What is Intermittent Fasting, and Does It Really Work?

Because I am knee deep in an article assignment that I really should be working on as opposed to putting together a blog post, read instead a quick little piece I put together for an earlier edition of my Graduate School’s student-run monthly newspaper The Friedman Sprout this semester.

Cheers to two weeks until race day.


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The newest diet to gain popular attention isn’t much of a diet at all. It is something that most people who adhere to a traditional sleeping and waking cycle are already primed to do—and, proponents would argue, is something humans have been doing successfully for centuries. Intermittent Fasting (IF) has garnered support in the fitness community as a weight management tool for bodybuilders and other fitness enthusiasts. Recently, a growing portion of the scientific community has begun to also regard IF as a feasible way to improve metabolic health and perhaps even extend one’s lifespan.

Instead of eating many times throughout the day, between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm for example, Intermittent Fasters will couple periods of extended fasting (from 14 to 24 hours) with shorter periods of eating. This can be achieved by a change as simple as lengthening the overnight fast by a few hours each day. Different variations of IF propose reducing intake to 500-600 calories for just two days of the week; others recommend one full, 24-hour weekly fast. There are no particular restrictions on the type of foods allowed to be consumed, as long as meals are kept within the “eating window” and consumption does not surpass the feeling of comfortable fullness.

Experimental studies in rats have suggested that providing the body with an extended fast (up to 24 hours) is physiologically beneficial, potentially improving insulin sensitivity, decreasing resting heart rate and blood pressure and reducing body wide inflammation—all of which could contribute to a longer expected lifespan. Further, adapting to a shorter eating window may help to moderate overall calorie intake. Randomized controlled trials demonstrating benefits in humans have yet to be published. Because humans share an evolutionary adaptation to generations of unpredictable periods of fasting and feasting, however, scientists are eager to tease out this connection in future studies.

Still, many nutrition professionals are hesitant to advocate IF as superior to other diets or as a safe and effective approach to weight loss. At the end of the day, reducing calories consumed and increasing energy expended through physical activity is what matters for losing weight, and there are many ways to achieve this goal that do not require adopting a rigid eating schedule. It is important to consider your lifestyle, motivation, and sacrifices you are willing (or not willing) to make in order to reap the potential benefits of intermittent fasting. Like any diet, adherence is key to success. Here are six common mistakes to avoid if you think intermittent fasting sounds like something you want to try.

Six Mistakes Most People Make When They Begin Intermittent Fasting

  1. Giving up too soon

It is normal to feel more irritable or sluggish as the body adapts to a longer fasting period and adjusts its hormonal signaling (most scientists believe this adaptation underlies many of the health benefits of IF). Intermittent Fasters will likely find that true hunger feels different than the hunger pangs and uptick in heartbeat associated with fluctuating blood sugar, which we experience when we are used to frequent eating—learn to recognize it.

  1. Forgetting about quality
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The USDA’s “Basic 7” food groups from 1943-1956

Even though IF does not restrict the type of foods allowed to be consumed during the eating period, it’s essential to maintain proper nutrition. Metabolic improvements like insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation could very well be negated if fasters neglect nutritional balance and decide to eat foods high in salt, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates exclusively, avoiding fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. You may still lose weight if you’re consuming fewer calories overall, but the efficiency of your body systems will suffer—and you probably won’t feel too well, either.

 

 

 

  1. Forgetting to hydrate

Hydration is key, especially during periods of fasting. Adequate hydration is necessary for pretty much every function in the body and will keep you feeling energized and alert. During fasting periods water, tea, coffee and no- or low-calorie beverages are allowed (just watch out for added cream and sugar). Keep tabs on the color of your urine as a gauge for hydration status: if it is darker than the light-yellow of hay you need to drink more fluid.

  1. Exercising too much

Some athletes swear by intermittent fasting as a means to improve performance, burn more fat, and even increase endurance. However, none of these benefits have consistently been backed up with controlled human studies. In fact, many observational studies of Muslim athletes during Ramadan show evidence of decreased performance (some athletes practicing IF might not maintain a fasting pattern requiring them to train during a fasted state, so these experimental differences could be important in interpreting results). Moderate and consistent exercise is encouraged for general health, but excessive exercise on top of prolonged fasting may send the body in to a state of chronic stress which can lead to inflammation, lean tissue breakdown, insulin resistance and injury.

  1. Not working with your schedule

There are different variations of IF and the only thing that makes one program more effective than the next is whether or not you can stick to it. For example, don’t decide to fast for 24 hours if you know missing your nightly family dinner will cause mental and social strain. There are many methods for reducing calorie intake for weight loss, and intermittent fasting may not be right for you if it leads to feelings of isolation and reduced quality of life.

