What to Know About Intermittent Fasting For Women Over 50

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How Maximizing Protein Intake Can Enhance Your Results

  • What is Intermittent Fasting?|
  • Diet Quality|
  • How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?|
  • Benefits of Intermittent Fasting|
  • Muscle Mass and Health|
  • Protein Needs|
  • Optimizing Protein When Fasting|
  • Is Intermittent Fasting Right For You?|
  • Safety|
  • The Bottom Line|

As we age, it seems to get harder and harder to maintain our weight and lean muscle mass. This is especially true for women over 50 who are experiencing menopause with its estrogen and other hormonal changes that tend to encourage weight gain, particularly around the middle. Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle that includes adequate sleep, nourishing foods, exercise, and stress management techniques can be helpful for counteracting some of these age-related concerns. But intermittent fasting for women over 50 may be another healthy way to improve weight and metabolic health.

Early research indicates intermittent fasting can improve metabolic health, weight, blood pressure, inflammation, and fitness while maintaining muscle and bone mass, even in aging women [1]. This is all great news, but in my discussion with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon on the podcast, I learned that maximizing dietary protein intake in the first meal after the fasting period (preferably with 40 to 50 grams of protein) is a crucial component for success.

In this article, I’ll discuss what intermittent fasting is, how it works, and ways to incorporate it into your lifestyle. I’ll also take a deep dive into the importance of muscle mass as you age and explain why maximizing dietary protein intake may enhance your intermittent fasting results. I’ll show you how to calculate your own protein needs and share the best foods for reaching your protein target. Let’s start with what intermittent fasting is.

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What is Intermittent Fasting?

Fasting For Women Over 50

Generally speaking, intermittent fasting is when you cycle between periods of eating and periods of avoiding or limiting food [2]. You can practice intermittent fasting in a number of ways, some of the most popular types on social media are [2, 3]:

  • Time-restricted eating, whichincludes set fasting and eating windows and can be followed up to seven days per week. A popular example would be eating for eight hours per day and fasting for the other sixteen.
  • Twice-a-week (5:2) method, whichincludes restricting your daily calories (often to 500) for two days (nonconsecutive) a week and then eating a whole-foods diet the other five days.
  • Modified alternate-day fasting, whichincludes doing a modified fast every other day or on two nonconsecutive days per week.
  • 24-hour fast (eat: stop: eat method), whichincludes fully fasting (only consuming water for 24 hours) once or twice a week and then eating a whole-foods diet on non-fasting days.

Now that you know what intermittent fasting is, you may be wondering how it actually works.

How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?

What to Know About Intermittent Fasting For Women Over 50 - Research Backed%20Benefits%20of%20Intermittent%20Fasting L

While not yet fully understood, intermittent fasting may confer its health benefits in a couple of ways, which have been discovered from animal studies [2]:

  1. The ketosis theory (short-term benefits) suggests that intermittent fasting leads to lower calorie intake, shifting the metabolism toward more fat burning and greater insulin sensitivity (insulin is the hormone that controls your glucose or blood sugar). So, it’s easier to burn fat and you store less fat, which ultimately leads to both weight and fat loss.
  2. The oxidative stress and circadian rhythm hypothesis (long-term benefits) suggests that intermittent fasting leads to lower calorie intake with a resulting reduction in oxidative stress (a process that can damage your cells), increased antioxidant activity, and improved circadian rhythm (the natural sleep-wake cycle). This all contributes to a decline in cellular inflammation and increases autophagy (the way our bodies remove old, damaged cells that can cause disease), which then lowers your risk of chronic disease as you age.

While intermittent fasting technically just restricts the amount of time (and by default the number of calories) you eat each day, it’s important to also consider diet quality, and here’s why.

Intermittent Fasting and Diet Quality

Intermittent fasting is a tool we use to support health, but it should be used in conjunction with a meal plan full of healthy foods and other lifestyle measures (like exercise, healthy sleep, and stress management). You can significantly hinder your progress or even negate any positive benefit if you consume processed foods (like refined carbohydrates) or significant amounts of food during your feeding windows. You’ll probably get the most benefit from intermittent fasting if you consume a whole foods, anti-inflammatory diet (Paleo and Mediterranean are both good options) that includes enough protein.

