Today, I’m excited to introduce you to Nicole Dell’Aquila. Nicole has been a Registered Dietitian for 14 years and is here today to share her insights and resources on intermittent fasting (IF). Intermittent fasting has become a hot topic in the health and wellness space recently, but it’s surprising how few people know what’s really involved with it (including yours truly).
I decided it was time to bring in a professional to answer all of our burning questions. And WOW – I’m amazed by everything she has to share on the topic! I’ve never been a fan of saying everyone should adhere to the same workout or nutrition plan, but I always thought of intermittent fasting as a trend, and a bit dangerous. But my eyes have been opened! And truth be told, I will definitely consider giving this a try at some point.
1) What is intermittent fasting? Are there different kinds?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a way of eating that alternates windows of fasting (not eating) and feeding (taking in nutrition). It’s not a diet or a trend, but a lifestyle. There are no lists of foods to avoid; no measuring points or portions, and no counting calories. It’s not about WHAT you eat but more about WHEN you eat!
If you think about it, all of us “fast” every single day – you do sleep… don’t you? Intermittent fasting just means extending that fasting window and making your nutrition count during your feeding/eating window. There are a few different methods of incorporating IF into you lifestyle. No one way is right for everyone and a combination of methods actually becomes rather easy when you restore the ability to listen to and recognize bodily cues. All of the methods combine splitting days and weeks into fasting and feeding windows. During your fasting window, you are not eating or drinking anything that contains calories or induces an insulin response. During your eating window, you are not tied to a list of forbidden foods but are encouraged to focus on good quality nutrition.
You may be wondering… Is this the same as starvation? Absolutely not. Fasting is a completely voluntary restriction of nutrition for spiritual, health, and/or other reasons. Starvation, on the other hand, is not voluntary, controlled or deliberate. There is a lack of available food with starvation versus our 24/7 access to plentiful calories in modern day, developed countries.
2) How is intermittent fasting done?
There are a number of methods to IF but today we will discuss the three most common: The 16:8 Method, The OMAD Method, and The 5:2 Method.
The 16:8 Method requires you to fast 16 hours out of a 24 hour day, leaving an 8-hour feeding window. Most people find this method the easiest to incorporate into their initial introduction to IF. For example, you finish eating dinner by 8 pm, skip breakfast the next morning, and have your first meal after 12 pm the next day. Based on your lifestyle needs, you can move the window earlier or later but need to maintain that 16:8 pattern. If 16 hours is too difficult at first, push the window to 12-hour fasting and 12-hour feeding windows.
The OMAD Method or “One Meal A Day”:
With this method, you eat dinner (or any meal of your choosing) and then start your fasting window for a full 24 hours, ending your fast with dinner the next day. Some refer to it as the 23:1 method. It’s simple; you eat all your calories in one setting. No fancy meal plan or confusing dietary advice, just eat one meal a day, 24 hours apart.
You’re probably wondering how you could get through a whole day without eating… I mean, where will you get your energy? In fact, many OMAD participants report feeling more energized and focused on their tasks, leading to increased efficiency and productivity. They don’t find themselves slumped over their desk at 2 pm craving coffee and cookies (sound familiar?). For the fasting period, hydration is very important. You can drink water, black coffee, tea, mineral water, and bone broths.
*Avoid diet soda, tonic water, coconut water, or fruit juice to make your OMAD fast a success. These beverages contain sugar and will void your fast.
This method requires some planning and measuring. You eat 500-600 calories on 2 non-consecutive days of the week and eat your normal diet the remaining 5 days. I don’t recommend this method often since it involves calorie counting; most people tend to underestimate the calories they eat and drink.
You are probably wondering what you could eat when restricted to 500-600 calories for the day. Well, in theory, you can have whatever you’d like, as long as you don’t go over the calorie limit. To prevent those pesky hunger pangs, we suggest you eat foods that are high in fiber and water, and which are lower in calories. Pick foods like green leafy veggies; salads with vinegar or lemon juice dressings, soups with a heavy vegetable base, small portions of lean proteins like chicken/salmon, and/or eggs. Avoid highly processed carbohydrates and sugary foods to reduce insulin spikes and intense cravings. If you need something sweet on your fasting days, have a small bowl of berries. Just like the other fasting methods mentioned, hydration is very important.
3) What are the benefits to intermittent fasting? Is there any research that currently supports this?
One major benefit of IF includes a simplified lifestyle. Imagine waking up for work, drinking your coffee or tea, and leaving without scrambling around looking for something to eat before you get stuck in rush hour traffic. Not focusing on the clock to schedule your “6 smalls meals a day” can be liberating for some people.
Another benefit is that IF is more biologically how we are supposed to eat rather than the 3-4+ meals we have become accustomed to. This style of eating can result in effortless weight loss, improved brain health, reduced chronic inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity, and even longevity benefits.
