Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
In short, Intermittent Fasting is going an extended period of time without eating. Although it might sound like an eating disorder in the making, Intermittent Fasting is simply a different style of eating that is safe, effective and comes with a slew of health benefits (including fat loss) when done the right way.
Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss
No matter how or what you eat, weight loss boils down to a calorie deficit. After using calorie counting to successfully lose 35 lbs in 2008, I still struggled with gaining and re-losing those last 10 lbs in the years that followed. It took me a while, but I eventually figured out that calorie restriction (at least the way I had been doing it) was not working in the long term. I don’t regret counting calories for weight loss, it was how I first began to truly understand how and what we eat effects our weight. Lifestyle and habit change kept the majority of my lost pounds off for good, but I would always have to resort to cutting calories and limiting my food intake to re-lose a pesky 10 pounds, only to have it inevitably backfire – I would struggle with insatiable hunger, overeating, constantly thinking about food and my next meal, and then slowly but surely would gain those 10 lbs back. This was not how I wanted to live and I knew something had to give.
A Little Background
In early 2011 I’d been working for a couple months to re-lose my those 10 lbs (again) when I first read the term “Intermittent Fasting” in Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple and also in his book, The Primal Blueprint. A short while later, this study was published and based on what it said, I was very eager to give Intermittent Fasting a try. The little reading I’d done about IF at that point gave me the confidence to try it without worrying that my “metabolism would slow down” or I would sabotage my weight loss efforts by skipping breakfast.
I made my way around the interwebs with my friend Google and found The Retired Dieter, a blog devoted to IF and is extremely informative and informative. From there Eat, Stop, Eat and The Fast 5 (both e-books) presented themselves, followed by Martin Berkhan at Lean Gains, Getting Stronger and Fitness Black Book – more great blogs all containing scads of helpful info on Intermittent Fasting.
I was intrigued by IF because it seemed like it would be an easier way to reach a calorie deficit without so much effort and discomfort. I hoped it would help me avoid all the negative repercussions that can come with the calorie restriction needed to achieve weight loss. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly enjoy feeling deprived or the obsessing about food that comes with cutting calories, or the after math (binge eating) if/when you do manage to find the willpower it takes to (essentially) starve yourself thin.
As it turned out, Intermittent Fasting was exactly what I was looking for – an easier way to achieve a calorie deficit without food on my brain all the time. I didn’t just want to lose weight, I wanted to lose FAT without driving myself crazy in the process.
How to Start Intermittent Fasting
There are many different ways you can approach IF. Some people prefer to fast for 24 hours and then eat ad libetum for the next 24 hours. Other fast 24 hours fast just once or twice a week. The Fast 5 recommends a daily 19 hour fast with a 5 hour “eating window” and declares that you can eat whatever you want during that 5 hour window – without going COMPLETELY crazy – but yes, you basically can eat whatever you want during that time.
If it seems overwhelming and scary to go such a long time without eating, start slow. Try a 12 or 14 hour fast to see how it goes, increasing your fasting length as you’re ready. If you’re ready to jump in head first, go for 19 hours and see what it feels like. I found that longer fasting windows (19 – 20 hours) were most effective when it came to weight loss, but too many days in a row of fasting for 19 hours would backfire on me and I would be overly hungry in the days that followed. I eventually found that a 16 hour fast with an 8 hour eating window was effective and felt the most “normal” to me. (I will also say that you will likely find IF more sustainable and easier when you eat a nutrient dense diet with quality carbs – more on this below.)
While losing weight, I tried and experimented with many different fasting lengths and eating windows. I would do a 19 hour fast (of which 6 – 8 of those are hours are spent sleeping) 2 – 3 days a week, doing a 12 – 16 hour fast the other days. An example 19/5 day would be having an “eating window” of 12:30pm – 5:30pm. Basically, I skipped breakfast (with exception of some coffee with cream) and would officially break my fast with lunch. I’d often eat a snack if/when I felt hungry again and then would try to finish up with dinner before 6. Other days I would do a 12-16 hour fast to give myself a break from the longer fasts or because I needed to accommodate something in my schedule or my family’s schedule. (i.e., Eating dinner together is more important than an eating window of exactly 5 hours.) If I meant I finished dinner a little later than 6 some nights, no biggie. I was very happy that it was possible to shift or extend my eating window as needed without derailing my weight loss efforts.
Simply put, I found IF a great way to eat fewer calories because I was only dealing with hunger once a day (typically in the late morning as I was closing in on the end of the fast) as opposed to spreading a small calorie allotment over the course of a whole day, needing to use willpower or distraction between meals, ignoring hunger on and off all day, feeling like certain foods were off limits and having to eat small, less satisfying quantities of food at each meal. One of things I love most about IF is that it allowed me to eat my favorite foods while still continuing lose weight – nut butters, real cream in my coffee, dark chocolate – all foods I would usually need to avoid when trying to lose weight. With IF, nothing had to be off limits.
