Keto might be more popular, but is intermittent fasting a better diet? Here's what to know

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Recently I emphasized that a major benefit of a keto diet, a very low-carb, very high-in-fat diet, is avoiding garbage carbs. That is one key to success. In other words, and this is a critical point that is largely misunderstood, consuming lots of fat is not, in and of itself, a good thing. Gorging on fat does not in some mysterious way promote health and help you lose weight. On the contrary, if you consume lots of saturated fat, which typically is the case on a keto diet, you open yourself to a host of health risks.

OK, so why consume all that fat? It is a means to an end, and the end is producing ketones — an alternative fuel that is made in your liver when there is not enough glucose (sugar) for energy. As discussed last week, ketones provide a way of burning off fat while dieting, which is exactly what you want to do.

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This raises an interesting question. Is there a way to produce ketones without consuming outrageous quantities of fat? In other words, is there a better way, a healthier way to “go keto” than a keto diet? The answer is yes, with intermittent fasting.

What is intermittent fasting?

The key to intermittent fasting is “when” you eat, rather than an emphasis on “what” you eat, which is the basis of the keto diet. Intermittent fasting emphasizes prolonged periods of fasting in which you consume nothing other than water, black coffee or unsweetened tea — no juice, etc.

How long should you fast? That depends on the approach you choose. One approach is to fast for 24 to 36 hours periodically, like one day per week. Another approach is to fast each day for 14 to 20 hours. The longer the fast, the greater the impact to create ketones and reap other benefits.

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When COVID-19 hit big time last year, I noticed so many folks gaining weight almost immediately from the lockdowns. In response, I decided to go in the opposite direction. I had been dabbling with intermittent fasting here and there, but not taking it too seriously. So, I set two goals.

One was reducing my body weight back to what it was in high school (190 pounds), a loss of about 12 pounds. The second goal was getting rid of stubborn fat from my waistline and hip area (love handles). This is something I have been working at for years, but my healthy diet and copious amounts of exercise were not enough.

I had concluded that age was my enemy, and despite hours of cardio exercise and resistance training each week, combined with all kinds of sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts, planks, etc., fat on my waistline never budged.

What are some tips for intermittent fasting? 

I have long been a believer in eating when I’m hungry, rather than eating according to a schedule. This means that skipping breakfast or lunch was no big deal for me, and I began the intermittent fasting process by fasting 18 hours each day, eating everything (meals and snacks) in a six-hour window from about 4-10 p.m. 

This worked well and although I had not decreased my food intake, my weight began to drop. Seeing this initial success over the first few months, I decided to take the next step and increase my fasting time to 20 hours each day, and at times 22 hours a day, eating no earlier than 6 p.m. That’s when things really began to happen.

Ironically, I had to consciously emphasize eating more and more, because I didn’t want any changes that occurred to be due to simply eating less. Although I ate more, my bodyweight dropped, and the fat on my waistline dwindled to the point where my old “six-pack” resurfaced and my love handles disappeared.  Anita, my wife, was concerned that I was getting too thin and constantly urged me to eat more, which I happily agreed to do to stay at 190 pounds.

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So, what is a typical day of eating for me? In brief, I envision what I normally would have had for breakfast and lunch, plus snacks (power bars, nuts, etc.), and consume these “after” my first meal of the day at 6 p.m. I drink black coffee periodically throughout the day, which satisfies me comfortably until my dinner.

And, let me add, if I feel like cheating at night with a treat like a hot-fudge sundae, I don’t hesitate.

In addition, my workouts are great, with no loss of energy, even though I am fasted for many hours prior to working out.

Is intermittent fasting more than just a weight-loss tool?

When you fast you produce ketones, and you also increase the production of human growth hormone. This is important, because beginning around the age of 30, there is a progressive decline in HGH, and in my 70s, I assume my HGH level was very low before intermittent fasting.

HGH helps increase muscle and bone mass while decreasing body fat. These potential benefits really captured my attention, because in recent years, despite intense workouts, my muscle mass was declining. But with intermittent fasting, I have been able to reclaim some muscle mass and strength, while slashing body fat and revealing my former “six-pack,” and I think HGH is a key factor.

So, is intermittent fasting for me?

Intermittent fasting works better than any dietary approach I have attempted or recommended, and it offers several advantages over the typical keto diet. It’s contrary to a lifetime habit of eating throughout the day and it takes lots of discipline and commitment, especially at first, but once you are in the groove, it becomes second nature.

A note of caution. Start easy, like a 14 hour fast, eating between, say, noon and 10 p.m. or whatever time frame fits best for you, then build gradually from there. If you have a medical condition, be sure to check first with your doctor before proceeding. Also, if you are on certain medications that have to be taken with food and at certain times, intermittent fasting probably will not work for you. 

Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at stamford@hanover.edu.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Keto might be more popular, but is intermittent fasting a better diet? Here’s what to know

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