February 10, 2022 10 min read
Intermittent fasting has proven in recent years to be a popular and effective method of not only losing weight but also improving overall health and wellness.
This is partly due to its simplicity—instead of counting calories and weighing macros, all you technically need to do is pay attention to the time. Right?
Although the idea behind intermittent fasting is easy to understand (which is why it’s such an attractive option for many people), there is a difference between poor fasting practices and good fasting practices.
If you don’t consider some important precepts, you’ll likely not see the benefits that you otherwise would. Down below we’ve highlighted ten rules that will put you on the right path and maximize the benefits offered by fasting. But first, let’s take a closer look at how exactly intermittent fasting works.
Not eating for extended periods of time is primarily used as a form of weight control. Choosing a range of hours (called the eating window) to have your meals within, limits the food you can eat throughout the day.
It effectively works as a calorie restriction without having to count daily calories or aim for a set number of fewer calories.
However, the ease and simplicity of intermittent fasting for weight loss is only one of the benefits. Fasting will also help to regulate your insulin sensitivity and can help protect you against diseases.
Giving your body a break from digestion has several different effects. For one, fasting helps to prevent leptin resistance and insulin resistance, which in turn help with weight management.
Intermitting fasting also goes along well with low carb and ketogenic diets.
This is because once your body burns through its stores of glucose (carbs), it begins to use fat as fuel. Pairing low-carb meals with fasting is a recipe for fat burning. Fasting may also help to “clear” out your body from waste and damaged cells that get in the way of proper functioning.
This process of clearing out is called autophagy, and fasting has been shown to promote it in rodent populations. Although more studies need to be done on humans, there is strong evidence that the same effect applies to people.
Lastly, fasting protects your sensitivity to insulin and your cardiovascular health.
Both of these benefits help in the aging process and can keep you healthier for longer. While conclusive studies still need to be done, there’s a lot that can be assumed based on what we know about eating and the way our bodies process energy. For that, let’s take a closer look at the science behind intermittent fasting.
To understand how fasting works, we must first understand how eating works on a chemical and biological level.
Whenever you eat something, especially carbohydrates, the level of blood glucose will rise.
The hormone insulin then tells our body to get its fill of the glucose as our bodies break down the food. Finally, there are other hormones that are released (such as leptin and CCK) that tell our body when it’s full.
This is a basic understanding of the process, but it does give us enough information to expand on. So, what happens when we overload this process?
This can either happen by eating too much sugar and carbs or ignoring the hormones that tell us when we’re full. Not only does the pancreas have to work overtime to produce more insulin, but all of the extra energy (glucose) gets stored as fat.
While abusing this process every now and then isn’t going to do us in, over the long term it will increase our chances of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Intermittent fasting effectively gives our bodies a break. During this break, our insulin levels drop and glucose levels stay the same, giving our body the chance to “reset,” in a sense.
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The big question now is how long this fasting period must be before you start seeing results. When it comes to intermittent fasting schedules, there are a lot of options.
The simplest, and the one recommended to people just getting accustomed to intermittent fasting is the 12:12 intermittent fasting plan.
As the name suggests, there’s a 12-hour eating period. And, if you’re getting a good amount of sleep around 8 hours, this means there are only 4 waking hours where you’ll have to restrict yourself.
This doesn’t take a lot. For example, eating your last meal of the day at 7 pm means that you can comfortably eat breakfast at 7 in the morning. Others find it easier to skip breakfast to continue the 12-hour window of fasting. This is only the most basic fasting method. Once you’ve dipped your toes in, there are more extreme eating patterns.
Things like 16:8 (a 16-hour fast), 18:6, and 20:4 are also extremely popular.
But keep in mind that these delineations are completely arbitrary—the point is to maximize the time during the day when you’re not putting any food into your body. If you want to fast for 15 and a half hours, that’s completely fine.
The point is to enter a fasted state through healthy eating and a well thought-out meal plan. But there are other schedules that fall outside of this scope.
The one-meal-a-day (OMAD) fasting schedule only has you eating a single meal throughout the day.
There’s also alternate day fasting, where you choose two days of the week where you severely restrict your calorie intake. However, these are definitely not recommended for those just starting out with fasting.
Now that we know a bit more about fasting, it’s easier to see how we might be able to optimize an intermittent fasting approach to food and to our bodies. We’ve organized some guiding principles into ten rules that will put you on the right track to getting the most out of fasting. While many of these will be universal, it’s also important to consider your own needs and goals. If you’re looking to bulk, for example, intermittent fasting will work in keeping your body fat down but might not complement your overall goals.
One of the big attractive aspects of intermittent fasting is that the idea is easy to grasp and simple to implement. The only numbers that are involved are the ones on the clock—no calorie counting and macro balancing needed. Since you’re already limiting when you can eat, there’s a natural trend to eat fewer calories throughout the day. Well, as you can probably imagine, it’s not as simple as that.
Things are definitely not so simple if you’re trying to implement fasting with the goal of fat loss since eating junk food is going to get in the way of your goals no matter how long you try fasting.
Low-carb and keto-friendly foods work especially well with intermittent fasting because both methods put your body into ketosis, where fat is used as the primary energy source.
Especially when you’re breaking your fast, it’s important to choose keto-friendly foods so that you avoid the sugar crash. You also want to load up on nutrient-rich foods. Since you’ll be eating less, you’ll need calories that give you everything your body needs.
The golden rule in fasting is that it is a fast—this means no calories, no nutrients, no food.
Even breaking the fast slightly with some food can throw severely limit the benefits you’d otherwise experience. It’s important to stay consistent with a feeding and fasting window and stick to that window as best as you can.
