Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term for numerous eating plans whereby one cycles between periods of eating and fasting. Picture: WIN NONDAKOWIT/123RF
Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term for numerous eating plans whereby one cycles between periods of eating and fasting. Picture: WIN NONDAKOWIT/123RF

In a world obsessed with weight loss and unattainable good looks, we suffer no shortage of diets and health advice. The difficulty comes with navigating fads and sorting fact from fiction.

One of the areas in the arena of good health and weight loss is fasting and research on the topic is increasingly pointing to its benefits, in particular intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term for numerous eating plans whereby one cycles between periods of eating and fasting. The most common fasting methods focus on alternate-day fasting (some days you have a calorie restriction and some days you eat what you want), whole-day fasting (a full 24-hour fast, once or twice per week), or time-restricted eating (each day is categorised between a set amount of fasting hours).

According to an article published on the Harvard Medical School’s Health Blog, intermittent fasting has been understood to be a safe and effective method of losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, but no more effective than any other diet.

However, according to the article’s author, Monique Tello, medical doctor and contributing editor to Harvard’s Health Blog, “a growing body of research suggests that the timing of the fast is key, and can make [intermittent fasting] a more realistic, sustainable, and effective approach for weight loss, as well as for diabetes prevention”.

Intermittent fasting for periods as little as 16 hours can improve health, repair molecular damage and counteract disease.

As a lifestyle-leaning research doctor, Tello initially wrote off intermittent fasting as being no better or worse than simply eating less and following a healthy diet. However, in this recent article she says new research is suggesting that not all intermittent fasting approaches are the same. “Some are actually very reasonable, effective, and sustainable, especially when combined with a nutritious plant-based diet.”

Tello draws from the expertise of Dr Deborah Wexler, a metabolic expert, the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Diabetes Centre and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. According to Wexler, restricting meals to an eight to 10-hour period during the daytime has been proven to be effective. Especially when combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle, this form of intermittent fasting can be effective in promoting weight loss, especially for individuals at risk of diabetes.  

A study previously published in peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on meal frequency highlights that modern humans have evolved to eat three meals per day whereas our bodies were designed to run on little or no food for prolonged periods of time.

The same study found that intermittent fasting for periods as little as 16 hours can improve health, repair molecular damage and counteract disease.

Philippa Bramwell-Jones is a Johannesburg-based registered dietician and certified health coach at Robyn Rees and Associates. She says there are some wonderful evidence-based health benefits to intermittent fasting, which is how she has eaten for the past 10 years.

Apart from the benefit of weight loss, there are suggestions that intermittent fasting has a beneficial effect on reducing bad blood lipid levels such as cholesterol, inflammation and oxidative stress, cancer risk, cell repair and gene expression (improving longevity and protecting against disease).

Bramwell-Jones advises that, to be successful, you should be prepared, consistent, patient and be mindful of food quality — make sure that the food you do eat is highly nutritious and full of all the good stuff such as protein, good fats, vitamins and minerals. Intermittent fasting is not a short cut to eating badly and still expecting positive results.

“Intermittent fasting is not about whimsically missing some meals and then eating whatever you want at the next.  It is a conscious approach to optimising health using whatever medical knowledge we have now,” she says.

As with all eating plans, intermittent fasting is not a fix-all approach that will benefit everyone. Tello warns that people who have diabetes, those with a history of eating disorders and pregnant or breastfeeding women should only undertake intermittent fasting under close supervision of a doctor who can monitor them.

“What works well for one client does not necessarily work well for another and so it is important for each individual to make a decision on how they eat through self-focused research and understanding,” says Bramwell-Jones.

At the end of the day, intermittent fasting may offer health benefits but understanding your individual needs and maintaining a balance in what you eat and how you eat is still key.