  1. Believing that if some is good, more is better

Just because a little bit of fasting may be healthy does not mean that a lot of fasting is healthy. Going too long without food can lead the body into a state known as “starvation mode,” which greatly slows the metabolic rate, begins breaking down muscle for energy, and stores a greater majority of consumed calories as fat. Further, fasting for too long can lead to severe feelings of deprivation and preoccupation with food, culminating in uncontrollable or disordered eating behavior including binging and even anorexia. If you sense your relationship with food is becoming abnormal because of IF, make necessary adjustments and seek help if needed. 

Because IF can represent a major shift in metabolism and routine, most nutrition professionals are hesitant to recommend it as an intervention for just anyone. It is important to work with a licensed professional who understands your needs and who can help you maintain optimal nutrition, physical activity, and mental health during periods of prolonged fasting. Preliminary studies show that IF, when done right, may be a great tool for improving health, but it is not the only option to boost endurance and lose weight.

Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going

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Well hello there. Yes, I’m still alive. Yes, I know I’ve neglected this and I could throw a slew of excuses out there as to why (school, work and personal life all decided to ramp up their demands from me at the same time and naturally something had to give – and that was recounting my weekly training). Since my last post, I started my second semester of grad school, this year taking classes part-time to allow myself more breathing room for other life ventures as well as to be able to really dig deep into the classes I am taking if I want to. Last year as a full-time student and half-time employee, I found it really challenging to be able to balance the responsibilities of both. So far, I’m really enjoying the balance of part-time school along with my now two part-time jobs (I found a really awesome gig at a local Cycling + Bootcamp studio that not only pays decently but also allows me to take comped classes during times that I’d otherwise just be sitting around (or managing this blog….) –> WIN. It’s been a busy month of getting used to my new schedule, but the one thing that’s stayed consistent has been my training plan.

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Well, until now.

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For the majority of the month, my training plan was stable: two easy runs each week, one work-out run for speed work or hills, and two strength training days with yoga mixed in and a long run on the weekend. The easy runs were breezy – usually done in the ever increasingly dark mornings (bought a blinky light to save my life) while listening to podcasts or a chill playlist to keep my heart rate down. The work out runs were energizing. I’d end them feeling stronger and really excited to notice how much more in-shape I felt since beginning this whole adventure. The strength training was harder to get in to, but as the weeks went on I noticed it hurt a little less each time. I was a little more stable with each one-legged squat. I could do 50 seconds of mountain climbers without wanting to cry. I felt like I was making progress and my body was working with me. My long runs were great, too. Each week increased intensity a little more. After the step-back week of the wedding in Wisconsin, I ramped up to 2 hours and 45 minutes, then 3 hours. I made it up to 18.5 miles and felt amazing. Some of my best runs. I practiced fueling and found my go-to pre-run breakfast I have no intention of swaying from. I trained my body to handle more real-food carbohydrates on the runs without protest. Long story short, I felt like I was heading in a great direction. Until I wasn’t.

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My last long run was two weeks ago. 2 hours and 45 minutes, and by the end of it I knew something was wrong. It was my first run that was derailed by real GI issues and forced me to stop to use a bathroom (surprisingly, since this happened to me multiple times while training for my half on much shorter runs). After stopping, my body did not want to start again. Thankfully, I had basically completed the entire run at this point and just walked for the remaining 20 minutes back home to cool down. I tried to speed up to a light jog, but it was a no-go. I chocked it up to one too many beers the night before (and perhaps one too many nachos while watching the badger game) and spent the rest of the day eating simple foods. I couldn’t help but notice the nagging pain in my foot that stuck around longer than normal, despite elevating my feet against the wall of my bed as usual. I wore rain boots downtown to work that evening and felt sharp pains with some steps. I figured my feet just needed rest, but the next morning on my short, 30-minute shakeout run I couldn’t even finish 25 minutes of running. My heart rate was sky high for the pace I was going (felt like crawling) and I knew something was off. It was my shoes, I was sure. I know I had put in hundreds of miles on them over the summer and that I was due for a new pair. I only wish I had realized that BEFORE the problem set in. Runners: Don’t ignore footwear. Lesson LEARNED. I made an emergency trip to Marathon Sports that Monday and picked up a brand new pair of the same Mizuno Wave Inspires since they had carried me through most of my training successfully.

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Rest day??

