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Intermittent fasting decoded

Sometimes it’s not what you eat but fasting that helps you to reduce weight — and gives you other benefits

I have been practising Intermittent Fasting (IF) for a few years now, as it is especially good for those with an autoimmune condition. Simply put, eating less — or less often — gives your digestive system a chance to rest, to feed on the fat deposits in your body, and cleanses the stomach. On the whole, your body is given a chance to regenerate, as a break refreshes your mind and soul.

In this age of general obesity, a lot of people fast in the hope of losing weight. Some adhere to the 5:2 protocol, of eating normally five days a week and reducing the food intake or fasting two days a week (the two days will not be consecutive) with a reduced intake of 500 calories for women and 600 for men. In a series of books about 5:2, Kate Harrison has not only suggested diet plans but also given recipes for healthy living. The IF trend is catching on, with a study by The International Journal of Obesity finding that IF helped men lose more weight and fat than others.

Of course, you can’t eat junk food on the five days that you eat normally, it should be healthy natural foods. And you still need some form of exercise — yoga, walking, jogging, swimming or cycling.

I follow the 16:8 protocol — eat only during an eight-hour window. This is very easy: breakfast at 12 and then make sure the last meal is before 8 pm. You can do this daily or a few times a week — I find it helpful. During the 16 fasting hours, you can’t snack or munch. Nothing means nothing! That still leaves you free to drink water, green tea and herbal teas, with no sugar or honey.

For beginners, the 16:8 is much easier. Start with 14-hour fasting and build up to 16. Keep a food journal so that everything is on record and you start committing yourself to stay with the programme. Never snack at midnight, suppress those hunger pangs and wait have an early breakfast instead.

Personally, I have already experienced the benefits: I have a better immune function. IF improves the environment for beneficial gut bacteria and improves your ability to burn fat. You must be wondering what you are supposed to do during the fasting period about the food cravings. Surprisingly, as you progress, your body learns to live at peace with itself, and you don’t crave sweets or junk food. You experience restful sleep and during your waking hours, you have more energy, and feel lighter. Your digestive system works more efficiently.

Part of the fascination with IF arises from research with animals showing that fasting may reduce cancer risk and slow ageing. “One hypothesis is that fasting can activate cellular mechanisms that help boost immune function and reduce inflammation associated with chronic disease,” says Dr Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. But he feels there’s no strong evidence that fasting adds health benefits except the fact that those who manage to lose weight by IF will avoid the well-known problems with obesity.

Of course, IF is not recommended for pregnant women, nursing mothers or growing children. It is also not advisable for those with a history of eating disorders or those sensitive to drops in sugar levels. Also, it should never be done by those who are malnourished, underweight or have nutrient deficiencies.

One major pitfall is that many of us want to reward ourselves for fasting, or even just resist the temptation to eat the wrong things. That has led to the concept of ‘fasting-feasting’. Better to exercise moderation in all matters of food!