Over the past 4 years, I’ve been practicing the ancient method of fasting, and I can now say without a doubt that intermittent fasting is the most effective and natural method for improving health.
Aside from the weight and fat loss benefits (during my first three months of fasting I lost 22 pounds of weight), intermittent fasting has significantly improved my ability to focus and get important things done, my quality of sleep, happiness and much more.
In this brief and simple beginner’s guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about intermittent fasting and how to get started, in the easiest way possible.
Let’s get started.
What is intermittent fasting?
In layman’s terms, intermittent fasting is simply a pattern of eating: It’s not a diet plan, it’s a conscious decision to skip meals on purpose.
You would “intermittently” eat during a short time window of the day and “fast” for the rest of the day.
For example, I typically eat my first meal around 11 am and freely eat till 7 pm that evening. After 7 pm, I purposely don’t eat till 11 am the next day.
According to intermittent fasting expert, Dr. Jason Fung, intermittent fasting is an effective way to correct imbalances of hormones responsible for weight gain and obesity.
In a nutshell, intermittent fasting is a lifestyle choice of when to eat.
How does intermittent fasting work?
In order to understand how intermittent fasting works and how it affects the brain and body, it’s important to learn the differences between the fed state and the fasted state.
When we eat food, the body absorbs energy for immediate use and stores excess amounts away in our liver and fat cells through a storage hormone called insulin.
Because insulin rises whilst we’re in this “fed state,” the body is unable to burn fat at the same time.
Once we stop eating, the insulin levels start to fall, and the body begins to burn the stored energy for up to 24 hours, after which it will begin to burn fat during a “fasted state.”
In a nutshell, our bodies are either in this fed or fasted state.
If we spend more time in the fed state than the fasted state, we’ll gain weight. Conversely, if we spend more time in the fasted state than the fed state, we’ll lose weight and burn fat.
Intermittent fasting is simply a fancy term to explain spending more time in the fasted state.
The 4 benefits of intermittent fasting
Aside from the weight loss and long life expectancy benefits of intermittent fasting, here are 4 major benefits of intermittent fasting:
1. Intermittent fasting saves precious time and money
On a normal diet plan, you’d spend a lot of time and money, shopping, prepping and cooking up to six meals a day.
Intermittent fasting saves you valuable time and money, because you’d eat less meals each day, and spend much less time thinking about what you should eat.
2. Intermittent fasting simplifies your life
To piggyback off the previous point, intermittent fasting reduces the number of decisions you’d have to make each day, and creates more energy for you to tackle your most important tasks.
Whilst most diet plans are complex, expensive and overwhelming, intermittent fasting is free, extremely simple and convenient.
3. Intermittent fasting strengthens your willpower
There will be many periods during intermittent fasting when you’d crave to eat food and resist the urge to eat.
Each time you do so, you’ll develop your willpower muscles, and strengthen your ability to resist temptations and distractions in other areas of your life.
4. Intermittent fasting improves focus and concentration
Studies have shown that intermittent fasting doesn’t have any negative effects on our memory, focus and concentration abilities. In fact, intermittent fasting may actually improve our focus and concentration.
Think back to the last time you were hungry. You’d probably recall how mentally alert and sharp you were.
Intermittent fasting frees up valuable energy to avoid distractions and stay focused on your most important goals.
The 4 cons of intermittent fasting
Whilst there are a lot of benefits to intermittent fasting, there are also some potential disadvantages:
1. Intermittent fasting may cause discomfort
During the first few weeks of intermittent fasting, you may experience some uncomfortable reactions from your body including:
- Right-sided shoulder pain
- Abdominal pain and feeling bloated
- Burping, Belching
Fortunately, these symptoms should subside over time. The best remedies to manage these symptoms are lemon in water and apple cider vinegar.
2. Intermittent fasting may cost a lot of money
Depending on how much weight you lose during the intermittent fasting protocol, you may have to buy new clothes that fit your new body shape.
Although this may seem like a good problem to have, it may become problematic if you stop the intermittent fasting routine and regain the weight you had lost.
3. Intermittent fasting may interfere with your social life
The dilemma is: what do you do when your friends, family and work colleagues invite you out for lunch, dinner or drinks?
Do you decline the invite, turn up to the event and refuse to eat, or break your fast?
This was by far the biggest challenge I struggled with during my first year of intermittent fasting, and it created tension in some of my relationships because people were offended whenever I declined to eat.
