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Intermittent Fasting 101: Here's What You Need to Know

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Fasting is an ancient practice, oftentimes associated with religions throughout the ages. But the concept of intermittent fasting is new and has recently exploded in popularity.

What exactly is intermittent fasting, though? In layman's terms, it is when you abstain from eating and drinking for a set period of time, usually to lose weight or achieve some other health benefit.

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There are four different ways to follow an intermittent fasting diet. They are:

  1. Time-restricted feeding: Food is eaten within a limited number of hours—typically 6, 8, or 12—each day and nothing is consumed during the other hours.
  2. Alternate-day fasting: Every other day either zero or minimal calories are consumed. Eating is essentially unrestricted on the days in between.
  3. 5:2 eating pattern: What you eat is unrestricted five days out of the week. For the other two, your calorie intake is capped at about 20-25% of your daily needs (ex. for an 1,8000-calorie diet, you'd eat 360-450 calories those two days). The sequencing is up to your discretion—the two calorie-restricted days don't have to be consecutive, but they can be if you'd like.
  4. Periodic fasting: As its name implies, you restrict your calories periodically for a stretch of time. For example, maybe you fast during a five-day period once a month and then eat normally the rest of the month.

Generally, research suggests that participants (animals and humans) lose weight when they follow any type of intermittent fasting diet. One study found that after just one day of fasting, people ate up to 30% fewer calories in the three days following their fast. Some IF types lead to an improvement in "metabolic factors," like insulin and glucose levels, as well as some inflammatory markers.

That said, the majority of published research has been done on male rodents, meaning those study findings should be taken with a grain of salt. And there are other drawbacks, as with any diet. A small percentage of intermittent fasting dieters report negative side effects—feeling cold, irritable, low on energy, or hungry—when fasting. But only a small percentage reported these side effects, and there were trade-offs attached: They also reported feeling more self-confident and that their overall anger and fatigue levels lessened.

Is Intermittent Fasting For You?

Whichever type you choose, intermittent fasting is a safe diet. It also works, meaning you'll probably lose weight. But you aren't missing out on a silver bullet if this style of dieting isn't for you. Intermittent fasting isn't superior to standard, calorie-controlled dieting where you'd set a daily calorie cap during the week. In fact, research comparing the two typically shows the same amount of weight lost among people following both an intermittent fasting regimen and a calorie-controlled diet.

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