7 Things You Should Know Before You Try Intermittent Fasting

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I should admit here first and foremost that this article is a bit of a deviation from the usual TFD fare. And while Intermittent Fasting is definitely something that has been hugely beneficial for my financial and professional health — but more on that in a moment — it’s also not something that I would consider key for everyone, or even a good idea for everyone. I acknowledge fully that for people who struggle with food restriction in any way, IF can be a slippery slope, and can encourage many of the same behaviors those people are trying to free themselves from. IF works for me because I’ve never had issues with these things, and because I love the shit out of eating big dinners, so I needed to find something that would allow that while staying within a calorie limit. But again, it’s not a panacea, and I would never criticize someone for not wanting to do it for whatever reason. (One of the things I hate most about “diets” in general is how much their adherents act like it’s The One Answer for everyone’s problems. Fuck off, no it’s not.)

Anyway, I’m writing this because, as usually happens when I mention IF in one way or another, my recent Instagram on the topic elicited a lot of questions there and on Twitter about the details of my routine, and how it works for me. And in reference to that #totalhonestytuesday, I should also say that while, yes, I do sometimes struggle with not taking in the irrational praise and good treatment one gets for having lost weight, I would never stop practicing IF. I’m happy at my current weight, and even though it was an intense experience recently seeing a lot of people on a trip who hadn’t seen me since I was 30 pounds heavier (and made many, many #problematic comments about it), I know not to confuse my rejection of society acting like weight loss is a moral accomplishment, with my rejection of a lifestyle that works for me. Ultimately, I do IF because it allows me to eat nearly whatever I want without having to worry about it, and I want to stay at this weight because I am healthy here. I was personally not healthy at 155 — I ate way more than my body needed, and didn’t move nearly enough — and I know that.

I think that IF can work for a lot of people, and recommend it to anyone who is looking to control their appetite and calorie intake without giving up any food they love. I was never the kind of person who could do a diet that bans a whole food group or reduces every meal to an incredibly-lean one. If I’m going to sit down to a nice dinner of pasta and bread and wine, I want to go all in on it. But I also recommend fasting in general to people who are looking for a meditative practice that can help with concentration, energy, and general feelings of balance.

There is a lot of good research that says humans are more attuned to eating one large meal a day (it makes sense, if you think about it), and most people acknowledge that they feel immediately lethargic following a meal in the middle of a workday. Many people who practice IF do so not at all for weight loss, but rather to get into what I call the “fasting hum,” where you are more alert, concentrated, and energetic while feeling a light buzz of not-urgent hunger.

So, all of that to say, IF has a lot of benefit for a lot of people, regardless of what your goals are. And in the interest of helping anyone interested in starting IF with a more informed, reasonable perspective, here are 7 things you should know before you try it in your own life:

1. There are different kinds of IF for different needs.

A lot of people ask, when I mention that I’m a follower of IF, which “kind” I do. And that’s important, because there are different schedules of eating/fasting that work for different lifestyles and needs. There are people who do days of extremely-low calorie intake, or “fasting days,” combined with days of more-or-less “whatever” eating. There are also people who, like me, have windows of time when they eat and don’t eat. And within that, there are people who chop their eating times into lots of small meals, or concentrate on one big meal, depending on how they most prefer to eat/what their calorie needs are/their schedules of work and exercise. Personally, I eat between around 2 PM and 10 PM, and in that time, I usually have a very light lunch of around ~400 cals, and then eat whatever the hell I want for dinner, and almost always have a dessert. (In the morning, I’ll just have coffee or tea and lots of water.) I usually end the day around 1600 cals, which is just around my BMR (what my body burns at rest in a day). If I get a lot of activity in the day, I’ll naturally be hungrier, and will eat more that day in response. But on a “normal” day, that schedule works well for me, and leaves me satiated, meeting my calorie needs without exceeding them. And everyone has to find a different schedule that works for them in the same way, because there is no “one size fits all” with IF.

2. If you’re doing it for weight loss, it requires extra thought/prep.

Doing IF with weight loss as one of your specific goals is different from just doing it as a style of eating or for its meditative/fitness/energy purposes. Regardless of your methods, weight loss will always come down to calories consumed vs. calories expended. This means that your goal of weight loss will have to work in tandem with IF by first assessing the rough amount of calories you plan on consuming in your day, and how you’re going to structure that. Doing IF without the proper planning can result in simply cramming the same too-high amount of calories into a shorter window, and therefore no weight loss. I started IF by doing a few months of Weight Watchers to get used to the reduced calorie amount, and to get a really good understanding of the rough nutritional value of the things I was eating. I no longer have to count calories in a concentrated way, but I do have a much better base understanding of what’s going into my body vs. what I’m burning. But that took concentrated effort and research on top of changing my eating schedule, and it likely will for you as well, if that’s your goal.

