We sat down with our Wholefoods for Families Nutritionist, Emma Dean to discuss Intermittent Fasting. Emma is a qualified Nutritionist passionate about realistic food interventions and reducing complexity around health and wellbeing. Her approach is holistic, supporting physical, mental and emotional aspects of nutrition, to successfully create change in people’s lives.
Tell us about Intermittent Fasting, why are we hearing so much about it?
Fasting is not a new concept. It has been valued for centuries by many cultures as a supportive tool in healing and for religious ceremonies. This new take on fasting is the ‘Intermittent’ aspect.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a way of eating that focusses on when you eat, not so much what you eat. The core concept is smaller windows of eating, followed by larger periods of fasting, without depriving yourself of key nutrients.
IF is done in cycles that can be modified to suit the individual with variations being mostly daily or weekly. For example, some people choose to fast for a couple of days per week known as the 5:2 method, they may do 24 hours on alternate days for the entire week, or they may fast daily using the 16:8 ratio, being 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating.
The rise in popularity of IF can be attributed to our knowledge around ketogenic eating principles and how we are able to metabolically ‘reset’ the way our body uses food, realising that we are eating way too much food that isn’t matched with highly active lifestyles, and becoming aware of the external cues for eating that are not true hunger cues - the time of day shouldn’t dictate when we eat, our hunger levels or requirement for energy should.
What are the health benefits?
IF has been shown to improve blood sugar levels, support weight management, decrease inflammation, and improve heart and brain health. This is because fasting allows the body to shift metabolic processes to support maintenance of weight, cellular regeneration and healing, rather than digesting food, and fuel, all the time. When you think about how some of us eat 3 meals a day plus snacks, digestion is a continuous cycle and a destructive one if we are eating unhealthy and inflammatory foods.
Is IF backed by research or just a ‘fad’?
There is a large amount of evidence showing health benefits of IF on obesity, inflammatory disorders, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers and neurological disorders. Professor Valter Longo, a biogerontologist and cell biologist, has conducted some great research focussing on the effects of IF at the cellular level. As always, more research should be carried out to determine long-term effects specifically around longevity and supportive treatments for diseases such as cancer.
Are there any health concerns with IF?
I think the majority of people can benefit from some form of IF as long as when they do eat, they are eating healthy nutritious foods that are right for their body. However, caution is advised for those with type 1 diabetes (to ensure their blood sugar levels are properly managed), anyone experiencing extreme stress (as fasting can increase the release of the stress hormone cortisol) and anyone with an eating disorder (structured ways of ‘healthy eating’ can become an unhealthy obsession). These people should work closely with their GP or other healthcare professional such as a dietician or nutritionist to make sure IF supports their health goals. Keep an eye out for any signs of fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, obsessive food behaviours or increased irritability and stress.
Would you recommend any particular foods to eat while doing IF?
Even though IF isn’t a ‘diet’ where you are focusing on particular foods or food groups, there are some guidelines that I recommend. Firstly, include mostly nutrient dense, plant-based wholefoods that we know promote health, such as vegetables and fruit, combined with some quality protein such as fish, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Reduce intake of refined, processed or packaged foods and don’t gorge yourself during eating periods. It is also important to understand which foods you may be intolerant too and reduce or remove them to further promote health within your body.
What are some common misconceptions about IF?
IF is not about starving yourself. It is really important to make sure when you do eat, your food choices meet your calorie and nutrient requirements.
This next one may bring a few people to tears - that it is o.k. to have your usual coffee when fasting. It’s not, sorry! A true fast is not consuming anything that will stimulate digestion or blood sugar. Having a coffee with milk and/or a sweetener isn’t fasting. If you absolutely must have a coffee, try a weak long black and slowly try to wean yourself out of the habit, let your body find its own energy again and if it can’t, there may be an underlying reason that should be looked at.
