Intermittent Fasting 101: Can it help you lose weight?

As someone who used to be hungry ALL the time, the thought of fasting scared me!  When you’re used to eating every 3-4 hours because, if you don’t, you get ‘hangry’ or lethargic, the idea of not eating for long periods can be very overwhelming.

But, intermittent fasting is becoming a more popular method for controlling weight, along with helping to manage blood glucose levels, reduce blood lipid levels and even promote healthy longevity.

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What Is Intermittent Fasting Anyway?

We all practice some form of fasting right now, whether you realize it or not.  For most people, that fast happens overnight, the period between your last meal of the day and your first meal of the following day.

In fact, I ask many of my clients to work on developing a 12 hour overnight fasting habit because not eating for this length of time is a great way to give your liver some support.  When it gets a break from digestion activities, it can focus more on other important functions, like breaking down extra hormones, toxins and other chemicals.

Essentially, intermittent fasting (or IF) just means extending that overnight fast OR drastically reducing your caloric intake 1-2 days each week.

For example, you might do an IF of 16 hours, which means finishing your last meal at 6 PM and not having your first meal until 12 PM the next day.  OR, you may eat regularly for 5 days each week, but two days you’ll only eat 500-600 calories (instead of 1800-2200).

IF timing and strategies vary, and some work better for certain people than others.  IF takes practice if you’re dedicated to following this approach.

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Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

I’ve already touched upon a few health benefits, but studies have shown that many indicators of disease are reduced when IF is followed.

Inflammatory markers are reduced, oxidative stress on DNA and protein damage goes down, and the overall risk of cancer diminishes.

Your cells become better at regeneration and repair, growth hormone production increases, and metabolism and fat burning ramp up.  Many people also notice less hunger and fewer cravings for sugar or carbs, too.

But take note:  Many of these benefits only show up in people who exercise regularly.  Sedentary people may notice some improvements in health indicators but they often need to fast for more than 24 hours!  That’s a long time to go without food.

And, many studies have been done against animals while human studies involving IF and exercise nutrition often follow the health of men only.
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The Standard American Diet and IF

Okay, so it sounds like, if you skip breakfast a few days a week, you’re more likely to see a reduction in your waistline, right?

Well, this isn’t actually the case.  With IF, you’re not restricting calories in the traditional sense.  Instead, you’re eating the calories your body NEEDS in a shorter eating window (say, 8 hours instead of 12).  AND, many proponents of IF also follow a high-fat / low-carb diet, too, which ensures they’re getting nutrient-dense, high caloric foods that help them feel full longer.

Taken together, a high-fat / low-carb diet will reduce your health risks because you’re removing many of the pro-inflammatory foods, plus foods that have ‘empty calories’.  AND, reducing food intake to only a certain number of hours each day helps to reduce insulin levels, which helps control blood sugar, which helps control cravings.  Right?

So, eating the Standard American Diet of high-carb / low-fat meals creates blood sugar imbalances, inflammation, and ultimately fat gain.  Try to skip a meal or two here and there and you’ll be left craving carbs and sugar, which often just leads to binging on more unhealthy foods.  And, low calorie diets spike your cortisol (stress hormone) which promotes more fat storage and further blood sugar imbalances! 

Can IF Help Me Lose Weight?

You bet – there are tons of success stories out there about how people have shrunk their waistline and reduced body fat percentage by practicing IF.

The caveat here is that they follow a fairly strict IF schedule for 4-6 months before seeing results.  Plus, they focused on eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods while maintaining a healthy level of caloric intake.

According to one review study, IF helped people lose 3-8% of their weight over a 24-week period.  And, in this same study, people also lost 4-7% of their belly fat.

IF isn’t giving you a ticket to eat as much as you want during your eating window, either.  To be successful with weight loss, you still need to eat fewer calories than you’re burning off through normal metabolism and exercise.

And, people who consistently manage to eat to about 80% full (or, feel a little hungry after eating) have the best results.

But, it isn’t just about calories in versus calories out either.  Like I mentioned, the TYPE of foods you’re eating are the game-changer.  Healthy fats, antibiotic- and hormone-free animal products, low-carb fruits and veggies, and raw nuts and seeds will help to reduce the inflammatory response that’s a major factor in stubborn weight.

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Is IF For Me?

Intermittent fasting isn’t going to work for everyone, either.  People who are relatively healthy and who aren’t going through any life-changing experiences (i.e. pregnancy or trying to get pregnant) should be able to manage well with IF.

However, if you’re underweight or have eating disorders, or are taking medications, IF may not be right for you.  If you’re already dealing with blood sugar imbalances, IF may make them worse, resulting in high calorie binges or strong cravings for sweets, not to mention headaches and exhaustion.

And, people dealing with chronic stress or adrenal fatigue might have trouble sticking with a strict, long IF period, too.  This is because stress uses up so many more nutrients and resources than normal so your body needs to be fed at regular intervals to help combat the stress response.

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How to Make IF Work For You

If you’re ready to try IF, I have some tips to help make this transition a little easier!

First, make sure you’re healthy.  Talk to your doctor if you are taking prescription drugs and see if there are any side effects of long-term fasting.

Second, make sure you can consistently achieve a 12 hour overnight fast for at least one month before going any longer.  Ensure you’re eating enough calories during the day to support your health and lifestyle.  (If you’re waking up at 3 AM feeling hungry, you might not be eating the right foods and number of calories during the day.)

Third, start swapping out high-carb foods (especially packaged and processed high-sugar and/or refined grain products) with higher fat foods like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, natural nut butters, and avocados.  Get this habit down for a few weeks.

Fourth, garner a support system.  IF is tough if people don’t ‘get’ what you’re doing or why.  Make sure you have friends and family members that understand and support you to help make this transition easier.

Fifth, start with longer fasts first.  For example, lengthen your overnight fast to 14 hours for a couple of weeks.  Then make it a bit longer after that.  Shorten your eating window down to 8-10 hours each day.  Or, continue the 12-hour overnight fast but start reducing calories on up to 2 days each week, by starting slowly.  Reduce caloric intake by 200-300 per day until you can manage to eat only 500-600 calories on your fasting days.

Managing Side Effects

When we change how and what we eat, our bodies tend to put up a bit of a fight at first!

Intermittent fasting along with a high-fat / low-carb diet can bring on a few side effects to watch out for.  Symptoms like constipation, headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps or heartburn are common during the transition period.

To combat these symptoms, make sure to drink a lot of water.  With high-fat / low-carb diets and IF, you’ll need more water than you think.  Aim for around 4 liters per day to start, and ensure proper electrolyte balance by adding some Himalayan rock salt to your food and water.  Bone broth will also help maintain electrolyte balance.

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IF can be an effective way to blast away stubborn fat, balance blood sugar and reduce those annoying afternoon cravings.  But, it’s not for everyone.  Make sure your body is ready for intermittent fasting and transition into it slowly.

On the other hand, don’t feel pressured to follow this latest health trend.  Just like HIIT exercises or keto diets, IF isn’t for everyone.  If you don’t feel well practicing IF, stop.  Find a diet that works for your body – the most important things are that your energy levels are good, that you’re sleeping well, and that you feel your best.

Always listen to your body!




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Daina Gardiner
Daina Gardiner

Health & Wellness Contributor (C.H.N.), Owner at Mind Body Healthy Calgary