Over the last few months, I haven’t been able to go to a brunch, boxing class or happy hour without someone bringing up intermittent fasting. Have you tried it? Is it healthy? Is it safe? Does it work? The practice of fasting has been around for ages, but the idea of using it as a means to lose weight and achieve better overall health has reached peak popularity in the last year (hey, at least we’ve stopped talking about crystals).
Proponents of intermittent fasting (or IF, for short) say that practicing it regularly can help reduce cholesterol, inflammation and blood pressure; reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and prevent insulin spikes; and also aid in weight loss. I'm naturally curious when it comes to wellness trends (I’ve tried no fewer than three different juice cleanses, Whole30, Vegan Before 6 and pretty much every group fitness class under the sun), so I set out to try IF for a month. Fast-forward eight weeks later, and I’m still practicing intermittent fasting with no intention of stopping. Here’s how I got hooked.
To be clear, weight loss wasn’t my primary—or even secondary or tertiary—goal in trying IF. I was fueled by a combination of curiosity and my own competitive spirit. (Can I really restrain myself from eating for one whole day each week?) As a happy side effect, though, I have ended up losing a couple of pounds. Overall, I take an intuitive approach to my health. I haven’t looked at a scale since 2009, but I’m very attuned to how I feel in my body, and that dictates my diet and exercise choices. In my experience, IF isn’t a “lose weight fast” plan, but so far it seems like a great tool for maintaining your weight (or steadily losing weight) without a ton of effort or calorie counting.
After getting the go-ahead from my doctor (which everyone should do before embarking on an experiment like this), I did some research and found out people either really love or really hate intermittent fasting. I read an article right here on PureWow that looked at the trend through a very critical lens. Melissa Kelly, MS, RD, CDN told us, “While intermittent fasting has grown in popularity over the last year, as a registered dietitian and nutritionist, I don’t encourage its restrictive principles when working with my clients.” Yikes. But then I saw a study from Harvard Medical School, which seemed much more positive. “Studies in humans, almost across the board, have shown that IF is safe and incredibly effective [for weight loss],” explains Monique Tello, MD, MPH, adding that its biggest drawback is that most people find it difficult to fast for long periods of time. Challenge accepted. I also checked in with Dr. Charles Passler, a nutritionist and founder of Pure Change who works with the likes of Bella Hadid and Adriana Lima. Dr. Passler told me he's a fan of intermittent fasting, "because it’s a simple and straightforward way to lose weight that’s relatively easy to do. As opposed to a strict diet with complex food recommendations and portion control, IF is merely an 'Eating Pattern,' controlling when you eat, not what you eat."
Next, I had to decide which type of intermittent fasting was right for me. (Yep, there are a million different variations, from alternate-day fasting to the Warrior Diet, where you eat only one large meal every day.) Right off the bat, I ruled out the popular 16:8 method, which basically means you fast every day for 16 hours and limit your meals to the remaining eight. That, to me, sounded extremely restrictive, and there's no way I'm giving up my occasional 2 a.m. weekend pizza slice. The plan that best fit my lifestyle, I decided, was Eat Stop Eat. This method dictates that you fast for 24 straight hours once a week, then eat normally the remaining six days. During those 24 hours, I can have as much water as my heart desires (more on that later), along with black coffee and tea—a major win, since the idea of giving up coffee and food for a full day sounds like complete torture.
Week one. I’m actually doing this. I chose to start my fast on Sunday night at 6 p.m. and break it at 6 p.m. on Monday. From day one, I was totally sold. Believe it or not, there’s really no “I struggled for the first three weeks and then finally hit my stride” story. I actually found that, for me, it’s really not that hard to go 24 hours without eating—especially since I fast on Mondays, when I’m typically playing catch-up and could use the extra couple of hours I usually spend cooking or eating.
Despite being an evening workout enthusiast, I decided to hit the gym on Monday morning, so I don't exert myself too hard after 24 hours without food. That also frees up my evening, so I can go straight from work to dinner. As long as I break my fast with a reasonable, normal sized meal, I wake up on Tuesday mornings feeling lighter and generally better. I’d be lying if I said I was never tempted by the treats that sometimes materialize in the office kitchen, but overall, I’ve found that the relatively low level of self-control required to turn down a cookie once a week is worth it. (I can imagine, though, that full-day fasts would be tricky if your normal days are less structured.)
Even though it was mostly smooth sailing from the jump, I did learn a few important lessons. Namely, the importance of drinking water. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m really damn good at staying hydrated. And as it turns out, I drink even more when food is removed from the equation—10 percent more, to be exact. I also have to be aware of what kind of meal I break my fast with. It’s tempting to go crazy after 24 hours of not eating, but that’s also counterproductive. After inhaling enough sushi for a family of four my second week in (I’m being dramatic, but it was a lot), I learned that a regular dinner, eaten at a normal pace, is just as satisfying. Lastly, I’ve had to be OK with the weird looks I get when I mention to strangers or casual acquaintances that I don’t eat on Mondays. As with everything health-related, everyone has an opinion, but I’m confident enough in my knowledge of what’s best for my body that I’m fine to smile and nod when someone tells me that the way I choose to eat is “crazy.”
The occasional judgmental diatribe aside, what started as a challenge borne out of genuine curiosity has become something I can see myself continuing for the foreseeable future. I don’t think intermittent fasting is for everyone. If you have kids, for example, I can see IF being difficult to keep up with (especially if you're making their meals—how can you resist popping a piece of cheese in your mouth?). But if you’re like me and you’re interested in a new way to lose a few pounds and maybe improve your overall health without really having to think about it, you might want to give intermittent fasting a shot. (But, you know, talk to your doctor first.)