Ask Dr. Ernst: Guide to Intermittent Fasting

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Dr. Aaron
by Dr. Aaron Ernst, D.C. D.PSc.

You might have heard the term “Intermittent Fasting” (or IF for short) recently. Even though this method of eating has been around for a long time, it’s starting to gain some traction in health and weight loss circles as of late.

That’s why this is the perfect time for us to get you up to speed on this useful eating pattern.

First of all, notice how I don’t call it a “diet?” It’s not. You don’t count calories, you don’t necessarily restrict what or how much you eat, you simply consciously control when you eat.

Here’s the logic behind it.

The human body—and that of most animals—is not designed to eat regularly. Most animals live in a “feast or famine” cycle where food is plentiful for a time, and at other times it is scarce.

The animal kingdom, in all of its wisdom, has devised coping mechanisms for this problem. Think bears hibernating, or bird migration, or how herds move up and down in elevation in the mountains. Nature adjusts. This is actually the purpose of fat. It is simply stored energy our bodies put away for when food is scarce. The problem with modern society with its restaurants and grocery stores, is that food is never scarce. As a result, our natural energy storage mechanism turns into obesity and weight-related health problems.

Working with nature instead of against it

Intermittent fasting simply gives your body time to burn the fat you’ve stored—just as if you were an animal in the wild. Rather than eating three meals a day, you skip one per day, or maybe two, or an entire day. There are several approaches, which we’ll get into later, but the basic thrust is: Don’t eat for a while. Then eat. Repeat.

For a more scientific explanation, consider this. Your body has a really hard time burning fat when your insulin levels are relatively high. Well, your insulin levels spike for the three to five hours after you eat. If you eat three meals a day, spread out evenly throughout the day, your insulin levels remain elevated throughout the day. Consequently, you don’t burn fat.

And it’s not just about burning fat. Giving your body a break has several health benefits. Various studies have been conducted on the subject and the findings suggest that intermittent fasting  can increase our resistance to common diseases, makes us more insulin responsive (meaning we’re more resistant to diabetes), and decreases levels of triglycerides in your blood—which lowers your risk of developing heart disease. And here’s a shocking one. Scientists put various animals on an intermittent fasting schedule and found that it increased their lifespan by as much as one-third.

How to get started

 Like I wrote above, there are several approaches. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the more popular ones.

  • 16 hours off, 8 hours on - Basically, you skip breakfast. Only eat between, say, 1pm and 9pm.
  • 24 hours, once a week - Skip eating one day a week—a full 24 hours.
  • Alternating 24-hour fasts - For example, don’t eat Monday, but eat normally on Tuesday. Don’t eat Wednesday, but eat normally on Thursday, etc.
  • “The Warrior” - Named as such because it is a common training regimen for certain types of athletes in Asia. Essentially, you fast for 20 hours a day—with the exception of two very small snacks throughout the day—and have a very large dinner.

However, for first-timers, it might be best to start off nice and easy. And this goes double for women, whose hormones respond differently to hunger than men. One thing you might try is a “16 hours off, 8 hours on” fast three or four days a week instead of every day. This allows your body and mind to adjust to a different schedule.

Diet and exercise

If you’ve followed the AskDrErnst diet and exercise recommendations, you’ll find that it’s basically the same when participating in intermittent fasting. Don’t eat processed or added sugar, avoid carbs and starches, drink as much water as you can, get lots of green vegetables and eat your proteins. Just make sure it’s all organic, grass-fed, wild caught and free range just to keep unnecessary toxins and hormones out of the mix.

As for exercise, don’t stop. Just because you’re fasting doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep moving. The only caveat is this: if you’re just getting started and you’re skipping days, do your heavy cardio on the days you don’t fast and for the days when you do fast, stick to things like strength training, yoga or light cardio.

The mental game

The last thing I want to say about intermittent fasting is this: the struggle—just like so much else in life—is in your head.

Most of the time you think you’re hungry, you are actually responding to a pattern or, in many cases, a chemical dependency. No you don’t need that 3pm piece of cake. You’re going to live without your Captain Crunch in the morning. There’s a difference between “head hunger” and “body hunger.”

We are creatures of habit and shaking the three square meals a day can be tough at first. Just stick with it; pretty soon you’ll have a new habit.

If you want to learn more about fine tuning your body, losing weight, looking good, feeling better and just generally taking control of your life, join me for my “Total Body Makeover” seminar on Saturday, January 23rd at 11am at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in North Charlotte. Just click the link below to register.

And hey, Happy New Year. 2016 is going to be great for you, I can tell.