Does Intermittent Fasting Work? Here’s What It Can (and Can’t) Do For You

Have you ever skipped a meal to lose weight? Maybe you do it often. Whether the practice has worked for you in the past or not, the concept of restricting calories to shed pounds isn’t new. Only doing it a few times a week — a fad diet called intermittent fasting — is a little bit different.

Once you’ve learned all you need to know about fasting, dive a little deeper to see if it’s worth trying out for yourself. Before you give it a go, know the facts. Will it help you lose weight? Is it dangerous? And why is the concept of fasting only a few days a week so popular?

Fasting can improve your heart health

Researchers have found that intermittent fasting can improve some risk factors related to heart disease, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The problem is, studies haven’t clarified exactly why people who fast sometimes exhibit better heart health than those who don’t. Mayo Clinic speculates it could be because many who fast for health reasons don’t smoke, and tend to have more “self control” when it comes to calorie intake and restriction.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat smart for your heart when you aren’t fasting. This practice could absolutely promote heart health if you’re consuming plenty of healthy fats, fiber, and other essential nutrients — and not so much added sugar or saturated fat.

Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting | wen0092/Getty Images

Under the right conditions, it’s perfectly safe

For most people interested in giving this weight loss trend a try, there’s very little chance of harm. But the practice isn’t for everyone, which is why you need to consider your health history, current drug regimen, and lifestyle factors (such as how much and how often you usually work out) before getting started.

You probably shouldn’t fast if you:

  • Take certain prescription or over-the-counter medications
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a history of eating disorders
  • Are pregnant or nursing
  • Have anemia or low blood pressure.

This is why health experts encourage anyone considering intermittent fasting to speak with their doctor before doing so. Though you might not realize it, certain health conditions, medications, and other situations can make fasting extremely dangerous.

Woman eating salad

Woman eating salad | Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images

Fasting might not be the best way to lose weight

It’s hard not to jump on every new fitness or diet trend when you can’t seem to implement a weight loss strategy that works for you. When all the celebrities start raving about it, it becomes even harder to resist. It apparently worked for them — so it should totally work for you, too. Right?

Not necessarily. The major draw to intermittent fasting and other fad diets is that you can lose weight quickly — some even claim to knock off 10 or more pounds in a week. But what’s often happening is that your body is losing water and burning off stored carbohydrates.

The number on the scale might surprise you the first time you check your weight after fasting. But there’s no guarantee all that weight won’t come back once you return to eating.

It also doesn’t replace the benefits of a healthy diet

There’s a reason most of us typically eat multiple times a day, seven days a week. You’re constantly burning off energy, even when you’re sleeping. Therefore, your body ideally needs a constant supply of calories, vitamins, and other nutrients to keep your heart beating and other muscles on track.

Sure, intermittent fasting isn’t always dangerous. But it definitely doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to eat three or more times a day to keep up their energy levels, fend off brain fog, and complete everyday tasks.

On the days you do (hopefully) provide your body with sufficient nutrients, it’s not always possible to make up for the nutrition you deprived yourself of the day before.

And not everyone can successfully consume fewer calories when they fast intermittently. There’s always the risk of consuming more calories on average when you do restrict your intake and then suddenly break your fast. Everyone knows it’s much easier to resist 12 more potato chips when you’re full than it is when you haven’t eaten in over six hours (or is that just me?).

Whether or not intermittent fasting works on a large scale doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not it works for you. If your doctor recommends trying a different, safer strategy to help you lose weight, it’s best to follow their advice. If you try it and you like how it makes you feel — and it’s improving the way you eat, exercise, and live — then go for it. In the end, the choice is up to you.

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