Whenever a new eating trend makes its way into the mainstream conversation, I like to give it a try. Whole30, South Beach, Paleo, Vegan -- you name it, I’ve tried it! Recently, I’ve been hearing about Intermittent Fasting (IF) nonstop. And while it’s not actually a new style of eating, it’s having a real moment and picking up steam in the wellness world.
I was weary at first. I’ve been told for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Now I’m being told that you should skip breakfast and wait as long as possible before eating each day. Mixed messages, right?
After researching the details, the pros and the cons of IF, I was on board to give it a shot. I consulted with D.C.-based RD Sarah Waybright of WhyFoodWorks.com to get a professional’s advice as I navigated IF for the first time.
Sarah shared some of the positive results clients can expect from IF, including improved energy, weight loss (if there is weight to be lost), improved blood lipids and glucose balance.
I’ve been playing around with IF for the last month and am ready to share my thoughts and experiences with you.
Let’s start with the different types of fasting. From my research, four types stand out as the most popular ways to do IF:
- Fast for 14 hours (women) to 16 hours (men) and eat for the remaining eight to 10 hours
- Eat regularly five days a week and for two days a week, only consume about 1/4 of your normal calorie consumption (known as the 5:2 plan)
- Fast completely for 24 hours one-two times per week
- Fast for most of the day, eat one meal for dinner
Only the first and second options seemed even remotely possible for me. Throughout my four-week experiment, I played around with both types. I followed the 5:2 plan for weeks one and two, and the 14 hour fast / 10 hour eating plan for weeks three and four.
Weeks One and Two: The 5:2 Plan
I found this plan to be fairly easy to follow. At the start of each week, it was important to plan out my two days of minimal eating. This was key to ensure that I wouldn’t have to fast through plans with friends. Planning also helped to mentally get myself ready for those tough low-calorie days.
As for my workouts, I planned to do lighter workouts on the mornings of my low-calorie days, before real hunger would strike. I prepped my kitchen, stocking my fridge with low-calorie items, focusing mainly on veggies as you can eat around 10 cups for 500 calories. I snacked on cucumbers and tomatoes, drank lots of water and had coffee and tea throughout the day. I probably had too much coffee during these days, in order to to keep my energy levels up as I got hungry. I believe if I stuck to this plan longer, I'd adjust to the feelings of low-calorie days and wouldn't depend on coffee or green tea quite as much.
I was hungry during the low-calorie days, but nothing I couldn’t make it through. As long as I could snack on veggies and drink tons of water, it wasn’t so bad. I really felt the effects of the low-calorie day the following day. I woke up feeling light and if there’s an opposite to feeling bloated, that’s how I felt. It felt great! But at the same time, the next day I felt super low on energy. I was surprised to find that while my workouts didn’t suffer the day of the low-calorie eating (I typically workout before eating anyways), my workouts did suffer the following day. If I were to continue with this plan, I’d schedule my lighter workouts the day after my low-calorie day instead.
Weeks Three and Four: 14 Hours Fasting / 10 Hours Eating Plan
For these weeks I switched plans. I did 14 hours of fasting a day (eight of which are while you’re sleeping!) and ate only during a 10 hour window each day. My biggest struggle was sticking to healthy habits during my 10 hours of eating. It’s easy to get in the mindset that because you’ve been restricting yourself, you can go all out when it’s time to eat. That’s not the point of the program and if you do this, it’s unlikely you’ll see results.
The other problem with this plan was the stress of preparing for the fast or coming off of the fast. I was either nervous about fasting and that I’d be so hungry, that overate pre-fast. Then, as soon as my fast was over it was time to chow down. I let my guard down more than normal because I felt like I deserved it. Sleeping late made this so much more doable, but sleeping as late as possible to shorten your awake fasting time doesn't make for a super productive day.
I found this plan to be harder to follow as it impacted every single day, whereas the 5:2 plan only impacted two days a week. This plan was harder to stick to when plans came up.
Beyond the Fasting Window
As important as the fasting window is, Sarah notes that it’s equally as important to eat the right things to break the fast. She recommends a meal high in protein and fat and lower in carbs. This helps you to feel full without spiking your blood sugar. Sarah’s top options for breaking the fast: nuts, eggs, whole fat plain greek yogurt, or steel cut oatmeal with nuts and seeds. After a fast, Sarah recommends making breakfast a large meal, about a quarter of your daily calories.
Next Steps: Will I Stick With IF?
Moving forward, I’m not planning to stick to an IF lifestyle 100 percent of the time, but there were definitely tidbits of knowledge I pulled away from trying IF.
One of my biggest lessons from this experience involved hunger cues. These four weeks allowed me to reconnect with my hunger cues that so often get ignored. A lot of us eat not because we are actually hungry, but for a variety of other reasons. Sarah and I spoke about this and it’s common for people to ignore hunger cues and eat when you're bored, when someone else is eating, when there is food in front of you, when you're stressed, etc. My IF experience reminded me what it actually feels like to be hungry and to listen to those cues appropriately. I’m very guilty of eating out of boredom and I hope that having a better understanding of when I’m truly hungry will cut this down.
Here are the biggest takeaways from my IF experience:
- It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. At first, I felt like I had failed if I didn’t hit my 14 hours of fasting. Sarah reminded me that any change is a good step, you don’t have to be perfect 100 percent of the time. So if you can do the 14 hour fast one day, but the next day your schedule doesn’t allow for it, that’s ok. Don’t give up on IF all together because you can’t stick to it completely.
- Experiment to see what works best for you. There are different types of IF because certain styles work better for certain people. Try them all, or whatever feels right, until you find one you can realistically stick with and feel good about.
- It takes time to find a rhythm. This is true of any new routine or habit, not just IF. If it’s hard at first, cut yourself some slack -- you’re still finding your footing. Be aware this will take time as you adjust to a new schedule and routine.
- Prepare! This is true of IF and most other healthy habits. The better prepared you are, the more successful you will be.
- Hydration is Key: This is a no brainer, but it’s always worth a reminder. Whether it’s a fasting day (extra important!) or a non-fast day, make sure to get proper hydration.
Interested in trying Intermittent Fasting? IF is safe for most people to try. If you have a history of disordered eating, however, it is not recommended. If you are on any kind of medication that changes metabolism (especially diabetes medication) or requires food to take, consult your doctor before you start. If you are unsure if IF is a good option for you, consult your doctor or RD before beginning a program.