The 6 Strategies That Have Made Intermittent Fasting Work For Me For 1.5 Years

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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.

Image via Pexels

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  • Anna

    I’m glad you found something that works for you, though I’m very skeptical that this style of eating would allow for the kind of exercise that is crucial to long-term cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health. Yes, this scheme is probably conducive to a low-impact, walking heavy kind of lifestyle, but if you’re an athlete, however casual, this is probably not going to give you the sustained energy or nourishment you need throughout the day.

    • HK4

      She never recommended combining IF with heavy exercise.

    • chelseafagan

      There are lots of athletes who use IF, actually! It’s extremely popular. They just adapt it to their schedule and increased caloric needs.

    • vitadulcis
    • That’s what I was wondering. I have a very small breakfast every day, and if I want to exercise in the evening, I have to plan for either a large lunch or to stop at home for a snack beforehand. Something like a 450-calorie salad doesn’t usually leave me hungry by the end of the workday, but I will end up with a halfhearted workout at best.

  • I really like your perspective on this topic. I’ve been playing with IF a little bit lately and do see the benefits. One thing that I think people don’t get about it is the need for the food you do eat to be really nutritionally sound food – healthy fats, lots of veggies, etc. Not 100-calorie snack packs of processed crap (which, once you stop eating garbage food, it all tastes so much worse anyway). Always enjoy your updates on this, thanks for sharing!

    • Lauren

      “Once you stop eating garbage food, it all tastes so much worse.”
      Yep.
      My doctor had me try gluten free for a year. I had some health issues and nothing was working, so we tried it as a last resort. It didn’t do anything. But, when I went back to eating whatever, I noticed there were a lot of foods I hadn’t eaten in a year that I did not miss. I remember biting into a Chips Ahoy cookie and thinking, why? Why did I used to eat these? Life is short, if I’m going to eat a cookie it needs to be an awesome cookie, not something that makes me think “eh.”

      • GBee

        100% agreed. I’ve never loved food as much as I do now that I eat healthier. Roasted brussel sprouts > chips ahoy.

        • SN

          “Roasted brussel sprouts > chips ahoy” This is scarily accurate in describing my food journey. Are you me?

  • Alicia McElhaney

    Glad this works for you, but truly I question the research behind it, and would love some medical info to back this, rather than a lifehacker article. You’ve gotten shit for this before, but I have to bring it up again: for most people, fasting like this is super dangerous, especially in people with anxiety/depression who can use food control as a coping mechanism.

    As an alternative, perhaps readers could consider intuitive eating. It eliminates “eating popcorn while watching Real Housewives” behavior that can be wasteful, yet encourages eating when you’re hungry. It works for me, I don’t fluctuate weight any more.

    • Summer

      Not to be captain obvious here, but a quick google search will yield literally hundreds of links to all sorts of studies about IF, including those done by actual doctors/scientists/nutritionists. I fail to see the logic in the alleged danger of IF if you’re an otherwise healthy, normally functioning person. If your calorie requirements are, say, 1600 per day, what difference does it make if you spread those 1600 throughout the day or save them up to allow for full enjoyment of a particular meal? In no way has Chelsea alluded to unhealthy caloric restriction. IF is purely caloric management; budgeting calories much as one might budget money.

      The bottom line for weight loss and maintenance is ALWAYS going to be calories in vs calories out. If you’re eating more than your body needs, you’ll gain weight. If you’re eating less, you’ll lose it. Manipulating intake to adapt to your lifestyle and your personal dining preferences is smart because it promotes sustainability and thus lessens the likelihood of losing weight only to put it right back on again after you return to “normal” eating after doing something drastic.

      Obviously, if someone has a history of actual disordered eating and feels that IF will send them into an anorexic spiral, it’s probably not the right tool for them. But it clearly works for Chelsea who is sharing her personal experiences (over a long-term use of the method) AND detailing her specific strategies, so it seems almost a bit silly to argue that it’s “super dangerous for most people.” It just isn’t.

    • Cat Psico

      I will say a lot of the studies around IF have been done with groups of men, and less frequently with women.

      (In my personal experience trying fasting, as a woman with low thyroid, I find not eating in the morning always make me want to pass out.)

  • Jen

    What do you do on vacation? When you have delicious Parisian almond croissants available for breakfast, do you still stick to IF or do you allow yourself a splurge? If so, is it tough to get back on track after?

    • chelseafagan

      Oh I totally mix it up on vacation! I usually just lower my calories for the following X number of days (based on how long I was eating ‘whatever’) so that it evens out in about a week. I’m doing it right now!

