My Experience with Intermittent Fasting
Let me start off by saying that my relationship with food has been a rocky one up until this point in my life. We have traveled through seasons of high’s and low’s together, from severely restricting calories to binge-eating everything in sight. It has been a journey, to say the least.
The first I heard of intermittent fasting (in a non-religious form) was in October of last year while listening to a casual conversation on one of my favorite podcasts, The Skinny Confidential. A little before the New Year, I had been in the process of planning my very first New York Fashion Week and was back on my “pre-wedding diet” of smoothies, protein shakes, and feeling generally starved all day long.
By January 1st, I decided to give intermittent fasting a go (based solely on the knowledge I received in TSC podcast episode). At the time, I didn’t realize it could be considered a lifestyle change or a long-term practice.
Now, by no means is intermittent fasting a new “fad” or “diet”. “Used for thousands of years, fasting is one of the oldest therapies in medicine.” It has only more recently come into the spotlight as health bloggers, nutritionists, and celebrities began breaking the stigma of fasting and talking about the endless health and lifestyle benefits. Although many people have been practicing the IF lifestyle for years, still very few of them are speaking openly about it because of the criticism that often follows from those who are uninformed on the topic.
In January, I began intermittent fasting with the 16:8 (fasting for 16 hours, eating for 8 hours) pattern. Being intolerant to eggs, wheat, and pork, you could say that breakfast isn’t exactly a favorite of mine, and it has never been a priority. So, switching over to this lifestyle seemed natural and effortless. I would mix up my extra large stainless mug with lemon water every morning, along with a hot thermos of water, fresh mint leaves, and a squeeze of lemon to drink until 11am. Some mornings I was also drinking a coffee at the office with a scoop of coconut collagen powder mixed in (read on for why this is wrong).
I remember immediately feeling less bloated and more energized throughout the morning this way, but some days I grew ravenously hungry by 11am when I was ready to break my fast. On those days, I was constantly watching the clock and counting down the time left until I could eat. It’s important to note that I was still restricting the foods I was allowing myself in my “eating window” as well.
So, I practiced this pattern pretty loosely, breaking my fast if I felt extremely hungry, stressed, or bored. After awhile, I forgot about it all together and would just naturally fast when I was extremely busy at work or preoccupied on the weekends.
Then, about 6 weeks ago, it popped back into my head out of thin air. It was a Monday and I was scheduling out my week in my calendar and making my list of top 3 goals when I thought “I should give that fasting thing a try again” I quickly grabbed my laptop and googled “Intermittent fasting podcast”, typed the name of the first one that popped up into my podcast app, and pressed “play” on episode 1.
For the remainder of my 8 hours at work, I listened to one after another, addicted to the information overload. I hadn’t yet shoved a protein bar in my mouth or gotten my usual collagen coffee, so I decided abruptly to begin again at that moment (and I was determined to become my own guru this time). Listening to this podcast is what taught me the science behind intermittent fasting, and has motivated me to make it a true lifestyle.
What is intermittent fasting?
“Intermittent Fasting is a pattern of eating in which you restrict the hours you eat each day, rather than the amount of food you eat. It is NOT a fad or crash diet, but rather a lifestyle promoting weight loss, health, and longevity.” - IF Podcast
To put it very simply: the focus is less on WHAT you eat, and more on WHEN you eat.
Think about it this way: as hunters and gatherers, we were not eating 3 large meals per day with snacks in between. Our culture (specifically American) has basically brainwashed us into thinking that we need to be shoving food into our mouths all day long in order to survive. How many times have you heard, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”? Or been told that in order to work out you need a pre-workout supplement and post-workout protein shake? It’s funny to me now, but do you know how many people actually think they are going to die or pass out if they don’t eat for 24 hours? It’s not our fault; it’s the result of the food and beverage industry trying to scare us into buying and consuming more (and more and more and more).
On the other hand, in the diet industry we’ve been told that the only calculation that matters in order to lose weight is calories in < calories out. What I’m finding out through intermittent fasting and the hundreds of research studies discussed on the podcast that I listen to is that our bodies are much, much more complicated than that.
