Intermittent Fasting Doesn’t Have to Be Torture If You Learn to Listen to Your Body

There's a time to eat, and a time to rest and repair your body.

Dr. Will Cole with a coffee cup
Credit: Dr. Will Cole

Intermittent fasting is all the rage in health and wellness circles. But much like Crossfit and extreme juicing, it can seem a little bit… restrictive? Over the top? Or, just… too hard?

Never fear! Dr. Will Cole is here. The functional medicine expert and health advisor to Gwyneth Paltrow has just released a new book, “Intuitive Fasting,” that shows that the practice doesn’t need to be torturous. In fact, it can help you get in touch with your instinctive eating patterns and develop a better relationship with your body. Kind of like hacking your own hunger.

Ultimately, you can’t shame your way, obsess your way, into health.

Sound cool? It is! This four-week fasting plan is flexible and easy to follow, and the results include resetting your metabolism, rebalancing your hormones, and repairing your relationship with food. 

We had a (socially distanced!) sit down with Dr. Cole to explore his approach.

OA: It’s a frequent misconception that intermittent fasting protocols are ultra strict. Should intermittent fasting feel like torture?

WC: Absolutely not. The last thing that we should be bringing into wellness is a shame-based, arduous, punitive approach. Ultimately, you can’t shame your way, obsess your way, into health. Like I say in the book: you can’t heal a body that you hate. 

I think a lot of that approach can be disordered eating disguised as a wellness practice, and I think that’s the antithesis of what true, authentic intermittent fasting looks like. Here, it’s gentle, it’s flexible, it moves with the day. It moves with how you feel, and it moves for women around their cycle. Not every day is the same. 

You should give your body the flexibility for a time to eat and a time to rest from eating to repair. That’s the message I’m really trying to get across.

OA: A lot of people over time have obeyed eating rules, because it’s easier than listening to their own bodies. Why do you think that eating intuitively or listening to your body is so hard for so many people?

WC: It looks like a paradox, maybe, to the average reader: how the heck fasting could ever be intuitive. The idea of not snacking and taking any break from eating seems to be such a polar opposite from intuition. 

And the reality is that that’s relatively true… when someone is metabolically inflexible or metabolically rigid. What I mean by that is that their body is stuck in only a sugar-burning mode, so their blood sugar is all over the place, and they’re just depending on the next snack for the next kindling on the fire, so to speak, and to create that next short-lived burst of energy. And they’re normally hangry if they don’t have that, or they’re having reactive hypoglycemia, or they’re feeling a hormonal imbalance. At that point, fasting is going to be not intuitive at all. 

So the option, and the method in the book, is that there’s another way to fuel your body. Metabolic flexibility is the ability to burn fat for fuel and sugar for fuel. 

OA: And fasting is the key to that?

WC: Flexible intermittent fasting and a clean way of eating, the way that I advocate in the book, are really two great tools to support and to gain metabolic flexibility. Metabolic flexibility creates fertile ground for intuitive fasting and intuitive eating, because you’re gonna have proper hormonal signaling; you’re gonna have proper transmitter signaling, across the board. So satiety will be appropriately signaled, and your cravings will be abated, and you’ll be more nourished. 

Obsessive eating or emotional eating isn’t intuitive eating.

If somebody’s struggling with blood sugar fluctuations and hangriness and insatiable cravings, that stuff will drown out true intuition – because is it cravings or intuition? Because obsessive eating or emotional eating isn’t intuitive eating.

OA: What do you think people most often misunderstand about fasting as a concept?

WC: So much. There’s so much that people misunderstand. But I find it quite triggering for some people, who think that you are advocating disordered eating. This is dangerous, and they’re not looking at the context of it at all. 

What we’re talking about is modifications of the windows of eating. That’s it! It’s not the same as chronic caloric restriction. We’re not restricting our calories during time-restricted feeding, which is a specific kind of intermittent fasting that I explain throughout the book. You’re eating the same amount of calories; you’re eating amply, you’re eating very nutrient-dense, stabilizing, nourishing food. You’re just doing it in a specific window.

OA: People often believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Why do you think we believed that for so long, and what would you say to someone who still believes that?

WC: It’s one of those things that really got its footholds with the cereal industry. It was marketing, really, more than anything. 

But there’s nothing wrong with breakfast. If people want to have that beautiful breakfast, and it’s a ritual for them that they enjoy, there’s a lot of healthy breakfast foods. Part of the intuition that I talk about through the book is that they can move those eating windows wherever they want to throughout the day. I just find that most people do better on days when they wake up in the morning and they aren’t eating straight away, to allow at least a couple of hours to transpire before they break their fast in the morning.

OA: Is there anyone for whom you would not recommend fasting?

WC: If someone has a history of eating disorder, whether that’s current or in the past, the way that I advocate it in the book is that they discuss with their eating disorder specialist and with their doctor, not because the protocol is extreme, but because even any change in eating can be a trigger for some people. So it’s better to err on the side of: get the go ahead. 

But what I have found is that once people in that category get the go-ahead from their doctor and their eating disorder specialist, invariably, they feel a lot better, because their blood sugar is more stable, the inflammation level is low, which is better for the brain, their hormones have more optimal signaling pathways; they’re more balanced. 

OA: Let’s imagine someone is considering buying your book but decides fasting just seems too hard. If you had only one second to convince someone to give it a try, what would you say?

WC: I would say ultimately, you have to try something different to see something different. So if they grab this book off a bookstore shelf or have it in their Amazon cart, ultimately, they have a little glimmer of intuition in themselves to know that they want to mix things up; they want to lean into something bigger. It’s really for anybody.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco