I once asked a very svelte author friend visiting New Orleans from Paris, “How do French women stay so thin?” She replied without skipping a beat, “We don’t eat food.” Though I’m still not sure to what degree she was joking, I’d soon find a way to follow her lead (but on a part-time basis, because last time I checked, eating is still mandatory), and it has made all the difference.
I first heard the term “intermittent fasting” from my sister a few years ago. It was the same day she was trying to explain to me why she put a half stick of butter in her coffee every morning, for “health reasons.” (Bulletproof coffee. Look it up. It’s a thing.) At the time it sounded crazy, so maybe that's why I discounted everything else that came after? It would take a trip to the operating room followed by a 10-pound slim down to finally get me on the fasting bandwagon.
— Kara Nelson
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WHEN YOUR PAIN IS GREATER THAN YOUR HUNGER
A few months after that coffee talk in my sister’s kitchen, I noticed the topic of intermittent fasting popping up more and more. So I started to read some of the research and hear about people who were doing it and loving it: It reduces inflammation, it’s energizing, it’s healing. And it can help you lose weight. So they say.
But I wasn’t buying it. It sounded both too good to be true, and also too hard to actually do. So I did what I usually do with anything diet related, I half-assed it. And the results were in direct proportion to my efforts: Not much.
Fast forward about four months, to the week after I was released from the hospital following abdominal surgery (not emergency, also not cosmetic, but now regretting not asking for that tummy tuck). Any way you cut it, getting sliced open and internally reconfigured takes a toll. The doctor warned me that the first two weeks would be rough. That was an understatement. It was brutal — and odd. The way I describe the pain is that, in the middle of it, you can’t decide: Does it feel more like a life-threatening fever or debilitating depression? Maybe terrible constipation or maybe somebody shot you.
Opioids helped a little at first, but they made me so nauseous that it wasn’t worth it. After about five days of trying to manage the pain, I noticed a pattern. When I woke up in the morning, I felt OK. And on the days when I didn't eat right away, I felt better. But as soon as I ate something, I would start to feel terrible. Major nosedive. The pain was all-encompassing but definitely radiating out from my mid-section. That's when I had a full-body realization: This is about inflammation.
I figured that since there had been so much trauma — and now inflammation — inside my abdominal cavity, my body was busy trying to repair itself. And every time I’d send some food down there, it was like an irritant that created huge flares of pain.
Picture a working mom who’s in the laundry room trying to scrape a melted crayon from the inside of the dryer while folding clothes and wearing headphones because, oh by the way, she’s also on a conference call with a client. Then her eight year old comes in demanding a homemade chocolate cake “right this very minute!” That’d send her over the edge, right? Well, after my surgery, every time I ate, I was sending my body into crisis, as the food entering the area started stirring up some shit. Maybe literally? Ok, gross. Sorry. The point is, the REAL reason I started fasting was survival — or at least to escape the recurring feeling like I was going to die.
So every day, I would put off eating as long as possible. The longer I went, the better I felt. I cannot tell you how much that helped, and not only in the moment. I think fasting also had a cumulative effect. By giving my body longer and longer periods of rest between digestive jobs, it could direct more energy toward repairing itself. And most of all, the whole thing was an incredibly revelatory experience; I discovered the self-healing power of two simple decisions: When to start eating and when to stop.
After I recovered, about two months later, intermittent fasting (IF) had become the norm for me. These days, I usually stop eating around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. and then I don't eat again until around 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. the next day. (I’m a night owl, so this works for me. Others might prefer an earlier fasting window, say 7 p.m. to 9 a.m.) Sometimes I like to see how long I can go before eating — a little gamification keeps it interesting. And if it’s a really busy day, I might make it to 5 p.m. with no problem.
Of course I’m not an authority on IF — I studied literature, not nutrition. So please feel free to skip to the end if you just want to hear what experts say, research and all that stuff. But what I can do is share some insights from my personal experience with IF, including a few things that surprised me.
7 FAST TAKEAWAYS
1. The Middle, Man. I lost 10 pounds!
You know how when you first wake up and walk past a mirror in your bedroom, you automatically lift up your shirt to check your morning tummy profile? No? So it's just me? (Well, this is kind of embarrassing.) I’m not sure exactly when or why it started, but it's a like a reflex at this point. (I don’t get on the scale very often, so I guess this is my way of checking in on my fitness.) After I started IF, I found myself starting the day with a little more pep in my step. Yes, I'm admitting that when my stomach looks flat in the morning, it puts me in a good mood. (Resisting the urge to apologize for that.) Point is, over the course of about five weeks, I lost 10 pounds overall, most noticeably, right around my middle. As any middle-aged woman will attest, that is no small feat.
2. Fat is my friend
Knowing I'd have to give up my midnight snack routine, I looked for something to fill that void — the habit part and the grumbly tummy part. So before bed, I started drinking a special kind of tea that helps activate a Nobel-prize winning process called autophagy, which is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells in order to generate new, healthier cells. I brew the tea using fasting expert Naomi Whittel’s recipe: Earl Grey tea (with real citrus bergamot), a cinnamon stick and the most important ingredient, MCT oil — a distilled form of coconut oil that has no taste but helps improve satiety, so you don’t feel hungry.