“By entering the fasted state (which begins to occur approximately 12 hours after one's last meal), the body embraces a fat burning metabolism, up-regulating key hormones and neurotransmitters to ‘unlock’ your fat stores, providing you with resilient energy and weight loss. In the fasted state, you will not be hungry, since the body experiences near-limitless stores of energy from your stored body fat! (Think of those times you just had no appetite, even though you hadn't eaten in awhile, such as while involved in a fun activity.)
Not only is intermittent fasting great for weight loss, burning stubborn fat, and maintaining a lean body composition without feelings of restriction, but it also provides numerous other health benefits! Intermittent fasting supports the immune system, regulates blood sugar, helps protect against diseases (including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer), boosts longevity, and supports autophagy: the process by which the body breaks down and recycles old, worn out proteins on a cellular level.
IF takes many common forms, including the popular 16:8 (fast for 16 hours, eat for 8 hours), alternate day fasting (forgoing food for an entire day), and OMAD - eating all your food in one ‘meal’ a day.” - IF Podcast
“The common misconception about short-term, aka. intermittent fasting is that it would be just another fad-diet that soon goes away. The problem with that ideology is that IF was never a diet, it doesn’t tell you about foods to eat, nor about foods not to eat, or even about any macronutrient ratios.
Intermittent fasting can be done with maintenance calories, calorie deficit, or with a caloric surplus, you can do it even if you don’t track your caloric intake at all. That’s simply because intermittent fasting is all about meal timing. More specifically, about spending more time in a fasted state than we usually do.” - Anabolic Men
If you want to learn more about the science behind intermittent fasting, read this post.
Debunking 3 major myths
Myth 1: Intermittent Fasting slows metabolic rate
"Intermittent fasting isn't to calorie restrict; it's restricting the time in which calories are consumed," he said. "Waiting a few extra hours to eat your first meal will not make a difference in metabolic rate. Changes in metabolic occur with undereating — which should not be happening when on an intermittent fasting diet." - Insider
“In fact, short-term fasting (16-72 hours) can actually increase resting metabolic rate due to norepinephrine being released” - Plant Based News
There are many studies that show that an intermittent fasting lifestyle (18:6 or 19:5) does not slow one’s metabolic rate. The key here is that they do not recommend severely undereating or long-term fasts (more than 72 hours at a time), as these 2 things have shown over time to negatively impact one’s metabolic rate.
Myth 2: Intermittent Fasting breaks down muscle tissue
“It makes no sense for your body to use muscle for energy when it has an abundance of fat to tap into. Fasting has been shown to be incredibly effective at preserving muscle mass but decreasing body fat. When combined with resistance training it can actually increase muscle mass.
Protein is functional tissue and has many purposes other than energy storage, whereas fat is specialized for energy storage. How does the body retain lean tissue? Because of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Fasting increases levels of HGH (3) which is known for its muscle retraining and building effects.” - Plant Based News
There are many studies that show that working out (especially HIIT) while in the fasted state actually support increasing muscle mass and definition in the body.
Myth 3: Fasting = Starvation
“Fasting has NOTHING to do with starvation. It's about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Starvation is not a good thing. It occurs when you run out of stored body fat (sub four percent) to use as energy and you start to cannibalise muscle and vital organs in order to survive.
The human body has evolved to survive episodic periods without food. Fat is stored energy and muscle is functional tissue. Fat is burned first. The last thing your body wants to do is start breaking down muscle – it needs it to catch its next meal.
Glucose from food and glycogen in the muscle and liver is used for short-term energy and fat for long-term storage. Fat is not burned when plenty of glucose is available. When we go through periods of fasting, the glucose and glycogen levels drop, does this mean starvation? No! We tap into our stored energy reserves – body fat.” - Plant Based News
Although skeptics (like coworkers, family members, or friends) may perceive you skipping breakfast or lunch as a negative and unhealthy practice, just know that as long as you feel great and are fueling your body with the nutrients it needs within your eating window, you are not “starving yourself”.
How I practice intermittent fasting, my progress, and mistakes
The biggest difference between when I began and now is that I have learned the importance of CLEAN FASTING.
Clean fasting = water, sparkling water, black coffee, black or green tea. That. Is. All. When I am fasting for 19 hours every day, these are the only items I consume. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
Gin, one of the women behind the Intermittent Fasting podcast, breaks it down very simply, “Believe it or not, intermittent fasting is much more powerful than just being a means to eat fewer calories each day, and there's a lot more to it than the simple fact that we may be eating less food than we used to. It's important to understand that during a clean fast, our bodies are able to do many things that don't happen when we are in the fed state. We can access our stored body fat more efficiently and we are more likely to experience certain body processes such as ketosis and autophagy, which do many amazing things within our bodies related to health and longevity.