Another one is shifting the eating period too late into the day, where dinner is around 8 or 9 pm and the biggest meal of the day. This puts a big load on the digestive system when most people are not requiring huge amounts of energy, so they are less likely to sleep well and miss out on all the amazing benefits of adequate healing sleep. The catch here is that people who do this wake up absolutely ‘not wanting breakfast’ and thinking fasting in the morning is the best method for them, but really it is simply overeating too late at night. Understandably sometimes this can’t be helped, so just have a bone broth or small portion and make sure you still get 8-9 hours of adequate sleep.
Now we have the background, can you give us an example of how to do it, what would a day look like if you were doing the 16:8 method?
- Start the day with a big glass of warm water or a light herbal tea. Get the day going, if you have time, do some breathing, meditation, stretching or exercise. When your body tells you it is ready for food, say 10:30am have a healthy wholefood meal ensuring you include nutritious vegetables, protein and healthy fats to keep you satisfied. The trick here is to ensure you are eating mindfully; savour every mouthful, create ceremony around it, you want to feel ‘enjoyably nourished’ after a meal and this could be the biggest meal of the day
- Continue with lots of water for a minimum of 4-5 hours and when your body signals it’s hungry again, eat something nutritious. Depending on your hunger level it could be a small meal or an early dinner. If you are not hungry then wait till a little later.
- For the last part of the day really listen to your body, continue to drink lots of water, keep yourself busy, eat only if you are physically hungry. If you are a family, aim to have dinner no later than 6:30 pm and keep your portion small or just have a nourishing bone broth. Fasting this way one or two days a week, and explaining to your family why you are doing it is fine from a family food philosophy perspective; it will show variability to eating patterns, rather than habits, and that you are listening to your body.
- For the last part of the evening, when you are in the fasting period, focus on ‘resting’. If you have kids get them to bed, then have a herbal tea, clean your teeth and drink warm water to increase hydration. If you feel those ‘after-dinner cravings’ kicking in clean your teeth and work out what the ‘habit trigger’ is. The TV? If so, do something else instead that is positive for your wellbeing. Stretch, take a bath, read that book, listen to some music, meditate, journal, or just go to bed early!
What if someone is finding it really hard, what advice would you give them?
Eating habits can be hard to break. Create a distraction or a ritual that you enjoy. Have a special cup for herbal teas, give yourself time to sit down for 5 minutes to understand the eating habit better, really think about what the trigger is, how your body feels, how you feel. Keeping a food journal is a great idea for understanding our relationship with food; why we choose certain foods and why we want to eat.
Be mindful of social or family situations that impact your ability to fast. Can you catch up with that person somewhere else, go for a walk, surf, jog, do a yoga class instead of meeting for coffee or a beer? Is it making food for the kids, afternoon tea, that gets you nibbling? If your kids are old enough get them to make their own snacks (great for exploring food, just mind the mess!) or sip on a tea while helping them, then busy yourself with physical activity.
Recognise your achievements, this will drive motivation as you know you can do it!
Re-evaluate your purpose, why are you doing IF and what do you hope to achieve? This will help guide you on the best method and how ‘strict’ you need to be.
Do you have a preferred method and why?
I believe in supporting our own natural circadian rhythm, which means following the sun; eat and be active when it is up, rest and restore when it goes down. Mornings are busy for my family and dinner is sometimes the only meal that we sit down together for. I am also a big believer in supporting long-term change and a healthy family food philosophy which models connection, discovery and enjoyment of healthy foods. All of that means the 16:8 method with fasting in the morning works best for me. However, I am flexible based on how I am feeling and what we have on as a family, some days a big family breakfast is definitely on the cards!
Firstly, you will survive! The key is really discovering what works best for your body, but also understanding that may change over time, it’s o.k. to adapt and be flexible. Play around with some fasting methods, it doesn’t have to be everyday just start with a few times per week. Hopefully you will start to see some health benefits along with having a healthier connection to food, your body and its true hunger cues.
Emma has a private practice on the far North NSW Coast, where she works within the local community and NDIS space, as well as supporting clients online through her business Su Luna.
All content provided here is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, nor is it to be used as a diagnosis. Please consult with your GP or other relevant healthcare provider regarding any symptoms or medical conditions discussed, and before making any significant changes to your or your family’s diet and lifestyle.