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Understanding Intermittent Fasting and Weight Management

Now that we’ve crossed over Memorial Day weekend and graduation season, it’s time to take a deep breath and enjoy a little summer R&R. I actually got to take a few days away with my daughter this week, which is as enjoyable as it is rare. I hope you’re able to take a little time off in the off-season as well. In fact, I had been thinking about writing to you this week about napping (maybe I’ll do that next week).

Instead, I wanted to address a question that came up after last week’s blog post on food allergies.

“I want to lose some weight and get back into swimsuit shape, but I can’t keep the flab off. What do I need to do differently?”

As a chiropractor, it’s kind of amazing how often I get this question. Then again, my practice is built around wholeness – health and wellness of the whole person – and if you’ve been following my “Wellness Wednesday” series for any length of time, you know I’ve spent a surprising amount of time on gastrointestinal health issues. Every part of your health is intertwined with every other part, and your gut health has a massive impact on your overall health.

I’m excited about this week’s topic because there is so much misunderstanding about it. Like I mentioned last week about the “Health/Wellness/Nutrition/Fitness/Weight Loss/Blah Blah Blah section” at the bookstore, weight management is one of those topics that everyone wants to learn about, and the misinformation is abundant.

The Science of Weight Loss

First, a little background.

Most food items can be separated down into a handful of categories: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are the biggest and most familiar. Your body was designed to use each in a different way: proteins are used to build and repair muscle tissue. Fats are stored and burned as energy. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose, which the body uses for cell repair, brain health, and dozens of other functions. We were designed to get our carbohydrates from vegetable sources more than grains and sugars.

What has happened over the last one hundred years is that our diet, especially here in America, has spiked the amount of grain- and sugar-based carbs we consume. We eat more breads, pastas, potatoes, and sugars every day that our grandparents ate in a week or more. Our bodies convert those complex carbohydrates into glucose, but the resulting avalanche of glucose triggers an equally powerful insulin response, which gets stored in the fatty tissues around your body, especially around your midsection.

The problem is not necessarily that you are eating too many calories, but that you are getting your calories from the wrong sources – and at the wrong times.

Typical Day Eating Plan – A Recipe for Disaster

Think about a typical day’s eating plan. You eat a muffin or a bagel in the morning, with some kind of sugary fruit spread, or maybe a bowl of grain-based cereal, with coffee and fruit juice. Now, your body has all that sugar to process. When the sugar spike wears off, you feel groggy or grouchy, so you grab a snack and a Coke or a cup of coffee. You feel better for a few minutes, but your pancreas looks like the UPS shipping center in December, trying to connect insulin to all that sugar for storage.

For lunch you’ll grab a sandwich (with bread or a grain-based tortilla), potato chips, and a sugar-based beverage to give you a little extra jolt of energy. Your body is already in insulin meltdown, but all you feel is a little groggy. I won’t even bother mentioning the afternoon snack on our way to a big plate of pasta or a burger with a bun and fries for dinner.

Then, there’s the ice cream or a bowl of popcorn while you’re watching TV. You feel energetic for a couple of hours, and then collapse into bed, trying to figure out why you’re so wiped out.

Basically, you’ve been bathing your organs in sugar all day, and as we’ve established in the past, sugar is the root to most inflammation, joint pain, headaches, heart disease, Type II Diabetes, and some cancers. Your body has been converting the excess glucose to energy, which means your healthy fat stores are not being used for their intended purpose. When the high wears off, your body goes into craving mode, just like any other drug (sugar is a drug, don’t fool yourself – try going without it for a few days). Your pancreas (where insulin is generated) is worn out, your liver is too gummed up to filter your blood properly, and you ride the energy roller coaster from hyper to helpless.

We need to get all that junk out of your system if you want to lose weight and feel great.

How Sugar Is Working Against You

As Dr. Joseph Mercola outlined:

“In simple terms, when you consume too many sugars and carbs, you set off a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that makes you hungry and craving for sweets:

1. First, fructose is metabolized differently from glucose, with the majority being turned directly into fat because fructose stimulates a powerful “fat switch.”

