intermittent fasting: yes or no?
Intermittent fasting is a hot topic these days.
There was an article in the NYT recently about how scientists have concluded the first long-term study of time-restricted eating, AKA intermittent fasting.
They found that it really doesn’t have any benefits. I know—the outcry is going to be huge on this, whether you’re for it or against it.
Should I try intermittent fasting? Does it work?
As a health coach, I get this question a lot from clients.
And it reminds me of earlier questions that seem to have petered out—should I go keto? Should I be plant-based? What about low-fat, low-carb, no-carb…?
The mere fact that I’m asked this so often makes it easy to dismiss as yet another fad diet.
And yet I’ve seen it work wonderfully for some clients, not so much for others.
What’s my take on intermittent fasting?
My disclaimer: I’m not an expert on the topic. My reflections here are based solely on what I’ve read and heard on podcasts and observed in friends, family, and clients who have tried it.
what is intermittent fasting?
There seem to be a lot of variations out there.
Some only restrict your “eating window” to 6–8 hours per day. This is mostly based on the theory that our digestive tracts need breaks to function at optimal levels.
Other versions encourage a certain eating style and/or calorie restriction during those hours.
Frankly, when you’re used to eating all day long, any restriction on that—whether time and/or calories—is going to help more people lose weight, all other factors remaining equal.
I do caution clients that like most eating style adherents, intermittent fasting proponents tend to ignore bio-individuality, a red flag if there ever was one for an Integrative Nutrition® health coach.
Bio-individuality is the concept that no two humans are alike—your food might be my poison, your kale my kryptonite, whether we’re talking about the food you put in your mouth or anything else that nourishes you (or doesn’t).
So have I seen intermittent fasting work? Yes.
Does it work for everyone? No.
remember reference man?
And remember that as with most diet and exercise trends, fasting seems to be tested on reference man: if you’re not familiar with him, here’s a definition from the Medical Dictionary:
“A human being of statistically average size and physiology, used in research models of nutrition, pharmacology, population, radiologic dosimetry, or toxicology.”
If you dig deeper, you might find this information about him:
“First introduced in 1975, the Reference Man concept was initially devised to simplify calculations on radiation exposure, although it went on to be used consistently in research models of nutrition, pharmacology, population, and toxicology. Intended to personify all of humanity, the Reference Man was in fact defined in very specific terms: A 25 to 30 year old male, weighing 154 pounds, standing 5 feet 6 inches tall, Caucasian, with a Western European or North American lifestyle.”
So if you’re a 5’4” 175-lb woman of color, what on earth makes you think that you can handle the same amount of radiation—or medication or protein or food restriction—as reference man?
am i against it?
Do I discourage clients from doing it?
No—and I do encourage them to do what I’m always encouraging them to do: start slowly and pay attention to how you feel.
Intermittent fasting may be a great jumpstart to better health or weight loss. In my small data pool, it doesn’t seem to be sustainable in the long term.
Women in particular seem to feel their best when they fast for 12–14 hours rather than the recommended 14–18 although again, results vary.
By the way, if you follow the common recommendation to avoid eating for 3 hours before lying down to sleep and you sleep for the generally recommended 8 hours, you’ve already “fasted” for 11 hours.
Start your morning by eating an hour after rising, and you’ve already hit 12 hours. This suggestion is common among the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day proponents.
Want to stretch it longer? Try not eating for 4 hours before bed or for 2 hours after getting up.
More importantly, if you want to lose weight and/or improve your health markers, simply not eating between meals and/or waiting until you’re physically hungry seems to achieve much the same results for most people I’ve observed.
intermittent fasting and primary foods
Emotional eating can manifest as using food too much to suppress negative emotions—it can also show up as being overly controlling where food intake is concerned.
If you are a calorie counter, a recovering yo-yo dieter, or someone who becomes obsessed with rules and restrictions, intermittent fasting is probably not a great idea.
There are clients who incessantly use the words “control” and “manage”—whether they’re talking about food or lifestyle choices. I try to impress upon them that obsessing over WHEN and HOW OFTEN they eat is often an attempt to bring some control to an area of their life that feels manageable rather than dealing with the areas that feel out of control.
I also encourage those testing out fasting to pay close attention to the impact it has on their primary foods—career, relationships, spiritual practice, physical activity, sleep, etc.
Why? Well, let’s conclude with that article I used as a jumping-off point:
Dr. Weiss, who was previously an adherent to intermittent fasting, has changed his opinion. And according the the NY Times, “‘I started eating breakfast,’ he said. ‘My family says I am a lot nicer.'”
make the connection
In my completely non-professional opinion, intermittent fasting may be worth a try, but with the following caveats:
- Keep reference man in mind: results may vary, so be ready to find what works for you for now.
- Start slowly and gradually ramp up.
- Pay attention to how you feel as you ramp up—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Take your primary foods into consideration as well. If you’re feeling great physically but are snappish with your loved ones, is it worth it?
- The goal is finding your sweet spot—not competing with anyone else.
- Intermittent fasting might be right for you right now. Don’t become so invested in the label that you become unwilling to let it go when it no longer serves you.
- Take a hard look at whether you are trying it for the right reasons—feeling in control of your food intake may be a way to avoid addressing some other issues.
And if you’re wondering about this emotional eating component, keep an eye out for my Stewarding Emotional Eating challenge! (Get on my email list if you want to make sure you don’t miss it.)