Keeping in mind that we want our bodies to have the optimum conditions for both fat burning and autophagy, it makes sense that we want to limit anything that would disrupt any of those processes. The question is: what actually DOES disrupt these processes?
First of all, it is important to understand that we don't want to spike insulin during the fast, because insulin is a storage hormone. During the fast, we want to BURN fat from our bodies. To do so, we want insulin to be as low as possible during the fasting time. Click here for an absolutely brilliant and simple explanation of how this works, with the key being: LOWER INSULIN=GREATER FAT LOSS. From that article: ‘even small increases in insulin, within the normal range, virtually abolish lipolysis, or the breakdown of fat.’
What spikes insulin release? Eating, of course; but sweet tastes also can cause your body to release insulin, since the sweet taste primes your body to expect food with calories. Your brain doesn't understand that you are actually drinking a zero calorie diet soda. The sweet taste tells your brain: CALORIES ARE COMING! RELEASE INSULIN NOW!” - Gin Stephens
If you’re still confused about what you can have during your fast, take a look at this post.
Currently, I follow a 19:5 protocol (meaning I fast clean for 19 hours every day and eat for 5 hours every day). After testing out the 16:8 and realizing that it didn’t work with my lifestyle (I need ALL the mental clarity and energy I can get during working hours), I switched over and haven’t looked back since. Often, I will do a 22 or 23 hour fast without even realizing it; I even went for 44.5 hours a few weeks ago accidentally after literally losing track of the days due to work overload. I am honestly shocked by how food no longer controls my thoughts on a daily basis. I love the amount of energy and mental clarity that I have while in the fasted state and I can’t imagine being bogged down by heavy meals and stopping every few hours to “snack” like I used to.
What I eat = (basically) everything. Obviously, I still avoid my food intolerances whenever possible. But, the biggest freedom for me is not making any food “off limits”. I also don’t count calories (for like, the first time in my life). I am learning how to truly tune into my satiety signals and stop eating when I’m no longer hungry. Crazy, right?
The standard 1,200 calorie diet for women is what I’ve followed my entire life. It didn’t occur to me that naturally switching it up, because your body may need more calories on one day and less on another, was okay. It comes down to this simple fact: I didn’t trust my body. I didn’t trust that it would tell me if I was eating too much or not enough. We monitor our intake to control the outcome when, actually, our bodies are much smarter than we are.
For the most part now, I eat a clean diet of seafood, veggies, and fruit (to satiety) because that’s what makes me feel best overall. That being said I definitely still indulge in sweets, comfort food, and wine if I want. A couple weekends back, Sam and I went on our weekly date night for giant fried chicken sandwiches and fries; we also attended an outdoor concert at a vineyard with friends just a few days ago and ate all the picnic snacks alongside a bottle of wine. (Since I bombarded Sam with all of this information, he started IF with me and loves it too!)
The difference and transformation so far
For reference: there has been a giant bag of “fun-sized” candy bars sitting in our office kitchen for the past 2 months. I am in there at least twice a day filling up my water and getting black coffee, and not once did I even WANT to peek into the bag or grab one. As a self-proclaimed chocolate addict, I still can’t believe that it doesn't appeal to me anymore. Those in the IF world call this “appetite correction”, or “a state in which an individual's appetite is regulated according to their body's needs rather than desires”. Things I’ve been craving: salmon, watermelon, kombucha, and plain sparkling water.
Just a few other benefits I’ve already noticed since I began IF: sugar cravings greatly reduced, gravitating toward healthier foods, no more binge-eating or unhealthy restrictive low-calorie days, no crazy mood swings from being “hangry” (Sam can attest to this one), SO MUCH MORE ENERGY, CLARITY, AND MENTAL FOCUS, bloating has been greatly reduced (especially in my face and stomach), food stopped controlling my thoughts all day (stopped watching the clock for my next meal/snack, snacking mindlessly, and consuming the exact amount of calories I thought I “needed”), more in tune with my body’s signals and real cravings, and I’m able to isolate different foods to see what my body reacts to/feels best digesting.