2. This rapidly leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity (“beer belly”), decreased HDL, increased LDL, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure—i.e., classic metabolic syndrome.

3. Dietary carbohydrates, especially fructose, are also the primary source of a substance called glycerol-3-phosphate (g-3-p), which causes fat to become fixed in fat tissue.

4. At the same time, high carb intake raises your insulin levels, which prevents fat from being released.

5. Fructose further tricks your body into gaining weight by turning off your body’s appetite-control system. Fructose does not suppress ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) and doesn’t stimulate leptin (the “satiety hormone”), which together result in feeling hungry all the time, even though you’ve eaten.

As a result, you overeat and develop insulin resistance, which is not only an underlying factor of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a long list of other chronic diseases.

The resulting equation is simple: fructose and dietary carbohydrates (grains, which break down into sugar) lead to excess body fat, obesity, and related health issues.

Furthermore, no amount of exercise can compensate for this damage because if you eat excessive fructose and grains—the primary ingredients NOT found in our ancestral diet—it will activate programming to cause your body to become, and remain, fat.”

This is why you have to be so careful with diet information. Any plan that promotes a low-fat and high-carb diet is actually working against you, because your body was designed to burn fat for energy, not sugar. I know that many fitness plans (especially distance runners) emphasize carbohydrates for bursts of energy,  And the standard “three-meals-a-day” eating plan is a modern phenomenon that works against your body’s design.

What Is Fasting…Really?

Usually, when I first mention fasting to my patients, they look at me like I slapped them. Sugar is pervasive in our culture – you almost can’t pick up any food item that hasn’t been enhanced with at least one type of sugar (sugar has at least 57 different known names in food marketing) – and it is as addicting as any street drug, so suggesting to people that they end their addiction can come as quite a shock.

Many people, if they have heard of fasting at all, think of it as some weird, esoteric discipline for uber-spiritual types. Some consider it a Judeo-Christian form of self-punishment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While there are spiritual benefits associated with fasting, the physical and mental benefits are just as great, if not more tangible. Athletes and others who demand high performance from their bodies have been discovering the enormous physical benefits of fasting.

Let’s clear up a couple key misconceptions about fasting:

Misconceptions About Fasting

It’s not meant to be done for days or weeks at a time.

Biblical scholars will point to stories of Daniel, Moses, and Jesus fasting for weeks at a time, but I think those are extreme cases born out of extreme circumstances. I know there are groups of people who promote 21-day and 40-day fasts. I am not one of them. The longest I believe anyone should fast is 72 hours. Even then, there are specific guidelines to be followed, and days of preparation before and recovery after. Some of the fasting guidelines I see circulating around the fitness world are reckless and can be dangerous if you’re not working with a trainer or professional.

Fasting is not a quick-fix.

I see people fasting for a few days to lose weight before a wedding or a big game, but if you really want to experience the lasting benefits of fasting, it needs to be a lifestyle, not an event.

On a related topic, my Pastor occasionally teaches on the spiritual benefits of fasting, and he typically posits this guideline: fasting for a few days is easy, but if you want to get the full mental and spiritual benefits of it, it’s better to live a fasted life. What he’s referring to is not giving up food for three days at a time, but choosing a lifestyle of saying no to your fleshly cravings, overeating, or eating for entertainment. It’s just as true on the side of physical wellness: you can easily give up food for three days straight, but it takes more discipline and fortitude to live a lifestyle of self-control on an ongoing basis.

Do you get where I’m going with this?

Let’s play the long game, establishing habits of self-controlled eating, sleeping, and other functions. I can give you pages of testimonies of people who say they feel better in their 40s, 50s, and 60s than they did in their 20s because of this one lifestyle choice.

So, let’s set some guidelines.

