#6 What I've Learned About Intermittent Fasting (the hard way)
This post is near and dear to my heart. To me, it represents the beginning of a new way of life, a new mindset, a new purpose. This gateway into my health and wellness journey marks the beginning of me saying "yes!" to being open-minded, to resurrecting a profound passion for learning, and to stepping out of my very rigid, but comfortable square box. "Can't teach an old dog new tricks?" I beg to differ.
I hope you are as impacted as I was. Here we go...
Question: Have you ever heard of intermittent fasting? Stay with me here. This could change your life.
Well, a few years back, I had never heard of intermittent fasting and when I did, it sounded very weird and unsafe. However, like with most new things, I didn't know what I didn't know. The fact is, for many people, intermittent fasting is safe, effective, and can be life-changing when done properly. Key words here are "when done properly".
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. The information below is based on my personal experience and research taken from some of the top experts in the integrative and functional medicine space.
Part One: Intermittent Fasting 101
Part Two: Things I Wish I Had Known
Part One: Intermittent Fasting 101
In January of 2020, I jumped boldly and blindly into the world of intermittent fasting (IF). At that time, I was wondering if there was something I could do to help me feel a little better, maybe something I could tweak to give me more energy. I wasn't expecting miracles, but this approach to eating caught my attention. So, after reading a little about it (very little), I decided to give it a shot.
My intent here is to share with you what IF is, what it can do, and what I wish I had known before jumping in.
What intermittent fasting is NOT.
Intermittent fasting is not a diet. It is not a meal plan. It is not a one-size-fits-all program. Even better, it does not require purchasing any products or subscriptions.
Translation: intermittent fasting is based on your needs, your goals, and it does not cost any money.
What intermittent fasting IS?
There are volumes of books written on this subject. I have included some of my resources and recommended reading at the end of this blog. My goal here is to pull from the most current, science-based information and present it in a way that is helpful and easy to understand. My hope is that there is enough here to spark your interest or answer questions you may have. I do encourage you to read more on your own for a deeper understanding. You can also contact me with specific questions, and I will do my best to answer them or direct you to a reliable resource.
So, what is intermittent fasting? Simply put, IF is a lifestyle choice in which someone chooses to eat and not eat during selected times. The hours of eating are called the eating window. When the eating window ends, a person "closes" their window and begins fasting. IF is often practiced following a 24-hour time block and is also called time-restricted eating. This is the model I practice. Therefore, the information here will focus on this approach.
Note: Some intermittent fasting approaches involve alternate day fasting (ADF) or fasting for 24, 48, or more hours at a time. There are proven benefits to these strategies. However, longer fasts are more complicated and should be done strategically, and in many cases, should be monitored by a physician.
Is intermittent fasting for everyone?
- Intermittent fasting is not for children or women who are pregnant or nursing.
- Intermittent fasting should not be practiced by people with advanced diseases, such as kidney failure, as the results could prove to be irreversible or life-threatening. Additionally, there are some medical conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and thyroid disease, that must be closely monitored. Why? Because IF impacts hormones, blood glucose levels, and other systems of the body which could warrant changes in medications. Work with your doctor.
- Anyone with an eating disorder should proceed with caution. In some cases, IF can help these individuals gain control of their battle with food. However, for others, this approach could be detrimental and should be avoided. Work with your doctor and/or therapist.
- Intermittent fasting can be beneficial even for those in their 60's, 70's, or older. However, individual situations and health conditions must be taken into account. Again, work with your doctor.
People looking to feel better, experience better overall health, improve or possibly reverse some medical conditions, lose weight, have more energy, and gain control of unhealthy eating habits could all benefit from intermittent fasting.
(Please refer to the above section for some exceptions.)
What are some possible benefits of intermittent fasting?
There are many proven benefits to IF, including:
- Increased energy.
- Weight loss.
- Improvement or reversal of insulin resistance (explained below).
- Improvement or reversal of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
- Improved metabolic health.
- Clearer thinking.
- Decreased inflammation.
- Reduction or elimination of acid reflux.
- Autophagy (explained below).
- And more.
- Take your before measurements. You could lose inches before seeing a change on the scale. Measure periodically to track progress.
- Take your before pictures for comparison as you continue on your IF journey. This can be a real eye-opener.
- Notice how your clothes are fitting. Again, this is a great indicator of good things happening.
First, let me preface this by saying I was never really interested in biology, so as I began my IF journey, I had a very limited understanding of how the body works. I wasn't aware of all the systems or all of the interactions between these systems, all of the chemical reactions, the number of hormones we have and their roles (I thought estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone were the extent of our hormones), how connected the stomach is to the brain, the importance of our gut health, the power of food, and so much more. Learning about these things has given me a profound appreciation of the complexity and awesomeness of the body. It has also opened my eyes to how much I was damaging my body and what I needed to do to set myself up for better health and longevity.
When we eat, the body goes to work breaking down, digesting, and processing food. Digestion starts in the mouth with the activation of the salivary glands. Next stop is the stomach once it makes its way down by way of the esophagus. This cues the liver to get to work filtering out toxins and producing bile to break down and absorb fat; the pancreas breakdowns proteins and fat and produces insulin used to transport glucose into our cells; and the gut absorbs nutrients and acts as a feeding ground for bacteria (both the good and the bad). Simultaneously, macro and micronutrients find their proper homes, and other systems kick in to produce and regulate hormones and dispose of waste. And this is just the tip of the iceberg! The body is an incredibly complex machine with many systems all working together to keep us healthy and thriving.
So, what happens to our bodies during periods of not eating?
During periods of fasting (not eating), our body is given a chance to repair, rejuvenate, and heal itself. Our blood glucose levels are able to normalize into a non-pre-diabetic range. Our insulin level can return to a healthy baseline. We begin to burn stored fat, including the dangerous visceral fat which could be invading our heart, liver, and brain. Inflammation, which is proven to be a significant root cause of most chronic diseases, can begin to subside. In general, our overall metabolic health can improve.
Most experts I follow agree that the greatest benefits of IF are seen after reaching 16 to 18 hours of fasting. However, there are benefits to even a 12 to 14 hour fast.
What is Autophagy?
We would be hard-pressed to read about intermittent fasting without the word autophagy coming up. It is an important phenomenon that takes place while in a fasted state and it is a key benefit to intermittent fasting. It is described as the body "cleaning house" - a state of repairing, rejuvenating, and healing.
With no food coming in, the body must look to itself to find sources for energy. It begins to rely on stored glucose in the liver and muscles (glycogen) and our stored fat for fuel. Additionally, when the body senses a threat of starvation (fasting), it will begin producing ketones from our stored fat for energy. Our brains love ketones! As if that wasn't enough, during a fasted state, the body starts regenerating new cells and disposing of old, worn-out ones. Who knew?!
This is how the body was designed to work. However...
We live in a day and time where it has become the norm to eat from sunrise to sunset. Many of us are eating four, five, or more meals a day with a lot of snacking in between. Our bodies were not designed for this. Continuous intake of food forces our bodies to be in a constant state of digesting and processing, allowing little time for recovery. Eventually, this overtaxing will lead to ill-health and chronic disease. And let's be honest, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is not providing us with proper nutrition. In fact, quite the opposite.
What is metabolic syndrome?
The latest data shows that almost 90% of adults are metabolically unhealthy, heading down the road to metabolic syndrome. Some symptoms of metabolic syndrome include unhealthy amounts of visceral fat (belly fat), obesity, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and high insulin and blood glucose levels, all of which pave the road to heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Let's not ignore the fact that obesity and type 2 diabetes are at an all-time high and, sadly, we are now seeing more and more cases in young children.
What is insulin resistance?
When we eat, our body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar). The pancreas secrets insulin which moves the glucose from our blood stream into our cells. Insulin is also responsible for keeping the glucose levels remaining in our blood stream in a healthy range. However, when we eat too many carbohydrates over an extended period of time, we are setting ourselves up to become insulin resistant. How? Because the pancreas will continue to pump out more and more insulin in attempts to move more and more glucose into our cells. If this scenario continues, eventually our cells will become full (insulin resistant) and will no longer be able to accept any more glucose. The body then converts this excess glucose into fat which heads straight to our fat cells and our organs.
