Intermittent fasting(IF) has gained popularity as a weight management strategy and has been associated with various health benefits. However, when it comes to women in their 50’s and beyond, there are important considerations to keep in mind. In this article, we’ll delve into intermittent fasting, and discover that what you might not know, can hurt you, especially if you are considering IF at this stage of life.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term for a variety of eating patterns that involves alternating periods of fasting and eating.
Rather than focusing on what you eat, it concentrates on when you eat.
It typically involves cycling between periods of fasting and eating within a designated window of time. The hope is that these cycles will optimize the body’s metabolic processes and provide positive effects on our health.
It is often recommended to boost weight loss, support healthy blood sugars, promote heart health and even guard against dementia.
Sounds almost too easy, doesn’t it?
Intermittent Fasting Methods
There are many different types of intermittent fasting, but the most common ones include:
1. Time-Restricted Feeding (TRE): This involves limiting your daily eating to a specific time window, typically 6-8 hours. For example, you might eat between noon and 8 pm, fasting for the remaining hours (16:8).
2. Alternate Day Fasting: This method alternates between regular eating and fasting days. On fasting days, caloric intake is significantly reduced or eliminated.
3. 5:2 Diet: This involves ‘normal’ eating for five days and significantly restricting calories (around 500-600/d) on two non-consecutive days.
4. Eat-Stop-Eat: This approach includes 24-hour fasts once or twice a week, where no calories are consumed during the fasting period.
Intermittent Fasting Benefits
The health benefits of intermittent fasting are touted all over the internet. Here are the main reasons women often consider using intermittent fasting:
Weight Gain: It is very common (and completely normal) for women to experience weight gain during the menopause transition. Perhaps the biggest and most sought-after benefit of intermittent fasting for women over 50 is weight loss. By restricting the eating window, some people may naturally consume fewer calories, which can lead to weight loss in the short term (we’ll come back to this).
Improved Metabolism: Some studies suggest that intermittent fasting can reduce insulin resistance. This is important for post-menopausal women as our hormonal changes tend to make us less sensitive to insulin levels.
Heart Health: Cardiovascular disease is the number one health issue that older women face-even more so than breast cancer. There is evidence to suggest that intermittent fasting may improve our heart health by by reducing cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure.
Brain Health: Intermittent fasting may increase the brain hormone BDNF and may aid the growth of new nerve cells. For any of us that has struggled with brain fog this is very appealing.
But before you get too excited and jump on the IF bandwagon, there are few things that you need to know.
What Are the Side Effects of Intermittent Fasting?
Hunger and Irritability: Prolonged periods of not eating can cause hunger and irritability. It requires that you tune out your body’s natural cues for nourishment. Hangry, anyone?
Disrupted Sleep: Fasting close to bedtime might disrupt sleep patterns for some individuals.
Nutrient Deficiency: Menopausal women experience changes in nutrient needs. Limiting our time to eat or restricting intake without careful consideration of nutritional requirements may result in deficiencies that can have lasting health impacts.
Low Energy: Caloric restriction, especially for prolonged periods, result in decreased energy levels, affecting daily activities and overall well-being. The menopause transition can be tiring enough without adding to it.
Compromised Physical Performance: Active women should approach intermittent fasting cautiously, as it may impact physical performance. Dr. Stacey Sims, a leading expert in women’s health, strongly advocates against it for women. Women over 50( and even before) need to be focusing on strength training to ensure our hearts, muscles and bones keep us vital. We can’t build our muscles without a steady supply of calories and protein.
Low Blood Sugar: Extended fasting periods can lead to low blood sugar levels, posing a risk for individuals, especially those with diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Trouble with Medication Timing: For individuals on medications that require food intake, intermittent fasting can pose challenges. Missing meals may impact the effectiveness of certain medications, and it’s essential to coordinate fasting windows with medication schedules.
Does intermittent fasting really work for 50-year-old women?
That depends entirely on your definition of ‘work’.
Much of the IF success seems to be spread anecdotally- “it worked for me, so it will work for you.”
As a dietitian, my goal is to provide you with evidence-based information and practical advice to support your health and well-being. And to be completely honest the research on intermittent fasting is less than stellar.
Many of early studies were done on rats, which I don’t need to tell you, are different from humans. The results can’t be applied directly to us.
The human studies on intermittent fasting are quite short, usually lasting anywhere between one week and one year, with most being just three months long. In this short timeframe it is impossible to know how safe or effective intermittent fasting is over a longer period.
Next time you see someone touting the benefits of IF, look up the studies and see how long there were carried out for. I dare you to find one that lasts longer than 1 year with positive results.
As well, many people drop out of these studies, which makes me wonder how adaptable it is for most folks.
And the news is even worse when it comes to weight loss benefits.
Is intermittent fasting a reliable strategy to achieve weight loss?
Based on the current research, there isn’t substantial evidence to suggest that intermittent fasting is any more effective than the simple method of calorie reduction.
And you know what? I am going to tell you the big FAT secret that no one in the weight loss industry will tell you.
There’s no solid evidence to prove that any method of calorie restriction leads to long-term weight loss.
For the vast majority of people, diets simply don’t work. Or more accurately, they are modestly effective for a while, but after a year or so the benefits are largely gone.
Even when research studies confine study subjects to a research setting — with carefully-controlled calories, food types, and physical activity, and with intensive counselling, teaching, and monitoring — the lost weight and other health benefits (such as improved cholesterol and reduced blood pressure) tend to disappear soon after the study ends.
Spending years going on and off diets and having our weights go up and down is not good for our overall health. Weight cycling has been linked to long-term health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
It can mess with your metabolism and change your body’s composition, making you lose muscle. On top of that, it can be quite frustrating and demoralizing especial in view of how easy many people make losing weight sound. ‘It’s just a matter of calories in, versus calories out’, they say. If only.
Dieting can also increase the risk of developing disordered eating or an eating disorder, which obviously has serious consequences for mental and physical well-being.
After all is said and done, I have to agree with a significant systematic review on intermittent fasting that substantial further research in humans is needed before the use of fasting as a health intervention can be recommended.
How can I be healthy without dieting?
Midlife is a time to nourish and care for your body, ensuring you have all the nutrients you need for a healthy and fulfilling life during menopause and beyond.
1. Consider following a Mediterranean style eating pattern, it prioritizes nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This approach provides essential nutrients needed in midlife and supports overall health.
2. Practice intuitive eating by paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Enjoy your meals slowly, savoring the flavors, and being in the moment. This can help improve your relationship with food.
3. Incorporate regular physical activity that you enjoy into your routine. Exercise can help boost your mood, prevent muscle loss, and support our well-being.
4. Recognize non-scale victories; focus on improvements in your health beyond what the scale says.
5. Practice self-acceptance and embrace your body as it naturally changes with age. Developing positive regard for what your body can do, instead of how it looks can help. Try some of these affirmations.
6. Consider consulting a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian who specializes in women’s health during menopause. They can provide personalized guidance based on your individual needs and health status.
Prioritizing how you feel and your overall health, rather than striving for a specific number on the scale, can lead to a more positive and sustainable lifestyle. Ultimately, the goal should be long-term well-being and self-acceptance, rather than quick-fix diets that often yield short-term results. Or can cause harm.
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