The most common reason people are interested in fasting is for the weight loss benefits. Because of the fasting windows, you naturally take in less calories overall. In addition to taking in fewer calories on average, your hormone levels begin to normalize. This contributes to weight loss, too. IF can decrease insulin levels and allow more stored fat to be mobilized and converted to ketone bodies for energy use. IF can also increase your human growth hormone or HGH. The levels of HGH skyrocket, increasing as much as 5 times during intermittent fasting. This benefits both muscle growth and fat loss, and has a favorable effect on metabolism; increasing it anywhere from 3.6-14%!
Intermittent Fasting can have a profound impact on the health of your brain, too. We once believed that we were stuck with the brain we had… Once brain cells died…well, that’s it… Through science, we now know that the brain CAN repair itself through a process called neuroplasticity. Decreasing your energy intake by fasting several days a week might help your brain ward off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s while at the same time improving memory and mood through an increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. When your brain senses ketones being used for energy, an increase in BDNF takes place. Ketone production has been shown to improve memory in people with early signs of dementia in as soon as 6 weeks.
As you are likely aware, chronic inflammation, often a result of poor lifestyle choices, is the cornerstone of many preventable diseases. It’s believed fasting may assist in managing inflammation by changing how certain compounds and proteins interact with each other, inhibiting inflammatory pathways. We see a reduction in inflammatory biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, homocysteine and cholesterol ratios. There’s also increasing research supporting the effectiveness of fasting in helping to manage inflammatory conditions such as type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune conditions such as MS and rheumatoid arthritis.
The head of the National Institute on Aging’s neuroscience laboratory, Mark Mattson, says the mild stress that intermittent fasting puts on the body provides a constant threat. This increases the body’s powerful cellular defenses against potential molecular damage. Intermittent fasting also stimulates the body to maintain and repair tissues. Its anti-aging benefits keep every organ and cell functioning effectively and efficiently.
4) Are there any risks to intermittent fasting? If so, what are they?
While getting used to this way of eating, you may initially experience some not-so-pleasant symptoms, namely hunger… or what you initially think is hunger. You may feel a little sluggish, irritable, weak, or even sense a lack of brain power. These symptoms are all common when starting IF, but they will pass. Your body has been programmed for so long to eat breakfast at 8 am, so by 9 am the entire room can hear your belly growling. Just like you adapt to a new workout or even a time zone change, your body gets used to being nourished on a different schedule. Work at it until it becomes natural!
With that being said, there are a few problems that occur with fasting, though. The most common are constipation, headaches and hunger pangs. There are strategies to deal with these symptoms. For example, I recommend initiating a low-carbohydrate diet leading up to your fasting window and using your feeding windows to consume fiber-rich foods that reduce the risk of constipation and hunger pangs.
There are also a number of medications that need to be taken with food and need to be discussed with your physician. For those with Type 2 diabetes, who are taking medications to control blood sugar levels, intermittent fasting of any kind will increase risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Working with your physician or dietitian on safely reducing medications and receiving proper education significantly reduces the risk of hypoglycemic episodes. Anything more serious than that is not part of normal fasting and should be discussed with your physician or dietitian.
5) Who is intermittent fasting appropriate for? Why?
IF can safely be done by most healthy people. It is biologically how we were designed to receive nutrition.
It’s also great for people with a busy schedule, freeing up time for more productive things in your life. You can take the focus away from constantly planning for meals and snacks, and make more time for exercise (that you can also do in a fasted state… wink wink). Remember, IF isn’t a diet but a way of life! It’s not a fad or a trend, and has been around for as long as humankind has existed. If you’ve tried other methods of weight loss without much success, IF may be right for you.
6) Who should NOT do intermittent fasting? Why?
There are situations in which you should not partake in IF. Those include:
- If you are underweight or malnourished. In those with a BMI <20 or with suspected malnutrition, it is more important to correct nutrient deficiencies and maintain/attain a healthy weight. Lifestyle changes that include better nutrition take time and coaching. It is important to understand the body’s need for good quality nutrition, and not think of fasting as a magic cure.
- Have a history of an eating disorder. IF may trigger negative behaviors in individuals with a history of unhealthy calorie restriction (anorexia), over eating, binge/purge cycles (bulemia) or body dysmorphia.
- Take certain medications like those to lower your blood glucose. IF can be done with these types of medications but you need to be closely monitored for potentially dangerous hypoglycemic episodes.
- Are pregnant, trying to conceive, or nursing. Your body needs regular consistent calorie intake to support a growing fetus and the demands of nursing. Women also react differently to IF when their hormones are not is a state of homeostasis. It would be unethical to conduct research of the effects of fasting on pregnant women so there is limited information on the effects fasting has on the fetus.
