Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
In short, Intermittent Fasting is going an extended period of time without eating. At first glance that sounds like an eating disorder in the making – but as it turns out, 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.
The first time the term Intermittent Fasting entered my sphere of existence was at Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. I later came to read more about it in Mark’s book The Primal Blueprint and then in the The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris. The little that I’d come to I understand at that point allowed me to stop worrying that my “metabolism would slow down” or I would totally screw myself up if I delayed breakfast until I actually felt hungry or skipped any meal completely for that matter.
Then this study was released and I was suddenly eager to learn more about Intermittent Fasting. At the beginning of 2011 I’d already been working for a few months to lose those pesky 10 lbs that just love to creep back on when I get lax with my diet and the weight was not coming off as quickly as I would have liked.
I made my way around the interwebs with my friend Google and found The Retired Dieter, a blog that is extremely motivational 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.
The 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. I finally figured out that calorie restriction (at least the way I was doing it) was not working in the long term. I don’t regret counting calories, it was how I first began to truly understand the way food effects our weight. And while cutting calories and limiting my food intake would allow me to re-lose those pesky 10 pounds, it would 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.
I was intrigued by IF because everything I’d read made me think it would be an easier way to reach a calorie deficit without really noticing. 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 and the IF Lifestyle
In my pursuit of learning more about IF, I came to understand that many people choose Intermittent Fasting as a way of life. Some people regularly fast for 24 hours and then eat ad libetum for the next 24 hours. Some people do a 24 hour fast once a week. The Fast 5 recommends a daily 19 hour fast with a 5 hour “eating window” – which basically means you get to 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. I will say though that you will likely find IF more sustainable on a low carb/high fat diet – more on this below.)
When I was losing weight and was first learning about IF, I tried and experimented with many different fasting lengths and eating windows. I eventually came to find that a 16 hour fast with an 8 hour eating window was easiest for me. It felt the most “normal” and least extreme, and I still got all the benefits from fasting. I ate fewer calories over all without really noticing. I loved that I only had to deal with hunger once a day (in the morning), and that I didn’t have to completely give up any of the things I love like chocolate, nut butters, real cream in my coffee.
I came to find that I really liked this way of eating, and when I began to follow a more Paleo-esque diet (i.e., low carb, very little grain, sugar or processed foods) my body easily adjusted to my new eating schedule. I don’t even “deal with hunger” in the morning anymore – I eat breakfast when I feel hungry, sometimes it’s been 16 hours since my last meal (dinner), and sometimes it’s 12 hours. I respect my hunger and eat when I’m hungry. (If you struggle with binge eating, this is a very important skill to re-learn if you’ve broken yourself with dieting and calorie restriction!)
My current eating window is generally 10AM through 6PM most days of the week. Really, I’ve just pushed back breakfast and don’t snack after dinner. An 8 hour eating window with a 16 hour fasting window (of which 6 – 8 of those are hours are spent sleeping!) 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 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 running 3 – 4 days a week to help keep my weight in check, I now run once a week (only because I love it!), I practice yoga regularly, I play with my kids, I ride my bike when the weather is nice and try walk just about every day – 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” and am much more liberal with rest days than I have been in the past. I now understand that your diet and the foods you choose to has the biggest impact on your overall physique.
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 low carb, high 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, but it was New Atkins for a New You that finally helped me connect all the dots and find my groove.) I basically did it backwards – practicing IF lead me to the diet that makes fasting (and subsequent weight loss and weight maintenance) extremely easy and normal.
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 carbohydrates.
It’s worth noting that “low carb” doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat 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 giving up grains and sugar, don’t sweat it. Simply start by eating them less frequently and focus on making progress. You will probably find though that you’ll lose your taste and interest in these 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.
Practicing IF 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 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 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” (but I still counted calories then and wasn’t great at honoring my hunger – that period of time marks the beginning of my journey to the low carb/high fat lifestyle.)
The most amazing thing that happened in the months that followed my start with Intermittent Fasting was the way my body adapted to my changed eating schedule. I have NO craving for food in 16 – 18 hour period I go in a fasted state. I have no urge to eat or snack 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, I do my best to follow and trust my hunger cues.
At this point, the thought of late night snacking rarely even enters my head. I use to really struggle with resisting the urge to snack at night. 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 after 10AM.
And when I do eat? I EAT. Trust me. During my eating window I eat until I’m full and satisfied, which is not you normally get to do while you’re losing weight or putting a lot of effort into maintaining your weight. 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!) 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”.
Going such a long stretch without food 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 the low carb, high fat (with an adequate amount of protein) lifestyle – a dietary choice that eventually freed me from yo-yo dieting 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 day 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 Low Carb/High Fat diet has made it surprisingly easy for me to resist temptation, to stop eating when I’m full, finding other things to turn to when I’m bored, stressed or in need of comfort.
This seems to go against everything I 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 worried about all these things, 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.
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!)