Guidelines For Fasting

Scheduling

There are different fasting schedules that work for people, and the key is to find one that fits your life best. I typically recommend either a 16/8 approach, where you eat during an 8-hour window each day, and abstain from food the other 16 hours, or and 18/6 approach, where you eat during a 6-hour window and abstain from food for the other 18 hours.

If your mouth just dropped open from shock, realize that at least 7 or 8 of those 16 hours will be spent sleeping, so it’s not like you’ll be sitting in the kitchen looking at pictures of food for 16 hours straight. That’s a form of self-torture and I recommend getting professional help for that.

Typical schedules usually include an eating window from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. You shouldn’t start the day eating, nor should you eat during the three hours before you go to bed.

Start Slow

Give yourself several days, or a couple of weeks, to step into it. This is not a good practice to enter into “cold-turkey.” Your blood sugar will spasm wildly and you will be worthless at work. Add an hour every day for a couple of weeks. If you are an avid breakfast lover, consider moving it back 20 minutes each day until you get it closer to lunch, and then drop it entirely. On the other hand, I think you can safely stop eating after supper without any ill effects, except maybe some deep longing as your cravings kick in. Cravings are all in your mind, and you can be free if you choose to be. Expect your body to fight you on it for a couple of days and don’t give in. Every time you tell your bad habits no, they get weaker, until they finally disappear. That’s not my opinion – that’s how habits work. If you feed them, they grow; if you starve them, they die.

Dump the Processed Foods First

If you eat a lot of processed foods, you’re going to suffer if you try to fast. Your best decision is to eliminate the bad calories from junk food first, THEN look into fasting. You will experience your first major improvements just by eliminating boxed foods, sugary foods, fried foods, breads, pastas, and potatoes. Replace them with vegetables, healthy proteins, and good fats, like butter, eggs, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, and raw nuts.

Powerful Benefits of Internittent Fasting

Now, let’s look at just a couple of the benefits, according to Dr. Mercola:

“Throughout history, fasting is a commonplace practice and has been a spiritual tradition for millennia. Today, modern science has proven that fasting yields the following benefits:

Helps promote insulin sensitivity – Optimal insulin sensitivity is crucial for your health, as insulin resistance or poor insulin sensitivity contributes to nearly all chronic diseases

Normalizes ghrelin levels, also known as your “hunger hormone”

Increases the rate of HGH production, which has an important role in health, fitness, and slowing the aging process

Lowers triglyceride levels

Helps suppress inflammation and fight free radical damage.

Fasting will help your body adjust from burning carbs to burning fat. Eating on a six- to eight-hour window can take a few weeks and should be done gradually. Once your body has successfully shifted into fat burning mode, it will be easier for you to fast for as much as 18 hours and still feel satiated. Your craving for sugar will slowly dissipate and managing your weight will be easier.

In addition, exercising in a fasted state can help counteract muscle aging and wasting, and boost fat-burning.”

I’d like to add my favorite: when your body kicks the sugar habit, your pancreas can start working again to eliminate fat. Insulin is the key to fat-burning and weight loss, but as long as it’s preoccupied with managing sugar storage, it can’t do it’s best work as a fat-burning tool.

What About You?

I’m still learning more about this, and I’ve been fasting for many years. I’m reading a great new book now that I’ll share with you soon. The more we learn about the disastrous effects of the Standard American Diet, the more we learn about the benefits of fasting.

I hope you’ll join me on this adventure. I think you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel in a very short time. If you decide you want to take it to the next level, we can tap one-on-one about the 28-day detox plan I do with many of my patients. Talk about feeling better!!

I’ve probably forgotten to mention some things here, but I have other articles about it. If you have questions about something I didn’t say clearly, post them in the comments on Facebook and I’ll do my best to answer them.

I so appreciate having the opportunity to share these practical healthy lifestyle tips with you. Thank you for taking the time to join me here each week. If you’re getting value from these articles, be sure to take a few seconds to share them. You probably know someone right now who is looking for this information.

See you next week!

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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