Intermittent fasting or ‘IF’ has emerged as a popular method to get lean and lose weight. It has also been reported to boost energy levels, improve cognitive function, and increase motivation and stamina. Some even claim that it can protect against cancer. All these have roused the interest of health buffs and fitness enthusiasts the world over.
Although intermittent fasting does appear to offer some encouraging health benefits, its efficacy seems to be gender dependent. But in general, the effectiveness of IF boils down to human biology. While brief periods of fasting are regarded as safe for most people, the extended fasting times that come with IF can prove detrimental when it comes to a woman’s hormones. They can cause reproductive problems, trigger early menopause and may aggravate pre-existing medical conditions.
In this article, we will discuss the best methods for women so you can reap the positive aspects of IF without jeopardizing your health. Before we delve into the details, let’s take a closer look at what intermittent fasting is all about, how it really works, and the pros and cons of this diet trend.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a means of managing the timing of food intake to set periods spent in which the body is in a fasting state which prods it to use a different fuel source – fat. Aside from this, blood glucose levels drop, growth hormone is produced, hunger regulating hormones (i.e. ghrelin and leptin) are normalized, the digestive system gets a rest, and detoxification becomes a focus.
The fasting state means taking a break in between meals. Such break is similar to evenings spent not eating but slightly longer, for instance 7 pm to 11 am instead of 7 pm to 7 am only. This implies that you are going 16 hours with no food in your system. It may seem incredibly difficult to accomplish, especially if you love to eat at night, but consider this: if you normally have dinner at around 7 pm and don’t eat anything till 10 am the following day, you are actually fasting because you’re going 15 hours without food. In essence, simply avoiding late night snack may be all you need to make IF a part of your daily routine.
Note that the type of fasting depends on your body, individual preferences, and what you are trying to achieve. A lot of people just skip breakfast, prolonging the period between dinner and their next meal. Others go for the more extreme challenge involving a multiday experience.
How Intermittent Fasting Works
In order for you to clearly understand the concept and principle behind intermittent fasting, you first need to know the difference between the fed state and the fasted state. When you eat regularly every few hours, you are in a ‘fed’ state, at which time your body is actively digesting, absorbing, and assimilating the nutrients from the food you eat. Note that accelerated fat burning is not the top priority here. Majority of us are in the fed state during the day, aside from the time when we are sleeping. The reason why IF can deliver certain health benefits is that it allows the body to go into the fasted state, which is the time when fat burning can accelerate.
As aforementioned, intermittent fasting means going without food for a period of 12 to 16 hours. This timeframe is referred to as your fasting window, during which you only ingest liquids like water, black coffee, herbal tea or broth. Some experts suggest taking supplements and drinking low-calorie green vegetable juices while fasting to maintain consistent mineral and vitamin intake. Others recommend that only water should be consumed. Just like other topics in the health and fitness realm, the rules surrounding intermittent fasting are quite subjective and will depend on who you ask.
If your fasting period is less than 24 hours, you will have an eating window. This would be the time assigned before you start your fast. For those doing intermittent fasting, the eating window is anywhere between 6 and 12 hours. By far, the most commonly observed fasting times are 12, 14, 16 and 18 hours. For instance, if you will practice a 12-hour fast, your eating window will be 12 hours. You may begin your eating window at 7 in the morning and end at 7 in the evening. You’ll break the fast the following day at 7 am.
While some IF fasting methods appear to be more intense than others (some lasting for more than 48 hours), the real beauty of intermittent fasting lies in the fact that women get to select and experiment with how long they fast. This does not only allow them to dictate how IF can fit in their lifestyle, but they also get to determine the fasting sweet spot that will help them feel best physically.
