Counting calories, weighing food, and eliminating carbs have long been the primary tactics for shedding unwanted pounds. There’s no denying that consistently keeping track of food intake is incredibly tedious. Few can proclaim that they enjoy carefully portioning their afternoon snacks and daily meals. The process requires an immense amount of brain power and energy. When life doesn’t go as planned and an impromptu meal is thrown in the mix, restrictive dieters panic in the face of unsanctioned food choices.
It doesn’t have to be this way, according to proponents of intermittent fasting. IF is a method of eating that relies on a restricted eating window to reduce calorie intake throughout the day without the need for strict calorie counting. The idea is that a limited eating window translates to fewer calories consumed. In addition, a gut rest period is thought to be helpful and health promoting.
In practice, there are a few IF variations, the most common being a 16:8 window that entails an eight-hour eating window and a 16-hour fast. Another popular IF variant is the 5:2 window, which incorporates a fast on a weekly basis. There are five days of normal eating and two days when calories are cut back significantly.
According to numerous studies, there are significant health benefits connected with IF. Research published in 2018 from the University of Surrey found that those on a 5:2 weekly IF schedule had a reduced risk of heart disease and saw a reduction in blood pressure.
Another study from the University of Illinois at Chicago published in the journal Nutrition and Healthy Aging also saw a decrease in blood pressure of participants. In addition, the study’s obese participants — who observed a 16:8 eating window — lost weight on the diet.
IF is considered an easy-to-follow diet since it requires no calorie counting. IF has also been linked to a reduction in cognitive decline and inflammation associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s.
There are, however, several drawbacks associated with an IF diet. A 2018 University of Surrey study found that many participants had trouble sticking to their restrictive eating schedules. Many individuals find it challenging to stick to a pre-determined eating window, especially in the face of social or family events. It is possible, though, to adjust your IF schedule to fit your lifestyle.
The diet is an ineffective and potentially risky option for those with nutritional deficiencies or low body weight. Those with an eating disorder or history of one should also steer clear of IF. While IF is not as restrictive as calorie counting, it still involves a limited eating window and may encourage extreme and problematic eating habits to develop in susceptible persons.
Research shows that IF contributes to insulin resistance in some people and may increase individual risk for diabetes. In terms of weight loss, some studies show that IF isn’t better than other types of diets.
How IF Affects Women and Men Differently
Limited studies specifically look at a woman’s physiological response to IF, but there are a few clear concerns to be aware of.
There’s evidence that IF may negatively affect women’s hormone balance and metabolism. It may also be more difficult for women to stick to a fasting-type diet because women in a fasted state typically display pronounced hunger cues compared to men.
Women on IF may experience increased PMS symptoms and irregular periods. There’s also a risk of hypothalamic amenorrhea, which is the stoppage of a period that occurs due to the body not getting enough nutritive energy. In severe cases, it can lead to infertility. There’s also research that shows that women may experience increased stress levels when adhering to an IF lifestyle.
In males, there’s some evidence that cognitive benefits are more pronounced compared to females, though the studies have mostly been done on rats. One area where women may have the upper hand is with cholesterol changes. Studies have shown that women showed improvements in this area when on an IF diet.
The takeaway with IF is that it’s vital that eaters monitor their bodies’ responses to the diet. Research the long-term effects of an IF diet. IF isn’t for everyone. Diet is a deeply personal and individual choice, after all.
The best approach for those wanting to try IF? Start small, increase the fasting window slowly, and avoid other restrictive behaviors in conjunction with scheduled eating. Most importantly, though, listen to your body!
Written by: Steph Coelho