I should start this article off with a few stats, in the interest of both context and ~transparency~: As of this morning, I weigh 127.9 pounds, and am 5’6″ tall. I have been practicing Intermittent Fasting for about a year and a half now, and in that time have fluctuated between about 126 and 136 pounds, usually landing somewhere in the middle. The past month in particular has been a time of stress, travel, and visits from friends and colleagues, so I naturally erred towards the higher side of it, but the past four days I’ve been working to get back to a place where I’m most comfortable by eating very lightly and “cleanly.”
Intermittent Fasting has been, by far, the only thing that’s ever worked for me in terms of weight loss and maintenance, and after a year and a half, I can honestly say that I like it even more now than I did in the first few weeks of starting it. As someone who fucking loves food, it’s been something of a miracle — a way of eating that allows me complete control over my body and appetite, where nothing has to be cut out and guilt never enters the conversation. When I started, I was around 155 pounds, at the very top edge of what is considered a “normal” weight for my height, but I was sedentary, low-energy, and constantly exceeding my caloric needs while undershooting my nutritional ones. I had no idea how many calories my body actually needed (between 1500 and 1900 per day, depending on my activity levels). I would often try fad-ish diets that either cut out entire categories or drastically reworked eating habits, without ever tracking calories, and wondered why I never saw any results.
It wasn’t until I accepted the physical truth of calories in versus calories out that I knew that maintaining a healthy weight/energy level meant knowing my needs and meeting them, in the way that made the most sense for me. I could arrange them in whatever way I liked, but so long as I was exceeding my caloric needs, I would never see the results I wanted. And Intermittent Fasting has been the only way I’ve found that has allowed me to stay on-target while accounting for a) loving food, and b) the error of human nature.
It’s also something that has been extremely helpful in terms of finances, because the truth is that most Americans overeat, period. We buy too much food, we eat too much food, we have too many meals and go out for too many of them. Overeating is part of our culture and our norms, and not knowing the basics of what a calorie is (let alone how many of them we actually need) leads us to wasting countless amounts of money (not to mention actual uneaten food waste) in an effort to satiate ourselves. As I consume about half the food I used to two years ago on a day-to-day basis, that is directly and significantly reflected in my budget. I feel lighter now in every sense of the word.
There are many ways to practice IF, but what I do is generally referred to as 18:6. Basically, there is a roughly six-hour window in which I eat, and the rest of the time I just drink water, tea, or coffee. I don’t eat breakfast (a bunch of water and coffee with a little milk does me fine!), eat a very light lunch around 2 PM (usually 300-ish calories, which I break down a number of different ways), sometimes a light afternoon snack, and whatever the hell I want for dinner and dessert. I find that even with a total carte blanche for my evening meal, I am almost never hungry enough to go over my needs, because my appetite has been generally trained enough over the past year and a half to eat to my needs. I never clean my plate while out (generally save about half), and serve myself small portions at home. I almost always have dessert, and when I have a particularly heavy day/week (travel, holidays, dinner parties, etc), I simply lighten up the next few in response. I used to dutifully track my calorie intakes so I could get very used to knowing what things “cost” at a glance, but now I can generally eyeball everything, and have a lot of stats about my usual foods memorized.
Now, it’s important to note that starting any fasting regimen — no matter the ultimate mental-and-physical health benefits — takes some working up to, especially if you’re used to overeating. Experts recommend (and I agree) to start pushing your skipped mealtime by about 15 minutes a day, so that your body has time to gradually adjust. Greatly increasing water intake, as well as things like coffee and tea, helps with this. It’s not something you can snap your fingers and do overnight, but once you get used to it, there’s really no desire to go back, and the idea of eating several large meals in a day becomes foreign and somewhat gross feeling.
All that said, in order to conquer IF (if it’s right for you), you need some solid strategies in order to make it a sustainable part of your life. And these have been the best and most useful strategies for me.
1. Remember that flavor is “free.”
I have always been a girl who seasons the hell out of her food (my childhood home perpetually smelled of garlic and onions), but IF has made me realize just how useful being liberal with the seasonings can be. When I make a pan of roast broccoli, it has 10 cloves of roughly-chopped garlic sprinkled all over it. When I make any kind of soup, I load up on the onions, garlic and dried chilies. All foods are spiced, herbed, and (hot) sauced as much as my heart desires, because they make the food satisfying and exciting while adding almost zero calories. My typical lunch these days (I go in and out of this particular routine) is the following: pretzel thins with spicy hummus and a laughing cow, a handful of raw nuts, carrot sticks dipped in Frank’s Xtra Hot, and a large apple. It’s tons of flavor and fiber, and hits a perfect balance of tastes and textures to make me feel satisfied for the rest of the afternoon. I love mixing sweet/spicy/salty/sour, and the more “free” flavor I can pack in, the more I enjoy my “lean” meals.
