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The Skinny on Intermittent Fasting

Jump online to search for current diet fads, and intermittent fasting will inevitably pop up. Yet – unlike some trends such as the blood type diet or the raw food diet – intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating that has been around for centuries. Since long before “dieting” was considered a desirable thing to do. Fasting in some capacity is, after all, part of most major world religions.

So what exactly IS intermittent fasting? Say “fasting” and many people think of deprivation diets that lead to weight loss via extreme calorie restriction. The reality is that IF can be done in many ways and in many eating patterns. Moreover, done right, IF has been tied to weight loss, improved control of food cravings, and decreased inflammation and risk of type 2 diabetes. And the best part is that you decide what eating pattern to follow.

IF involves eating only during a certain window of time – or on certain days – and fasting the rest of the time. Some common patterns include: fast for 12 hours, eating window of 12 hours; fast for 14 hours, eating window of 10 hours; 16/8; and 18/6. Others will choose one day of the week to fast for a full 24 hours, and still others will opt to do a relative fast on certain days of the week, which involves restricting calorie consumption to 500 or less calories on those days.

Now, it should be said upfront that I am not a medical doctor, so if you are considering trying intermittent fasting, it’s best to see your general practitioner first. That said, I have been doing IF for several years now and have learned some valuable lessons about what works and when to be cautious. I didn’t start IF as a conscious choice; rather, I’ve never been a huge breakfast eater, so I naturally put off that first meal each day later and later until I wasn’t eating anything until after noon. And for the past 2 years or so, I’ve roughly followed a 18/6 pattern – fasting for 18 hours and limiting my eating window to 6 hours. I do consume coffee with milk during the “fasting” time, so by its strictest definition, I’m not technically fasting. But my body is conditioned at this point to not really feel hunger until 1 or 2pm.

I have noticed that I’m less hungry overall. I don’t ever feel the need to binge, and I’m more deliberate with my food choices when I do sit down for a meal. I don’t do IF for the purpose of weight loss – the 70+ miles I run each week takes care of that for me – but I can easily see how the IF pattern could lead to dropping some pounds.

I’ve been asked by friends and clients if I recommend IF for them, and my response invariably starts with: “everyone is different, but if you decide to try IF, ease into it”. In other words, don’t jump straight into a 18/6 pattern – you’ll be a hangry monster in no time and most likely experience some monster headaches. But if you start with a more feasible pattern – say 12/12, for example – and like how you feel, shift your pattern in increments. Baby steps equal success, after all. Otherwise, a few important guidelines I’ve learned over my years of practicing IF:

· Water does NOT count – make sure you are drinking enough water even during your fasting period. Your body can survive for quite some time without food. Water is another story.

· If you feel faint or notice your energy levels seriously dipping while fasting, ease back on your restrictions. Especially if you are active, your body needs energy, and if it tells you it needs to be fed by making you swoon, listen to it.

· Make that first meal count. By the time you end your period of fasting, your body is primed and ready for a great meal. Plan ahead so you don’t reach for the first pastry or fast food sandwich you see. Remember: the health benefits of fasting are negated if the food you do eat is nutritionally void.

· Be prepared to cheat. Unless you are told by your doctor that you must fast, your fasting window is a number set only by you, so if there comes a day when you are ravenous at 10am but don’t usually eat until 1pm, listen to your body. You won’t derail your entire diet by changing it up for a day, or two!

· Don’t be THAT person. Your coworkers plan a working lunch at noon but you don’t usually eat until 2pm…what do you do? You can either opt to simply attend the lunch without eating, or you can push your window up a few hours. But do not demand that others move their schedules around to accommodate your IF restrictions. That’s a fast train to ostracization.

· Spread the love. Personally, I don’t like to eat one massive meal. I’m more of a grazer, so within my 6-ish hour eating window, I typically have 3-4 smaller meals. This is personal preference, but the energy and lightness I experience while fasting gets shut down pretty fast if I break the fast with a heavy, 1500-calorie meal.

At the end of the day, I don’t think IF works for everyone. Some people have health issues for which fasting is counterproductive, and others simply cannot deal with being hungry (hence the term “hangry”). And honestly, if I were coaching myself, I would never have thought IF would be a good idea. I run first thing in the morning, between 10 and 12 miles each day, and then I don’t eat for 6-8 hours after I finish working out. It doesn’t seem like it should be a workable formula for me, yet it is. So if you are intrigued by the concept, just start conservatively and work your way up.

And don’t forget the coffee. 😊

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