Many people report positive mental and physical effects (like increased energy levels and weight loss), but let’s take a look at what the research tells us about the benefits of intermittent fasting for women over 50.

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Benefits of Intermittent Fasting For Women Over 50

If you’re looking to obtain or maintain optimal health as you age, it’s important to focus on creating a healthy foundation with your diet and lifestyle. You can think of intermittent fasting as another helpful tool we have in the toolbox for healthy aging.

While the research on intermittent fasting is still early, it appears to affect men and both pre- and post-menopausal women similarly. Short-term intermittent fasting can yield weight loss benefits and longer-term intermittent fasting may allow your body to rid itself of dysfunctional cells and prevent chronic disease development [2, 4].

A pretty large body of high-quality evidence shows intermittent fasting can significantly improve metabolic and heart health and also lead to weight loss [5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. People who fast have been found to have a 35% less risk of developing heart disease and a 44% less risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared to people who don’t fast [10]. Menopausal women who practice intermittent fasting can also experience improvement in many of the common symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem [11]. And, some research suggests intermittent fasting can reverse mild cognitive decline [12].

Other research-backed benefits of intermittent fasting include:

  • Improved fitness and athletic performance [13, 14]
  • Lower inflammation [15]
  • Improved liver health [16]
  • Improved cognitive function [12]
  • Improved gut health [17, 18, 19, 20]

While intermittent fasting may have countless potential health benefits, it’s especially important for women over 50 to prioritize their protein intake during feeding windows to maintain their muscle mass. Let’s spend some time talking about muscle and why preserving this organ of longevity is one of the most important things you can do as you age.

Muscle Mass and Health

It’s great to have well-defined muscles, right? But when we look beyond the aesthetics, we see skeletal muscle does much more than just make us look good. It’s considered by many to be the organ of longevity. Skeletal muscle helps to combat the consequences of unhealthy aging like inflammation, immune system dysfunction, and insulin resistance. Essentially, the more muscle mass we have, the better off we are metabolically and otherwise.

We naturally lose precious muscle mass as we get older, and this effect is even more pronounced when we’re not physically active and/or eating adequate amounts of dietary protein. Loss of muscle mass is likely one root cause of the metabolic dysfunction and obesity that are plaguing us today.

Intermittent fasting typically leads to calorie restriction, which probably contributes to many of its health benefits. However, lower calories often also means lower protein intake. If you aren’t reaching your protein target during your feeding windows, you’re at risk of losing muscle mass.

I discussed this recently on the podcast with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon where she emphasized the importance of dietary protein intake (even when intermittent fasting) for maintaining skeletal muscle mass, specifically as we age.

For women over 50 who are having trouble with body composition (excess body fat and belly fat) and inflammation related to the changing hormonal milieu, there are a couple of simple solutions to stimulate and preserve muscle tissue:

  • Resistance training
  • Optimizing dietary protein intake

I encourage all women (and men) to begin and maintain a safe resistance workout program, but dietary protein is equally important. Let’s talk about how much protein you need to maximize your muscle health.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. However, this is the bare minimum and isn’t sufficient to support muscle protein synthesis as we age.

As the years go on, our bodies become less efficient at using dietary protein, so this means we need to eat more protein in order to have the same impact on the muscle [21]. Many protein experts recommend elderly adults (and all adults really) consume 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg [21] and Dr. Lyon generally recommends 1g of protein per pound of ideal body weight.

Here’s how to calculate your protein needs. There are 2.2 pounds in 1 kg, so simply divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 and you’ll have your weight in kg. Then multiply that number by 1.2 to 2.0 and you’ll have the range of protein (in grams) you need every day. So, a 150 (68.2 kg) pound person would need between 82 and 136 grams of protein per day and possibly more [21].

If you’re intermittent fasting for long periods of time or have very short eating windows, you may be missing out on protein. Let’s review how you can ensure adequate protein intake while you’re intermittent fasting.

Optimizing Protein Intake When Fasting

Women over 50, and especially those who are elderly, should make protein a priority during feeding windows. As we’ve seen, a lack of adequate protein can cause the loss of muscle mass, which is already a concern for aging women [21, 22]. Dr. Lyon recommends coming out of your fast with 40 to 50 grams of protein in that first meal for maximum benefit. This could be accomplished by having a protein shake along with a portion of a higher protein food. Here’s a chart of some protein-containing foods and the amount of protein they have per serving [23]:

Protein SourceServing SizeGrams of Protein

As you can see, animal, seafood, and dairy-based proteins provide far more protein per serving when compared to most vegetarian sources. That doesn’t mean you need to only consume animal-based proteins though. It’s important to eat a wide variety of foods, so feel free to mix it up as long as you’re reaching your protein target each day.

