Intermittent Fasting is exploding in popularity as a means to control weight. Here I will outline a few key concepts, how to start on it, several warning signs it may not be suitable for you, and some simple tips to overcome them.
Fasting is not new
The concept of taking a break from eating is not new. After all, we do not eat when we are sleeping. However, due to our modern lifestyles of being constantly on the go and sleeping in the wee hours after binge-watching the latest Netflix or Korean drama, the number of hours we do not eat has reduced significantly. Many people mindlessly turn to snacks to stay awake or relieve boredom, shifting our natural body rhythms off.
Typical Eating Habits
A typical daily pattern would be to wake at 6 or 7 am and have breakfast shortly before heading to school or work. Many take mid-morning breaks at 10 am before having lunch at 1 pm. Feeling sluggish and sleepy at 3 pm triggers another snack. And on the way back from work, we pick up another snack before having dinner at 8 pm. We stay up and reach for snacks at 10 pm, and some even snack at midnight before sleeping and starting the same the next day.
Let's break that down
Someone who eats like this usually consumes too many calories and not enough of the proper nutrients. This person would likely have weight or energy issues.
However, what if this person decides to try intermittent fasting to lose weight and get better energy? How would they start?
Starting on Intermittent Fasting
I always recommend that one make gradual shifts when changing their diets or eating patterns. It's not that I don't believe you can't do it, but your body needs to be 'trained' to adapt. I always ask would they attempt to run a marathon without training; it is possible, but not without pain and even physical consequences, likewise with making diet and nutrition changes.
The most common form of Intermittent Fasting involves fasting for 16 hours and only eating within an 8 hour time window. But to build up to that goal, I recommend starting the right way. Start with a 12 hour overnight fast.
12:12 Twelve Hours Overnight Fast
Let's put a realistic goal to shift from a 7 hour overnight fast to a 12 hour overnight fast. We can do away with the midnight snack and shift breakfast to the mid-morning snack timing of 10 am.
By removing two snacks, you hit the minimum benefit of a 12 hour overnight fast and reduce your total calorie intake within a day!
You may experience uncomfortable side effects such as loud stomach rumblings and food cravings for sugary or starchy foods, or you may even experience lightheadedness. This is a sign that your body has lost its flexibility in balancing your energy needs.
Let's cover some aspects of nutrition and lifestyle factors that may sabotage the effectiveness of Intermittent Fasting.
What you eat DOES matter.
A common mistake I see when someone attempts Intermittent Fasting for the first time is to continue eating the same type of meals they used to.
The type and quality of nutrients make a difference in reducing cravings and energy crashes as you transition to this new way of eating. The nutrients that would improve fullness and sustain you as you extend your fasting window include fibre, protein and fat.
Have enough fibre, protein and fat to keep you full longer
Higher fibre vegetables and grains slow the release of sugars in the blood. Examples include rolled oats vs instant oats, basmati rice vs white jasmine rice, sweet potato vs white potato and whole fruit vs fruit juices.
Protein and Fat
Protein and fat are digested slowly and are more filling. Having quality protein (both animal and plant-based) and healthy fats will reduce cravings and sustain for you a more extended period. Be careful of deep-fried or thickened gravies/sauces as this may contain thickening agents that are high in starch.
Portions and Ratios
Eating in a shorter time window does not permit you to overeat. Therefore, eat a reasonable portion for your main meals, with your plate broken up into a ratio of 50% colourful vegetables, 25% protein, 10% fat and 15% high fibre grains.
Learn to eat without devices and eat mindfully (not too fast or slow). This allows you to become more aware of how much you have eaten, and your body slowly relearns how much is enough.
Ideally, you want to only have three main meals without snacks, which allows sufficient time gaps between eating so your body can digest and absorb nutrients effectively. The ideal time gap is four hours between meals.
However, if you are just beginning and until now have been following an uncontrolled pattern of eating, you may find it hard to sustain your energy levels between meals. When you experience light-headedness, it is better to have the right type of snack to sustain you to your next meal.
Some examples of simple filling snacks high in fibre, protein and healthy fats include cucumber slices with sardines or hummus, beancurd without sugar, two eggs, a small bowl of oven-baked nuts or chickpeas, chia seed pudding or a few pieces of 70% dark chocolate.