3. You have to work your way up to it, and go with your gut.

First of all, when you decide to start IF, you have to assess what your natural eating habits already are. Whatever the meal you cling to least tends to be will naturally become your window of fasting, or you may decide that the 5:2 ratio of “fasting days” may be a better fit for your habits and needs. But it’s important that you go with what is already natural for you, and build out from there. Some people prefer to eat a huge breakfast and an extremely light dinner, and I’m the total opposite. I was never a breakfast person, so I simply cut it out and started pushing my lunch back by 10-or-15-minute increments over the course of two months. But that’s part of it as well: integrate the fasting into your life slowly, so your body (and, most importantly, your appetite) has time to adjust. You have to train your body like you would anything else, with slow, positive reinforcement. Eventually, your appetite will adapt, and you’ll realize that your brain doesn’t even really register those true hunger cues until it’s about time to eat, because you’ve trained it to not expect food until that time. But that can only happen slowly — doing it all at once will leave you in agonizing hunger.

4. The idea of “hunger = bad” has to go, forever.

All of that said, one of the biggest mental hurdles of IF (and the source of so much of people’s misguided judgment for it) is this idea that hunger is inherently something bad or dangerous. Particularly in America, we have gotten used to a culture of constant access to food and constant satiating of our hunger cues at the first sight of them. It’s almost seen as some moral failure to let yourself be hungry for a bit, and anyone who denies their first tummy rumblings — even for just a few hours — is immediately judged as “starving themselves.” But the truth is that hunger is actually good for us, in moderation, and is a much more natural state. Aside from the fact that many cultures deliberately practice fasting for its mental and spiritual benefits, it’s also just generally much closer to our natural state to not constantly be eating something, and avoiding the feeling of hunger at all costs. After getting used to IF, one comes to enjoy the light humming feeling of slight hunger, and to understand that it’s not healthy to constantly be quelling it any time it arises. It teaches you to appreciate your food, to be in control of your appetite, and to concentrate on things aside from the immediate acquisition of your next meal.

5. The goal is to control your appetite, instead of being controlled by it.

As I mentioned, most of us go around somewhat dictated by our next hunger cue. I certainly lived that way before starting IF, and thought it was just the natural way to be. But a huge benefit of IF is learning that it’s up to us to tell our brains and stomachs, “No, you will get food at the next meal time, and not more than you actually need.” Part of the reason so many of us exceed our calorie needs on a regular basis is confusing the temptation to eat with the actual, real need for food. And separating the two means it’s a lot easier to say “okay, I’m just tempted to eat out of boredom or emotion” rather than “I actually need to eat now, because my body needs it.” And once you dictate the terms of your eating schedule, your body follows suit.

6. Some days aren’t for fasting, and that’s fine.

Another great element of IF — particularly for someone like me, who is literally incapable of watching what I eat in any capacity on things like vacation — is how much it allows you to say “fuck it” some days, and then catch up later. Having days where you go over your calorie needs is easy to balance out (and, most importantly, not feel racked with guilt over) when you can simply ratchet down your consumption over the next few days. My routine is simple: while on vacation, I don’t worry about eating (although my appetite is naturally a lot lighter than it used to be, so I don’t go crazy-far over my needs), then I spend the next few days eating measurably lighter. For example, instead of having my huge dinner with lots of carbs and fats, I’ll have a humongous salad and a bunch of fruit instead of dessert. I still feel satiated, just on way fewer calories, and in a few days, I’m back to my stasis. Not every day has to be an IF day, and that’s what works for me.

7. People will talk shit, who cares?

Ultimately, people will judge you or give you weird looks or all but accuse you of having an eating disorder: fuck them. Seriously, tune it out, and do you. Most people I know who do IF, including myself, do it because we love food and don’t want to have to agonize over every meal. I find it so much easier to eat light through the day and then have a big dinner with whatever I want. That’s my primary motivation, and what makes me happiest about my schedule. It’s also what makes it feel sustainable in an indefinite and life-changing way, which is the most key element of any eating habit. I never feel deprived, and will never have to cut out one thing or another for any period of time. That’s what makes it right for me, and many others. But some people are still going to make comments, because they associate someone not eating for any period of time, no matter how small, with a negative. That’s fine! Let them have it. Do what is right for you, and what has the biggest impact on quality of life. IF is that for me, and it might be for you. If it is, the opinions and comments of the peanut gallery mean nothing at all.

Image via Pexels

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