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Intermittent fasting has taken the nutrition world by storm over the last few years. 

Like any craze, there’s bound to be legions of enthusiastic followers who have tried it out for 2 weeks then start proclaiming that it’s the best thing in the world and EVERYONE SHOULD DO IT.

The truth is much more nuanced, as you might have guessed.

I want to lay it all out for you, from the benefits to the subversive, hidden messaging that comes with any nutritional fad. 

I’ve included my own experience with intermittent fasting and my clinical experience working with patients who are interested in it.

 

So we’re on the same page, let’s define intermittent fasting.

 

With intermittent fasting, you’re choosing a period of time to eat and a period of time to not eat, or fast, each day.

Intermittent fasting does not typically rely on a calorie restriction but on a time restriction. Though unfortunately I’ve seen more and more promotion of calorie restriction.

The most popular forms of intermittent fasting are the extreme OMAD, or one meal a day, which does tout calorie restriction, and 16/8 which is a 16 hour fasting window and an 8 hour eating window.

Let’s pause for a second. 

I just casually mentioned a word that’s totally loaded, especially in the context of nutrition and eating.

Did you cringe when I said restriction?

 

Your reaction to that word is the best indicator as to whether or not intermittent fasting is right for you at this time.

People, especially women, are conditioned to believe that some form of dietary restriction is necessary for optimal health and beauty and intermittent fasting can definitely perpetuate that idea. 

In the past few years, I’ve seen intermittent fasting:

  • trigger disordered eating issues like obsessing over calories and purposely depriving oneself to “cleanse” or make up for a “cheat day” which ultimately leads to bingeing later
  • increase anxiety around food regarding what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat it
  • create a mindset where people strive for the longest fast they’re capable of then collapse for days afterward because their adrenal glands have been overworked trying to stabilize their blood sugar without fuel coming in 
  • suck the joy out of social occasions where people worry whether or not they can have a drink with friends outside of their eating window 
  • encourage people to ignore strong hunger signals in the morning to make sure they “make it” to the designated hour when they are allowed to eat

If people feel terrible, I hear it explained away as “I must be detoxing” or “I’ll just give it a couple weeks” or “I probably did something wrong.”

None of these are healthy experiences of intermittent fasting.

What gives, here? What makes having a healthy experience so difficult?

 

There’s a deep mistrust of our own bodies and simultaneously a massive amount of unwarranted confidence heaped on nutrition protocols with a little science and a little marketing behind them.

 

I spent part of my teens and almost my entire 20s in a dysfunctional loop with food. 

I struggled with anorexia, exercise addiction, binge eating, and body dysmorphia.

I began intermittent fasting cautiously in 2014 when I was 31 and it helped me move through and release the last vestiges of all of my food issues.

In my clinical experience, my results are not typical; for most people intermittent fasting can spark or inflame eating and body issues.

 

What was different for me?

 

At that point I’d done over a decade of counseling and bodywork focused on addressing my food issues. I also got two degrees fields that specialize in teaching people to be more in touch with their bodies.

Not to worry, not everyone needs to become a naturopathic doctor or acupuncturist to successfully navigate intermittent fasting!

 

Here’s the key: I could view intermittent fasting as a tool, not as THE ANSWER. 

 

It was one choice among a variety of supportive, rejuvenating options that I’d collected and vetted for myself. If it didn’t work, I’d move on to something that did.

I was done with viewing nutritional advice as a fixed contract that must be strictly adhered to in order to receive the benefits. 

I wasn’t interested in a tool that would further disconnect me from myself because I had done the work to understand what it meant to be in connection with myself.

For me, that connection manifested in: 

  • less anxiety (I’m generally a stress ball)
  • better digestion
  • better body image
  • way more trust in my own sensitive nature
  • trust in my judgment about what would be helpful or harmful to my wellbeing

And more.

Once that faith in your body and yourself is forged, protocols that promise it all hold very little sway.

This has been true for me personally as well as my patients.

You know yourself best - not some random guru on the internet.

 

All this being said, intermittent fasting can be an incredible way to learn to listen to your body.

 

It can clear out all the crap we’ve had our heads filled with around nutrition and exercise because it can teach us what hunger actually is.

Not the mouth hunger we experience when we’re stressed, bored, tired, or trying to punish ourselves.

True hunger that needs to be respected, honored, and nourished by eating.

Intermittent fasting, when used well, encourages us to listen to ourselves.

There are numerous physiological benefits to intermittent fasting as well, like better insulin sensitivity and more balanced blood sugar, preservation of lean muscle mass, decreased inflammation, improved cholesterol, and improved cellular repair.

 

But please realize that every generalized food, exercise, or nutrition program out there must be adapted to your own needs. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all program in existence that will be tailored to you in every way.

 

For example, most of the current research that purports those amazing benefits from intermittent fasting are based on a 24 hours on-24 hours off cycle of eating and fasting or a 36 hour fast. Neither accurately represent the two most popular forms of intermittent fasting that are being peddled.