Intermittent Fasting as a Lifestyle
I began using IF in March and by mid June I was down 15 pounds and comfortably back to my “happy weight”. During that time I came to find that I really liked this way of eating, and especially the way it allowed me to effortlessly maintain my weight once the fat loss was done. It got even easier after I began to follow a more Paleo-esque diet (not perfectly strict Paleo, but fewer grains, high quality carbs, quality fats, very little sugar) and my body continued to adapt to burning fat for fuel and relying less on carbs for energy. I don’t even “deal with hunger” in the mornings anymore – while maintaining my weight I eat breakfast when I feel hungry. Sometimes it’s been 16 hours since my last meal (dinner the night before), and sometimes it’s 12 hours. Thanks to IF it’s easier to trust my hunger signals and I know that I’m eating because I’m truly hungry, not because I’m bored, stressed, lonely or sad.
In general, my eating window is usually 8 – 9 AM through 6 or 7PM most days of the week. Basically, I eat a late breakfast and don’t snack after dinner. An 8 – 10 hour eating window with a 14 – 16 hour fasting window works very well for me and feels very normal. I do drink coffee with half and half or heavy cream (no sugar) first thing in the morning. I’ll sometimes put coconut oil in my coffee as well and find that it gives me a nice energy boost and nixes my appetite for a while too. Due to the fact that cream (or coconut oil) is just fat with no carbs, I believe this has little to no effect on my fasting metabolism. Therefore it seems that I still achieve the benefits found from fasting, even with some calories in my coffee.
Intermittent Fasting and Exercise
If I exercise in the morning, I do so in a fasted state with no problem at all, mostly because I believe I have metabolically adapted to using stored fat for fuel. I enjoy being active, but my fitness regime has never been as easy and laid back as it is now. After spending years doing steady-state cardio 5 days a week to help keep my weight in check, I now go for fun, enjoyable runs once or twice a week (because I love it!), I practice yoga regularly, I play with my kids, I ride my bike when the weather is nice and squeeze in some short HIIT workouts when time and energy allows – and I walk a lot! Some days I can get out for hour, other days I only have 15 minutes to spare. I don’t panic if I “miss a workout”, I change it up frequently based on what’s going on in my life (and the weather.) I now understand that your diet and the foods you choose to eat has the biggest impact on your overall physique. Exercise and staying active are absolutely an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but what and how you eat matters more in terms of body composition.
How to Make Intermittent Fasting Easier
Intermittent Fasting is easiest when you eat whole foods – you’ll likely find it easy to jump into IF if you already “eat clean”, and (at least in my experience) is easiest of all when you follow a lower carb, higher fat style of eating. I spent a full year trying to go low carb and struggled with the low carb flu. I read every Paleo book under the sun, I went “very low carb” for while, but finally came to find that I needed more carbs to support my lifestyle. I still eat pretty low carb when compared to the Standard American Diet, and any carbs I do eat are mostly high quality (sweet potatoes, fruit, some oats and sprouted grain bread) and I keep processed foods and sugar to a minimum. I basically did it backwards – practicing IF lead me to tweaking my diet in a way that makes fasting (and subsequent weight loss and weight maintenance) extremely easy and effortless.
If you find that you’re really struggling with IF, it might make the most sense to take a step back and look at foods you choose to eat and why, then return to IF when you’ve got healthier eating habits in place. Intermittent Fasting becomes MUCH easier when you have metabolically adapted to burning your own body fat for fuel and have gotten off the blood sugar rollercoaster that comes with eating a diet that is heavy in refined carbohydrates and high in sugar.
It’s worth noting that “low carb” doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat refined grains (and even sugar) ever again, but you’ll have better luck if these foods are the exception instead of a rule. If you can’t imagine cutting back on grains or significantly reducing your sugar intake, don’t stress about it too much. Simply start by eating them less frequently and focus on making progress. You will probably find that you’ll lose your taste and interest in most processed foods when you educate yourself on why grains and sugar are not good for us and the incredible impact the right foods can have on our long term health.
If You’ve Got a Weight Loss Goal But You’re Not Losing Weight
If you’re practicing IF and you’re not seeing any results, consider counting your calories for a few days to see where you’re at. Calories do still count! And while IF makes the calorie restriction necessary for weight loss easier and less noticeable, it is still possible to over do it and eat an too many calories during your eating window that halt your fat loss progress.
