that food is a sort of comfort rather than, as Chan said previously, an aspect of living.
“We eat for so many other reasons that aren’t just calories in, calories out," Chan said. "We eat because it connects us to our community. We eat because it connects us to our culture."
The practice of intermittent fasting heavily relies on that window of time where one is able to eat. During that time period, both Thames and Chan explained it is imperative that whoever is fasting eats a nutritional, healthy and substantial amount of food to fuel their body properly.
“You just need to eat,” Chan said. “Your body’s doing things all the time that need to be replenished and rebuilt and if you don’t have the food to do that then you’re not going to function.”
Another important aspect of intermittent fasting is giving oneself adequate time to eat and put good, nutrient-filled foods into the body. Thames said if someone doing intermittent fasting is running around at work or school and doesn’t block out a chunk of time to eat in between their fasting periods, they will likely find themselves being very hungry during their next fasting window.
“You need to be intentional and you can’t let your schedule get in the way of taking care of yourself so it has to be nutrient-dense food choices,” Thames said.
On the flip side of the potential benefits of this type of diet, there are also some major health concerns. There are many nutrition professionals and dietitians that hold strongly to the idea that intermittent fasting can be a direct line to eating disorders.
Thames said if individuals place any type of rules upon their eating or eating rituals, they immediately put themselves at risk of disordered eating behaviors.
Chan said that any sort of restrictive diet including intermittent fasting, being vegan or even choosing to live gluten-free allow for perfect hiding places for eating disorders. She said that instead of people speaking up and saying that they think they have an eating disorder, they'll just say it isn't their eating window at the moment.
"[Intermittent fasting] gives [eating disorders] space where it’s totally fine and totally condoned,” Chan said.
While not all those who participate in intermittent fasting develop or have an eating disorder, this diet, along with others, can often be seen as a breeding ground for eating disorders. People who have an eating disorder can easily jump into a diet instead of doing what's harder, speaking up about their mental health.
Abelman said that it, along with any weight loss program, trains one's brain to think a specific way and perhaps makes the participant in the program feel guilty for binging during their eating window.
"I totally think that there's a line and it's all about learning your body and what that line is," Abelman said.
Thames also cautions that with intermittent fasting, it is necessary to spread one’s eating out over the eight- or 10-hour window of time to avoid binge eating.
“Most Americans, we tend to restrict and then overeat, and that’s not what intermittent fasting is,” Thames said.
She also said that if an individual is not at all used to eating in the way that intermittent fasting entails and they all of a sudden put rules on their eating, they are setting themselves up for failure.
Chan suggests that those who are even remotely interested in trying intermittent fasting should speak to a registered dietitian first. Dietitians know and understand what people need in their bodies to thrive. So, if someone is dead set on trying out intermittent fasting, a dietitian can help them with how to do it effectively and healthily.
In the end, everyone’s body is different and each person’s bodily systems are subject to react differently to certain practices. Thames advises that everyone simply eat more intuitively and evaluate what works best for them.
“I think any way you lose weight is going to be different for everybody, so if I tell someone to do it this way, it might not work for them," Abelman said. "So whatever you do, stick with it and research it before you do it."
Overall, education and research are key when it comes to choosing a health program that works for anyone. Recommendations and diet-culture suggestions can only go so far when it comes to personal health.
"It is important to be educated about the possibly life-altering decision you may be embarking on," Chan said.
If intermittent fasting or any other type of program seems like the right track, experts suggest researching it thoroughly before participating in it. It is important, however, to understand that it is not necessary for anyone to go on a diet or weight loss program. Health professionals like Chan and Thames, along with those like Abelman who have actually attempted intermittent fasting, suggest that everyone just listen to the natural bodily rhythms that have helped humans thrive for centuries and be conscious of one's nutrient consumption each day.