There is so much confusing advice when it comes to nutrition.
Some people say that you should eat 3 full meals a day, while others might recommend you eat 5-6 smaller meals.
Others claim that techniques like intermittent fasting are best, where you have periods where you eat and others where you don’t.
Yet, people often make assumptions about these techniques, such as the idea that intermittent fasting results for women are always negative and that metabolism slows down when you skip a meal.
With all of this different advice out there, it’s no wonder that people don’t know how, or when, they should be eating.
But, at the same time, eating patterns can have dramatic impacts on the human body. The most obvious way this happens is with weight loss but there are other implications too. This includes the potential for diet to influence disease development and mental health. Because of these implications, it’s absolutely critical that people choose a diet and a lifestyle that promotes health.
So, how do you figure this out?
One recent study (Nair & Khawale, 2016) delved into this area, taking a look at the implications that fasting has on health. The authors were interested in whether fasting can help to promote good health or whether it is a counterproductive technique. They were also strongly focused on intermittent fasting results for women’s health.
The topic is particularly relevant nowadays, as fasting is becoming popular as a diet tool, such as in the form of intermittent fasting and autophagy diets. Likewise, the approach can be used as a way to promote overall health.
The Study Itself
This study was a little unusual because it wasn’t experimental at all.
Instead, it acts as a literature review of the topic as a whole, with a specific emphasis on intermittent fasting results for women.
A literature review basically refers to researching and summarizing articles on a given topic.
It can be a good way of seeing what evidence is out there along with the outcomes of current research, although the technique does also have its limitations.
Often a literature review will be used as background for a study but in this case the entire emphasis was on the literature review.
To conduct it, the authors searched for studies using the following keywords:
- Intermittent fasting
- Calorie restriction
- Women’s health
- Women’s disorders
- Fasting and aging
- Fasting and health
The authors then summarized the outcomes of studies in the key areas of:
- Fasting and cancer
- Fasting and reproductive health
- Fasting and musculoskeletal health
- Fasting and metabolic health
- Fasting and mental health
In each of these areas, the authors were able to find significant evidence that fasting helped to improve health outcomes. Often, those results were specific to intermittent fasting but in some cases, the studies just considered fasting in general.
Overall, the evidence that the authors found shows there are a large number of studies showing various benefits connected with fasting, including improvements in both physical and mental health. This suggests that there is much more to fasting than just weight loss and that it may be a very powerful technique overall.
That conclusion matches what other people have found. For example, the site Self Hacked highlights 20 benefits of intermittent fasting. James Clear has also found intermittent fasting to be effective and he's been following the approach for two years.
The video below also highlights some of the research into intermittent fasting and the concepts that are involved.
Strengths and Limitations
The main strength of this study is that it considered outcomes from a number of different research studies.
As such, it is able to show that many different studies have found benefits connected to fasting.
However, there are also some major limitations with the study.
One is, as the authors noted, that the studies done on this topic have typically been pre-clinical, which means that they are very early studies and were extremely limited in their sample sizes.
Small studies like this are always an issue because typically larger studies are much more reliable in their outcomes. As such, the outcomes that were cited in the literature review were limited in reliability.
At the same time, the authors also considered a large variety of different studies, including some that considered intermittent fasting and others that considered fasting in general.
In fact, there are many types of intermittent fasting diets, so the various studies probably didn’t consider the exact same diet.
This means that the positive outcomes observed probably don’t all apply to the same diet.
Instead, some may be relevant for specific types of fasting, while others may be connected to a different type of fasting. However, the literature review tended to treat all types of fasting as the same, which is a major issue.
Finally, the literature review nature of the study meant that there were not statistics involved.
As such, the authors didn’t look at how many studies showed a positive impact versus how many didn’t. The nature of the research makes it impossible to know how many other studies were out there or what they found.
Because of this, the authors may have ‘cherry picked’ results. That pattern is far too common in blogs and in scientific journals, where authors highlight the research that proves their perspective, while neglecting other research that does not.
