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The Skinny on Intermittent Fasting

By Contributing Editor for Health & Wellness Kathy Whelan

It’s January again, a month when many of us resolve to change something in our lives. Losing weight is often a goal, and we may have a new diet in mind. 

Despite how promising they sound, diets usually fail in the long run because they are unsustainable. Most dieters eventually regain lost weight and many gain more. The dieter feels like a failure, but the failure is really in the diet itself.

How could we avoid these outcomes and have enduring success without counting calories or eliminating food groups? Could we even discover a personal eating style with benefits beyond weight loss?

What is Intermittent Fasting?

Fasting has been practiced since ancient times and is part of many religious traditions. Intermittent Fasting (“IF”) – going without food for a pre-planned period – has become newly popular because, unlike conventional diets, it is not based on restricting calories or demonizing certain foods. Instead of focusing on what we eat, IF focuses on when we eat.

The benefits of fasting, which are still emerging from research, include not only weight loss but also a lowered risk of metabolic and inflammatory diseases and possibly cancer, and improved heart health. Those who practice IF often report that it simplifies their days and clears their minds.

Why Does it Work?

When you eat, your pancreas releases insulin, which helps your body convert glucose from the calories you consume into energy. Excess calories are stored as fat. As you digest for several hours afterward, insulin levels stay high, making it hard to burn fat, which is the real goal of weight loss. This is why you can’t burn fat when you graze on food all day.

Twelve hours or so after you last eat, your body does something called “metabolic switching,” entering a “fasted” state in which lowered insulin levels allow you to burn stored fat. A few hours later, an ongoing process called autophagy accelerates, clearing your gut of broken-down cells in a “cellular cleanup.” Now you can lose fat while retaining muscle as you repair, renew and reset your gut.

Water and zero-calorie drinks like black coffee and tea are allowed during fasting, but artificial sweeteners are not because they mimic sugar. When you eat, you can enjoy a wide range of foods but will not see full benefits eating high-calorie and fried foods and sweets. A Mediterranean-style eating pattern does not depend on calorie counting and accommodates a broad range of tastes while also being more beneficial.

How Would I Do It?

IF’s flexibility accounts for much of its appeal. Some practice 16:8 fasting with 16 consecutive hours of fasting (including sleeping time) and an 8-hour eating window. Other fasting patterns involve not eating (or keeping to 500 calories) for a day at a time, mixed in with days of normal eating. An OMAD (One Meal A Day) plan involves fasting most of the day and taking in all daily calories in a single meal.

Circadian Fasting is a pattern that double-board-certified doctor and nutrition expert Amy Shah describes as “the healthiest and most effective form of fasting for health.” She says it can increase energy, reduce disease, and help us become fitter, better versions of ourselves.

Insulin does its job, Dr. Shah explains, in conjunction with circadian rhythms, our sleep/wake cycle. When you eat late at night and your body produces insulin, you’re asking it to produce a hormone that’s supposed to dial down at night for your body to repair its cells. Make your earlier meals larger and dinner smaller, she advises; stop eating three hours before bedtime; and fast for at least twelve hours.

Is it Hard to Start?

Johns Hopkins neuroscientist and IF researcher Mark Mattson, Ph D says it can take several weeks to adjust to fasting, but its benefits usually cause those who make it this far to continue. Dr. Shah suggests starting with a 12-hour fast and listening to your body to decide what works best after that. Unlike diets, which are harder than they sound, IF is often said to be easier than it sounds.

Remember, fasting is not a quick fix but rather a lifestyle that can be tailored to each unique life.

Can Anyone Do IF?

Fasting is not recommended for those who are under 18, are pregnant or breastfeeding, have diabetes or have a history of eating disorders. Always check with your doctor first.

 If IF interests you, check out my blog later this month, where I will feature the experience of a friend whose IF journey has brought her gifts she never imagined.


Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises.  It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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2 years ago

I began IF , at 65, after my 40 ye old daughter investigated and began her successful journey. I naturally ate at 5 pm, no eating after..just tea or water (gets my target of water in) and waking at 7 am, having black coffee , found it absolutely doable to put off breakfast til 10-11(additional black coffee if thirsty) for 2 yrs now. All my vitals are healthy (diabetes to normal now! Etc. thnx for explaining how it works so simply!

Kathy Whelan
2 years ago
Reply to  Susan

Susan, Congratulations! I am a relative newcomer to IF. For a couple years, I hadn’t eaten after dinner (on the advice of Oprah, LOL), but I thought I REQUIRED breakfast as soon as I got up around 6:30. Like you, I have found it quite doable to put breakfast off until 10, and black coffee never tasted so good. Diabetes to normal – you are a champion! Best wishes for your continued success!

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