I am not intermittent fasting to lose weight, since I am already at my weight where I feel happiest and most in-tune with my body. I did lose around 5 lbs since I started intermittent fasting, but it happened over a period of time and was effortless/not strategic. The reason I will continue to practice IF is because it makes a difference in how I feel. I am noticeably happier, healthier, and more productive when I follow 19:5. From what I’ve learned, it seems that my body will naturally determine what weight I should be at, and will stop losing once my fat storage empties out, and I will be in the “maintenance” phase.
Also, since I have had significantly more energy, I’ve taken on more of an active lifestyle than before in the form of daily walks (sometimes 2 or 3 per day), using my elliptical more frequently, and strength training at home with low weights. I wasn’t planning on adding fitness into my IF lifestyle when I began, but rather it has been a natural progression that my body is gravitating toward in the fasted state. At this point, I am working on gaining muscle and toning my body over time.
If you want more info about exercise while fasting, read this.
Now, obviously this goes without saying that I will NOT be practicing the IF lifestyle when I become pregnant or am nursing. I am happy that I took on this approach now prior to becoming pregnant because I’ve been able to appreciate, trust, and love my body more and have adapted a healthier relationship with food and my weight. Once that season of my life has ended however, I have no doubt that I’ll return to IF to maintain a healthy lifestyle long-term.
My favorite resources for intermittent fasting
Books they highly recommend: Delay, Don’t Deny by Gin Stephens; What, When, Wine by Melanie Avalon; The Obesity Code by Dr Jason Fung; Feast Without Fear by Gin Stephens, AC: The Power of Appetite Correction by Bert Herring
Tips for getting started
First, think about your lifestyle and eating habits and consider if intermittent fasting would be a good fit for YOU. Just because something works for me or Joe Schmo in the cubicle next to yours doesn’t mean you should jump on board without doing your own research and experiment(s). Take in the information via podcasts, books, or join a Facebook group to ask questions (all linked above).
Next, decide what approach you want to start experimenting with first. I recommend either 16:8 (fasting for 16 hours and eating for 8 hours) or 19:5 (fasting for 19 hours and eating for 5 hours/this is also called OMAD or one meal a day), depending on your schedule. Remember: whatever you choose is not set in stone; you can play around with different patterns until you find what works best with your body and lifestyle. Once you decide on a schedule to start with, stay consistent and track your hours so you don’t forget or slip back into old habits. Once you become accustomed to daily fasting and make the lifestyle change, then you can become more flexible for special occasions, weekend activities, etc.
Recognize the importance of fasting CLEAN. You may think that adding a little lemon to your water, Stevia to your coffee, or nibbling on a few almonds during your fasting hours will help with the hunger, but in fact it will do the exact opposite. As mentioned above, anything that spikes your insulin is going to leave you ravenously hungry and unable to get the full benefits of the fast.
Don’t get discouraged. The adjustment period when beginning intermittent fasting is different for everyone and CAN be difficult. The adjustment period ranges from person to person, depending on many factors. It is normal to experience hunger or brain fog during your first week of IF before entering the fat burning state or your body learning metabolic flexibility. These symptoms will go away if you stick to your consistent fasting regime.
What I used to get through my first week of clean fasting: I stayed busy, reminded myself of the science behind fasting (I wasn’t “literally” going to die), listened to the IF podcasts on repeat, drank hot black coffee and plain sparkling water, and took walks whenever I felt like I wanted to break my fast early (by the end of my walk, I felt SO much better and could continue on).
When I first started clean fasting, I thought that I would grow hungrier and hungrier during my fasted state, when in fact the opposite was actually true for me. The longer I fasted clean, the less hungry I became. By the time I was breaking my fast, I didn’t even feel like I “needed” the food anymore (thus reducing the urge to overeat or binge).
In the end, my best advice is to keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many “rules” or try to make a bunch of diet or fitness changes while you’re transitioning to IF. All you need to remember is: practice clean fasting, no food should be “off limits”, trust your body and listen to your satiety signals, and fast for 16-19 hours per day to get the health benefits IF provides.
Want more tips on starting IF? Read this post.
If you want more reasons to try intermittent fasting, read this post.
Have you tried intermittent fasting? Tell me your favorite resource for intermittent fasting, or comment on my latest Instagram post and tell me your experience with IF!
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xo Anna Elizabeth