There is no way to tell whether this is happening here simply from the study – but the limitation does mean that the outcomes should be taken with a little bit of caution.
Concerns About Intermittent Fasting Results for Women
Despite the findings of this study and the popularity of fasting-based diets, there is some concern about whether fasting is truly a good technique.
An article in The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted this issue. In it, the author talked about current research, as well as the experiences of individuals.
As she pointed out, some people find the diet incredibly difficult in practice, ending up moody and frustrated while doing so.
There are also scientific reasons why intermittent fasting may not be as amazing as it sounds. One argument is that fasting isn’t as effective as people like to think because human metabolism is complicated.
In particular, there are concerns that fasting can promote muscle loss, as the body tends to burn lean tissue in addition to fat in order to obtain the fuel that it needs.
This may be a significant issue for some people and could potentially mean that intermittent fasting contributes to an undesirable body composition (1).
Such an outcome is concerning because muscles do play a key role in health and even in longevity (2). However, this issue isn’t likely to be significant for all people.
Indeed, the amount of fat versus muscle that you lose varies depending on many factors, including activity level, protein intake, gender, age and body composition.
Because of this, intermittent fasting may not be suitable for people who are already at risk of not having enough muscle. This can include people who do not consume much protein and postmenopausal women. Additionally, some people find that when they do fast, they crave carbs rather than protein, which tends to be counterproductive as well.
Nevertheless, for people who are getting enough protein and who are active, the potential of intermittent fasting to decrease lean tissue levels isn’t likely to be a major problem.
More than anything, this issue shows that we have to pay attention to our bodies.
For some people, intermittent fasting is an effective tool for weight loss. For others, it can even be a powerful overall lifestyle that promotes health benefits.
Yet, this isn’t true for everyone.
For example, some people find constantly feeling hungry while they fast and also develop some side effects, like having headaches or being constantly tired.
But, other people barely notice a difference in energy and find the hunger during fasting easy to manage. So, it comes down to individual differences and needs.
It is also possible to tailor intermittent fasting towards what works best for you.
For example, the following are just some of the different variations:
- 16/8: Fast for 16 hours per day, eat for 8
- 5/2: Heavily restrict calories for 2 days per week (500-600 calories per day)
- Eat-Stop-Eat: Fast for 24-hours one or two times a week
- Fast during the day, eat a large meal at night
- Spontaneous intermittent fasting: Skip meals as you want to or as you need to
People also sometimes adjust the timing of specific meals or the amount of hours that they eat. Often, it’s recommended that women fast for shorter periods of time than men, although not everybody agrees with that idea.
One other factor is eating disorders.
Intermittent fasting can be a healthy way to eat. But, it could increase the risk of an eating disorder, especially for people who are vulnerable. For example, some people may find that they eat less and less as they go along, which could become dangerous.
This doesn't mean that you need to avoid intermittent fasting. But, you should carefully evaluate how you respond physically and mentally to the process.
Intermittent fasting is popular as a weight loss tool and a healthy lifestyle overall and it does have advantages.
For many people, the diet is a great way to control what they eat without having to worry about counting calories or avoiding specific foods.
The outcomes of this study also suggest that fasting can help to improve women’s health overall and that it is a safe intervention.
This means that diets like intermittent fasting can be effective for some people – although it’s still important to watch how your body responds.
Nevertheless, much of the research into this field is still in its early stages and this particular study wasn’t experimental at all. As such, there is still much more research that needs to be done before we truly know how good fasting is for health.
At the same time, there is a lot of variation in how people respond to specific lifestyle approaches.
So, when it comes to intermittent fasting results for women, it seems like the diet type may be an answer for some people but for others, alternative approaches like a low carb diet or a ketogenic diet may be just as powerful.
In many ways, the answer is to learn your own body and to figure out what you respond best to. Doing so can take time but it is well worth the effort.
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What about you? Have you tried intermittent fasting? Do you think it is worth the effort?