I should start be saying that I thought this would be easy. Sometimes – a lot of times – breakfast is something I just think about in the morning. Like that thing you keep meaning to do but never get around to. Then as soon as my belly alerts me that I am, in fact, starving, like that gripping feeling that tells you to hit the restroom, I know that it is time I should eat.
I love food. All the foods. I just don’t build my days around it. Then I tried intermittent fasting.
Fasting isn’t new. Throughout history, whether there was a lack of available food or for religious reasons, fasting as always been something people practice. I’m the same way, but my reasons usually come down to disorganization or that I’m too lazy to cook or decided to boycott greasy takeout. But as a general rule, I eat when I’m hungry even if that means munching at 1 a.m.
This diet, more accurately described as an eating pattern, is simple and works just how it sounds. You “fast” for one or two days out of the week or practice what's known as the 16:8 method, which I did, eating all your meals inside an eight-hour window and abstaining for the other 16. IF has been showed to promote healthy aging and reduce the risks of age-related disease. People who try IF are often looking to cut calories by eating inside of a limited window or restricting themselves or 500 or 600 calories two days a week.
Restricting calories generally leads to weight loss. Research has shown that intermittent fasting also causes an increase in human growth hormone and boosts your metabolism in the short term, which both aid in fat loss. Research from neuroscientist Mark Mattson as well as others, suggest fasting can also improve your memory and your mood while fighting neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Worth it? Here’s what I learned when I gave it a try:
There Will Be Hunger Pains (And That’s OK)
Unless there was a catastrophe the likes of which forced us all into underground bunkers indefinitely, going 24 consecutive hours without eating was out of the question for me so when I took up this experiment, I opted for the more common 16:8 method. I planned head to the office as usual and start eating around lunchtime. A 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. window seemed manageable. The hard part would be not snacking on the couch at night.
Since I’m one of those tortured folks that forgets to eat, I never thought skipping breakfast would be an issue. Until I tried doing it on purpose. Consciously skipping a meal just made me think about eating more and that first day I was ravenous by 11 in the morning. By noon all I could think about was food. The hunger had a vice grip on my stomach and a dull ache was creeping into my head. I timed it so there was food on my fork being lifted toward my mouth at the very second the clock hit 1 p.m.
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On Day 2, the headache was still around. It followed me all day, like a pesky sibling with his finger an inch from my ear while chanting “I’m not touching you.”
These are common side effects. I still felt unprepared for the assault. Experts suggest that you ease into this practice by trying a few days off moderate fasting per week before diving all the way in.
Organization Is Necessary
You have to have food on your person. This is non-negotiable unless you want to starve. I learned that lesson by Day 3 after I had inhaled my lunch and found myself hankering for another bite just two hours later. What I didn’t realize was that I needed a heavier meal if I wasn’t going to allow myself to simply eat when my body naturally rang the bell.
The problem with these kinds of cravings is the urge to eat anything — literally anything — that’s in arm’s reach and after fasting for hours you start to think of a pint of ice cream as potentially a suitable reward for your discomfort. Stashing protein bars, nuts and fruit in my desk, bag and kitchen became essential, so did meal prep.
“Think about all of the possible situations that could arise and the triggers that could disrupt your intended eating pattern and put contingencies in place to reduce the chances of these occurring or help you to manage them if they do,” said Ben Jones, a physiologist and personal trainer, who works with FitWell, a fitness app that offers users a trainer, coach and dietician in one package. “The best predictor of successful behavior change in relation to eating behaviors is how well thought-out the plan is and how well-prepared you are. Having access to the right foods at the right time and restricting access to foods you don’t want to eat when you don’t want them will make this a whole lot easier.”
I discovered quickly that if I didn’t prep, it would either skip more meals than I planned or eating was going to get expensive fast because eating from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. meant that I would be out of the house nearly my entire eating window. One day I had rushed home from the gym, hoping to finish dinner in time to scarf something down. But preparing pork chops, potatoes and vegetables took more time than I had. I ended up slamming a protein shake standing over the stove. But I had lunch for the next two days.
I Looked At Food Differently
You may not actually look at the food differently, as I continue to reserve my most longing, loving gazes for warm meals that boarder on overindulgence and prompt unscheduled naps, but being forced to plan my meals – what I would eat and when – also forced me to pay closer attention to what I was actually shoveling in my face. Most of us, don’t plan to eat a bag of the Doritos two nights before.
Many people claim that they enjoy food more when they’re fasting. Food may feel more like a reward. Maybe you will savor those moments a little longer knowing that your next meal might be a little further away. I on the other hand, had to make a stern effort not binge like I was getting over a breakup every time I put a plate in front of me. That’s actually one reason some dieticians warn against IF.
“If the body does not know when the next meal is coming, food is often stored as fat to ‘survive’ phases without food – even if those phases only last for 24 hours once a week,” said Lisa Booth, in-house registered dietitian at fitness and nutrition app 8fit. “Starving is actually exactly what our bodies think is happening when we force it to work with way less calories. All the functions which are note essential to survival are slowed or shut down. Things like your energy levels, your fertility and sex drive, and your brain function can all be negatively affected during intermittent fasting.”
It Didn’t Affect My Workouts
Research has proved the benefits of training on an empty stomach and its ability to boost fat-burning potential. IF is perfect for morning exercisers for that reason. I’m an evening guy. I prefer to exercise after work, which means finding a sweet spot for eating before a hard training session and somehow finding the time to mash down another meal in the 1-2 hours before the clock runs out on my eating window.
Confession: I did one morning training session during this experiment and felt so hungry that I was feeling a little fuzzy-headed even before I left for the gym. I cheated and ate two slices of multigrain bread. I do not feel guilty for this.
It Gets Easier
The hunger pains start to fade. It gets (a little) easier to avoid midnight snacks. Skipping breakfast becomes normal. Like anything, intermittent fasting is about establishing a routine. Your body adapts to an updated eating schedule. It just takes some growing (read: hunger) pains.
Because I was restricted to this eating window and I need to schedule my life around my eating schedule, instead of the other way around. If I left the my apartment I needed to ask myself if I had eaten enough yet, considering when I might be available to eat again.
Meal prep became an actual thing, not just a concept that I had be constantly reminding myself to do and then promptly forgetting. The dull ache in my temples vanished. The roller derby in my stomach persists, but it’s no longer a distraction.
Admittedly, I never felt a stark increase in energy or boosted focus. But that may come after more than a week of practice.
I Didn’t Lose Any Weight
Well, the first day I was five pounds down when I stepped on the scale. But on that day, I had only managed one meal and had consumed no more than 1,000 calories in the previous 24 hours. In total, I only fasted for seven days and I weight nearly the same as I had when I started. With that said, it was a lot easier to restrict calories overall and intermittent fasting profoundly helped with my late night junk food cravings.
At the same time, it made clear why intermittent fasting has a high drop-out rate. Going without food is uncomfortable. Putting yourself on a food curfew is inconvenient. But in just a week, I learned how to become more organized about what and how I plan my meals and proved to that bag of Oreo’s in my cabinet that “I don’t need you.”
Now, about that ice cream in the freezer…