But this post is about another trendy diet, intermittent fasting. I've done a water fast before which you can read about here. I've also done juice fasting. Intermittent fasting is somewhat more appealing to me particularly in it's most common form the 16/8 method. While some people skip entire days of food with intermittent fasting, the most common method is to choose 8 hours in the day where you can eat and fasting the renaming 16. You can drink water, tea and black coffee during the remaining 16 hour window. This is more appealing to me as I think 8 hours is plenty of time to get in your daily nutrition without causing any undue stress or feelings of restriction.
From what I can find it seems most people choose to skip breakfast and break their fast around 11am eating up until 7pm at night. There is a common movement around having a breakfast of either butter coffee or MCT oil and coffee upon waking, but I don't think this goes with the spirit of the fast as a 400 calorie high fat coffee is certainly a meal and not a well rounded one at that. I'm not a fan of the 11-7 eating window for two reasons. Eating breakfast is proven to reduce later binge eating, stabilize blood sugars, reduce weight over the long term and gives us the fuel we need for our busy days. Also eating in the evening worsens sleep and inhibits our ability to recover fully overnight. Generally I avoid eating 3 hours before bed.
If I was going to do intermittent fasting using the 8/16 method I was going to have to structure it differently. First up I chose to start eating right away after waking at my morning meal, usually 6am. I would then eat until 2pm. There was one day I didn't get around to eating until 9am and ate until 5pm. In my normal life breakfast is often very large, lunch a normal size and dinner quite light. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper as they say. This is an eating pattern I've found to work well for me. Frankly, cutting out dinner was not frightening in the least. I was also committing to relaxing when facing the biggest challenge with a 6am to 2pm eating window....social obligations. Food is very social and dinner out with family and friends is a regular part of life for most people. I decided early that if faced with a social outing I wouldn't sit indignantly and tell everyone I was fasting, I'd eat. In my two week experiment I went to one party and did eat a small amount. Now it was one of those hors d'oeuvre kind of events where caterers walked around with alcohol and plates of small snack foods. I stuck to veggies, water and a vegan cheesecake as most options had meat/cheese in them. In my mind, having this social hall pass to your fast is an important part of keeping the diet sustainable. I also never restricted calories, meaning I ate as much as I wanted during the 8 hour window. If I did an evening training session I had a small snack (apple with nut butter) and a protein powder in almond milk post workout in addition to water. This was to prevent athletic starvation and lack of recovery from a workout.
After four days of fasting I ended up getting the flu. Getting sick wasn't related to my diet, but was just bad luck. It never impacted my ability to stick with the plan. My appetite was so low while sick that I probably ate less than I would have even on the fast.
In the end I did two weeks on this plan with little trouble. I found it easy, that it didn't restrict me socially and felt it could have been sustainable for a long period of time. I lost 6 pounds while fasting and while I can't be sure if it was water, muscle or fat I can say that it was a relatively painless way to drop some pounds after the holiday season, not that I really needed to.
Proponents of intermittent fasting are making a lot of claims about it's health benefits including better insulin regulation, increased human growth hormone production and even changes in gene expression related to preserving our telomeres and extending lifespans. From what I can find most studies on fasting have been done on animals so we can't necessary say they pertain to humans. While I have little doubt intermittent fasting can be effective for weight loss, I'm not entirely willing to jump on board with the biggest claims to life extension. Claims go further to reducing cancer risk, improving heart health and increasing a hormone in the brain called BDNF which may help with Alzheimers prevention. I'll leave it to your opinion and further studies as to whether these claims are valid.
I did find the following benefits while fasting:
- It suited my lifestyle. I often don't enjoy dinner and tend to want to eat lightly or not at all. Having committed to this for two weeks my family knew ahead of time that I was opting out for the last meal of the day relieving me of pressure to eat.
- I found it easier for evening training sessions. Often when I exercise at nighttime I find eating awkward. If I eat within two hours prior to my training session I'm bloated and unhappy. Then if I eat after training I sleep poorly. I found it much better to have a small snack with carbohydrates, fat and protein (my favourite is a sliced apple dipped in nut butter) and a scoop of protein powder in almond milk rather than a full meal.
- It felt very sustainable. I never felt deprived or that I was missing something. Every day you eat, and if you do the fast like me you eat as much as you like. I ate very generously in my 8 hour window, ultimately eating about as many calories as I would have otherwise. I feel that I could easily return to this way of eating even for long periods of time. It never felt like a diet in the traditional sense of the word.
It turns out intermittent fasting has been around for much longer than I thought in one form or another. Various cultures and religions have practiced fasting for generations. I believe intermittent fasting to be sustainable and a sensible weight loss strategy but also one that can be used by athletes during training if desired. I can't recommend it to people that are pregnant, diabetic, have an eating disorder or for children but otherwise it should be ok for most people. Its very simple to understand, doesn't adhere to one particular food rule (Paleo, Vegan etc) or restrict calories in a structured way. There is no math, no counting calories or weighing food and no hyper-focus on over eating one macro nutrient or depriving ourselves of another.
Probably for the first time ever on this blog, I can say without hesitation that I've found a diet experiment that actually works, feels good to me and if done with some flexibility can be sustainable for long term compliance.