You’ve probably heard dietitians, other healthcare providers, and even your friends and family members talk about how great intermittent fasting is, but how do you know if it’s right for you? Let’s look at some things to consider when making your decision.

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Is Intermittent Fasting Right For You?

Fasting is often indicated in people who are overweight or who have metabolic syndrome, high blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin levels. But it may also provide benefits for people who are of normal weight and are generally healthy.

While there aren’t any specific guidelines, I’ve tried to provide a general framework in Healthy Gut, Healthy You. The first step in my Great-in-8 Action Plan is a short-term liquid only fast with Elemental Heal. The primary goal of which is to give your body the chance to rest and prepare to repair itself, but the liquid fast can also provide valuable information about how your body may respond to fasting. You can also pay attention to how you feel around your usual meal times.

The following chart includes some things you may want to consider when you’re trying to decide if intermittent fasting is right for you [24]:

Is Intermittent Fasting Right For You? Fasting Response Possibly

  • You feel better when you skip meals
  • You’re not hungry at certain mealtimes
  • You feel good doing a short-term liquid-only fast

Maybe not

  • You experience fatigue, irritability, hunger, and brain fog when you skip a meal
  • You’re hungry at or before mealtimes
  • You feel unwell on a short-term liquid-only fast

There really aren’t any strict rules around intermittent fasting but beginners may want to start out slowly. You could try a simple 14-hour overnight fast on the weekend and monitor how you feel. If you feel great, then you may want to experiment with the other forms of intermittent fasting diets to see what works best for you.

If you experience negative symptoms, that doesn’t necessarily mean fasting needs to be avoided totally. You can always give yourself a break, then return to fasting slowly. For example, you could start by simply replacing one meal per day with a liquid-only shake like Elemental Heal and then work your way toward a longer fasting window.

It seems like there’s really no downside, but everyone will respond differently. Let’s take a look at some of the potential safety concerns of intermittent fasting and how they impact women over 50.

Is Intermittent Fasting For Women Over 50 Safe?

One randomized controlled trial has found intermittent fasting to be safe, even for chronically ill people [25]. Generally speaking though, little is known about the side effects of fasting [22]. While you may feel great, others may experience side effects (or vice versa) like [22]:

  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Loss of muscle mass (if you’re not eating enough protein during the feeding window)

Intermittent fasting for women over 50 is likely safe. However, if you’re of normal weight and follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, I caution you to avoid fasting too much as you can experience brain fog, fatigue, and insomnia.

Since the effects of intermittent fasting on humans aren’t fully understood, there are some groups of people who probably shouldn’t fast or who should only fast with supervision. People in the following categories should check in with their healthcare provider before fasting:

  • Hormonal imbalances [22, 26]
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women [22, 26]
  • Young children [22, 26]
  • Elderly adults [22]
  • Immune deficiencies [22]
  • On medications that suppress the immune system [22]
  • Eating disorders [22]
  • Dementia [22]
  • On insulin or take other diabetes medications [26]
  • Seizure disorders [26]

Prioritize Protein During Intermittent Fasting For Women Over 50

Intermittent fasting for women over 50 appears to be safe and may be a great way to lose weight, improve metabolic health, and also reduce risk factors for chronic disease. As women (and men) age though, it’s extremely important to focus on maintaining muscle mass. Muscles aren’t just going to make you look good, they’re vital to your overall health, well-being, and function as you age. If you’re intermittent fasting and not reaching your protein goal, you could be doing more harm than good.

When practicing an intermittent fasting diet plan, women over 50 can maintain more muscle mass by adding resistance training and optimizing dietary protein intake (especially in the meal following the fasting period). Animal-based proteins provide more high-quality protein per serving, but you can meet your protein needs by eating a wide variety of foods. In addition to protein, it’s important to focus on diet quality during your feeding windows.

If you’re not sure intermittent fasting is right for you, we offer health coaching at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, which can be a great resource for determining what works best for your body when it comes to fasting.

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