Intermittent fasting has received a lot of attention over the past few year because it’s apparent ability to help people lose weight. Indeed, practitioners and many medical professionals agree that there are benefits beyond basic weight management.

So what is intermittent fasting, what are the benefits and is it suitable for people in their 50s who are trying to lose weight?

This article explains what it is, how it works and who should do it.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting, or IF, provides an eating schedule that creates periods of absence (fasting) typically followed by a window of time within which you eat. The practice of intermittent fasting specifies when you will eat a meal, but likely not what you will eat.

For example, a common fasting schedule is 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8 hour window for eating in each 24 hour period. That might mean skipping breakfast and having lunch at 12pm followed by an evening meal that you consumed before 8pm.

Other fasting schedules include 5:2 where you eat normally for 5 days each week and, for 2 days non-consecutive, you eat a heavily calorie restricted diet or a full day fast where you don’t each for a 24 hour period each week.

During a fasting period hormone levels in the body are affected, allowing “recovery and repair” to take place, which is beneficial for both weight loss and general health.

While our current cultural norms are to eat 3 meals a day, it has not always been that way. In fact it’s very likely that for most of human existence 1 or 2 meals a day were typical. That being that case, intermittent fasting is perhaps a more typical eating pattern for humans.

The key benefits of intermittent fasting

Probably best know for it’s effects on weight and body composition, intermittent fasting actually offers a whole host of benefits for overall health and fitness.

It turns out that giving you body a break from food allows it to do other things that are also critical for health. Who knew that snacks between snack was not goof for you!

Weight management

Many people come to IF because they want to lose weight. It has proven to be a great method of weight control and may well provide a more natural pattern for some.

During the fasting period, often while you are sleep, the body still needs energy, but turns to glycogen and then stored fat in the absence of energy immediately available in the bloodstream.

Time restricted eating likely has an effect on the number of calories you consume. If you eat less frequently and in a time restricted window, you will finish your day having eaten less.

The net result of your body dipping into its fat stores and a reduced calorie intake is inevitably going to lead to a change in body composition over time. That means a loss of sub-cutaneous fat and, more importantly, visceral fat from around your organs.

Hormones

While fasting your hormone levels will change. Insulin levels drop and human growth hormone (HGH) will increase.

Insulin is critically important here because it tells your body to store energy as fat. For example, when you eat bread your body digests it and converts it into glucose. That triggers the release of insulin which tells your fats cells to store the the glucose as fat. While insulin is present in your bloodstream, you’re not going to use your fat stores for energy i.e. You are not burning any fat!

Because fasting allows your insulin levels to drop, you open up your fat stores as a potential source of energy.

Human growth hormone will increase as you fast. The presence of HGH is associated with fat burning and muscle growth. In addition, it promote healing of tissues after an injury, boost the metabolism and can enhance the appearance of your skin.

Recover and repair

I like to think of fasting as giving the body a rest from the task of digesting food, processing energy, storing fat and the other associated processes. When you are in a fasted state, you body is able to focus on other tasks like repairing tissue and cleaning itself of damaged DNA.

The process of cleaning out toxins and conducting cellular repair is so important for healthy function of your body. Without it you run a higher risk of developing chronic health conditions such as cancer.

Longevity, both life-span and health-span, are enhanced when your body is able to regularly complete these tasks.

Reduced risk of chronic disease

Doctor checking healthy heart

As you age your quality of life is, to a great extent, a question of your general health level. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and your cardiovascular health will significantly affect that quality of life.

Being overweight or obese is strongly associated with the development of these conditions. Fasting can help directly or indirectly reduce those risks.

If your cells are permanently exposed to insulin, they become less responsive to the affects of the hormone. This is called insulin resistance and it is a precursor to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Oxidative stress and inflammation in the body have a damaging effect on your cells and themselves lead to premature ageing and the development of disease. Fasting can help reduce both oxidative stress and inflammation.

Brain health

Many of the problems described previously, such as insulin resistance, excessive blood glucose levels, inflammation or oxidative stress have been shown to have negative affects on brain health.

Studies in animals has shown that diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease may be positively affected by fasting, with the severity potentially being reduced or the onset delayed.

Modern life may be a contributory factor promoting the development of some of these diseases and fasting may help return our bodies return to a more normal state.

Intermittent fasting in your 50s

Intermittent fasting is thought to be safe for adults of any age. With that said, it’s worth considering the style of IF, the extent to which it is practiced and, as always, take into account the advice of a medical professional before embarking on any lifestyle change.

As we age it’s important to maintain our lean muscle mass because it is key in maintaining health, metabolism and mobility. Any dietary regime that severely restricts calories is likely to result in the loss of both fat and muscle. IF should be practiced in a way that is healthy and age appropriate.

With that said, all of the benefits are available to you in your 40s, 50s or even in your 60s. You could consider a slightly lighter version of the 16/8 fast by expanding the eating window to 10 hours. Or perhaps a the 5:2 diet would better suit you because it allows you to eat normally (if you are sensible) for 5 days each week.

There are no particular age related limits when it comes to intermittent fasting, but my recommendation would be to start slowly and modify your lifestyle step by step.

Family enjoying meal together

Personally, I found that the 16/8 diet suited me perfectly on most days of the week. Apart from the fact that it fit my daily schedule and allowed me to participate in family meals, I love that weight loss is not about counting calories and that I could follow a healthy and varied diet that didn’t leave me feeling that I was missing out.

One cautionary note perhaps – When I incorporated some body weight training into my routine skipping breakfast left me with less energy to workout. I ended up either shifting my eating schedule to cover breakfast with a 9 to 5 window or eating regularly on days when I worked on my strength.

Should you do IF?

Intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating that focuses on when to eat and not what to eat. It has many benefits including weight management and a reduction in the risk of chronic disease.

Is is suitable for adults of any age, but it’s important to recognise that it is a lifestyle choice and one that you need to commit to for the long term if you want to reach your health and fitness goals.

Should you do it? Any change requires some commitment until it becomes habit, but if your are motivated enough, it is possibly one of the simplest ways to restore your vitality in your 50s.