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Making sense of intermittent fasting

Wednesday - 2/26/2014, 7:11am  ET

Fasting.jpg
Intermittent fasting incorporates extended fasting periods in a normal eating routine. It's linked to many health benefits. (Thinkstock)

Josef Brandenburg
WTOP Fitness Contributor

WASHINGTON -- I first got interested in intermittent fasting five years ago.

I had made some commitments (a reality TV show and a business expansion) that required me to work 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, without a day off for at least 13 weeks.

On my new schedule, I could barely squeeze in my routine workouts, and it was absolutely impossible to get my five or six small meals in each day.

Not only did this pattern leave me feeling bad, but I was also starting to physically look bad. Something had to change, but my work schedule had zero flexibility.

I'd heard of intermittent fasting before, but quickly dismissed it because it went against the sacred fitness dogma of "you need to eat five or six small meals a day to keep your metabolism up and to keep your muscles from wasting away."

However, with my life hovering in chaos, intermittent fasting started to look like a great idea.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is very simple -- mainly because you already fast every day. Fasting just means not eating; it's something you do between meals and it's something you do when you're sleeping.

Intermittent fasting is just incorporating extended fasting periods in your eating routine. Extending your fasting window and then returning to your regularly scheduled diet can change your body and easily fit a busy lifestyle.

Researchers and advocates argue that intermittent fasts mimic how humans ate for thousands of years when food was not always readily available. And several studies show that limiting food intake reduces the risk of diseases common in old age.

The reason intermittent fasting seems to work is because it reduces inflammation, and that in turn does some positive things to important hormones that regulate body fat levels and appetite.

It seems counterintuitive, but eating less often actually reduces most people's appetites.

Intermittent fasting also has been shown to reduce blood pressure, and it has even been explored as a tool to help those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Getting started

Want to try intermittent fasting?

Wait to eat your first meal: That sums up what I've found to be the most effective approach to fasting.

Online you can find many ways to do intermittent fasting, but I will share what I've found is the most successful for the kinds of clients we see at my facility -- busy professionals and executives who can't be hungry or tired at work or at home, and who want lasting results.

For the best results and the greatest ease of implementation, limit your eating to an eight-to 10-hour window. (Men tend to do better with eight, and women with 10.)

Example: I wake up between 4 and 5 a.m., and am usually not hungry for lunch until 1 or 2 p.m. Then, I eat when I get home -- around 9 or 10 p.m.

Most days I will have a little snack -- often nuts -- either in the mid-morning (10 a.m.) or mid-afternoon (4 p.m.). Intermittent fasting isn't about forcing yourself to be hungry for hours at a time, so if you need to have lunch earlier, that's OK.

Others who have had success with intermittent fasting aim for an 18-hour fasting period, once a week. To try this, eat dinner and then eat nothing else that night. If dinner was at 7 p.m. and you sleep until 7 a.m., you've already had no food for 12 hours. Then, wait to eat a meal until 1 or 2 p.m. to eat lunch. And there is your fasting.

Most people are apprehensive about trying intermittent fasting, but it's easy to adapt the new schedule in just a few days, and most love the results.

Think of how much easier it makes life when you're busy and no longer need to stop every three hours to eat.

What not to do:

  1. Don't try intermittent fasting if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
  2. Don't use fasting to justify eating junk food.
  3. Don't force yourself to be hungry. This is about health and long-term results, not deprivation.

Editor's Note: Josef Brandenburg is a D.C.-area fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book "Results Fitness." In 2004, he started The Body You Want personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the available time you have. You can also check out his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check out his fitness videos on YouTube.

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