In today’s world, we are flooded with weight loss options. But none beat intermittent fasting (or “IF”) when it comes to simplicity. You’re not deciphering ingredients, or counting calories, you’re skipping meals and keeping an eye on the clock. IF isn’t a diet where you either eliminate or eat only certain types of food; it’s an eating approach that cycles between fasting and eating during certain windows of time.
Grounded in research and found in nearly every major religious and spiritual tradition, fasting has been reported to boost brain function and body composition, reduce insulin levels and blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, accelerate cellular repair, and potentially expand lifespans. Additionally, fasting serves as a natural way to give your body a break, given the energy it expends digesting food.
While you may associate fasting with not eating (and being hungry) for long periods of time, there are many ways in which you can make it fit your lifestyle, making it a reasonable approach for most people. Before engaging seriously on a fasting diet, be sure to consult with a doctor — but you may be on your IF journey right now without even realizing it.
Ahead is a guide on getting started with intermittent fasting and finding what works best for you.
An RD’s Approach to Getting Started With Intermittent Fasting
Start Fast & Easy: The 12:12 Method
Intermittent fasting doesn’t have to be that hard or even restrictive. Start with the popular 12:12 approach: eat for 12 hours a day, then fast for 12 hours a day (including the time you’re asleep). This could mean you have your last bite of food by 8 pm and your first bite by 8 am — something you may be intuitively doing already. Beginning with the 12:12 approach is a great place to start and build awareness of mindful eating or drinking (and mindless snacking). As the weeks go by, you can increase your fasting window by 30-60 minutes at a time, allowing your body to adjust slowly with minimal side effects.
Play By The Rules
So what can you actually consume during your fast? Not much. Simply put, there are no foods allowed, and the only liquids allowed are plain still or sparkling water, unflavored green or black tea, and plain black coffee.
Many unknowingly break their fast by adding lemon to their water, cream, and Splenda to their coffee, accidentally tasting food or chewing sugar-free gum. Flavored water, milk, creamer, sweeteners, lemon, herbal teas, and diet sodas (although very low in calories) can all initiate digestion, potentially raise insulin, and break your fast.
While fasting, it’s better to start your day with two large glasses of water and then a cup of plain tea or black coffee. Sipping on caffeinated (or even decaffeinated) coffee or tea can really ease the transition into everyday fasting. But coffee isn’t water! It can become easy to rely too heavily on caffeine, a natural diuretic that dehydrates you. So, make sure you drink roughly half your body weight of water in ounces.
Finally, some supplements and medications may also break the fast as they contain fillers and additives that confuse the body for food. Most supplements should be taken with food for better absorption anyway, so if you can, wait to take them when you open your eating window. And if you’re on any medications or prescribed supplements, check with your doctor on the best time to take them, and take them as close to your eating window as your doctor allows.
Refuel The Right Way
Without a constant stream of food, your body will actually become more efficient at refueling when you open your eating window. Therefore, you should opt for nutrient-dense foods and not empty calories. So plan your meals! Planning and preparing your meals gives you a leg up. Make sure you eat adequate protein, a variety of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Nutritious foods will fill you up and lessen cravings.
And don’t forget to eat a substantial meal before closing your eating window. That last meal will sustain you until your next eating window opens. Many people restrict too much, hoping to shed extra pounds. You may end up extra hungry the next day and have lower energy levels, making the whole experience more difficult. Make sure you leave satisfied before you close your eating window (satisfied, not stuffed!).
Fast Effectively, Advance Slowly
Just like you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon without training, you shouldn’t expect your body to adjust to extended fasting without working up to it. You may feel tired at first, have a headache, or feel like you are dragging through the day in this early adjustment phase. That’s because our bodies are used to a steady stream of food (specifically glucose) from your typical breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
When you first fast, your brain will continue to search for easy to access glucose, but before you can turn to stored body fat for fuel, your body has to first deplete the stored glucose in your liver, called glycogen. Depleting your body’s glycogen stores can take a couple of weeks or potentially longer. The best-selling author Gin Stephens describes this process in her latest book “Fast. Feast. Repeat.”, explaining that you will know when you make the switch to fat-burning when fasting becomes easier, you’re less hungry and you have sustained energy throughout the fast.
Listen to Your Body
When first adjusting to IF, you’re likely constantly going to be consumed with thoughts of your next meal. But IF provides a unique opportunity to become much more aware of your body and your hunger cues, as well as connecting to your satiety signals (feeling full). With time, you will begin to notice that hunger can quickly come and go, especially if you are keeping busy.
Successfully sticking with IF isn’t about ignoring hunger at all costs. Be sure to regularly check in with yourself as hunger waves come up. If at any time during the fast you feel nausea, shakiness, or dizziness — don’t push through that, EAT! And simply return where you left off the next day.
Keep Yourself Accountable
Although it may be hard to initially miss weekend brunches with your friends and family, the results will likely be worth it. Let your family, friends, and coworkers know that you will not be eating breakfast with them, or that you prefer early dinners. It’s important to share with them why you are practicing IF. This will make it easier for you to commit to your goals and avoid the social pressures of eating and drinking on someone else’s schedule. And unlike a regimented diet, you can still eat brunch — just maybe push back that reservation!
Stick With It
Embarking on an intermittent fasting journey can be intimidating, especially if like most people, you have concerns about your willpower and ability to withstand hunger. But stick with it, and you’ll discover that hunger is not always an emergency, and food is abundant. You can still eat your favorite foods by simply pushing back when you eat. Just remember to be patient with your body as it adjusts to this new eating approach.
Remember, There’s No One Size Fits All Approach
There are several ways to do IF, you just have to try and see what works best for your body and lifestyle. How will you know you’ve found your rhythm? That’s the best part — you won’t even feel hungry.