The ankle problem persisted that week despite taking it easier and modifying some of the workouts I had planned. Of course as timing would have it I was going to be running the BAA Half Marathon on the following Sunday, and really didn’t even consider not running it until the day before, when I was on my feet all morning and could tell that the issue had definitely not fully resolved. Basically, on the inside of my left ankle, I have a tightness in what I now believe is the tendon that runs from my ankle down to the bottom of my foot. I’ve tried to ice it and wear a compression brace for as much as I can and that has seemed to help. The problem is that I really can’t let it fully rest. Being in Boston, and used to walking pretty much everywhere while also working on my feet twice a week at the spin studio, I’ve still managed to stay relatively active. Great, except when it’s not. I worked out a plan for the half with my coach the day before the race, and since I had already picked up my bib and gotten excited about it with some friends who were also running, it was near impossible for me to think about skipping it. More lessons learned — let the ego GO when it comes to healing and taking care of your body. I made the decision that I would go to the race mostly to practice pre-race strategy, but pull back and DNF the minute I started to feel pain.

(Eats + Treats from the past month…)

The day of the race was miserable and rainy and cold, perfectly, and though I was able to run a (SLOW) 4.5 miles before deciding that enough was enough, shutting down my watch and settling in to the idea that this weekend was a bust, I couldn’t get back to the starting line without continuing my march forward with the rest of the runners. I stopped at one medical tent to see if there would be sweepers picking up injured runners (hello), but the only sweeper would be at the end of the race – meaning I’d have to wait a full two hours just to be shuttled back to the starting line where most of my friends would probably already have left. I decided to keep walking, but after 3 miles of walking and trying to find a short cut in the pouring rain, I felt so impatient and worn down and I just wanted to be done. I upped it to a jog despite knowing that I was probably making a mistake, and ran another mile or so until I found the branching point where the runners go out and back for a loop – I jumped in on the pack of runners that were coming back and probably bypassed about 3 miles of the course. I tried to sneak back to the finish line without finishing the race – did not feel like I deserved to run through that finish line – but found that the only way to get to where the finishers were was to run through that line. After I finished, I shoveled a hamburger into my mouth and regretted what I had just done. I had to keep repeating to myself along the course that it was OK – this wasn’t my race – New York would be my race, where I would put it all out there and really go for it. It was OK to hold back here, but it was hard to be in that place amongst all of the other runners who had worked so hard to get to this day and this course. The post-race was the worst part. There was nowhere to go to escape the rain and cold, and I ever-so-smartly forgot to pack a change of clothes or even a sweatshirt, so I shivered my way all back home and FINALLY took a hot hot shower once I was back. I prayed that I didn’t do as much damage to my ankle as I expected I did and checked back in with Heather to adjust my plan.

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What it’s looked like this week: Not a lot of running. Yesterday was the first time I laced up for a jog since Sunday, actually. Other than that, I took the two days following the race completely “off,” though both days I somehow managed to rack up 15,000+ steps despite only going to work and class. Wednesday I was able to go to a yoga class focused on stability and stretching big workhorse muscles like the quads and core, and also did some basic core and hip strengthening moves at home. I iced my ankle every night and propped it up whenever possible. I willed it to heal, but it’s been a slow process.

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I was supposed to have my last big push of a run today, Friday, before the national nutrition conference FNCE this weekend. One more 3 hour run to set the stage for my two taper weeks coming up before November 6th. But yesterday on my quick 30 minute run it was obvious things were still not 100% – though they have improved a lot since last week. After a bit of warming up, I could run without thinking about the pain in my ankle but this was just 30 minutes – I had no idea what would lay ahead of me during a 3 hour training run and the last thing I want to do is mess things up even more with less and less time to recover. Moving ahead this week, it’s looking pretty conservative. Trying to agitate it as little as possible and that means little to no real road miles. As scary as that seems, heading in to the last weeks of my training without reaching for high miles, I have to trust this process. I trust that my coach has given me the tools to train myself to be prepared for the race, and I have to take care of my body for all of that training to pay off. The last thing I need is to ignore all the lessons I’ve learned over the years and continue to train on a stressed body in need of rest.

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A true lesson in patience and letting go of the stubborn will to push myself farther. It’s about keeping the bigger picture in focus. I’ll be OK as long as I let myself heal. That’s the important thing right now. The mantra I’ve repeated to myself this whole training season is still relevant: Get Through The Mud. But I need a solid footing to do that, so hopefully by next weekend I have it back.

Current Fave = My Pride & JOY of a Running Playlist – Getting a lot of play time despite the lack of mileage

Have you run through an injury before? How did you handle it? Mistakes you learned from or success stories you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!