Earlier this week I saw a great article where 9 registered dietitians chimed in about what they think of the current most popular dieting fad – intermittent fasting. This is definitely the question I get asked more frequently than anything else these days. What do I think of intermittent fasting?!
First of all, like everything in nutrition, it isn’t black and white. Intermittent fasting isn’t good for all people or bad for all people. This middle ground is one where a lot of true answers lie. Our inability as humans to exist and embrace this grey area is one I’m truly fascinated by.
Second of all, intermittent fasting is very much a diet.
What is intermittent fasting?
The practice of not eating or drinking anything for various periods of time has been around in ancient and religious practices for thousands of years, so isn’t exactly a new fad. It is now being used as a dieting and health technique based on limited, but interesting research. There are several protocols, but generally, there is a window for eating and a window for fasting. I don’t need to go into the details. (foreshadowing – no I don’t recommend fasting)
What does the research show about fasting?
There is definitely seemingly compelling research about the benefits that fasting can have on digestion and metabolism, but human studies are short-term and have small population sizes. This is a huge study limitation. Studies like this are not enough to prove statistical significance or provide enough information to recommend these strategies wholeheartedly.
These studies are also not accounting for previous dieting behavior and disordered eating. We need more long-term human studies and good evidence. That said, I think it’s possible it can be beneficial for some people – the right people.
Alternate day fasting studies have laughably short study times (like two days) and do show some improvement in metabolic markers, but who cares? Two days?! Plus, they also show extreme hunger and low mood – no thank you.
Population studies do show that consuming the majority of one’s calories early in the day and having a longer rest-and-digest period overnight is associated with reduced risk of several chronic diseases and improved weight regulation. One major reason fasting may be beneficial is because of the influence our circadian rhythm can have on hormones and metabolism. And that makes sense – having a big meal or midnight snack right before bed and then only sleeping 6 hours will not give your body adequate time to rest, digest, and detoxify. I talk to a lot of overly busy people whose eating and sleep patterns sound similar to this.
One important thing to consider, is that diet quality still matters – a lot. The benefits one would get from intermittent fasting are much stronger if focusing on whole foods and limited processed foods.
Intermittent fasting is not healthy for many people
Even though fasting correctly may have benefits for some, it can create more problems for others. There are countless potential problems that could occur if intermittent fasting is wrong for the person doing it. We see that prolonged periods without food can cause nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, obsession with food, disordered eating, decreased immunity, slowed metabolism, and more.
Very interesting is the evidence that intermittent fasting is generally harmful for women, which is scarcely mentioned in the blogs or reviews on the subject. Stefanie Ruper, a women’s health researcher and advocate, did a great review of the literature and wrote about it here – highly recommend checking that out. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should not do intermittent fasting at all. And just generally long periods of time without eating is harder on women’s bodies than mens.
Fasting can make disordered eating worse
I’ve talked to clients who have tried intermittent fasting and it has wreaked havoc on their life. They try like hell not to eat (or to eat very little) all day, only to be famished and stressed and uncomfortable by the time dinner comes. So every night, they eat a portion much larger than they would normally eat – and in an out-of-control fashion, becoming more out of tune with their fullness meter, and without taking time to enjoy the meal.
Fasting is definitely not working for this person and is doing them harm. If this is you, you should be eating more throughout the day (ie breakfast and lunch) to reduce the risk of eating until uncomfortably full at night, and the out-of-control feelings and behavior that come from being extremely hungry all day long.
Who should not do intermittent fasting
Importantly, fasting is not okay for those who are recovering from an eating disorder or who have a history of disordered eating. Finding a peaceful relationship to food requires getting rid of all the rules.
If you are prone to obsessing about your food choices and scrutinizing nutrition labels out of fear you’ll ingest something that’s “bad” or “not natural”, partaking in a very restrictive and rule-based eating pattern could trigger another set of rules and worries for you. If this is you, what’s best is less rules, not more. You need to learn how to listen and trust your body first. It takes time, but it can be done.
Intermittent fasting works for a very small percentage of people
So all in all, I think a light and flexible version of intermittent fasting could fit into some people’s lifestyles, but frankly, it seems way more trouble than it’s worth. And with any eating protocol – use it with flexibility.
A 12-14 hour window between dinner and breakfast could be a pattern of eating that you follow with flexibility. Meaning – if it works for you and your schedule and your life and your family’s life – to eat dinner at 6pm and then not have any breakfast until 8am, then great. But if you have to wake up at 5am and get the kids out the door and are ravenously hungry – then you need to eat something.
And if your schedule doesn’t allow you to eat dinner until 8pm and you have 8am meetings that last 2 hours, this doesn’t really suit you either, at least not on those days. And if you find that you’re overeating at meals because you know you’re about to go a long time without food – stop. If you’re overeating when you’re not fasting, then you should not be doing it.
Research shows that by ignoring hunger signals and not allowing yourself to eat when you’re hungry, you could be eroding your trust in your body. So be honest with yourself about what your goals and values are. If following a strict time schedule sounds like a drag that would interfere with your quality of life, your friendships, or you peace of mind, then I encourage you to forget it. If you want to make positive changes to your eating habits, start by tuning into your hunger and fullness levels and see how that feels.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.