The gaps are even bigger when it comes to women and fasting. There’s very limited data available and one of the most referenced studies isn’t even a human study; it’s a rat study.

Studies specific to women and intermittent fasting are fundamentally necessary for our understanding of how it impacts female hormones.

Ovulation is crucial to women’s health and it’s sensitive to caloric intake, stress, sleep patterns, exercise routines, and more. Depending on all of these variables, fasting can act as another stress on the body, especially longer fasts like 24 or 36 hours.

If your body thinks it's starving, it’s going to take growing another human being off the table as well as all of the health benefits that come with ovulating and having healthy hormones.

 

How intermittent fasting impacts YOU is going to be different than someone else. 

 

The work of tailoring a protocol to your own uniqueness lies with you.

Your body and its language are the greatest teachers you have at your disposal to learn about your health.

For example, when I started intermittent fasting, I began with a 12-13 hour fast overnight, not the full 16. Shorter fasts are still beneficial, as highlighted by this study demonstrated a ⅓ risk reduction recurrence in early stage breast cancer patients. 

At first I hated not having my snack after dinner around 9pm with my husband. It was usually something sweet, fun, and comforting like chocolate or cookies.

 

I worried that I’d trigger my restrictive tendencies again if I cut that snack out.

 

So instead of omitting these foods that I enjoyed, I chose to eat them right after dinner.

I observed myself throughout the day to make sure I wasn’t missing other meals or reducing my food intake.

I noticed that my sleep improved right away and after 2 weeks my hunger hormones stabilized. 

It became easier to tell when I was truly hungry.

The emotional reconciliation of not eating for comfort later in the evening took much longer. 

It was at least 2 months before I wasn’t resenting skipping my special snack. 

It was another month before I was motivated to find things that provided comfort rather than calories if I was stressed out.

I started taking salt baths in the evening, working on creative projects, or making it a point to get a hug from my husband and curl up on the couch with him to watch a show.

 

The separation of physical and emotional hunger was made very clear for me by shifting away from eating late.

 

I still stress eat sometimes in the evening, but if I do I’m very aware of the choice I’m making. 

I don’t beat myself up. I don’t feel guilty or judge myself.

I acknowledge that it happened and work to address the root cause of the stress. I reflect on why I felt so overwhelmed and why I chose food for comfort instead of something else.

After several months of intermittent fasting for 13 hours and feeling good, I decided to try out the full 16 hours.

I felt fine for about a week, but after that I would sometimes feel spacey, fatigued, and very hungry the rest of the day. 

I ignored strong hunger signals at about 14-15 hours trying to “make it” to 16.

The stress on my still recovering adrenal glands after 5 years in a graduate program and 3 years of starting a business from scratch was just too much.  

I backed my fast down to an average of around 14 hours a day and started eating when I was hungry in the morning. 

 

I stopped forcing my body to conform to artificial boundaries and instead listened to my needs on a daily basis.

 

As I’ve dialed in my intermittent fasting over the years, I’ve come to recognize that my body has different needs depending on the time of the month.

When I’m in the second half of my cycle and my progesterone is higher, my fast might only be 12 hours. Progesterone stimulates appetite so it’s natural to want more food more often. 

Estrogen dominates the first half of the menstrual cycle and acts as a slight appetite suppressant so I find myself more amenable to 14-15 hour fasts depending on stress, sleep, and more.

I don’t track the hours I’ve fasted daily.

If we eat a late dinner with friends or have an early breakfast, I enjoy it and I don’t beat myself up for not staying with my fasting window.

 

I don’t strictly follow any dogma.

 

I respond to my hunger, mood, stress, hormones, and other signals from my body about what it needs in that moment.

I’ve integrated some of the principles of intermittent fasting into my eating habits because I feel better when I do.

I like understanding when I’m truly hungry instead of feeling compelled to shove down food first thing in the morning even if I’m not hungry or believing that I need to eat 6 small meals a day otherwise I’m damaging my metabolism.

 

I like relying on my own body and believe wholeheartedly in its ability to always guide me in the right direction for my health and happiness.

 

The reality is that we don’t need intermittent fasting to have a meaningful dialogue with our body.

We can develop this sense of ourselves by admitting that nutrition plans and protocols only work in the capacity that they match our bio-individuality.

I’m pretty sure that our ancestors didn’t pass up ripe, juicy wild berries along their walk because they hadn’t quite made it to their 16 or 23 hours fasting window.

 

In my personal and professional experience, rigidity with protocols around our health leads to dogmatism, narrowmindedness, and disconnection from our body.

 

It can feel like a relief to give up our body sovereignty and allow someone else to make decisions for us. In fact that’s the norm in the nutrition, wellness, and athletic industries.

What’s much more challenging and ultimately more rewarding is to embrace our vulnerability by staying in connection with our bodies, asking ourselves what we truly need, and adapt accordingly.

We then shoulder the weight of our choices fully and their successes and failures. 

When we do this, we’re finally released from a cycle of competition, judgment, and shame. 

Our personal growth potential becomes infinite as we walk the path of listening to our wisest guides: our bodies and our hearts.

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