Intermittent Fasting Basics
How to Improve Health by Eating Less Often
by Sheila Julson
Fasting has been part of religious and cultural practices since ancient times, but now it is entering into everyday American eating habits. Intermittent fasting (IF), which involves restraining from eating for periods ranging from hours to days, was the most popular dietary strategy among Americans in 2020, outpacing low-fat keto diets and “clean eating”, reports the International Food Information Council. About 10 percent of survey respondents reported that they were following IF diet procedures, usually for weight loss and better health.
“Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle,” says Jerron Hill, an anesthesiologist, in Plano, Texas, who has practiced it for two years and found himself with more energy. “Many metabolic syndromes and diseases can be avoided by making IF a way of life.”
Research on the health benefits of IF is ongoing, but Hill says that advantages include stabilized blood sugar levels, because insulin levels rise after eating meals. “In a fasted state, insulin levels fall, blood sugar stabilizes and fat stores can be utilized as a source of energy,” he says. Other benefits he cites include lowered blood pressure, decreased low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” LDL cholesterol, and lower triglycerides
There are several IF methods. The 16/8 method is most popular and involves fasting for 16 hours and eating within an eight-hour window each day. The 5:2 plan is for those that would rather fast twice a week and eat regularly the other five days. Another method known as OMAD involves eating one meal a day. While most IF models do not restrict specific foods, they encourage the consumption of nourishing, satiating, whole foods. Snacking is discouraged.
Women’s Fasting Needs Differ
“In the United States, 90 percent of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. Fasting is one of many strategies that can help people improve their metabolic health. That translates to being a healthy weight and having balanced hormones,” says Cynthia Thurlow, a nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Everyday Wellness Project, an online subscription plan. Her new book, Intermittent Fasting Transformation, integrates IF with women’s hormonal needs during every stage of life.
“Women need to fast differently,” Thurlow emphasizes. “A woman in peak childbearing years under age 35 has to account and fast for her menstrual cycle, meaning her body is much more sensitive to macronutrient depletion or changes than a menopausal woman. Younger women need to limit fasting if they are already lean. They need to avoid fasting five to seven days prior to their menstrual cycle and remain attuned to messages their bodies send them in response to sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise.” In general, once women reach menopause, they experience less hormonal fluctuation and thus more flexibility to fast on a daily basis, she says, although they, too, should keep an eye on their experiences with sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise.
Planning for Success
The word “fasting” often conjures up thoughts of hunger and starvation, but proper planning will leave us full and satisfied while practicing IF. “When you’re eating a balanced diet and not necessarily following a particular fad or specific type of diet, you can enjoy nourishing meals without restrictions and still practice IF,” says lifestyle coach Laura Fuentes, of Madisonville, Louisiana, author of the e-book Intermittent Fasting for Women.
Fuentes recommends starting with the 16/8 model, because approximately half of the 16-hour fasting time is spent sleeping. “There’s also downtime in the evening while you’re preparing to sleep. In the morning, most of us are getting ready for work or getting kids off to school, and we don’t eat right away. Those hours are generally not focused on food.”
When it’s time to eat, fasts should be broken with satiating, nutritious food, not a light snack. The first meal of the day should be nutritious, with protein and healthy fats. Breaking a fast with just an apple, or carrots and hummus, will lead to hunger and eventual snacking.
A common misnomer is that we must eat ketogenic or low-carb diets while practicing IF. While carbs need to be considered, Thurlow emphasizes eating nutrient-dense, whole foods and fewer processed foods, whether they are part of keto, paleo, omnivore or vegetarian diets.
Some people practice “clean” fasting by consuming only water, black tea or other calorie-free beverages during the fasting time. Others prefer “dirty” fasting and might consume a handful of grapes, walnuts or other foods or beverages containing less than 50 calories during the fast. “I like patients to understand the value of a clean fast,” Thurlow says. “People might think 50 calories doesn’t count, but that is food, and that does break a fast.”
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.
Mediterranean Chicken Farro Bowls
1 cup cooked farro
3 cups water or stock
½ tsp salt
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts (2 large breasts)
3 Tbsp olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups chopped cucumber
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
½ red onion, sliced
1 cup tzatziki sauce, purchased ready-made or prepared from the following recipe
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
Lemon wedges, for serving
Fresh dill and parsley for garnish (optional)
1 garlic clove
1 cup plain yogurt
½ tsp salt
½ tsp lemon juice
¼ tsp dried dill
Rinse and drain farro, then place it in a pot with salt and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain any excess water.
In a gallon-size zip bag, combine chicken breasts, olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Marinate for four hours or overnight. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat, add the chicken breasts into the skillet and cook for 7 minutes, flip and continue to cook for another 5 to 7 minutes until the internal temperature has reached 165° F. Discard marinade. Remove chicken from pan and wait 5 minutes before slicing.
To assemble the bowls, place a bed of farro at the bottom of the bowl. Top with sliced chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, red onion, tzatziki sauce and feta cheese. Sprinkle with parsley and dill and serve with lemon wedges.
Tzatziki sauce: Line a large bowl with a mesh strainer, place a paper towel into the strainer. Use a grater to grate the cucumber and garlic clove. Transfer to the strainer to remove the excess moisture. In a medium bowl, combine the shredded cucumber, garlic, yogurt, salt, lemon juice and dill. Stir to combine and refrigerate for an hour before serving.
Recipe courtesy of Laura Fuentes.
Healthy Breakfast Salad
2 medium sweet potatoes, cubed
1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
½ tsp salt
½ tsp garlic powder
Black pepper to taste
6 cups arugula, baby spinach or green blend
4 strips bacon, cooked and coarsely chopped
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
Preheat the oven to 400° F and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the sweet potato and bell pepper onto the baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt, garlic powder and black pepper. Toss to combine. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are tender when poked with a fork. Remove from oven and set aside.
Spray a non-stick pan and cook eggs sunny side-up over medium heat. Assemble the salads by placing a large handful of greens in each bowl and topping with roasted veggies, fried egg, bacon pieces and avocado slices.
Recipe courtesy of Laura Fuentes.