Even if you normally eat a very healthy diet, it’s likely that you still have a tendency to overindulge and “let yourself go” during the holidays. Most of us do. And between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we seem to spend more time at holiday parties than we do at work, it can be especially hard to stay on track. But it’s still possible to stay healthy during the season of celebrations, and fasting can help.
Fasting is defined as taking periodic breaks from eating, typically lasting up to 24 hours at a time, once or twice a week. There are many health benefits associated with fasting, and the practice can be helpful in preventing obesity, improving disease biomarkers, reducing oxidative stress and preserving learning and memory, according to researchers at the National Institute on Aging. (1)
While you may be thinking that it’s not practical to fast during the holidays, the good news is that intermittent fasting makes it easy to reap the benefits of fasting without actually depriving yourself. One of the most popular methods of intermittent fasting is the 16/8 practice, which involves fasting for 16 hours and eating only during the remaining 8. And it’s actually easier than it sounds—just stop eating after dinner and skip breakfast.
Still not convinced? Let’s look at 5 specific reasons you should try intermittent fasting, especially during the holidays.
Fasting helps counteract the effects of overindulging on junk foods
Like working too much and not taking time for self-care, eating lots of heavy, high-sugar or processed foods is actually stressful for the body. But fasting can improve your ability to adapt to stress by changing the way certain cells and hormones work, meaning you’ll be able to better cope with the with sleep, exercise and dietary changes that often happen during the holidays. Fasting has even been shown to increase resistance against disease and to support the central nervous, digestive and cardiovascular systems. (2)
Fasting can help prevent weight gain
With cookies, cakes and casseroles on everyone’s holiday table, it’s can be easy to pack on the pounds in a relatively short amount of time. Fasting is one approach to practicing caloric restriction and preventing weight gain, and may actually be more manageable than regular, ongoing dieting because you only need to adhere to it certain hours during the day, or certain days of the week.
In one study, overweight adults who consumed 20 percent of their normal calorie intake on alternate days (a type intermittent fasting) lost an average of 8 percent of their initial body weight over the course of just eight weeks. (3)
Fasting supports a healthy metabolism
One of the most frustrating things about trying to control your weight by restricting calories is that this practice can slow down your metabolism, leaving you susceptible to future weight gain. However, studies have found that repeated spells of fasting for short durations during the week can provide metabolic benefits to people who have already lost weight. Research suggests that fasting contributes to metabolic regulation via effects its on circadian biology, the gut microbiome, and lifestyle behaviors including sleep. (4)
Fasting helps prevent brain-fog and sluggishness
Fasting can help keep your energy up during the holidays and other chaotic times of the year, when your schedule is packed and you’d rather stay in bed. Compared to both dieting and eating a highly processed, high-fat diet, intermittent fasting has been shown to actually improve energy levels and exercise tolerance.
Abstaining from all food for about 12–16 hours, a typical fasting window implanted in intermittent fasting, will force your body will use reserved fat stores for energy. This causes fatty acids called ketones to be released into the bloodstream, which have been shown in animal studies to help with cognitive function, improved brain structure, memory protection and improved learning. (5)
Fasting keeps you focused on what really matters (hint: it’s not the food!)
Ever find yourself at a celebration fixated on eating and drinking? Well restricting your eating window can force you to keep your attention on other things besides the bar or buffet table, such as engaging in meaningful conversations or meeting someone new. Challenge yourself by attending a company holiday party or another type of get together and keeping your primary focus on enjoying the company of others.
Getting started with intermittent fasting
First, choose the type of fast that’s best for you. As mentioned, there are several approaches to intermittent fasting, such as limiting your “eating window” to about 8 hours per day and fasting for up to 16 hours. You can also limit calorie intake every other day to just about 500 calories. With alternate day fasting, the goal should be to restrict calories by about 60–70 percent below estimated requirements, or to fast completely.
It’s also important to be aware that fasting does come with some contraindications. If any of the following conditions apply to you then don’t begin fasting without speaking with your doctor first: diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, liver disease, an eating disorder, you’re already underweight, or you’re pregnant or nursing.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. He recently authored ‘Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and Five Surprising Steps to Cure It’ and he operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites at http://www.DrAxe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DRJoshAxe.