The Pros and Cons of Intermittent Fasting
A number of medical studies have proven that IF offers the following health benefits:
- Increases energy
- Increases lean muscle mass
- Increases cell stress response which can boost resistance against certain diseases
- Provides sustainable weight loss
- Reduces oxidative stress and inflammation
- Makes the body less insulin resistant and lowers diabetes risk
- Improves cognitive function, concentration and memory
- Strengthens the immune system and improves cardiac health
- Boosts the production of neurotropic growth factor which is a protein that stimulates neuron growth, helping to make you more resistant to neurological stress and thus making you less prone to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Now, there’s a flipside to this that must be given serious consideration. Although intermittent fasting does offer certain health benefits, women’s bodies are known to be sensitive to signs of food deprivation, so IF is an entirely different animal. When a woman’s body senses that it’s headed towards starvation, it will automatically speed up the production of leptin and ghrelin – the hunger hormones that tells the body that it is hungry and needs to eat. Moreover, if there’s no ample food, the body will shut down the system that enables women to conceive another human being. This is the body’s innate way of safeguarding a possible pregnancy, even if a woman is not pregnant or attempting to conceive. It is not that you are deliberately imposing starvation upon yourself, but your body does not recognize that and it’s not aware of the difference between intermittent fasting and starvation. This is the reason why it activates a defensive mechanism. Hence, some of the cons owing to hormonal imbalances triggered by IF may lead to the following:
- Fertility issues
- Amenorrhea or irregular menstrual periods
- Shrinking of the ovaries
- Metabolic stress
- Difficulty sleeping
- Anxiety and depression
Since the hormones of women are so interconnected, when one is negatively impacted the others are also thrown off balance. It is like a domino effect. As the body’s ‘messengers’ that regulate almost every function – from digestion to energy production and metabolism – you certainly don’t want to disrupt their normal rhythm. Having said all these drawbacks, you may be deterred from practicing intermittent fasting. But you can still do it if you take a more relaxed approach. When done within a shorter timeframe, IF can still help you lose weight and deliver health benefits without causing hormonal imbalance.
Options for Intermittent Fasting
The 5:2 Diet – Also referred to as the “Fast Diet,” it involves restricting calorie intake to 500 calories per day for two days a week while eating normally during the other five days. For instance, you may eat regular meals from Monday to Friday and eat 500 calories per day on Saturday and Sunday. This technique was popularized by Michael Mosley, a British physician and journalist, but there hasn’t been much research to support it. However, since food intake isn’t restricted during the fasting days, it can be an effective means to get used to fasting without shocking your system.
The 16/8 Method – Also known as the ‘lean gains method’, this is the most common type of intermittent fasting. It is a brief IF routine that is specifically used to target lean muscle mass and body fat. In essence, it means eating during a window of 8 hours per day – such as from 10 am to 6 pm – and refraining from eating during the remaining 16 hours. Experts claim that this is an easy diet technique that has helped a lot of women lose weight. Those who have tried 16/8 say they had been more productive during fasting hours because they spent less time stressing over food and more time directing their energy into important tasks throughout the day. Moreover, they didn’t have to restrict themselves to 500 calories, as demanded by other diet regimens, so long as they eat healthily during their 8 hour timeframe.
Alternate-day Fasting (ADF) – As the name suggests, you will fast every other day, but eat anything you want during the non-fasting days. This means you only restrict what you eat half of the time. It is a very effective weight control tool, especially among middle-aged women, and can help in lowering your risk of developing heart disease and type II diabetes. In addition, combining alternate-day fasting with endurance exercise can lead to twice as much weight loss compared to ADF alone and about six times as much weight loss than endurance exercise alone. With regards to diet composition, alternate-day fasting appears to be equally effective whether it is a low-fat or high-fat diet. Finally, studies revealed that a lot of women find ADF much easier to follow than conventional, daily calorie restriction.
Supplements to Take While Fasting
Intermittent fasting is effective, but it is by no means easy. If you’re among those who are trying to adopt this new eating strategy, consider taking supplements to help optimize the results. Here are the top supplements to take for women using IF as part of their diet regimen:
BCAAs: During the fasted state, you can’t take anything with calories. This can be very difficult especially if you are having a bad day and feel craving for food. It can also result in unnecessary muscle breakdown just to support the needs of the body. Branched chain amino acids can resolve both of those concerns. BCAAs will be zero calories and prevent muscle catabolism when consumed. They will also help satiate you till you reach your eating window.
Multi-Vitamin: It is tough to get three meals during your eating window. The diet makes you restrict calories and this means a restriction of meals. You may miss out on some essential muscle building nutrients. Hence, taking a multi vitamin on a daily basis will be crucial to staying healthy while practicing intermittent fasting.
Pre Workout: If you fast and workout, you will definitely need some supplements to keep you going. You’ll need that extra boost of energy in the gym while you are in a fasted state. You just have to be careful and find a pre-workout supplement that has zero calories.
Fat Burner: Most women who use intermittent fasting opt to do so to lose weight. The latest studies show that fasting can actually speed up your metabolism by approximately 20 percent. You can take a fat burner if you wish to augment this process and stay energized. It will also keep your energy level high while inducing more fat loss.
*do not take a fat burner or other stimulants if you choose to do an extended fast