Don't Diet, Fast (Intermittently)
December 15, 2017 • Sarah Jean Gosney
I know all of the well-intended diet advice is supposed to come in January once we’ve resolved to shed the holiday pounds, but I thought I’d come in ahead of schedule and share what I’ve been doing for the past two months.
Many of you may have heard of intermittent fasting (IF), as it has become very popular lately. I tend to reject any dietary trend, as human bodily requirements evolve very slowly, and we can probably look to our recent ancestors for better dietary advice than any diet book can give. For most of history people (when they were lucky) ate whole foods with balanced macro-nutrients, small amounts of processed food or fast food, and little sugar. Meat consumption did vary across populations.
However, fasting is really not a fad at all. It traditionally plays a significant role in all major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism), although in many modern sects it has lost its popularity. My experience with religious fasting was that it was a somewhat stressful and mostly spiritual endeavor. But, I’d read an article on intermittent fasting for weight loss several years ago, and two months ago I thought I’d give it a shot for its metabolic effects.
Most research on intermittent fasting has been done on animals, but it does show promising results. It has been shown to “improve biomarkers of disease, reduce oxidative stress and preserve learning and memory functioning, as well as benefit the cardiovascular system and brain.” Although it’s unclear whether the results come from fasting or simply from calorie restriction, there is indeed evidence that indicates serious health benefits.
There are several versions of intermittent fasting that are promoted by its supporters. They are usually abbreviated in an inconsistent way, like 5:2 (eat 5 days a week, fast 2) or 20:4 (fast 20 hours, eat during a 4 hour window, every day). The most popular one I’ve heard people undertaking is the 16:8 (fast 16 hours, eat during an 8 hour window, every day). I opted for what in my mind was the simplest possible version of IF, the 6:1 (eat normally 6 days, fast 1).
I wasn’t setting out to lose a substantial amount of weight on this diet, but I did have had a pesky five or so pounds that I just never could shed through calorie-counting or exercise. Maybe it was a matter of motivation and consistency. I’m not sure. But the point is, I’ve been eyeballing those five pounds for a few years now, and they have not been intimidated in the least.
I decided to take up a weekly fast that looked like the one mentioned in the article I read on the subject years ago. (Let it be known that I am no longer an athlete, nor do I have any metabolic conditions that would make this diet risky.) This meant one weekly, 36 hour fast that included one 500 calorie meal. The way this works is that, after dinner (or perhaps a small evening snack) on Tuesday, I don’t eat anything. On Wednesday, I do not eat anything until dinnertime, where I eat a (surprisingly substantial) 500 calorie meal. Then, I don’t eat anything else until breakfast on Thursday. This means I eliminate 1500 calories a week from an otherwise typical diet. I am also able to consume any amount of tea, coffee, or water during the fast. You can drink diet sodas, but I don’t recommend it (it seemed to make me very lightheaded, plus diet soda is no health food).
At first, this was really hard. For probably the first month (four fasts), I wasn’t able to make it longer than 24 hours. I’d make it past dinnertime on the second day, but when midnight struck, I’d break down and eat a snack. Still, I was headed in the right direction, so I stuck with it. To my disappointment, I didn’t lose any weight that first month, but I chalked this up to my incomplete fasting and my tendency at first to “treat myself” the day after fasting. After doing a little research, I found that it’s typical to not see any results from a new diet for 3-6 weeks.
Come month two, it was suddenly a lot easier. I was finally able to make it through the 36 hour fast without cheating. Even better, I found that when I made it to breakfast on day three, I had no desire to overeat and in fact had to ease myself back into eating. I’d often feel hungry but had little appetite that morning, so I’d eat a very small breakfast. By lunchtime, my appetite returned to normal.
Even better, I lost those stinking five pounds as well as 1.5 inches on my waist! It all dropped off during month two, putting me at a healthy weight loss rate of just over a pound a week. I was hooked.
While I love how effective fasting is for weight loss, what I love even more is how liberating it is. Instead of needing constant vigilance all every day regarding my food intake (all for the sake of trying to lose five pounds), I eat normally six days a week and very little one day. I count calories one time a week, not five times a day. Even more, it liberates you from hunger itself (can I get Buddha to chime in on this one?).
I don’t mean that you won’t feel hungry. You certainly will. However, hunger will go from a painful emergency to a slight discomfort, a mild inconvenience at best. It’s like meditation in that the benefits carry over into your every day life. I find that I am much less likely to snack now unless I am truly hungry. It also gives you a little bit of psychological freedom to indulge once in a while. You won’t feel guilty for eating hot wings and beer every once in awhile (emphasis on every once in a while) if you know you have a fast built into your schedule to balance out the excess in your diet, just like you won’t feel guilty for lying in bed watching Netflix all day if you know you’re going to the gym tomorrow.
Now that I’ve met my goals, I’m going to keep fasting, probably for the rest of my life. I may have to make some adjustments along the way for weight loss, but I will continue to reap the rewards of the spiritual and physical control I have developed through fasting. I hope you give it a try!
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