- If you are a female with amenorrhea. In this case, it is imperative you get to the root cause of the loss of menstruation before any intermittent fasting can be done safely.
7) Why is intermittent fasting becoming so popular? Why now?
I think we once looked at fasting as something we only did for religious reasons or if our doctors told us to fast after midnight before surgery or blood work. Thankfully there are some forward-thinking physicians out there who challenged conventional medicine and said… “What if there’s a way to reverse chronic diseases, promote effortless weight loss, and improve brain health – and do it without a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical industry pill? What if the answer is not only FREE, but also easy to follow? AND puts money back into our wallets??” Dr. Jason Fung once said of intermittent fasting: “It is perhaps the oldest and most powerful dietary intervention imaginable. Yet somehow we have forgotten its awesome power and ignored its therapeutic potential.”
I truly believe IF is becoming more popular simply because we are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and demand better! We are not afraid to try something new and when it gives us incredible results, we share it like crazy on social media! Who doesn’t love a good before and after? The power of social media has helped bring these “unconventional” approaches to health and wellness to the masses, and then Registered Dietitians (like me) help people implement these easy-to-follow plans to achieve their health goals.
8) What is the historical context of fasting? What can we learn from its evolution in history?
Fasting has been around as long as humans have been on this earth; the absence of food during our sleep cycles; extended fasts related to food scarcity; refraining from eating when sick. We survived as a species because we were able to use our bodies’ stored food (fat or adipose tissue) to provide energy for our brain and other parts of our body. Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology, wrote “Fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within.” Plutarch, an ancient Greek writer and historian, wrote, “Instead of using medicine, better fast today.” Ancient Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle embraced the ritual of fasting and wrote about how clear, sharp and focused they were when abstaining from nutrition.
Humans, like most animals, don’t eat when they become sick. This natural desire to not eat is certainly familiar to everyone. Think about the last time you were in bed with a cold or the flu. I bet the last thing you wanted to do was eat, right? So, therefore, fasting is a natural human instinct to protect and heal from multiple forms of illness. Even Benjamin Franklin, known for his broad knowledge in many areas, once wrote of fasting, “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.”
9) Do you find that intermittent fasting is a spiritual experience in addition to a physical one?
Fasting has deep-rooted traditions in most cultures throughout the centuries. Those who partake in it claim that it brings both physical and spiritual resilience. It remains a part of religious traditions even today and is believed to be beneficial to both the body and the spirit! For example. it is common in Buddhism to eat a morning meal and fast from noon until the next morning, in addition to many water fasts for days or even weeks on end. In the Greek Orthodox religion, many followers fast for as much as 200 days in a year! Muslims often fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, a holy month. Ramadan is actually one of the most widely studies fasting periods.
Two studies in particular, from 2007 and 2012, assessed people during a month of Ramadan fasting. The researchers compared the study participants taking part in the spiritual Ramadan fasting to a control group eating 3 meals a day. Both studies found that the individuals who were fasting had significant reductions in inflammation markers including interleukin-6, C-reactive protein and homocysteine. In simpler terms, by participating in fasting they ultimately reduced inflammation in their body. One important piece to note when reviewing these studies: There was no difference in the energy intake between the two groups. When the fasting group ate, they consumed as many calories as the group eating three meals a day, leading us to conclude that it was the changes seen during the fasting window that prompted the improved inflammation markers.
A HUGE THANK YOU TO NICOLE!! I’ve learned a lot about intermittent fasting that I never knew and I’m excited to try it once I’m out of my childbearing years. Nicole, thanks for giving us all guidance and an excellent foundation of understanding about intermittent fasting!
(Ahem…and if you’re interested in learning more about Nicole and/or her services then please see her bio and contact info below.)
Yours in health and wellness,
Meet our guest Registered Dietitian, Nicole:
My name is Nicole Dell’Aquila and I have been a Registered Dietitian for close to 14 years. My health was not always a good as it is now. I suffered from many GI troubles that I sought medical care from doctors. Never once did anyone ask me “What are you eating?” and never once was diet thought to be the cause of my digestive woes. I was given a nonspecific diagnosis and a prescription to treat my symptoms. No investigation into the root cause of WHY my body was fighting against itself. I took my health into my own hands, challenged the conventional medical model, and used food as my medicine (or lack of food). I had a wake-up call one day and knew I needed to switch my focus as a dietitian from reactionary care to preventative care, using my own personal struggles and triumph as a motivation to help others feel as great as I do now. That’s when I found Simplex Health! We believe the path to better health, effortless weight loss, reversing ‘dis-ease’ and igniting your energy levels must move beyond conventional thinking. SIMPLEX HEALTH unites a fresh approach applying our doctor-approved, integrative programs to re-balance and harmonize the whole person. Take a look at our website to learn more! www.simplexhealthcorp.com
We take most major insurance plans and offer both in person and virtual appointments.