Recently, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of friends. The conversation was light and bouncy; however, as most conversations do when I am in the room, it turned it dieting. This time, the diet in question was intermittent fasting or IF.
I'm no stranger to hearing about how "this person tried this new diet, and it worked for them" kinds of conversations, and for the most part, I keep quiet. I know that dieting and weight loss are highly individual activities, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning what works best for your body. However, as much as I try to remain impartial and allow women to have the space to explore what works for them, naturally, I get drawn in from time to time, especially when I can see that the diet in discussion has some unconsidered drawbacks.
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Every woman talked about how difficult it was to follow the intermittent fasting protocols. They also discussed how they were suddenly experiencing some unpleasant symptoms, such as increased hunger, lack of sleep, and irregular periods (and they hadn't even lost any weight). But, unfortunately, they hadn't connected the dots back to their newfound diet.
"Do you think that Intermittent Fasting isn't suitable for you?" I asked. They looked at me dumbfounded - after all, if a diet works, shouldn't it work for everyone?
Let me explain. Intermittent fasting has been around for a while. Although many cultures perform various forms of fasting, therapeutic fasting for weight loss has been around since the early 20th century. The primary tenent of Intermittent fasting is calorie reduction by limiting the amount of time you can eat, for example, 16:8 (fast for 16, eat during an 8-hour window), 20:4, 5:2 (5 days a week eating reduced calories, two days dramatically reduced calories), and so forth.
However, research on the long-term effects is still slim. Despite the limited research, a vast body of evidence supports the benefits of intermittent fasting. In an article on the Precision Nutrition's website, Hellen Kollias, Precision Nutrition's science advisor and coauthor of Precision Nutrition's Level 1 Certification textbook, The Essentials of Nutrition and Coaching, says that IF can have multiple benefits. It can regulate blood glucose levels, control blood lipids, reduce your risk of coronary disease and cancer, and manage your body weight, amongst others. In a world rife with cardiovascular diseases due to poor nutrition and inactivity, doesn't it seem that intermittent fasting is a fantastic solution?
Not quite. Intermittent fasting does work on many people, but not all. Some research indicates that it isn't as effective on women. Women's bodies are highly tuned to notice changes in diets. Studies published in Frontiers in Endocrinology have found that the kisspeptin neuropeptide helps regulate our metabolism. Men have kisspeptin, but it's seen more abundantly in women, and it's sensitive to changes in energy intake. Suppose there is a shift in available food sources, like a famine or food shortage. In that case, kisspeptin alerts her body that it cannot support a pregnancy and therefore takes reproduction off the table. Additional problematic symptoms can appear as well. Her body may increase hunger and cravings while feeling less satisfied at meals in a bid to restore her energy balance. She may also experience other seemingly unrelated symptoms such as hair loss, a shift in moods, irregular sleep, and a decreased ability to deal with stress.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, there are plenty of milestones in a woman's life that makes IF less than ideal. Teenage years, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause are phases in which it's not wise to try out this eating pattern.
Another drawback is that it can encourage disorderly eating behaviours. Food restriction can amplify feelings of self-scrutiny, which can feel uncontrollable if you have heightened cravings. According to the Center for Discovery, Eating Disorder Treatments, it's also not advisable if you have a history of uncontrolled eating or an eating disorder.
So what shall we do with this information? Intermittent fasting has its benefits, but now you can also be aware of its drawbacks. Is it right for you?
If a woman has an otherwise healthy lifestyle of low stress, great sleep, and overall balanced nutrition, she may benefit from experimenting with intermittent fasting.
If you decide to try it but would like to dip the proverbial toe in the water before plunging in head first, there are ways to see if it's the right dietary strategy for you. Start by keeping a food journal and discovering ways to improve your diet without fasting. Perhaps you're consuming a lot of evening snacks or overeating at each meal, and minimising these behaviours may be less drastic than overhauling your entire routine. Once you've managed to assess your diet and make changes based on your food journal, you may want to try and stretch the time between your meal and discover when eating feels suitable for your body. For example, if you typically eat your last meal around 9 pm and breakfast again at 7 am the following morning, adjust your evening meal to 8 pm or push your breakfast to 8 am.
No matter the strategy you would like to employ, always stay tuned into your body. Do you feel emotionally and physically in control of this dietary change? Do you feel hungry, irritable, or satisfied? Is your body flourishing and feeling great, or are you starting to see some wear and tear around the edges? Stop intermittent fasting if you begin to notice undesirable changes such as hair fall, mood swings, prolonged injury, decreased stress tolerance, constant cold, or loss of period. Instead, find a weight-loss method that is better suited to your needs.