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I Tried Intermittent Fasting—Here’s What It’s Really Like

Intermittent fasting isn't as hard—or crazy—as it sounds, and research shows it can positively impact your overall well-being. Here's one woman's experience.

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I’ve been doing intermittent fasting—cycling between periods of fasting and eating—long before I knew that my pattern of eating had a name. It started because I observed a few things: I work out the very first thing in the morning on an empty stomach; I am mentally sharpest when my stomach isn’t full (note that doesn’t mean hungry), and I have a very hard time stopping eating after I start, especially when it comes to sweets (it’s a lot easier for me to not start at all). These realizations got me to a point where, usually, two to three days a week, I lightly snack throughout the day (think apple slices, carrot sticks, dried fruit), and don’t sit down to have a full meal until I’m ready for dinner. Another two or three days a week, I don’t eat anything until dinner. Weekends, I always work out in the morning on an empty stomach, shower, and head straight to brunch. I try to avoid snacking till dinner.

While working out in the morning on an empty stomach and eating just one big meal at night is hugely counterintuitive to everything we have been taught, it works for me. It helps keep me at my ideal weight and very healthy (I have fasted blood work done yearly). “When you work out on an empty stomach, your glycogen stores are empty, so your body is forced to burn stored fat as fuel,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, and author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet. “On the flip side, when you eat something first, your body uses the energy from the food.” Here’s more about how intermittent fasting can help you lose weight without counting calories.

In addition to limiting the amount of unhealthy foods I eat, intermittent fasting also has long-term health benefits. The medical community backs me up on this: “When done consistently, intermittent fasting can decrease risk of heart disease, control glycemic levels, and even offer neuroprotection against diseases, like Alzheimer’s,” says neuroscientist and holistic wellness expert Leigh Winters. Fasting every three days has led to reduced symptoms of autoimmune conditions, like MS and lupus. Dr. Frank Lipman, bestselling author of Be Well and founder of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City adds that he sees patients using intermittent fasting both as a preventive tool against diseases of modern civilization as well as a way manage and mitigate diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity. Check out these other 30 tiny diet changes that can help you lose weight.

However, it’s important to add that timing isn’t the only important factor; the quality of what you’re eating has a huge effect. If you’re eating entire bars of chocolate, it doesn’t matter whether you do so at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m., your waistline will expand, which is why I have found intermittent fasting to work for me. If I start eating something sweet in the morning, I’m more likely to eat more sugary things throughout the day and at night. Better I start at night and don’t give myself the chance to crave the sugar again. I also recognize that experiencing a specific food craving is different than being hungry. Here are my two top secrets to making intermittent fasting work for me without ever feeling hungry:

1. I choose foods that combine fiber with protein and keep the overall net carbs in my diet low. Because I work out at a very high intensity almost every morning, I aim to cut net carbs (Carbs-Fiber=Net Carbs), meaning I try to eat carbs with high fiber content, which helps to keep me full for so many hours and offers loads of other health benefits. Fiber is the indigestible part of a carbohydrate that adds bulk to food, meaning it fills you up and then basically gets flushed out of your system—assuming you’re drinking enough water. Don’t miss these 50 weight-loss breakthroughs your doctor wishes you knew.

2. I drink a 1.5 liter bottle of water between finishing my morning workout and the 30 minutes or so it takes me to get home (for a total of two to three liters a day). I make sure to eat a lot of water-rich foods (think fruits and veggies), so that my body never feels clogged.

Note that breast-feeding or pregnant women should pass on intermittent fasting and Winters cautions that if you have adrenal fatigue or circadian rhythm issues, you should start out slowly. As with any new dietary regimen, especially if you have health issues, it’s always best to speak with your doctor first. Learn more about 7 proven benefits of intermittent fasting.

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Intermittent fasting does not mean starving yourself, which can cause the body to hold onto stored fat instead of burning it off as fuel. Instead, intermittent fasting (also called scheduled eating) typically refers to eating only during certain periods of the day—whether you go for 12 to 18 hours without eating, limit yourself to two meals during a 24-hour period, or refrain from eating for up to 36 hours once or twice a week, or several times a month. “Intermittent fasting is designed to help burn fat and cleanse the body,” says Alicia Armitstead, a chiropractor at Healing Arts NYC. When we eat three meals a day, we train the body to burn sugar stored as glycogen for energy, instead of burning fat. But when we fast for at least eight hours—which is the amount of time it takes for the body to burn through its glycogen stores—the body starts burning fat for energy instead. If you just skip breakfast, you’re likely fasting for 16 hours, so that could help your body shift into fat-burning mode. (We already know that eating late at night can promote weight gain.) In a mouse experiment from 2014, rodents who fasted for 15 or 16 hours every day dropped 12 percent of their body weight compared to mice who ate the same amount of calories spaced throughout the day. Other animal experiments have showed similar results.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.