4. Intermittent fasting is not suitable for people with eating disorders
People struggling with eating disorders could worsen their condition by intermittent fasting, because it makes it harder to break out of bad eating habits.
Types of intermittent fasting schedules
There are different intermittent fasting plans you could try, however, here are the recommended fasting protocols:
These are fasting protocols that don’t exceed 24 hours of fasting.
1. 16/8 fasting protocol
The 16/8 protocol is an effective fasting method popularized by Martin Berkhan, and it’s the one I’d highly recommend.
It’s extremely simple: for 16 hours you’d fast, and afterwards, eat your meals within a specific 8-hour eating ‘window.’
For example, you may eat all your meals within the time period of 11:00 am and 7:00 pm, and fast till 11:am the next day.
The 16/8 fasting protocol is extremely flexible and you can choose any 8 hour eating ‘window’ that suits your lifestyle.
The downside of the 16/8 protocol is that it may take a while for your body to adjust to eating larger meals within a shorter time window.
For example, if you’ve been eating three meals a day from 7 am till 7 pm, cutting down to two meals a day from 11 am till 7 pm may be challenging, especially if you want to eat the same number of calories.
On a final note, there are other intermittent fasting protocols that are slight variations of the 16/8 method.
For example, the 20/4 fasting protocol involves fasting for 20 hours and then eating one or two small meals within a 4-hour eating window.
2. 24-hour fast
The 24-hour fast is typically the first thing that pops into our minds when we think about fasting.
It simply involves fasting from one meal to another in the next day.
For example, if you eat lunch at 3 pm today, you won’t eat your next meal until 3 pm the next day.
You can repeat this process as often as you’d like to do so each week.
These are intermittent fasting protocols that exceed 24 hours of fasting, or don’t require fasting on a daily basis.
1. The 5:2 fast
The 5:2 diet is an intermittent fasting method popularized by physician, Michael Mosley, and it involves 5 days of eating as per usual, followed by two days of eating a maximum of 500 calories each day (usually two meals).
For example, if you ate 1,000 calories in a single meal on day one, you’d have to give up your meal in day two.
2. Alternate day intermittent fasting
Alternate day intermittent fasting involves fasting on alternating days throughout the week.
For example, if you eat dinner on Tuesday evening, you’d fast for 24-hours and eat your next meal on Wednesday evening the next day.
But, on Thursday, you’d eat throughout the day as per usual, and then after dinner on Thursday, you’d repeat the cycle and fast for 24-hours until Friday evening.
Is intermittent fasting good for women?
In general intermittent fasting has similar effects on both males and females, however, due to the complex reproductive system in a woman’s body, intermittent fasting could cause problems if not done correctly.
- Potential extreme hunger and reproduction issues as per this study.
- Extreme swings in hormones and menstruation problems.
- Worsened eating disorders.
Fortunately, these problems can be prevented through a gradual fasting method called crescendo intermittent fasting.
In a nutshell, you’d simply fast for two or three days each week, for up to 16 hours each time and build up slowly.
This will ensure you enjoy the benefits of weight loss from intermittent fasting, without any negative effects on your hormones.
Here’s an inspirational success story of a woman who lost 50 pounds in 7.5 months using intermittent fasting.
3 common myths about intermittent fasting
Here are three common myths and misconceptions about intermittent fasting:
1. Intermittent fasting causes muscle loss.
During a fast, our body burns fat and sugar for energy, but not our muscle tissue.
Studies actually show that intermittent fasting preserves muscle mass, whilst burning fat.
2. Intermittent fasting causes malnutrition.
Fasting reduces the total amount of calories consumed, but not the nutrients absorbed by your body when you eat.
3. Intermittent fasting is unhealthy.
For thousands of years, humans have used fasting as a natural method of healing the body and mind, so there’s nothing unhealthy about fasting.
5 tips to make intermittent fasting easier
Here are 5 things that will make it easier for you to get started with intermittent fasting:
- Don’t tell your friends, family or colleagues you’re on intermittent fasting until you’ve built up the habit.
- Stay busy and occupied during your fasting periods.
- If you haven’t fasted in a long time, build up slowly to your desired fasting protocol.
- Eat a lot of vegetables in between meals to prevent hunger and binge eating.
- Avoid chewing gum or biting on anything, as this would make you even hungrier.
