We chat with Holly Louise of The Fit Pharmacist about Intermittent fasting and whether or not it is actually the key to weight loss…
What is intermittent fasting and how does it work?
Intermittent fasting (also known as IF) is becoming an increasingly popular nutritional approach among people who are looking to lose weight and fat. Many people think that this approach is much more complex than what it actually is. Intermittent fasting is essentially an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. It is (like all other diets) a method of calorie restriction, with the only real difference between IF and “normal” caloric restriction being that the fasting periods are longer in duration and further apart from each other. If you think about it, we actually all do some form of IF every single day when we sleep! Just like flexible dieting, there are no restrictions on the type of foods you must eat, just the period of time in which you can eat. You can also do flexible dieting and intermittent fasting in conjunction with each other.
What are the different types?
There are some different types of intermittent fasting which include the following:
- Time-restricted feeding (TRF), which involves a fasting period of 16–20 hours and an eating period of 4–8 hours daily. The most popular approach is the 16:8 (16 hour fasting period, 8 hour eating period).
- Alternate day fasting (ADF): this involves a 24 hour fasting or very low calorie (~25% of daily energy requirements) period, alternated with a 24 hour eating period.
- Whole day fasting (WDF): this usually involves 1-2 days of fasting or very low calorie (~25% of daily energy requirements) periods per week, with the remaining days of the week eating at maintenance (which is essentially what the 5:2 diet is).
What are the claimed benefits of IF?
The claimed health benefits of intermittent fasting range from improved weight loss, prevent of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to preventing or even treating cancer. However, most (if not all) of these claims are not supported by convincing evidence. Furthermore, the evidence we do have is predominantly from animal models. These are 4 of the most common claims that are made about the benefits of IF in terms of body composition:
- Improved fat loss
- Higher Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
- Increased muscle retention/building
- Increased insulin sensitivity
What are the scientific studies that support or discredit IF?
A large systematic review of intermittent fasting conducted by scientists from The University of Sydney, which analysed 40 studies on intermittent fasting (with 12 comparing it directly to traditional, normal calorie restriction dieting), found no significant benefits related to body composition, fat loss, insulin sensitivity, or hormones. Here are some of the key findings:
- IF and normal calorie restriction result in identical weight and fat loss when calorie and protein intakes are the same.
- IF and normal calorie restriction result in no significant difference in muscle loss, when calorie and protein intakes are the same. Under normal circumstances, no serious muscle loss can occur until you’ve fasted for 12 to 16+ hours.
- IF does not result in better muscle growth than a normal calorie restricted diet.
- In most studies, the reduction in metabolic rate is similar with IF and with normal caloric restriction, when total calorie intake was the same and when measured on feeding days.
- Studies that compared IF to normal calorie restriction reported variable results with regards to improvements in insulin sensitivity when total calorie intake was the same.
- Both IF and normal calorie restriction result in comparable reductions in leptin, free androgen index, high sensitivity C-reactive protein (inflammatory marker), total and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure.
So what’s the bottom line? IF provides similar benefits to normal calorie restriction when it comes to weight loss and metabolic effects.
Are there any risks / side effects that people should be aware of before trying IF?
For some people, fasting can be harmful to their health depending on their current health status. Keep in mind that IF is not for everyone. People with impaired glycaemic control (diabetics) should avoid fasting, as it causes poorer glucose response. Also, if you’re pregnant, underweight, younger than 18, or have a history of disordered eating, IF is probably not for you. It’s always best to speak to your health practitioner before starting any new health or diet regime.
What is your personal view of IF as a coach?
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. Provided that you don’t fall into one of the categories listed above, I do recommend giving IF a go. Here’s why:
- It works. We know that in order to lose weight we must be in a calorie deficit (eating less calories than we are burning). By fasting, you are making it easier to restrict your total caloric intake over the course of the week, which can lead to consistent weight loss.
- It can improve your compliance. By reducing your eating period each day, IF allows you to enjoy bigger meals, which can help you to feel fuller for longer. This alone can help you stick to your diet for longer, which will provide better results.
- It simplifies your day. Having to prepare, pack, eat, and time your meals every 2-3 hours can be extremely time consuming. By reducing your eating period, you can save A LOT of time as you only need to worry about preparing and eating 1-3 meals. It can also save you money on your grocery bill!
- It can remove food obsession. From my experience (both personally and through working with my clients), a lot of people can get hung up over eating 2-3 hours and obsessing over when their next meal will be. Because you are eating less often with IF, it can help you to stop constantly thinking about food.
At the end of the day, IF is just one of many different (and effective) approaches, for improving your health, performance, and body composition. As always, do what works for YOU and remember that the best diet is the one you can stick to!
Have you ever tried IF? If not, would you?
Yes I have! When I have been dieting on low calories in the past, it was a great way to help me manage my hunger levels. By delaying my first meal for the day, I was able to make my meals larger and more satisfying. I don’t follow the approach now though as I’m not dieting and I love breakfast too much!
Can you tell us about your training and nutrition programs and how this can help people lose fat?
My coaching programs are all about empowering women to ditch the fad diets and restriction and take charge of their health and fitness through a personalised, evidence-based, customised approach to nutrition and training. When it comes to losing fat, the most important thing is to ensure that you are in a calorie deficit, so I calculate the calorie and macronutrient targets required for each individual client to achieve this. All of my clients follow a flexible dieting approach, which means that no foods are food limits and that they can lose fat while still eating the foods they love! This helps a lot with creating a more enjoyable and sustainable diet which subsequently produces better results! I also create structured weight training programs with planned progression to suit each individual client’s schedule, abilities and goals. The key to achieving your goals is assessing your progress and making any necessary adjustments to keep progressing, which is why I provide weekly check in assessments. This also helps to keep clients accountable and on track!