The exception is tea and black coffee. Even though they contain calories, the amount is extremely small. Furthermore, coffee can actually help your fast since it makes you feel satiated and provides you with more energy. Milk, however, is not allowed.
Using milk and sugar in your coffee, as innocent as it sounds, will immediately break your fast.
They raise your insulin levels and blood sugar, meaning that a lot of the progress will be negated. Needless to say, juice fasting is also not necessarily considered a fast—at least according to purists.
Although many people do get good results from it as well. You may have also heard of bulletproof coffee, which is a coffee recipe that includes some sort of fat. This is usually MCT fat, coconut oil, or even butter. Particularly popular in keto diet circles, this type of coffee will also break your fast.
However, there’s still a case to be made for it. Including small amounts of fat in your coffee will avoid spiking your blood sugar levels, since there are no carbs or a significant amount of protein.
What’s more is that these fats can help you feel fuller for longer and more energized, which can even benefit your fast. This will largely come down to your own goals and your own experimentation. Although purists might deride a fast that’s not truly a fast (for good reasons), there’s still a decent chance it will work for you.
Some supplements might also sound like fair game during your fast, but you should do your research before assuming that they play by the rules.
For example, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are popular supplements that improve physical performance, muscle growth, and recovery. They're also free from any significant amount of calories, so at first glance they appears to be fast-friendly. However, they are also a protein.
This means that they do technically break your fast and shouldn’t be taken if you’re going for a stringent intermittent fast.
At the same time, these supplements are extremely helpful and beneficial for your body when you’re working out. In many circumstances, it’s actually better to take these supplements if you’re planning on training while fasting.
Not only will BCAAs protect you against muscle fatigue, but they can also help to preserve more muscle mass during fasted workouts. This is another factor that you’re going to have to way against your own goals and expectations.
Low-carb and ketogenic diets go hand in hand with intermittent fasting, especially if you’re aiming to lose some body fat.
Both of these systems have the same idea of draining your stores of carbohydrates, lowering insulin levels, and putting your body into ketosis.
These stores of carbs (or glycogen) are able to hold around 1700 to 2200 calories, and so if you start your fast with energy storage full of glycogen, your body is going to struggle to lose any amount of fat. That’s why maintaining a low-carb diet works so well with fasting. Since these glycogen stores are empty or close to empty even at the beginning of your fast, you can expect to lose weight a lot more efficiently.
Much like low-carb diets, exercise also goes hand in hand with intermittent fasting.
Performing fasted workouts is extremely challenging—especially if you’re working out towards the tail end of a fast, but it’s also an amazing way to burn fat. This is because your body dips into your fat stores for energy to power you through your workouts, rather than using any food you might’ve recently eaten. Combined with a low-carb diet and you have an amazing method of losing weight.
It’s important to take your goals into account.
This isn’t a good idea if you’re looking to build or maintain significant muscle mass because you’re going to be breaking down muscle to fuel your workouts. You’ll need to get the energy from somewhere, after all. Supplementing might be able to offset these muscle losses, but then it comes down to striking a balance between fasting and other goals.
When your glycogen stores become depleted during a fast, the body tends to lose a lot of water along with this depletion. This often results in people thinking that they’re hungry when they might just be thirsty.
There’s no consensus on daily water intake that’ll work for every single person, so the best thing to do is simply drink when you think you might be thirsty. Your body is going to need it, especially as you’re getting a feel for fasting. Drinking water will also help keep you satiated for longer.
Along with water, you’ll want to ensure you’re getting enough minerals such as potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium—otherwise called electrolytes.
With simpler fasting schedules such as 16:8, the food you eat during your feeding period will likely be enough to carry you through the fast. At longer fasts, it can become essential to supplement with electrolytes to keep you feeling well.
Especially when you’re first starting out with fasting, your body will flush out a ton of water along with electrolytes. If you’re getting headaches or dizziness, salt can be a good way to counteract them.
Just like your fast should be as strict as possible, the routine should be kept strictly as well.
This isn’t to say that you’re not going to lose track sometimes—everyone gets cravings and sometimes it’s better to give in for the mental and physical respite. A few mistakes aren’t going to derail anything.
What you don’t want to do is allow these small hiccups to derail you for more than a couple of days. It takes the body a while to adjust to intermittent fasting, and taking a significant break is going to make it much harder to get back into the swing of things.
Lastly, don’t jump into the deep end immediately and don’t expect quick results.
Intermittent fasting can be difficult at the beginning. Chances are that you’ll be irritable, groggy, and tired for at least a couple of days, but your body will get used to things so don’t give up. This is also why it’s important to set realistic targets for yourself.
No one is going to succeed by going directly for a 24-hour fast, and any potential health benefits won’t be worth it. Slowly work your way up to more difficult schedules if you think it’s necessary. But don’t bite off more than you can chew, because sustaining new eating habits isn’t about the short-term, but rather the long-term.
By following these rules and slowly dipping your toes into intermittent fasting, this dieting method can really revolutionize the way you see food and your relationship with your body. What’s more, fasting can work for almost anyone, regardless of their goals. Whether you’re trying to lose fat or simply maintain a healthy lifestyle, fasting offers plenty of options that can work around your goals and schedule. The key is to dip your toes into a beginner-friendly fasting schedule and then see where things go from there.
And although consistency is key, it’s also important to give yourself some leeway. No one is perfect and no one can pull off an intermittent fasting lifestyle that 100% sticks to all of its tenets. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not give it your all.
Instead, it’s important to accept that things will not always go to plan, even if you’ve done everything right. Focus on the end goal, even if it might be years into the future, and take the slip-ups in stride without derailing completely.