Intermittent fasting: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Over the past few years, intermittent fasting has quickly caught on as a popular dieting method. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll see plenty of guides teaching newbies how to go on their first fast.

In this article, we’ll break down how intermittent fasting works, and discuss its pros and cons. On top of that, we’ll also address how intermittent fasting affects women who are trying to conceive. Let’s jump in!

How did intermittent fasting come about?

Intermittent fasting has been around for time immemorial, but it was first popularized by the 2012 TV documentary Eat Fast, Live Longer. Once the documentary was released, intermittent fasting quickly gained traction. Today, this form of fasting is bigger than ever, with several books revolving around the topic (The 5:2 Diet, The Obesity Code, etc) becoming instant bestsellers.

What is intermittent fasting?

With intermittent fasting, you’re simply cycling between periods of fasting and eating. One of the most popular forms of intermittent fasting involves fasting for 16 hours every day, and eating only within an 8-hour window. For instance, you might skip your breakfast, eat your first meal at lunchtime (12 noon), and have your second and last meal at 8pm.

How does intermittent fasting work?

When we eat, the enzymes in our digestive system break down the carbs we consume into sugar; we either use the sugar to produce energy, or store it as fat. In order for the sugar to be stored as fat, we need insulin to help us bring the sugar into our fat cells (and keep it there).

Now, when we’re between meals, our insulin levels drop, and our fat cells release the stored sugar for us to use as energy. Here’s where fasting comes in: when we fast, we essentially allow our insulin levels to drop for a longer period of time, and this lets us burn off excess fat.

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Intermittent fasting: the good

On the bright side, various studies have shown that intermittent fasting is effective in helping with weight loss; some research even states that this form of fasting can result in individuals improving risk factors for coronary artery disease and stroke. For these reasons, intermittent fasting has become vastly popular, and it’s even promoted as a “lifehack” for people who are looking to lose weight.

Intermittent fasting: the bad

On the flip side, there are several dangers associated with intermittent fasting as well. For one, intermittent fasting doesn’t just burn fat, it also burns muscle – and this is likely to slow your metabolism and make weight loss more difficult in the long run. On top of that, studies also show that intermittent fasting could put you at the risk of damaging your pancreas, and developing diabetes.

Intermittent fasting: the ugly

On top of that, intermittent fasting is also particularly problematic for women who are trying to get pregnant. Here’s the science behind it: fasting disrupts the levels of estrogen and progesterone in your body, and throws you into hormonal imbalance. This can manifest via various physical symptoms, including:

  • Low energy levels
  • Weight gain
  • Reduced cognitive function
  • Reduced bone density
  • Reduced muscle tone

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On top of that, when you’re depriving yourself of food, you’re indicating to your body that it isn’t a good time to conceive. The technical term for this is a “starvation signal”; once your body gets this signal, it shifts gear and goes into self-preservation mode. Among other things, your system will increase the production of ghrelin and leptin (“hunger” hormones that trigger you to search for food), and neglect non-essential functions such as reproduction.

Does this mean that women should not undergo any form of fasting?

If you’re hoping to get pregnant, generally speaking, fasting is not a good idea. That said, fasting might make sense in some cases (for instance: if you’re obese, and you want to lose weight so that you can boost your fertility).

If you’re trying fasting for the first time, be sure to start slow instead of rushing into it. Don’t fast on consecutive days, and instead of fasting for 16 hours at once, try and ease yourself into it by fasting for 12 or 14 hours. On top of that, refrain from engaging in intense workouts when you’re fasting, and if you notice that your metabolism rate is slowing down, or your period is becoming irregular, stop fasting and return to your regular eating habits immediately.

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