Can intermittent fasting benefit your health?

Credit: Rachael Gorjestani/ Unsplash

As diet trends zip in and out of our lives, intermittent fasting, a particular form of diet that involves cycles of eating and not eating, has remarkably held its ground.

It even climbed the charts to become the most popular form of dieting in the U.S. in 2020, as per the Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey.

While it is celebrated for its potential in aiding weight loss and managing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, is everything as promising as it seems?

The Many Faces of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. It morphs into different practices – sometimes involving alternating days of unrestricted eating (“feast days”) with days where food intake is significantly cut down (“fast days”).

In other versions, individuals may abstain from eating for a set number of consecutive hours and then have a window where they eat. Some might fast up to 24 hours twice a week without a set schedule.

The claimed benefits of intermittent fasting often centre around weight loss, but how substantiated are these claims?

Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University who delves deep into body image and eating behaviours, shares a cautious perspective.

Sifting Through Claims and Research

Rodgers voices skepticism about the proclaimed advantages of intermittent fasting, citing the limited and piecemeal clinical literature available.

Only a handful of clinical trials have been conducted, with a mere one presenting robust follow-ups where participants were assessed multiple times post-intervention.

While there is evidence indicating a correlation between intermittent fasting and some weight reduction, this data comes with caveats.

For instance, as many as 40% or 50% of participants drop out of clinical trials, and adherence to the diet protocols isn’t clear. Thus, attributing observed changes directly to intermittent fasting becomes murky.

The mechanics of how intermittent fasting potentially impacts metabolic benefits remain shrouded in uncertainty.

Moreover, data concerning other health indicators like blood sugar and cholesterol management is far from clear-cut.

Rodgers also highlights concerns about promoting behaviors targeting weight rather than cultivating a sustainable, comfortable, and attuned relationship with eating.

She emphasizes wariness towards rule-driven diets as they might instigate binge-restriction cycles when rules inevitably get broken.

The Allure of Intermittent Fasting

The popularity of intermittent fasting might stem from its relatively flexible approach towards ‘what’ to eat, concentrating more on ‘when’ to eat.

In a society saturated with food marketing and engineered foods that make moderation a challenge, intermittent fasting might seem like a straightforward approach: you eat now, and then you don’t.

However, Rodgers advocates for alternative eating approaches that foster flexibility and embody the understanding that eating habits will and should vary from person to person, possibly from one time to another.

Approaches like intuitive eating and mindful eating reject the prevalent diet culture, focusing instead on attuning to physical cues like hunger and satiety, and enjoying food in a nonjudgmental manner respectively.

Concluding her reflections, Rodgers leaves us pondering a significant thought.

If intermittent fasting – essentially not eating for extended periods – is deemed a plausible solution, how did we reach a juncture where such a drastic approach is considered reasonable, if not necessary, in navigating our food environment?

This ongoing discussion about intermittent fasting underscores a deeper narrative, urging us to reflect on our collective and individual relationships with food, diet cultures, and the underlying systems that influence them.

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