Intermittent fasting (IF) has everyone’s attention–health enthusiasts, researchers, and even celebrities. All intrigued by IF’s potential health benefits and effects on weight management.
The concept behind IF is simple: during your fasting period, don’t eat calories so your body can tap into stored energy reserves for fuel.
Even though tons of people swear buy it and science has given it the green light…
There still a lot of talk around what you can eat during IF. Some people will say you can eat whatever you want…as long as you only eat during your eating window. But the the bottom line is that’s not true.
Instead of seeing your eating window as a free pass to eat anything (and everything), you want to prioritize nutrient-dense foods to get the health benefits of intermittent fasting. And this post will dive into which types of foods are part of that nutrient-dense diet.
But first, a quick recap (so we’re on the same page)…
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Starting with the basics– IF is not a diet. It’s an time-restricted eating pattern. That means it’s about when you eat (not what you eat).
This gives you a lot of flexibility and control over your periods of fasting so it fits into your life. Which is why a lot of people like IF.
The 3 most common time patterns for IF are:
- 16:8 (fast for 16 hours, eat during an 8-hour window. Usually every day)
- 5:2 (eat normally for 5 days, and eat 500-600 calories total in a day for 2 non-consecutive days)
- Eat-stop-eat (fast for 24-hours on 2 non-consecutive days)
There is also the OMAD diet (one meal a day), but that’s more hardcore side of fasting.
I’ve tried the16:8 method and liked it because I just pushed breakfast back by a few hours. But it doesn’t matter which intermittent fasting plan you do. Because you will cycle between an eating period and a fasting period with all of them.
Benefits of IF
People praise IF for 2 main reasons:
- Fat loss
- Reduce risk of chronic illnesses
Studies on IF show it can help reduce the risk for obesity. It also reduced risk of heart disease, T2 diabetes, age-related neurologic disorders like Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease and many cancer types according to John Hopkin’s Medicine.
Because you’re restricting your eating window, people tend to eat fewer calories. Which helps with weight loss/maintenance and reduces disease risk.
The fasting window also causes a metabolic shift in your body. When you’re fed, the body will use glucose for energy and metabolism first. But when you’re in a fasted state (aka you haven’t eaten), the body will use up all of the glucose and switch to metabolizing fat.
Even though this metabolic shift happens anytime you fast, your body still needs nutrients from quality food to work with. And that’s where a healthy and balanced diet come in.
And while there’s room for flexibility, downing a ton of unhealthy foods and booze during your eating window won’t do you any favors. Prioritize nutrient-dense choices to do IF the most effective way.
Nutrient-Dense vs Energy-Dense Foods
Nutrient-dense foods give you the most bang for your buck– more nutrients for less calories. Think:
- colorful fruits and veggies
- whole grains like whole wheat bread or oats
- lean proteins like eggs, chicken, plant protein
- Healthy fats like nuts, avocados, olive oil
The American Heart Association and other health organizations recommend the Med diet pattern-full of whole foods, lean protein, vegetables, and unsaturated fats– as a good model for a nutrient-dense diet.
Energy-dense foods are the opposite: They have few nutrients for the amount of calories they have. Ice cream, candies, and processed foods like frozen meals fall into this category.
Nutrition labels will help you figure out if a food is nutrient-dense or energy-dense. You’d be surprised what is really energy-dense even though you think it’s super healthy.
Check out how to read a food label here if you need.
The Pitfalls of Eating Whatever You Want
That “I don’t feel so good” feeling you get after eating a bunch of sugar, grease and fats…that still happens with IF. And it still impacts your overall health and well-being (in a bad way).
IF can’t magically make an unhealthy diet healthy.
You can still gain weight on IF.
Too much refined sugary foods will still give you a quick energy boost…before you feel that crash in your blood sugar levels. And increase your risk for insulin resistance.
Too much saturated fat or trans fats will still raise your cholesterol levels.
You might not see theses effects if you’re fasting and “keeping” the weight off. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
So, it’s essential to focus on wholesome meals that will keep you energized and satisfied.
Also, your body needs essential nutrients that only come from your diet. If you’re not eating a nutrient-dense balanced diet, you’re at risk for nutrient deficiencies (And nobody has time for those).
Balance and Moderation are Your (Dietary) Friends
Like with anything in health, balance is key. Pairing IF with mindful eating, choosing nutrient-dense foods during your eating windows, and staying hydrated can amplify its benefits. Think of your eating window as a chance to nourish your body after a fast. Not stuff it full of junk food.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can never eat “the good stuff”. The best way to get the most nutritional value out of your diet and eat “the good stuff” is to use…
Don’t down a whole pizza every week. But there’s nothing wrong with having a few slices a few times a month. And even if you do down a whole pizza once in a while, you’re fine.
You want balance and moderation when you look at the big picture of your diet. One day of “bad eating” (there’s no such thing) doesn’t mess up an overall healthy diet.
Remember, before diving into any dietary or lifestyle change, it’s always smart to consult with a healthcare professional like a registered dietitian to make sure it’s the right fit for you.
Practical Tips For Having a Nutrient-Dense Diet during IF
For those practicing intermittent fasting, meal planning during eating windows is crucial. Make sure every meal has your big 3 (macros):
Aim to fill half your plate/bowl with vegetables. Add a palm-full of lean protein. And a thumb-sized serving of fat (from the tip of your thumb down to the knuckle).
You my friend now have a balanced meal.
Start with gradual changes if you’re not used to eating like this. Sudden drastic shifts don’t set you up for sustainable change. And what’s the point of doing something drastic if it doesn’t help?
Meal prepping is a useful strategy for successful fasting periods. By planning and preparing in advance, we ensure wholesome meals are ready during our eating windows. This approach is practical, especially during busy times.
Having a support system, whether friends, family, or an online community, can make a difference. Sharing challenges and successes provides motivation and keeps us on track toward better health.
By following these guidelines, adopting a nutrient-dense diet becomes manageable. Taking consistent steps, preparing in advance, and seeking community support equips us for a healthier lifestyle.”
IF is NOT Superior to Other Weight Loss Methods
IF can be an excellent tool for weight loss. However, labeling it as ‘superior’ is subjective. What makes IF stand out is its simplicity and the fact that it doesn’t just focus on calorie counting. But you can get the same weight loss benefits from calorie restriction diets, and reduce your risk for chronic diseases with a balanced diet and active lifestyle.
Another myth is that you can skip meals and it’s fine. It could be fine…but you also risk undereating. Which is not good and while it won’t increase your risk for chronic illnesses like heart disease, it puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition which negatively impact your health.
You need enough energy to support you at your height, weight, age and physical activity level. It’s harmful to cut more than 500kcals per day from your intake and you don’t need to cut calories if you’re not trying to lose weight.
And finally, IF is not the only way to lower your risk of disease. Maintaining a healthy body weight, following a diet pattern like the Med diet and physical activity are also linked to decreased risk for chronic illnesses.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a time-restricted eating pattern gaining popularity for weight management and health benefits. It’s not a traditional diet but involves cycles of fasting and eating. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats during eating windows is essential. While IF can promote fat loss and health, it’s not a license to consume unhealthy foods. Also, IF isn’t the only effective weight loss approach, and other diets and active lifestyles have similar benefits.