Is Intermittent Fasting Actually Harmful for Women?

Photo: Stocksy/Kristin Mckee
If you're always up for a good gut reboot (hello, humming metabolism and through-the-roof energy), you've probably heard about—or tried—intermittent fasting. The practice of abstaining from food—which has global roots in ancient Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures—made a non-religious comeback in recent years, starting with The Fast Diet craze in the UK (where you limit yourself to about 500 calories two days a week, followed by five days of eating pretty much whatever you like).

And that's only one way to approach meal-skipping. (According to Ayurveda, maintaining a 12-hour distance between dinner and breakfast is crucial, for instance.) But whatever type of plan you choose to give your digestive system a break, as proponents argue you should do, you've probably noticed that pro-fasting perspectives have one thing in common: They tend to skew male.

"Fasting can be great. But if you have thyroid, adrenal, autoimmune issues—sometimes not.”

In Silicon Valley, intermittent fasting is huge with biohacking startup execs. And at the recent Goop wellness summit, a couple of big-name male doctors shared their (non)eating plans. For Alejandro Junger, MD, best-selling author of Clean, creator of the Clean Program, and one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s go-to gurus, the “most important meal of the day” thing doesn't ring true: He never eats breakfast. And renowned heart surgeon (and inflammation expert) Steven Gundry, MD, chimed in, saying that he only eats one meal a day, each evening.

So does the extreme give-your-gut-a-rest philosophy work just as well for women? “Fasting can be great,” says Amy Myers, MD, a functional medicine specialist who was on the Goop panel with Dr. Gundry and Dr. Junger. “But if you have thyroid, adrenal, autoimmune issues—sometimes not.” (Reminder: Almost 80 percent of people with autoimmune disorders are female.)

Especially for women, there's a fine line between fasting and depriving your body of nutrients, Dr. Myers adds. She encourages women to look at health through a broader lens. Her holistic view considers the impact stress, exercise, and even endocrine disruptors from beauty products can have on your health. “I want to throw out there that food is important. But don’t overlook the other issues,” she says.

So before you jump on the empty-plate bandwagon, remember that giving your makeup bag and skin-care regimen a clean-beauty makeover and reducing your stress can have a major impact on your metabolism all on their own. (And taking a dreamy, tension-erasing mermaid bath is way more fun than listening to your stomach grumble.)

Other ways to bring those cortisol levels way down: Get out in nature or enjoy silence (which counts as a luxury these days).

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