Caffeine and other Beverages
If you need your coffee or tea fix through the day, it should be fine to continue as long as you do not add sugar to it. It would be best to avoid colas, sodas, pre-sweetened drinks (e.g. Boba tea) and fruit juices.
It is essential to stay hydrated as you transition; therefore, do remember to drink at least 1 - 2 L of filtered water throughout the day. In addition, you can add a few fruit or cucumber slices as a natural sweetener and flavouring.
Alcohol creates stress on the body as it needs to be detoxified and excreted. In fact for many, cutting back on alcohol has resulted in weight loss, less water retention, better skin, sleep, energy and mood.
As you start losing fat due to changes in your eating patterns, do remember that toxins are released from where they were stored - our fat! Therefore, as you lose the excess fat around your belly or even if you are 'skinny fat' and lose fat around your organs, you may be increasing the toxic load in your body that needs to be detoxified. Adding alcohol increases your total toxic burden and is stressful to the body.
Perhaps you may consider cutting-off alcohol for two weeks to allow your body time to rebalance. Then, as you adapt you will be better able to process alcohol if taken in moderation.
Lifestyle Factor: Stress
Stress has been blamed for both weight gain and weight loss. When we encounter a stressful event, our body releases a stress hormone known as adrenaline. Short bursts of adrenaline curbs our appetite and cravings.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to weight gain as cortisol is the hormone that is activated. With poor eating habits, the body releases even more hunger hormones triggering the dreaded cravings.
Chronic emotional and physical stress triggers cravings
Stress is not just emotional, but it can also be physical. Physical stressors are cardio exercise, illness, pain and even lack of sleep. Even a lack of nutrients or eating highly processed foods can be stressful for the body.
Suffice to say, building stress resilience and balancing the stressors in our life will lead to better craving control.
Lifestyle Factor: Sleep
Deep restorative sleep is vital to health when the body rests, digests, cleanses and repairs. Sleeping late or being chronically sleep deprived is frequently linked to being overweight or obese. Have you ever noticed you crave a snack at 10 pm to give you an energy boost to help you stay past midnight? That's your hunger hormones kicking in.
Poor sleep is associated with being overweight
Many of us have late-night work calls. In those situations the tips above on what snacks to take would allow you to adapt and reduce the night-time hunger hormones over time slowly. But for optimal benefit, it is advisable to have at least 7 - 8 hours of sleep and be asleep by 11 pm.
Lifestyle Factor: Exercise
Due to our office-based culture, we turn to exercise to stay active. The types of exercise are running, jogging, cycling, gym, exercise classes etc. The timing of exercise tends to occur either before work, during lunch hour or after work. All of which may sabotage your food choices and encourage over-eating.
When you start on Intermittent Fasting you may need a healthy snack pre-workout, to prevent the surge of hunger after a strenuous workout. This reduces the cravings that tend to occur after your workout if you are not yet adapted. This is particularly relevant if you choose to work out first thing in the morning after not eating for 12 hours prior. If you do need the snack in the morning pre-workout, do remember you would need to have an earlier dinner and skip any post-dinner snacks that night.
Hidden Factor: Inflammation
A caveat to how successful Intermittent Fasting would be for weight management and energy depends on your level of pre-existing inflammation or body dysfunction.
This is because inflammation and body dysfunction is a state of stress, and often weight gain or chronic symptoms are signals your body is sending out to indicate that something needs to be fixed.
With my clients, after we addressed their chronic gut symptoms, food sensitivities, hormonal imbalances, frequent infections, skin issues etc., very often, they reported losing weight, belly fat and better energy.
The reason you can't lose weight with diet and exercise may be due to a hidden source of inflammation
This is when you may need a deeper dive to identify and address any hidden sources of inflammation. Investigating your symptoms, health history, and optimal bloodwork analysis would provide clues to which part of your body system/s needs targetted support.
If you have tried various diets or exercise programs and found it difficult to sustain a healthy weight or consistent energy, you may want to get to the root of your hidden inflammation.
If you want to explore what may be the cause, you can book a free 15 min discovery consult with me. Choose a slot of your convenience here.