Not So Fast: How to Alter Your Approach to Intermittent Fasting for Full Nutritional Benefit

August 21, 2019

Have you heard the buzz about intermittent fasting recently? If so, it might sound like an ideal diet solution. It’s about when you eat, right?

While it’s true that timing defines this new dietary trend, it’s not an excuse to ignore the quality of our food choices. Like many dietary patterns, if you want it work effectively, you also have to stay mindful of what you’re eating and how it affects the body.

When quantity and quality are taken into consideration, intermittent fasting can be highly beneficial for weight loss and overall health, as it promotes mental clarity, longevity, burning fat stores for energy, and gives the body time to rebuild, explains Melissa Wadolowski, RDN, LDN, CHC, of Jefferson Health in New Jersey. This can be especially helpful for those unable to follow an exercise regimen.

Fasting, in general, aids in mindfulness and stress management. When practiced regularly, it can also improve sleep and self-control.

“New research supports some periods of fasting,” said Wadolowski. “However, the findings for different methods are often grouped together, making the actual benefits difficult to distinguish.”

Intermittent fasting refers to limiting your eating to a specific window or pattern. There are several popular methods, including a daily six-to eight-hour window (and refraining from eating outside those hours); the 5:2 method (restricting calorie intake to 500 calories, two days each week, and eating normally the other days); or eating only one large meal daily.

If your schedule allows for it, intermittent fasting may seem like a “no brainer.” However, when not done appropriately, it comes with its risks, primarily related to calorie deprivation.

“If you’re not eating the right foods, you can hinder your daily calorie needs and intake of essential nutrients,” explained Wadolowski. “If you consume only one meal per day, you have to be cautious of chronic calorie deprivation – which can decrease your metabolism, as your body changes to avoid starvation. When following the 5:2 method, you may undo the positive effects of a fast, if you are feeling deprived and indulge the other days.”

To benefit from intermittent fasting, you should choose whole foods that will keep you full longer and provide more nutrients, rather than processed, high-sugar foods that will make your hunger and energy levels fluctuate.

“Some people want to continue eating unhealthy foods and be told that it’s okay,” continued Wadolowski. “In reality, those food choices will impact you regardless of how strict your fasting window is. Your body needs the right building blocks for growth and repair.”

Intermittent fasting may also be dangerous for some populations. Studies show that intermittent fasting may cause a heightened risk for hypoglycemia in diabetics, nourishment complications in pregnant women, and a higher likelihood for relapse in those who have suffered with eating disorders.

“We’re also learning that women don’t benefit as much from intermittent fasting as men do,” explained Wadolowski. “A shorter eating window can be disruptive to their hormones and fertility. They also make less human growth hormone during fasting. It’s recommended that women eat for a longer time window of 9-10 hours, rather than 6-8.”

The primary issue to be cautious of, however, is an unhealthy relationship with food.

“Trying to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle can become overwhelming very quickly,” said Wadolowski. “We want to establish habits that encourage healthy food choices and benefit our bodies, but we also need to learn how to adapt these habits to serve us in times of stress or disruption, instead of looking for an easy fix or shortcut.” 

If you’re considering intermittent fasting, do your research, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your dietitian or primary care provider to see if it’s safe for you.

To learn more about Nutrition Services at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE