I’ve heard great things about intermittent fasting in the past, with experts touting its anti-inflammatory and weight loss benefits. But while I've often thought about trying it, I've never taken the plunge before.
That's all changing, now.
Over the course of the past month, I tried three of the most popular intermittent fasting regimens to see how easy they were to stick to and how I felt at the end of it all.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a protocol whereby a person restricts their eating for a certain period of time. This is said to reduce general inflammation, contributing to a myriad of benefits including improved skin health and metabolic health.
There are a number of ways to go about intermittent fasting, but I decided to attempt three of the most common protocols: 16/8 fasting, eat-stop-eat, and alternate day fasting.
The name of the 16/8 method of fasting refers to hours: when fasting according to this protocol, one fasts for 16 hours of every day, restricting all eating to an eight-hour window. This is the least extreme of all of the protocols, because while 16 hours might seem like a long time to fast, much of this fasting occurs while you sleep. For example, if you were to finish dinner at 8pm, you would eat for the first time at noon the following day, essentially skipping only breakfast.
Eat-stop-eat is a protocol whereby you fast for 24 hours twice a week. You can pick the days on which you fast, and on the other days of the week, you eat normally.
Alternate day fasting kicks this up a notch by demanding a 24-hour fast every other day. In other words, the meal plan of someone practicing this sort of fasting might look like this:
- eat dinner on Monday from 6 to 6:30 pm
- eat dinner on Tuesday at 6:30 pm
- eat normally on Wednesday, finishing dinner at 6:30 pm
- eat dinner on Thursday at 6:30 pm
... and so on.
I decided to practice each of the protocols for one week, and seeing as the 16/8 method was the easiest, I decided to start there.
When I was fasting, I ate nothing, but I drank as much water, black coffee, and herbal tea as I wanted. (Some experts also allow bulletproof coffee during a fast.) As recommended by experts, when it was time to eat, I ate normally: In other words, I didn't try to cram "lost" calories into my one or two meals a day.
While many experts recommend intermittent fasting go hand-in-hand with a high-fat ketogenic diet, I stuck to my normal, whole-foods-heavy omnivorous diet. That said, seeing as I had a small window in which I could get all of my nutrients, I ate mostly plant-heavy, gluten-free meals.
The night before my first 16/8 day, I set myself up for failure: without even thinking about it, I ate a Jolly Rancher at 10:10 pm. This meant that the first bite of food allowed to cross my lips the following day wouldn’t be until 2 pm. Luckily, as someone who works from home, I was able to sleep in a bit and reduce the window of time during which I would be awake and fasting.
I shouldn't have worried.
I actually found it quite relaxing to wake up and know I had no breakfast to prepare: I just poured myself a cup of black coffee and got to work, and most days, I didn't even feel hungry until the middle of the afternoon. While the second day, I did wake up feeling hungry, a cup of coffee and a glass of water made the pangs go away almost immediately.
Because I like to eat dinner with my husband, who often gets home late from work, even on the 16/8 fast, I wasn't eating lunch at a normal time. After just a few days on this fast, I found that when I did eat lunch, I immediately felt bloated and kind of lethargic. Over the course of the next few days, I fell into a rhythm of having a healthy snack around 5 pm and then enjoying a slightly later dinner.
This is by far the easiest of all of the fasting options that I tried. It keeps you from mindlessly snacking while also allowing you a bit more flexibility to eat when you’re hungry than some of the stricter fasts.
I had a fairly busy week during my attempt on eat-stop-eat, so I actually planned my two fast days back-to-back. On the other days this week, I fairly naturally defaulted to the 16/8 method.
While fasting for 24 hours might sound kind of intense, it’s actually not that bad. It certainly helped to ease into it: by the end of my 16/8 experiment, I was already almost doing a full-day fast, so transitioning to a 24-hour fast seemed like it should be a breeze.
While my first day of fasting was easy, on the second day, about an hour and a half before I was slated to begin eating again, I started feeling lethargic and a bit blue. When water and coffee didn't help, I gave in and had an apple and a cup of miso soup and felt immediately better.
Learning to listen to my body's signals was one major benefit of this experiment, but I also noticed some physical changes, like breakouts clearing up within a day (whereas they usually last about a week), and the quick loss of some water weight after a particularly salty meal.
Transitioning from a 16-hour fast to a 24-hour fast was fairly easy, both physically and psychologically. I didn’t feel that hungry, and knowing that I was fasting kept me from eating out of boredom, as I often would in the past.
This one required quite a bit of planning, as it basically made it impossible for me to eat lunch most days. This was actually harder on a social level than it was on a physical one: on days when I wasn't fasting, I actually found that eating a midday meal made me feel rather lethargic and bloated, and I preferred the pattern of a late afternoon snack followed by an evening meal.
I loved this eating experiment, and I'll continue to fast on a regular basis. Not only did I feel physically better, but it put me back in touch with my own hunger signals. Fasting felt like a promise to myself not to eat out of boredom, and only when I was truly hungry did I abandon the fast a few hours early to eat.
Following this experiment, I think that my new "normal" will be the 16/8 fast, which keeps me from mindlessly snacking. While the alternate day plan requires a bit too much planning for me, I think I'll be including a few 24-hour fasts in my weekly routine.
After trying all of these protocols, I do have a few tips for anyone looking to try them:
1. Be Aware of Socializing
Set yourself up for success, and plan fasts on days when you know you can stick to them. If I had attempted a 24-hour fast on a day when I knew I had dinner plans, for example, it would have been much harder to do. I set my longer fasts on days when I knew I would be home for dinner and could have as much control over my eating as possible.
2. Plan Ahead
Make sure you have healthful, whole foods in the house, and consider making meals in advance for fast days. I tend to snack or taste while cooking, and I had to be very aware of this when making dinner, so that I wouldn't open my eating window too early.
3. Drink When You’re Hungry; Then Eat When You’re Hungry
One of my major takeaways from practicing these protocols was learning to recognize true hunger. At some points during my fasts, I was actually hungry: I felt foggy and tired, and when I ate, it made me feel much better. But in many cases, I was just bored or thirsty. Because I didn't want to break my fast unless I had to, when I started to feel a pang of hunger, I had a cup of tea or water first. If I still felt hungry 15-20 minutes later, then I ate.
To learn more about intermittent fasting, its benefits, and how to integrate it into your lifestyle, check out some of these fantastic resources.
Eat Stop Eat, Brad Pilon
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