I first came across the idea of intermittent fasting from one of my favorite entrepreneurs, Amanda Tress. Tress is a fitness coach and a mom of two who is completely inspiring and has killer abs made apparently, even more killer with the help of intermittent fasting. The claim is that intermittent fasting, when done correctly, can help "reset" how your body's insulin system works and when timed with workouts, can help you burn faster and more effectively without depleting your necessary glycogen stores so your body also isn't eating itself. (Fun fact: your body will eat your muscle stores first, not that cheesecake you had for dinner three weeks ago.)
I was intrigued by the idea of intermittent fasting (IF), simply because it seems like a fairly easy thing I could do as a woman with four young kids running around who works from home. I've been exercising consistently for a year straight, but am not seeing results, so I know it's time to shake up my nutrition game and I thought IF might be a good place to start.
How It Works
So there are a few different ways to practice IF and there's no real "right" way to do it, because it's really whatever you think would work best for your life and the results you're looking for. Most commonly, the beginner's guide to IF let me know that people choose a "fasting window," so you basically stop eating for about 16 hours. If you stop eating at 7 p.m., you can eat again at noon the next day. In practical terms, this basically means skipping breakfast.
Skipping breakfast goes against everything we've been taught about what's healthy, but apparently the science behind IF says that there's no reason not to eat when you're not hungry, and by learning to follow your body's own internal cues, you're giving your body a chance to "reset" your digestion. And paying attention to when you're actually truly hungry is way more healthy than forcing yourself to eat just because breakfast is the "most important meal of the day."
You can also do a once-a-week full-day fast, so I decided to give both options a shot and see what happened. I wasn't exactly sure how things were going to go down or what to expect from this experiment (except the fact that I'd be hungry), but here's how IF worked out for me.
As I got started with the fasting, I did like the thought that maybe if you naturally don’t find yourself hungry at certain times of the day that you don’t need to force yourself to eat just because you’re supposed to. Like, for instance, my husband and one of my daughters is never hungry in the morning, which I find to be crazy, but maybe I shouldn’t force them to eat and instead, I should focus on teaching my daughter to listen to her own internal cues about her body telling her what it needs.
Fasting is all about paying attention to your body when it’s actually hungry instead of eating just when we're trained to eat. Do you think our ancestors had three square meals a day on set schedule? Um, no. So maybe, just maybe, our bodies might function more efficiently with an intermittent fasting lifestyle. It’s definitely a thought worth considering.
Two things worked out well for me in this little experiment: it happened to be Lent and I am Catholic, so I’m already encouraged to fast on Fridays and also, I got the stomach flu so that helped me to stick to fasting also because I am weak and love food.
So day one was spent puking my guts out thanks to my friend The Stomach Flu, which, I guess, was a nice start to my fasting experiment. I stopped eating about about 3 p.m. on Saturday when I started to come down with a fever and didn’t eat until noon the next day. Obviously, I was getting over being sick, but I did not feel good at all until I ate the next day. I could literally feel my blood sugar crying out for energy.
Day two was much easier: I ate two pieces of toast to break my fast around noon, then ate a full dinner because I was starving beyond all belief. I also did a little digging on why IF might not be the best idea for women, as our bodies work and process food differently then men's, which makes a lot of sense to me. If you think about it, nature would want to make sure we were constantly fed to feed our hundreds of offspring, right? Plus, we just plain do more in a day, which explains my constant hunger.
I didn't find the fasting to be any different than any other time I skip meals: I feel fine and then all of a sudden, I just hit a huge wall and I'm starving beyond belief and want to eat everything in sight. Maybe I needed a longer adjustment period to "train" my body away from eating something every few hours, but at this point, that's what my body is used to, I guess. I've been pregnant or nursing non-stop for the past eight years and my body relies so heavily on food as fuel. On day two, I totally rushed nap time because in the middle of reading a story to my little kids, I suddenly was so hungry I could hardly stand it.
For day three, I ate normally and did a light cardio workout at home because I still wasn't feeling strong enough to hit the gym with full-on weight training after recouping from the flu.
At this point in the experiment, I liked that fasting gave me the tools to really listen to what my body needed. I didn't eat just because the time on the clock indicated I should. Because of this, I felt like I could eat a bit lighter and go a bit lighter on my workout as well without the need for excess calories to make up for all that iron pumping.