  • Ellie Rockhill

    I loved this article! For years I battled with my weight and this year I lost 40 lbs (I appreciate your transparency, so I’ll share mine: 5’9 started at 265, presently at 225)… here were the biggest factors that have worked for me:

    -Lower my stress. At all costs (quit a job, tell off my dad, move to a new city). And protect my stress levels, big time.
    -Protein shake for breakfast (about the closest I can comfortably get to fasting in the AM) – 150 calories
    -Lunch of grilled chicken/wild rice/mixed veggies – loaded up with flavor, like you said! About 300 calories
    -Walk daily
    -Yoga a few times a week (even if it’s the “Easy” class)
    -Waterwaterwater (like you, about 1000 mil a day)
    -And then, like you, basically whatever I want for dinner.

    It isn’t rocket science, or marathon training, or paleo, or crossfit. I love that you shared this, and I think it is totally a budget conversation too because I realized my cost for breakfast and lunch is deliciously low – about $40 a month for my protein shakes, and about $45 a month for lunches. That’s roughly about $2 a meal and I’m super happy with that (I know colleagues who routinely go out and spend $10-15 on lunch every day).

    • Sunny

      That is such a great meal plan! What do you use to make your protein shake?

  • Alexis

    This article could not have come at a better time for me – thank you 🙂

  • Omg just replying to tell you that you can totally learn how to crochet on YouTube! I’m a lefty and I found a series of videos that teaches for lefties 🙂
    Also love you and love TFD. I’ve been silently lurking and reading for awhile. Thanks for sharing about IF. I might give it a try

  • Judith

    IF seems a bit extreme to me but I like the idea of uneven calorie budgeting. I find that some dried fruit for breakfast is enough to jumpstart my day for only a small tug on my calorie budget. Plus, fiber.
    Though I think your own calorie budgeting is a thing that evolves constantly and you can’t really pin down more than guidelines.

  • Allegra

    Love this article! Chelsea, did you/do you count calories? How did you learn what 1500 -1900 calories looks like?

  • GBee

    Everyone has to find what works for them. I lost 30 pounds by counting calories and I have friends who say “calories don’t matter, blah blah blah” Yes they do – at least for me (and the weight has stayed off for over 3 years)! Unfortunately, I just do not have that natural switch in my mind that tells me I have consumed enough, so counting calories has solved that issue.

  • Chelsea, thanks for sharing this. I’m really intrigued by IF and I think it could work for me for a lot of the reasons you mention here. However, I’m wondering how necessary it is to have a relatively constant day-to-day schedule for this to work. Is it harder for you to manage your fasting mornings if you have a particularly active day, or an deviation from your normal routine? Also, do you ever have problems with low blood sugar? I’m a student midwife and once I start my clinical rotation in the spring, I’ll go on-call and will have a really inconsistent routine/sleep schedule (babies come when they want!) … combined with a couple 12 hr clinic days each week. Plus, I find myself prone to dizziness if I get low blood sugar. Any ideas for how to work around these constraints?

  • RIA

    I’m 100% an advocate for IF. The beauty of it is that the entire process is very malleable for individual lifestyles, and chances are you can find some form of IF that works for you that someone else might not do at all. I usually sip on coffee and tea until about 1pm, I MIGHT eat a piece of fruit, and I swear when I tell people that I generally don’t eat breakfast they look at me like I told them I’ve killed their dog. I’m surprised people haven’t been wanting to see you burned at the stake for being anti-breakfast in these comments! Thanks for writing this!

  • Cat Psico

    I don’t think IF is for me, but one thing I think would make it easier is if I could drink caffeinated beverages, since caffeine is a great appetite suppressant, and I’m sure makes the fasting in the morning easier. I am not able to drink caffeine, and morning fasting just usually makes me light-headed and sick.

  • chelster759

    I go in and out of periods of practicing IF, but I do find it really helpful for me, especially as someone who struggles with binge eating. For a while 5-6 mini meals was the ~thing~ to “rev your metabolism,” which is just a disaster for me. I would never feel satisfied and always be thinking about food, which never ended well. If I can enjoy one or two good sized meals and then totally forget about food for hours at a time, that feels great to me. Plus, getting truly hungry before eating has been huge for resetting and learning to recognize my hunger & satiety cues after years of abuse. It’s not for everybody, but definitely something to consider if you have similar preferences/needs.

  • Kendal

    “Hunger in and of itself is not a problem that requires an immediate solution.” This is so true, and something I’ve finally come to realize over the years. Instead of obsessing over how I can satisfy a hunger pang, I drink water and remind myself that I’m not going to die if I don’t stuff my face with something tasty. Great post, Chelsea – your insights into IF are appreciated.

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