If you are actively trying to lose weight, also consider adding a few short, high intensity workouts into your week. HIIT can go a long way when it comes to keeping the scale moving in the right direction. Strength and resistance training are important too (this is true even if you’re not trying to lose weight!) to help you maintain muscle mass while cutting calories and also because the more muscle you have the more calories you burn, even at rest. The only resistance training I do is yoga, so know that you can keep it as simple as body weight training (yoga, Pilates, etc) or with weights if it’s something you have access to.
Practicing Intermittent Fasting While Breastfeeding
I had to stop practicing IF at the end of 2011 through the first half of 2012 during my pregnancy with our third child, but I returned to IF within a few months of his birth. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had no trouble getting back my 8 hour eating window after a hiatus, even while exclusively breastfeeding. I will say that I didn’t even try IF until I felt recovered from pregnancy and child birth and was confident that my milk supply was well established and baby was gaining well. I found IF to be helpful with losing 15 pounds of “baby weight” (although I did count calories during that time.)
The most amazing thing that happened in the months following my start with Intermittent Fasting was the way my body adapted to my changed eating schedule. I have NO craving for food in 14 – 16 hour period I am in a fasted state. I use to wake up ready to dive head first into breakfast. No more. I get up most days between 5 – 7 am and I don’t even start to think about food or feel the first inklings of hunger until 9 AM. I have completely broken my habit of snacking after dinner, something I’ve struggled with in the past. I do still occasionally eat later than 7 pm – at a party or when out for the evening with friends or if I had a later workout that day. I might wait to break my fast until later in the day when I know my eating window will close later than usual – but not always. Some days my eating window is longer than others and that’s fine.
And when I do eat? I EAT. Trust me. During my eating window I eat until I’m full and satisfied, which is not something you normally get to do while you’re losing weight or putting a lot of effort into maintaining your weight. It’s important to eat enough calories – yes, you are working to lose weight and need to reach a calorie deficit to do so, but you want to lose fat at a nice, modest pace. Quick weight loss is usually not fat loss, it’s not sustainable and often leads to quick regain. If you’re eating whole, nutrient dense foods, there is no reason to skimp on meals and snacks during your eating window. During my eating window I eat whatever I want (fortunately I “want” healthy, whole foods – but I’m a girl who loves to indulge from time to time too!) and the vast majority of my meals consist of a nice serving of vegetables, a decent amount protein and plenty of healthy fats to help me feel deeply satisfied between meals. Gone are the days of forcing myself to stop eating because I’ve “reached my calorie limit”. I’ve got a hearty appetite and I love to eat – but IF has also helped me become more aware of my sense of fullness and I stop eating when I’m no longer hungry.
Going long stretches without eating was absolutely a challenge in the beginning – I won’t deny that. The road was a little bumpy at first, but practicing IF lead me to making further improvements with my diet with higher quality carbs, healthy fats, adequate protein and keeping processed foods to a minimum. These habits have lead to a lifestyle that has freed me from yo-yo dieting, junk food cravings and the frustrating, annoying weight loss/regain cycle. If you persist with patience and make adjustments to the foods you choose to eat, your body and brain truly do adapt. It still amazes me that some days I go 16, 18, sometimes even 20 hours between my last meal of the day and my first meal the following day without any perceived effort or discomfort.
I’ve counted calories on and off since adopting to this way of eating and know that some days I eat way under my BMR and some days I easily go over. It all balances out over the course of a week and thus maintaining my weight has felt effortless for the first time ever.
My start with Intermittent Fasting unexpectedly gave me some new perspective about my relationship with food and all the reasons I eat that aren’t related to true hunger. IF has been one of many stepping stones on my journey to leading the healthiest life I can live – both in body and mind. I now find it much easier to enjoy food without all the preoccupation with The Next Meal – something I struggled with during my initial weight loss years ago. Intermittent Fasting in conjunction with a lower carb/higher fat approach to eating has made it surprisingly easy for me to break mindless and emotional eating habits, have no interest in unhealthy foods that I use to find very tempting, to stop eating when I’m full and to find other things to turn to when I’m bored, stressed or in need of comfort.
I know that IF seems to go against everything we ever thought was true; Going too long without eating screws up your metabolism. Your body goes into starvation mode. You lose muscle mass. You’ll totally binge and go nuts if you go too long without eating. If you’re intrigued but concerned about the safety of IF, do your homework and see for yourself that when Intermittent Fasting is done properly it can be very safe, as well as super effective at helping you reach your weight loss goals.
As always, please remember that I am not a trained medical or weight loss professional! I’m just a random woman on the Internet writing about what works for me and what I’ve learned in my journey to achieving and maintaining my happy, healthy weight. Intermittent Fasting has changed my life, I know it works well for many people and could potentially work well for you too.
Be sure check out an article on IF from the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, “Lose Weight Fast?” (with a quote from yours truly!)
A post with an update from August 2015