I also noticed that I did feel a lot less bloated and "lighter" on my feet with the fasting days, but it was still a huge challenge to overcome the mentality that skipping a meal early on in the day meant I could stuff myself later.
Day four was not pretty, guys. After fasting through breakfast and eating lunch as normal, I headed to the gym with my much younger and much more in shape sister for leg day. I made sure to eat a LaraBar on the way since I was pressed for time, but knew I would need some kind of energy to make it through leg day, because leg day with her is pretty much brutal and filled with more squats than I'd think one human could ever do.
Long story short, she kicked my butt (literally), but then something happened to me that has never happened in the history of working out: I completely and totally collapsed during a walking lunge. My leg just literally buckled out from under me and I crashed to the floor. I was so humiliated and while I can't be sure fasting had anything to do with it, I'm pretty sure it did. I made sure to eat a super healthy dinner when I got home and enjoyed salmon, broccoli, and sweet potato fries for a carb refuel.
By day five, I realized one big reason why IF may not be a good choice for me: I'm a mom and I actually fast a lot completely on accident. I realized that on most days, I actually don't eat a real breakfast until around 11 a.m. anyways, but what I do do is chug coffee all morning long so come mealtime, I am literally shaking with hunger and ready to devour everything in sight. I'm assuming this is not what the proponents of IF had in mind, but then again, I'm also assuming none of them were 29-year-old women with four young kids who had to get up at 5 a.m. to squeeze some work in before their little darlings woke up. Moral of the story on day five was: Don't listen to men when they tell you how to best fuel your body.
And no, I'm not hangry, why do you ask?
But seriously, on day five, I realized that I drink way too much coffee (usually like three or four cups every single morning) than I need to and it really affects how much I eat. When I cross the line into that shaky, headache-y, kind of disoriented feeling, I know I've gone too far. I think better advice would've been to add a surplus of water to my mornings.
On day six I actually had to give up coffee for the rest of my fasting experiment because holy crap, does coffee make me hungry and jittery! I guess it could be the fact that I normally drink three cups a day, but still, I literally could not function if I had coffee and didn’t have food at least soon after.
What’s interesting about all of this is that I found that I really don’t need food right in the morning unless I eat food right in the morning. The second I eat something, even a small bite of eggs of my kids’ plate, it's like I'm queuing up my metabolism and telling it to be ready for more fuel. But if don’t eat anything, I can easily last until lunch without feeling hungry.
I also know that I prefer running and working out on an empty stomach and always have, just because it feels more comfortable to me, but if I am doing a full-weights workout, fasting really doesn't work. I'm just not able to lift as heavy as I know I can and I drag through my workouts. Cardio is great to do after a fast, but for me, I need to eat some kind of protein to fuel a weights workout.
I actually attempted a full-day fast today on day six just to see if I could make it and how it would make me feel, but I couldn't do it. I am weak and I have kids and there is always food around and I was hungry and also, I wanted to work out and I was too scared to collapse again, so ate away I did.
By today, I definitely felt like my hunger has lessened, and that my body is beginning to adjust to fewer meals, but I still can't shake the weird headache-y, slightly nauseous and dizzy feeling I have when I'm not eating. I didn't break my fast until noon today, but then I feel like I majorly failed because I pigged out on two pieces of cinnamon apple toast and then ate mac 'n cheese right from the pan as I was making for the kids' lunch. (Why does it always taste so much better when you devour it straight from the pan??)
I stayed on track for the rest of the day, and strangely enough, it's like my body has been purging itself after my slip-up with the toast. I felt clearer and more focused, but still hungry AF. I could tell that if I didn't eat soon I was going to get hangry for sure, so I planned on having a light spinach smoothie prior to my workout. I definitely did not want a repeat of day four because it's leg day again, guys. I also guzzled water like there was no tomorrow to ward off that hunger and stay hydrated.
What I Learned
Honestly, I feel like IF is a nice option after I feel completely gross from a weekend of bad eating or a vacation or something, but in general, it did not make me feel good. I like that it took the pressure off of eating breakfast first thing in the morning or else, but other than that, it just felt kind of lazy.
I will probably continue my habits of running on an empty stomach because that's what I do and have always done, but I'm also open to exploring using food as fuel more because right now, something is not clicking with my weight loss and I am determined to figure it out. I think if you are thinking of trying IF, you should do it with a professional nutritionist or trainer instead of winging it like I totally did, because right now, my body doesn't seem to like skipping food, and until I'm ready to give coffee up, I think IF might not be the answer for me.