Many diets for weight loss involve painstakingly tracking every bite you take. Think keto, paleo, and Whole30. If monitoring macros, calories, and ingredients isn’t up your alley, there’s another, more simple, diet that promises the same weight-loss benefits: intermittent fasting, or IF. Not only is the IF diet a minimalist way to lose weight, but it also is one of the few diets that comes with additional health benefits beyond losing weight.
First: what is intermittent fasting? Rather than tracking what’s on your plate, IF requires you to focus on when you choose to sit down to meals.
There are different variations of IF ranging from fasting for two days of the week (5:2 fast) and then eating your normal caloric load to fasting for about 12 to 16 hours per day (usually including sleep time). Many people choose to adopt the 12- to 16-hour overnight fast, in which you would finish eating at about 8 p.m. and hold off breakfast until about 12 p.m.—an easier and more sustainable approach than skipping meals during the day. Although you’re fasting, IF allows you to drink virtually-calorie-free drinks such as water, tea, and black coffee (so make sure to skip the usual things you should never add to coffee, like sugar and artificial creamers!).
Think you can breeze through breakfast and actually stick to this trendy eating habit? “Research seems to be finding intermittent fasting benefits to weight, blood sugar, inflammation, and potentially to brain health,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition and Lifestyle.
Read on to discover all the evidence-backed benefits of intermittent fasting. And remember: as with any diet—especially one that involves fasting for extended periods of time—consult your doctor before starting IF as you can experience varying side effects. For example, there are 11 People Who Should Never Try Intermittent Fasting.
You’ll burn fat
An animal study published in the journal Cell Research found that following intermittent fasting for up to 16 weeks helps prevent obesity, and preliminary benefits were apparent after just six weeks! The researchers found that IF kickstarts the metabolism and helps burn more fat by generating body heat. “Intermittent fasting without a reduction in calorie intake can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders,” says study author Kyoung-Han Kim, according to Science Daily.
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You may improve gut health
Intermittent fasting may directly influence the gut microbiome: the complex and diverse microbial community that resides in the intestinal tract and plays a significant role in affecting our immunity, weight, stress, and general overall health. When the microbe community in your gut is out of balance, it can result in numerous negative effects, one of which is weight gain and obesity. IF can play a role in mending your gut microbiome by giving your gut a rest (it’s constantly working if you’re constantly eating!). Research shows that this can help the gut lining do a better job of preventing inflammatory toxins from leaking into your bloodstream.
You’ll live longer
Nothing says “healthy lifestyle choice” like longevity! A study in the journal Cell Metabolism shows that IF’s food-free period manipulates the energy-producing mitochondria of your cells and increases your lifespan. As you age, your body is in a natural decline that affects your cells. But the study showed that the lower levels of energy produced during fasting times caused the mitochondria to shift and maintain their functions longer than normal to promote healthy aging and a longer lifespan. (Related: 20 Foods You Should Be Eating Every Day for a Longer Life.)
You may protect your heart
Intermittent fasting can improve your heart health in multiple ways. Studies have found it can improve insulin sensitivity, decrease LDL cholesterol levels while increasing HDL cholesterol levels, reduce levels of oxidative stress in the cardiovascular system, and reduce inflammatory processes that likely contribute to atherosclerosis, among others, according to a Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry review.
It Keeps Your Brain Healthy
One of the most agreed upon benefits of the IF diet is the fact that it promotes healthy brain function and wards of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to research by Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, the act of forgoing food is a challenge to your brain that causes it to take preventative measures against diseases.
So how exactly does it work? The fasting period gives your body more time to deplete your body’s glycogen stores and causes you to burn fat instead of sugar (hello, weight loss!). This fat-burning process produces ketones, which boost your energy and banish brain fog. Mattson suggests packing the day’s meals into a short eight-hour period so that your body has time to efficiently deplete glycogen stores and enter ketosis.
It Reduces Inflammation
We experience sporadic inflammation on a daily basis, from stubbing a toe to coming in contact with allergy-triggering dust mites. But suffering from chronic, long-term inflammation can lead to weight gain and unwanted belly fat. That’s where intermittent fasting comes in. A study published in Obesity shows that fasting produces an anti-inflammatory effect on the neuroimmune system that a high-fat diet would otherwise prevent.
It Can Reverse Diabetes
Over 26 million people in America have diabetes, and one in five doesn’t even know it. An even more concerning statistic: one in three Americans has prediabetes, a condition in which blood sugar is high, but not high enough to be type 2 diabetes. Up to 70% of patients with prediabetes will develop diabetes, so the good news is developing diabetes is preventable with the right lifestyle changes, weight loss, and medications.
Diabetes can be managed via diet, exercise, and medication; and according to University of Southern California researchers, intermittent fasting may also be able to stop the disease in its tracks. The study notes that a fasting-like diet triggers the production of new pancreatic cells to replace dysfunctional ones, can control blood sugar, and can reverse insulin resistance and depletion. If you’re concerned you may have diabetes, don’t miss the 20 Warning Signs of Diabetes You Shouldn’t Ignore.