What does this have to do with intermittent fasting? Because when practicing intermittent fasting (time-restricted eating), our body is not constantly at work trying to balance out our insulin and blood glucose levels. IF gives our bodies a chance to finish the digestive process it started and normalize to a healthy state.
What does 14:10, 16:8, or 20:4 mean in the intermittent fasting world?
These are examples used to describe eating schedules. Notice they each add up to 24 (24 hours in a day). The first number represents the hours of not eating (fasting). The second number represents the hours of eating (the eating window). "What?! 14, 16, 20 hours without eating?!", you say. Just remember hours of sleep count.
Let's take the 16:8 example...16 hours of not eating (which includes hours of sleep) and 8 hours for eating. This does not mean a person eats nonstop for 8 hours. It means that all food for that day is consumed within this time block. It could look something like this:
- 10 pm to 6 am: sleeping hours = 8 hours
- 6 am to 11 am: clean fasting (explained below) = 5 hours
- 11 am to 7 pm: eating window = 8 hours
- 7 pm to 10 pm: clean fasting = 3 hours
Adding up to 24 hours
What is the best schedule to follow?
This is very individualized. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. For some, it works best to have the fasting window fall more in the morning hours. For others, it works best in the evening. Keep in mind, it is ideal to stop eating 2 to 3 hours before going to bed. Other things to consider are your work schedule, family mealtimes, and anything else that you would need to work around. You decide what works best for you and plan accordingly.
Some people have better success by starting with a shorter fasting window and gradually working up to a longer fasting time. An example would be starting at say a 14:10 schedule and working up to an 18:6. Others prefer to start right away with longer fasting windows. You do what works for you.
What is OMAD?
This is an acronym for One Meal A Day. This probably sounds bizarre and unsafe. It certainly did to me. To clarify, this does not mean sitting down and eating all your food for the day at one sitting. What it does mean is that you have one main meal a day, with maybe a small snack an hour or so before and possibly a dessert afterwards. This could span over a period of a few hours. It can center around breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You decide. OMAD does offer some positive health benefits if done properly; however, this approach makes it more challenging to get in adequate amounts of protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals. This was my downfall. See Section Two: What I Wish I Had Known.
What can I eat or drink during my fasting window?
Simple and to the point: no food should be eaten during the fasting window. Why? Because food will break your fast. With that said, it is extremely important to stay very well-hydrated while fasting. Dehydration can lead to very serious health issues. Symptoms to watch for are dizziness and fatigue. Drink plenty of water.
What is clean fasting?
Clean fasting means not consuming any food during your fasting window because it will trigger an insulin response. Sorry, but this also includes sweeteners, creamers, sugar, or flavoring. I know. Not what you wanted to hear. This is a hard one for those who love to doctor up their coffee and tea. I feel your pain. No one can hate black coffee more than I did. I thought it tasted disgusting. But I did get used to it and now I prefer it. If you are committed to getting the most out of IF, clean fasting is essential.
I'll reluctantly interject here that some IF'ers believe it is ok to consume certain things during a fast, arguing that these things won't trigger much of an insulin response. However, I fall into the clean fast camp 100%. Think about it...one of the main reasons for fasting is to give the pancreas a rest, stabilize glucose levels, and burn stored fat. To me, that means clean fasting all the way.
How should I expect to feel when I start?
Prepare to feel hungry. After all, your body is accustomed to having plenty of glucose available to use for energy. Fasting interrupts that glucose supply, and your body must learn to burn stored fat for fuel instead. It will rebel. This is a good thing! You will feel hungry. Your stomach will growl. To help get through those hungry spells, drink more water, enjoy a cup of unflavored coffee or tea, have an unflavored sparkling water, or maybe even a cup of hot water. Let every sip be a reminder that you are giving your body the gift of repairing, rejuvenating, and healing.
