When Intermittent Fasting, Don’t Just Count Calories, Go for Quality
Intermittent fasting (IF) isn’t about counting calories. The periods of abstinence trigger metabolic changes that result in multiple benefits, including the release of growth hormone that promotes muscle growth and facilitates weight loss. So, even if you maintain your usual daily calorie intake, you’ll likely lose some weight.
Some see the absence of calorie specifications in IF as a license to go wild, eating to excess in their non-fasting periods. In such cases, it would be unrealistic to expect to drop weight. But others, who restrict themselves to moderate intake and even calorie-reduced diets, may experience trouble losing weight or attaining their desired shape.
Stubborn belly fat or lack of muscle tone despite adhering to IF principles may point to a poor source of calories.
But Isn’t a Calorie a Calorie?
Increasingly, scientific research is proving that the “calories in equals calories out” equation many of us held dear isn’t the complete picture. So, what is a calorie exactly? And what do we mean by a higher-quality or lower-quality calorie?
Technically, a calorie is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. However, your body responds differently to 1,000 calories of fast food that is high in fat and sugar than it does to 1,000 calories of whole foods. These are some of the differences between the two:
- Whole foods like vegetables, nuts, and legumes have fiber that may prevent the complete absorption of calories by as much as 10–15 percent, whereas foods with inadequate fiber can negatively affect your bowels and leave you feeling bloated and/or with cramps.
- After releasing a single burst of energy, calorie-dense foods like candy bars and sodas could leave you feeling lethargic and hungry for the rest of the day. These peaks and troughs will impact your ability to work and exercise, whereas regular meals of whole foods with fewer calories will leave you feeling satiated while gradually releasing energy throughout the day.
- Processed “junk” foods also typically don’t contain the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients we need to function, recover from injury, and protect ourselves from disease.
- A diet high in fiber, nutrients, and protein is more conducive to building and retaining muscle mass and burning calories (even at rest), whereas a diet of processed foods can cause you to store more fat, especially around the belly.
-Finally, unprocessed foods tend to be more voluminous, meaning that you can have bigger meals that will leave you feeling fuller physically and psychologically.
When IF, How Many Calories Should One Consume?
Although IF focuses on when you eat rather than on how much you eat, many people will wind up consuming fewer calories by reducing their number of daily meals from three to, say, two.
If you are engaging in IF to lose weight, your calorie needs will depend on several factors, including your activity level, build, gender, and starting and goal weights. As an indication, think of 1 pound as equal to 3,500 calories. Therefore, if you want to lose 1 pound per week, reduce your intake by 500 calories daily.
However, your daily intake should never drop below 1,200 calories for women or 1,400 for men. The exception to this is when following the 5:2 plan, where you eat 20–25 percent of your average calories two days a week. In this case, there is no need to reduce your regular calories on your feeding days because your weekly average will decrease due to your fasting days.
No matter what IF method you follow or the average calories you aim for, it’s essential to choose high-quality food for the reasons outlined above. The benefits of IF are best realized by sticking to fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein during your feeding windows. An occasional treat is permissible, but ensure that sugar and refined carbohydrates don’t exceed 20 percent of your diet.
If you have grown accustomed to processed foods, it may take up to three months for your taste buds to adapt to the subtler flavors of whole foods. While you may initially miss the “buzz” associated with foods high in fat and sugar, you will eventually habituate to — and even crave — healthy eating, a process that is often facilitated by adding natural seasonings like fresh herbs and spices to your food.
IF encourages mindfulness in multiple ways, including about how and what we eat. We grow more conscious of how our bodies signal hunger and satiety and learn how to control our responses to each. Over time, you will be able to respond to your body’s natural signals and worry less about counting calories.