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What Nutritionists Want You To Know About Intermittent Fasting

We asked nutritionists all your important questions about intermittent fasting.
PHOTO: istockphoto

Last week, we featured Pinays who discovered intermittent fasting (IF) and had successful journeys. Although they did depict the struggles and hard work that come along with it, it’s easy to focus on the ups and the ~*amazing*~ results. However, you need to be responsible by reading up and consulting experts before changing up your lifestyle for a safe and healthy transition. If you’re considering intermittent fasting to lose weight, here’s a primer from Dana Kriselli DC. Muñoz, RND and Jake Brandon M. Andal, RND, experienced professionals who are part of the Philippine Society of Nutritionist-Dietitians (PSND).

How does intermittent fasting (IF) really work?

Ms. Dana Muñoz describes the trend in simple terms, “Intermittent fasting is a change in the dietary pattern giving focus on ‘when to eat’ rather than ‘what to eat.’ People who do intermittent fasting allow their bodies to fast longer than they feast. The fasting can be done in shorter durations (the most common being 16 hours of fasting and an eight-hour window of eating) or in longer periods, such as having five days of regular eating and two days of fasting.”

What happens is that the body goes into a starved state—not a sexy picture, we know. But during this phase, the body burns fat since your usual energy stores (simpler forms of sugars or carbs in the body) runs out—and this fat-burning benefit is what some Pinays could focus on.

The expert serves some real talk: “As a nutritionist-dietitian, I do not recommend the use of intermittent fasting as a method of sustainable weight loss. I believe it has the ability to help dieters be more mindful of when and how much they are eating. However, as seen with many fad diets, short-term success may lead to long-term failure. It is undeniable that some studies on fasting in general attribute possible beneficial effects to your body, such as metabolic improvements, increase insulin sensitivity, efficiency in oxidizing fat, and inhibition of fat storage. One caveat that must be noted in analyzing these studies is that most have only been performed on animals and not humans and are done on short duration, therefore not concluding long-term results.”

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Even if there are several IF fans recommending the diet, there may be other plausible reasons why they started losing weight and keeping it off. They may have been coupling the eating strategy with low-carb meals, exercise, and other ways that have been proven to help keep the body healthy.

Can anyone try IF?

Both professionals agree that the diet is not for everyone. Healthy women in their 20s and 30s can try it, but that’s only if they don’t have sensitive health conditions. It would be much better if you seek the supervision of a health professional before any drastic diet change.

People with diabetes, especially should take caution. “Long periods of fasting induces the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, and even death,” according to Dana. She also mentions that the diet isn’t advisable for pregnant and lactating women and athletes, too, since they need energy and nutritious food to sustain their body’s requirements and their activities. “Your mental health is also important to consider… People with eating disorders, most especially for those with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders, should also be cautious as IF may only trigger their unhealthy eating behaviors.”

The body burns fat since your usual energy stores (simpler forms of sugars or carbs in the body) runs out—and this fat-burning benefit is what some Pinays could focus on.

What can be the negative effects of IF?

Here’s something you may already know: IF doesn’t work the same way for everyone. Some could lose weight, some may feel like they suffered for nothing, and some might experience the “dark side” of the diet.

“Advocates, celebrities and gurus often without medical and nutrition training and education often claim these diets as a one-size-fits-all recommendation with results achievable in a snap. The intermittent fasting was advocated to be the new keto, the latest craze, and the new breakthrough in weight loss,” says Mr. Brandon Andal. “The main misconception about this diet is one can eat everything you want in any amount you can as long as it is in the allowed feast hour and still lose weight. A lot of patients also think it’s very easy to achieve since no food group or specific foods are prohibited and only the time of feasts would be modified in your lifestyle.”