Now is probably a good time to mention that IF eventually led me to start experimenting with a more ketogenic diet. Not hard core, and not every day. Basically, I just cut down on carbs (especially sugar), and started seeking out ways to add more good fats (coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil) to my meals, which has really helped my body transition from constant eating to a shorter feeding window. Not sure if I should call it “metabolic flexibility” or being “fat adapted.” All I know is, it feels kind of magical to not be hungry just because I added a tablespoon of MCT oil to a cup of tea. It works! But if you're just eating a bunch of raw veggies, and then you try to fast for 14 hours, good luck. You’re gonna need it.
3. A body at rest, at last!
I’m a problem sleeper. I have had recurring insomnia for most of my adult life, even though I do all the prescribed tricks: White noise, ear plugs, eye mask, 68° in my bedroom, no blue light after 7 p.m. — none of that had more of an effect than giving up my midnight snack when I’m doing IF. This actually surprised me. But logically, it does make sense. Sleep is your body’s way of repairing and restoring itself at a cellular level. If you go to bed when your body is still digesting food, it can disrupt that process. (Side note: Doing IF has motivated me to go to bed earlier, a rush to get unconscious to avoid feeling hungry or tempted to eat. And that change in and of itself has improved the quality of my sleep. Our bodies’ deepest and most regenerative sleep occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., a window I was regularly missing altogether when I stayed up late munching on a bag of pretzels.)
4. I can think clearly now
You might think that some of these benefits sound like cascading effects, and you’re probably right. I cannot be sure how much one thing plays into the other. However, I can tell you that when you’re in a fasted state (i.e. your body is not running on glucose constantly), you’ll be surprised at how much clearer you're thinking can be. Some people call this “keto clarity,” but I’ve found it to be true of fasting even when I’m not eating a ketogenic diet.
5. And then I got high.
On some mornings, I get more than a clear mind. I get high. It doesn’t happen every day and it didn't happen right away, but after a few weeks I realized that on some days — as I drove my kids to school or sat down at my computer in the morninI was getting this energized/buzzed feeling, and it wasn't just the coffee. (By the way, I can have coffee without breaking my fast as long as I don't put sugar or milk in it.) It’s definitely an elevated state, but instead of feeling spaced out, you feel zoned in. I'm not making this up.
6. A fast way to a richer, simpler life
Some people say: Of course IF works; you're eating less, because you’re cutting your eating time by half or more. Ok, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. (As JJ Virgin says: “Your body is not a bank account. It’s a chemistry lab.”) However it works inside my body, it does simplify my daily life in practical ways. Cutting down from three meals to two means I have one-third less stuff to deal with. I don’t have to decide what to eat, buy the groceries or cook the food, because I’m just not eating that meal. Simple. So I spend less money, time and mental energy. It’s hard to overestimate the amount of mental bandwidth that gets freed up by making that decision once so you can focus on the things you really care about doing in your life.
7. The skinny on skin
It seems that reducing inflammation is apparent not only on the inside, or how we feel, but also on the outside. When I really stick to my IF routine for a week or more, my skin just looks a little clearer and better. Maybe a bit of a glow or an unexpected rosy cheek, and the dark circles under my eyes are not quite as pronounced. Similar results have been documented — at least anecdotally — in the research.But for me personally, this benefit probably also has something to do with the fact that when I'm not eating, I’m drinking a LOT more water. Any time I start to feel hungry, I just chug more water. Hydrated body = hydrated skin = oh hey, you! I’m also seeing more results from weight training. I’ve exercised regularly for pretty much my entire adult life; in fact I am straight up addicted to exercise endorphins. But only now am I beginning to see more muscle definition, especially in my arms and my abs. Yes I am 47, and on some days I have abs. Not a six pack — I’m not that dedicated. But I do sometimes see a semblance of my pre-pregnancy tummy in the mirror. The last fast note: You just look better.
So, that sums up my IF experience so far. It makes me feel better, has simplified my life, and instead of walking around feeling miserable and hungry, I feel better than ever. I guess you could say I'm hooked. Skipping breakfast feels like an easy button, like I get to clep out of one thing so I can move right to the good stuff.
Curious yet? Read below for more information about intermittent fasting.
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Here’s what some experts say about IF:
“There are critical processes that only happen during periods of fasting, which can improve digestion, skin, immune health, and even activate stem cells to support longevity. If your body is constantly working to digest food, your cells spend more time building and growing than they do repairing and eliminating waste and toxins that have accumulated within them. It is this repair – mode that is responsible for the benefits of fasting.”
— Naomi Whittel, author of Glow 15
“A growing body of research shows the potential benefits for health and disease protection from intermittent fasting. Research shows that fasting can result in weight loss [and] can improve insulin sensitivity, lower inflammation, and improve markers for heart disease, including lowering levels of unhealthful LDL cholesterol. Intermittent fasting has shown promise as in offering protection against and treating some cancers, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
— Michael J. Breus, The Sleep Doctor
“Intermittent fasting might actually be an ancient secret of health. It is ancient because it has been practiced throughout all of human history. It’s a secret because this potentially powerful habit had until recently in many ways been virtually forgotten. It is important to realize that [fasting] is normal and humans have evolved to fast for shorter time periods – hours or days – without detrimental health consequences. Body fat is merely food energy that has been stored away. If you don’t eat, your body will simply “eat” its own fat for energy. Disclaimer: While intermittent fasting has many proven benefits… [there is] potential danger regarding medications, especially for diabetes, where doses often need to be adapted. Discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor.”
— Dr. Jason Fung, Nephrologist and author of The Complete Guide to Fasting