Caution: if you start feeling extreme weakness or fatigue, dizziness, or lightheadedness, EAT! This is your body's way of telling you it needs food. There is a difference between your stomach growling and your body crying out for nourishment. You will learn the difference. It is critical to listen to your body.
When should I take my medications?
Some medications must be taken with food. If possible, shift the time you take your medications to fall within your eating window. However, if this is not possible, by all means, take your medications when needed.
Does it matter what foods I choose to eat?
ABSOLUTELY! What we do and do not eat plays a major role in our level of wellness. Whether a person practices intermittent fasting or not, eating whole foods offers the best pathway to better health.
Whenever possible, choose foods that come with little to no added ingredients and that have been minimally processed. Beef, chicken, fish, eggs, veggies, and fruits are all great options, but will of course be based on your personal intolerances and preferences. There is a lot of evidence showing the benefits of grass-fed, wild-caught, and organic sources; however, these often times come with higher price tags and are not always available. Go with what works best for you and your situation.
There are definitely ingredients that should be limited as much as possible, such as sugar, flour, seed oils, and additives. These cause inflammation and are linked to many chronic diseases.
One ingredient that should be avoided altogether is high fructose corn syrup. Why? Because:
- It is strongly linked to obesity, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes.
- While our cells use glucose for energy, fructose cannot be used by any cell in the body.
- Fructose must go straight to the liver. The liver must turn fructose into fat. Over time, excess amounts of fructose will cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. These conditions are symptoms of metabolic syndrome and lead to almost all chronic diseases.
Please refer to The Obesity Code, by Dr. Jason Fung, for in-depth information and explanations.
When do I stop intermittent fasting? Will I need to practice IF for the rest of my life?
You and your body will make this call; however, I started IF over two and a half years ago and it has changed my approach to eating forever. I simply cannot go back to my old habits. I am so much healthier now and feel too good to risk throwing it all away.
Once you reach your goals and chose to continue with this lifestyle, you are considered to be in "maintenance". You will most likely need to tweak your fasting:eating windows from time to time. That could mean less hours of fasting. It could mean adding a meal. Stay mindful of how you are feeling and what results you are seeing. Listen to your body and make the necessary adjustments.
Part Two: Things I Wish I Had Known
When I first started intermittent fasting, there was so much I didn't know. For one, I had no idea how much what we eat impacts our body and to what extent. I was completely clueless about macro and micronutrients and how important they are to our health and longevity. I didn't fully understand the impact of eating a whole bag of tortillas chips for dinner instead of a nutritious meal. More times than I would like to admit, I gave in to the unhealthy cravings. I justified it by telling myself I was too tired to cook or that's what my body wanted. And, truth be told, I enjoyed every last morsel of those chips, only to feel awful afterwards.
Don't get me wrong, like most people, I knew that vitamins were good for our bodies. I knew eating lots of fried foods wasn't such a great idea. I knew eating fast foods all the time wasn't the best choice. I knew that bag of chips wasn't doing my body any favors. And...I thought I knew all the benefits of exercise.
But...I didn't know what I didn't know.
Everyone starts IF for their own personal reasons. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I wasn't expecting miracles, I was just hoping to feel better. I didn't start IF to lose weight, not that I didn't need to lose the extra fat around my mid-section. I just assumed my "muffin top" was a badge of honor to be worn proudly as a post-menopausal, sixties-something grandmother. I didn't even realize it was possible to shed that, but more importantly, I didn't realize how dangerous it was. It wasn't a badge of honor; it was a symptom of some very unhealthy things happening in my body.
After I had been on the IF train for a few months, I did start noticing some positive changes.
- I lost some weight.
- My "muffin top" started melting away.
- I was able to get completely off of ibuprofen for neck pain.
- My acid reflux was gone.
- I had so much more energy.
- The puffiness in my face was no longer there.
- That unwelcomed bloated feeling took a hike.
Fast, Feast, Repeat by Gin Stephens
The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung
Body Love by Kelly LeVeque
Happy Gut by Vincent Pedre, MD
Stay Off My Operating Table by Philip Ovadia, MD.