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Here’s a rundown of the possible consequences of intermittent fasting, according to the clinical nutritionist-dietitian:

  • Eating Disorders. Brandon warns, “There has been developing research that this diet can cause triggers on eating disorders. Patients who have been on to different diets are already at risk of developing one and sadly, the thought of eating anything you want on allowable hours disrupts the positive association with food.” Eating should never be a negative experience, and food should always be treated as nourishing. Of course, that means picking foods that are healthful and eating just enough (not too much or too little) to fuel your body. “Once [that positive experience with food and eating] gets disrupted or reverted due to different factors associated with eating disorders (EDs), such as dieting, it might worsen or may lead to EDs.”
  • Liver Damage, Lower Immunity, and Lack of Energy. The RND also cites that IF can lead to “liver shrinkage, which entails increased susceptibility to toxin damage and decreased antioxidant levels present in the liver.” You could be more prone to illnesses and infections, too. “Work and exercise performance may also be affected and symptoms of feeling cold, constipation, headaches, lack of energy, bad temper and lack of concentration are reported on studies by patients on this diet.” He also notes that on top of dangerously low blood sugar especially in diabetic patients, anyone could have nutrient deficiencies that could impair your body’s functions. Yikes!
  • More Weight Gain or Bloating. Surprise, surprise. “When a patient also reduces his or her caloric intake drastically, which can likely occur on unguided fasting, it can induce physiologic adaptations, such as lowering your basal metabolic rate (energy needed to function without doing anything) that could contribute to regaining the weight you loss.” So even if you lose weight at first, your body could find it harder to keep the weight off and bounce back if you alter your diet again. Brandon adds, “Digestion might also be negatively affected since there were reports of increased indigestion and bloating, which can have great consequences for those with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), sensitive gut, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, and disturbed bowel movements.” 
  • Hormonal Imbalance. Some Pinays who tried IF have experienced sudden changes in their periods, and the diet could be the culprit based on some studies. “Pilot studies on animals showed that [intermittent fasting] led to a decrease in blood glucose levels that affected the ovary size, which can have a negative impact on fertility.” And even if you’re not trying to get pregnant, your hormones could go haywire. “There are some studies showing that it inhibited LH (luteinizing hormone), estradiol, and ghrelin. These hormones are not only important in a woman’s reproductive health but as well as her appetite regulation.”

Your tips or recommendations for women who want to try IF:

Brandon recommends, “If you have been cleared for any medical conditions that may be contraindicated for this diet and you are emotionally prepared for this, what I can suggest would be to take it easy. Do not prolong fasting hours to much. The best pattern would be to fast for 16 hours on three non-consecutive days. Avoid fasting for more than 24 hours as it may affect your hormones.”

Balance is key, as well, according to the expert. Don’t expect great results when all you eat during your feast are rice-heavy meals, donuts, and too much fatty or fried food. “Eating fast food, processed food, and other less healthy choices on IF is not beneficial (Yup, it’s not true you could eat anything). Fruits and vegetables, minimally processed food, lean meats and healthy oils, nuts and seeds should still be present in [your diet],” advises Brandon.

Their final thoughts and words of advice? Opt for healthier alternatives instead. There’s this recommendation from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST) called Pinggang Pinoy, the easier-to-understand ideal plate with the essential “go, grow, and glow” foods from your grade school days.

Both professionals from PNSD recommend a 360-degree approach to weight loss, too. “Nothing would still beat eating healthy and following recommendations such as the Pinggang Pinoy of FNRI-DOST, regular exercise, and a good amount of sleep for weight goals,” advises Brandon. “What’s important is you would follow recommendations most fit to your medical, nutrition and diet habits as well as emotionally.”

Dana adds, “Available data on fad diets, such as intermittent fasting, is conflicting and insufficient, which is why it’s still not concluded to be risk-free, beneficial, and safe for weight loss. Ultimately, in weight management, the practice of eating healthy and nutritious foods, as well as being more active, should continue even after you have lost the weight.” She also wants women to understand that, “Weight loss is an individualized and interdisciplinary approach. One method might work for your friend, but it may not be suitable for you. Still, it’s best to consult a registered nutritionist-dietitian and your doctors to help you achieve weight loss in the healthiest and most sustainable way possible.”

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