Common intermittent fasting mistakes
1. Rushing into intermittent fasting
Often, we’re quick to rush into our new plans and goals, but down the line, this leads to procrastination, burnout and quitting.
The best way to avoid this problem is to gradually integrate intermittent fasting into your lifestyle.
Start with three meals a day with no snacks, then build up to two meals a day with no snacks and so on, until you’re fasting for at least 16 hours each day.
2. Fasting on a high carbohydrate diet
According to Dr. Berg, intermittent fasting on a high carbohydrate diet could put major strains on your brain and nervous system because of a significant drop in blood sugar levels.
As a result of this, you’ll feel grouchy, moody and irritable during your fast.
The best way to avoid this problem is to ensure that you’re eating a good amount of fats in your meals, and consuming larger quantities of low carbs like vegetables, instead of high carbohydrate foods like rice.
3. Binge eating
After 16 hours plus of fasting, our natural tendency is to devour anything within sight, especially if we’re extremely hungry.
The problem with binge eating is that you may end up consuming more calories than you’ve burned that day, and actually end up gaining weight during your intermittent fasting protocol.
The best way to avoid binge eating is to prep your meals in advance, so that once its time to break your fast, you know exactly what you’ll eat and how many calories you’d consume.
4. Giving up too quickly
Most people who try out the intermittent fasting protocol give up within the first month. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough time to see the benefits of fasting.
Intermittent fasting won’t get rid of your excess weight and fat overnight, it’s going to take time for your body to adjust.
As a rule of thumb, expect to wait at least three months to see significant results of weight and fat loss.
Common questions and answers about intermittent fasting
Is intermittent fasting safe?
Yes, intermittent fasting is safe, however an intermittent fasting protocol may not be suitable for the following people:
- Pregnant women
- Extremely underweight individuals
- People using strong prescription medication
- People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes
What’s the best way to start and break my fast?
What you eat leading up to a fast could make a huge difference on how hungry you are during the fasting window.
The best way to ensure that you don’t struggle with hunger during your fast, is to eat a high fiber and fat meal prior to starting your fast i.e. broccoli and coconut oil.
Finally, the best way to break your fast is to eat vegetables and meals in small portions. Avoid eating carbohydrates and fats at the same time because this may trigger an insulin spike and affect your results.
How long should I fast?
Start off with the 16/8 fasting protocol and then increase, or decrease your fasting window depending on how your body responds.
In general, the younger you are, the faster your metabolism and the shorter the duration your fast should last.
What should or shouldn’t I eat or drink whilst intermittent fasting?
As a rule of thumb eat lots of vegetables and meals high in fiber and fats. That aside, the same rules that would apply to any healthy diet plan would also apply during an intermittent fasting protocol.
In small quantities the following liquids are okay to drink during intermittent fasting:
- Bone broth
- Apple Cider Vinegar
As a rule of thumb, you should avoid the following liquids as much as possible:
- Coconut water
- Diet soda
Is being cold in intermittent fasting normal?
Yes the core body temperature decreases during fasting because the body is adapting. It’s nothing to worry about.
When should I exercise during intermittent fasting?
You can exercise at any point before, during or after your fasted state.
As a general rule of thumb, you will feel weaker towards the latter periods of your fasting window, than in the earlier periods.
So, it’s usually recommended that if you choose to exercise during the fasted state, exercise during the earlier periods—just ensure you wait a few hours after your last meal before exercising.
This way you can enjoy the extra benefits of fat loss, whilst maintaining your level of performance with your workouts.
I personally prefer to exercise during my fasted state, as I’m much more alert and have seen better results that way. Plus, several studies show that exercising during a fasted state burns significantly more fat than otherwise.
What types of exercises should I do during intermittent fasting?
You can use any exercise routine during intermittent fasting, however pay close attention to how your body reacts to the exercises.
If your body feels more tired than usual during exercise, simply reduce the volume and intensity of the workout.
In my experience, high intensity interval training (HIIT) —any exercise done with short rest periods and high intensity—is the fastest way to burn fat during intermittent fasting.
What are some of the best intermittent fasting books?
I’d recommend these two books:
- The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting (Book / Audiobook)
- Eat Stop Eat: Intermittent Fasting for Health and Weight Loss (Book/ Audiobook)
What if I can’t stick to intermittent fasting on the weekends?
That’s fine, you can eat normally during the weekends and still enjoy the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”
A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Intermittent Fasting.”