2. Remember what you actually need, and that hunger is not bad.
One of my biggest strategies for mastering IF has been to remind myself that my body needs a certain number of calories per day, period. The hunger I experience outside of that is (almost always) a combination of stress, boredom, anxiousness, and the overwhelming societal norm that we’re supposed to constantly fucking be eating regardless of our needs. I remind myself of that, and of the fact that hunger in and of itself is not a problem that requires an immediate solution. We should be working up an appetite before dinner — and that requires a couple hours of moderate hunger. Hunger is not something we need to constantly be batting away or muting, because it’s a natural part of being in a human body, just like having to pee or sleep. (Reasonable) hunger is not a problem.
3. Drink, drink, drink.
I drink a shit-ton of water now, and between water and herbal tea, I probably get through 5-6 pints a day. It’s still not quite enough, but it’s definitely a huge start from where I used to be. (I also average about one good-sized cup of coffee a day, spread out through the morning and the early afternoon.) The caffeine-and-water combo helps enormously in the morning to keep me in that wonderful “fasting” hum where I’m super-productive and don’t feel hungry, and drinking a lot of water throughout the day/while cooking dinner fills my stomach without me needing to overeat. It sounds like a dumb cliche to say “drink a glass of water before a meal,” but it really is true. Not only are so many of our “hunger” cues actually thirst, we have a really hard time as humans in a food-marketing-saturated society differentiating between what is a healthy amount of food, and what is just eating to please ourselves. Cutting your hunger by drinking a lot of water isn’t some duplicitous thing — it’s giving our body what it needs so it doesn’t want more unnecessarily.
4. Load up on veggies, and pace yourself with the “good” stuff.
I’m the Queen of Alternating Bites. Whenever I have a meal that has some wonderful meaty/carby/fatty thing, I try to have some large veggie item with it, like a big salad or roast somethingorother. I then — and this is key — alternate bites to pace myself. I try to do two bites of the veggies between single bites of the richer stuff. I do this because a) I like varying tastes/textures (people who eat all of one thing on the plate and then move on, such as Marc, weird me out). But b) I also do it because it forces me to give my body the stuff it actually needs and not fill up my hunger cues with the emptier, heavier calories. I stretch out and enjoy my richer food this way, and don’t feel the need to have as much of it. This has probably been the only strategy that allows me to eat every food I crave without feeling like any are taboo or off-limits. Yes, some foods aren’t “good” for you, but there are moderate and sustainable ways to eat them, even on a fairly-frequent basis.
5. Remember how much it sucks to divide up calories throughout several meals.
The truth is that the problem with most diets (for weight loss, anyway), is that most of us don’t need that many calories, unless we are super-active. And so any diet that will keep us under-calorie by a sufficient margin necessarily means — if you are eating three square meals and a snack — dividing those meals up into super-unsatisfying mini-meals, with no margin for error. Going by my calorie needs, I could easily overshoot my day with just one order of a burger, large fries, and a shake. And if I were to divide my calories into three meals and a snack, each one would be in the 300-400 range, and a single glass of wine or scoop of ice cream could put me over for the day, and over time I would slowly gain weight. And I fucking LOVE food. I cannot live with such constricted, unsatisfying meals. So I picked the meal I love the most — dinner, in my case — and worked my day around it so that I can just enjoy whateverthehell I’m eating for dinner, without guilt or fear of “ruining” my diet. It’s much easier for me to eat super-light throughout the day than to have several crappy meals that can never contain anything rich and delicious, and then to be racked with the worst feeling of all on a constant basis: food guilt. Nothing makes me sadder than people (and it’s most often women) who go through every meal with guilt, shame, and rationalization — no one should live like that, but if you have to make every meal super-low-cal to stay in a healthy range, you almost automatically will, because it’s so easy to “mess up.” IF has been the only thing I’ve found that frees me from that cycle.
6. Have other things to do besides eat when bored or distracted.
This should go without saying, but boredom eating is a #thing. Distracted eating is a #thing. I used to love half-watching episodes of the Real Housewives while mindlessly going through a bag of popcorn — calories I didn’t even remember or enjoy. Now I half-watch episodes of the Real Housewives while playing Threes on my phone, and hopefully (soon) crocheting a scarf (just gotta pin down my mom to teach me how). Either way, the key is getting a few mindless activities you can go to in your “boredom eating” moments, because otherwise you will find that stuffing your face is the automatic replacement for what to do when you have idle hands and a semi-occupied brain. People used to smoke, and now they mindlessly eat chips. Both are unhealthy, and both can be solved by finding something more productive (or at least less directly harmful) to do with your hands.
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