What are the benefits of intermittent fasting? Dr Janet Brill reveals how skipping breakfast can help you lose weight, feel more alert and reduce your cholesterol
We’re always told breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
But is it really? There’s actually plenty of research pointing to the benefits of skipping breakfast and following an intermittent fasting regime.
There are all sorts of ways to try intermittent fasting, but one of the most popular (and easiest to follow) is the 8:16 method.
Eat all your calories in an eight-hour window, but spend the other 16 hours in a ‘fasted’ state
That’s when you eat all your calories in an eight-hour window, spending the other 16 hours in a ‘fasted’ state.
16 hours might sound like a long time, but it’s actually very doable if you spend the majority of that time asleep.
If you’re someone who is making the most of lockdown lifting – seeing friends for dinner and frequenting your local pub, then skipping breakfast is your best bet for staying on top of your health goals.
Why skip breakfast?
It’s almost impossible to overstate the benefits of intermittent fasting and sticking to it consistently.
‘I just can’t tell you enough about the health benefits of intermittent fasting,’ says leading US nutritionist, Dr Janet Brill, author of Intermittent Fasting for Dummies and advisory board member of Fastic, the intermittent fasting app.
‘They’re truly remarkable. And it goes far beyond just weight loss. I am a huge, huge believer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be skipping breakfast, you decide on your ‘eating window’ to suit your routine.
‘That’s the beauty of intermittent fasting and why people love it so much, because each person can choose when and what works for them.
skipping breakfast works best, because that’s when we socialise least
‘But often skipping breakfast works best, because that’s when we socialise least. The key thing is to stick to it day in day out.’
If you’re new to fasting or want to know more about the benefits, an app like Fastic, which helps you keep track can be a great way to start.
‘It sets health challenges and also makes you accountable, which the research shows is key,’ explains Dr Brill.
‘Being accountable to a community, or another person is brilliant for helping you stick with it.’
#1 You’ll lose your lockdown weight
If you’ve been struggling to lose that muffin top you managed to acquire over countless lockdowns and Netflix binges, we hear you.
Just over a fifth of people in the UK gained more than five pounds over the past year, according to research by Run Repeat, so you’re far from alone in that department.
Skipping breakfast, aka intermittent fasting, will help you tackle your lockdown weight gain from several angles.
First, skipping breakfast will automatically reduce your daily calorie intake. And research shows that skipping breakfast doesn’t lead to an increased appetite later in the day.
Second, intermittent fasting works a special kind of magic on your metabolism.
Over a fifth of people in the UK gained more than five pounds over the past year
‘There’s this fascinating metabolic change that goes on,’ says Dr Brill.
‘Hormonally it’s very, very beneficial for the human body to have this kind of rest period.
‘First, you have a decrease in insulin. Insulin is what’s called an ‘anabolic’ hormone, that builds up fats, but (with fasting) you get the opposite. Insulin goes down and then all these wonderful hormones kick in that increase your metabolism and enhance weight loss.
‘You see an increase in human growth hormone (HGH) and also an increase in norepinephrine (nor adrenaline) which both increase the breakdown of fat for energy. So instead of an anabolic building, you have fat breaking down’.
#2 You’ll feel more alert
Intermittent fasting also helps to improve focus and concentration.
When our bodies have to work hard to constantly digest the incoming food, it leads to what many people call a ‘food coma.’
In contrast, during the fasting process, the body begins to use fatty acids and ketone molecules for energy, and this can help us to focus and feel alert.
‘Ketones are created by the liver as a means to energise your brain when you’ve run out of glycogen or blood sugar,’ explains Dr Jill.
‘When going into ketosis for short periods of time it is a wonderful thing as opposed to going on a keto diet, which is super unhealthy’.
Intermittent fasting helps to improve focus and concentration
Experts think our bodies were designed to work in this way as a survival tactic when food was in short supply.
‘It all goes back to evolution,’ says Dr Brill.
‘Back when we didn’t have exposure to food 24/7 like we do now, the brain had to learn to dig into our fat stores for energy.
‘Cavemen would rely on this kind of energy to become mentally sharper during the fasted state so that they could find food and survive’.
#3 You’ll reduce your risk of dementia
When we fast, cells that no longer work properly are consumed by the body and discarded (autophagy).
Experts think this process of ‘autophagy’ may have the potential to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Also, the ketones released when you fast will also help keep your brain healthy. Ketones are a type of chemical that your liver produces when it breaks down fats.
‘One of the wonderful things ketones does is stimulate a protein in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), that’s been linked with the reduction of neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It is like fertiliser for your brain,’ explains Dr Brill.
In fact, one study found that short-term fasting reduced Alzheimer’s symptoms in nine out of ten people.
#4 You’ll be at less risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes
Healthy fasting helps to keep insulin and blood sugar levels stable.
‘Intermittent fasting has been shown to decrease insulin resistance,’ says Dr Brill.
‘In type two diabetes, the pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin to open the gates to let blood sugar into the cells. And so when that doesn’t work, your cells become resistant to insulin, then your blood sugar level rises, and that’s not good’.
So why does intermittent fasting help?
Experts believe it reduces the fat in the liver and pancreas which means these organs can start to function properly.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to decrease insulin resistance
Even if you’re already suffering from pre-diabetes intermittent fasting can help prevent full-blown diabetes from developing.
A study from the University of Alabama put pre-diabetic patients on an intermittent fasting programme, where they ate only between 7am and 3pm.
After five weeks those who followed the restrictive eating pattern had improved their insulin function compared to those who ate the same amount of calories over a full day.
‘If you were to go to the doctor and your fasting blood glucose was at 130, which is diabetic, then you tried a fasting programme for a couple months, I guarantee that, providing you’re eating healthily and exercising, your fasting blood glucose will drop,’ says Dr Brill.
‘And that’s because of this decrease in insulin resistance that occurs as a result of fasting, exercise and eating healthily’.
#5 You’ll reduce inflammation and disease
Research shows that intermittent fasting reduces inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been linked to numerous diseases.
A 2013 study showed that fasting may reduce inflammation by reducing oxidative stress in cells when there is an imbalance between damaging free radicals and antioxidants.
‘Anything that lowers the state of chronic inflammation in the blood vessels is a beautiful thing, because inflammation is the driver of most of the chronic diseases that kill human beings,’ says Dr Brill.
‘Fasting will reduce inflammation, as will weight loss and reducing your blood sugar’.
#6 You’ll reduce blood triglycerides (type of fat) and LDL (bad) cholesterol
When you use body fat for energy, as we do in intermittent fasting, it can lead to weight loss.
Losing just 10 per cent of your body weight will help lower the LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and triglycerides circulating in your blood.
‘LDL is the cause of many disorders,’ says Dr Brill.
‘But with fasting you have a drop in the liver producing LDL cholesterol, which probably occurs due to many things: the fasting itself, the hormone changes and the metabolic switch’.
A high level of LDL can lead to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke so it’s well worth keeping this in check.
For more info on intermittent fasting: Fastic.com
Dr Janet Brill is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness expert, author, speaker, spokesperson, consultant and educator.
She is the author of various best-selling books, including one on intermittent fasting called Intermittent Fasting for Dummies.
Dr Janet Brill has also been a professor at several US universities, where she taught graduate and undergraduate courses in nutrition, health and fitness.