A tongue-in-check adage about diets goes like this - the best diet is one you can stick to.
This is truer than it might seem at first glance. There's a few reasons for that:
Weight loss is a >$100bn marketplace globally. This marketplace has two pillars - exercise and diet. Lets ignore the first for now and dig deep into the second.
Dieting is defined as a course of food that a person restricts themselves to for achieving a certain goal. This goal might be religious, medical, lifestyle or community oriented.
While the others are straightforward, when it comes to medical or health reasons, there is no clear set of goals or guidelines that work for everybody.
Cue the marketplace. What we end up with is a mishmash of conflicting advice, prescriptive paths, packaged solutions and ‘health foods’, all of which promise a quick and simple way to reach the promised land - lower weight, better health markers, more energy and lower risks. Unfortunately, the truth is not this simple.
These diets fall into a few broad categories
- Low fat diets - The premise is that eating fat makes you fat, so lets cut the fat out. The good is that most junk food does fall in this category - chips, biscuits, burgers and so on. It also means that a lot of good food is also cut out - nuts, meats, diary. This diet is neither as healthy as its proponents believe, nor is it easy to maintain over a length of time given how it takes the fun out of your meals, however it is what most people who ‘diet’ follow.
- Low Carb diets - This is a more recent phenomenon and it takes many forms, from Atkins to Keto to other forms of branded and unbranded ‘Low Carb’ diets. The premise is that an excess of simple carbohydrates are the cause of weight gain, metabolic diseases and poor insulinemic response. A diet that cuts these out and substitutes it with fat trains the body to tap into our fat reserves for its needs while also leveling out the insulinemic response. While the premise of the diet is sound, many of them require a ridiculously low amount of net cars in the diet, which makes it very hard to maintain as a vegetarian or vegan, as well as creates micronutrient and fiber imbalances or shortages.
- One-trick pony diets - These range from silly to harmful. Examples include juice cleanses, the GM diet and so on. These will just harm you, period. Any gains seen are usually just water losses that bounce back within a week of stopping. The damage you do to your body takes much longer to repair.
- Lifestyle oriented diets - These harken to a healthier and better time or place - the Mediterranean diet or the paleo diet are good examples. These are good choices as long as they promote eating less processed food and a balance of nutrients. WHen they shift from that goal, one needs to look at what balance they're looking at and what that'd achieve.
At the end of the day, each diet looks to cause large-scale changes in one's lifestyle and eating habits, and is hard to maintain even while at home, much less when travelling or eating out. In addition, many of them are difficult and lead to bingeing or relapse given how much willpower goes into maintaining them every single day.
This is where intermittent fasting or IF comes into play. The premise is that you continue eating whatever you've been eating as long as its reasonably healthy and balanced, but you do so within prescribed windows which are shorter that what is considered accepted today.
So, instead of starting with breakfast, then lunch, a snack then dinner (and potentially another bedtime snack), you compress the eating window into 8 hours or less, but consume the same foods and calories as you do before. What this does is two things
- If you've been overeating, then eating fewer times helps put brakes on that habit. There's only so much one can eat in a single sitting.
- It reduces the insulin spikes and crashes that occur through the day and starts tapping into the body's fat stores towards the end of the fasting phase.
I've found this diet trivially easy to maintain. Given I haven't changed what I eat, we cook and prepare the same foods at home. Given the body is quite comfortable with short fasts, as evidenced by many religious traditions today, it doesn't take much willpower to push back the hunger pangs. It promotes a good balance of foods, and does not promote any reduction in calories other than what comes naturally.
In my case, its meant a lower weight as well as better blood and health markers overall. Even in my fasting window, I don't find any shortage of energy to exercise, so I can't see any shortcoming in advocating for it. The simplest is to start with a 16:8 window - 16 hours of fasting with 8 hours of feeding, after a few days of working up towards that with 12 hours the first day, 13 the next and so on.
If you're interested in trying it out, I'd suggest reading up about it - Dr. Jason Fung's books are good starting points - and trying it out with the help of an app such as the free and fantastic Zero, which is made by Kevin Rose.
Image Courtesy Dan Gold on Unsplash