Many people have a lot of questions when it comes to intermittent fasting mostly because it is so markedly different from most other diets or nutrition plans. When beginning an IF protocol, it is important to understand some of the philosophies and have a few simple strategies to get your started successfully.
Which is the best IF method to try?
In my opinion, if you are new to the concept of not eating, your best bet is to try the 16/8 method and simply skip breakfast. The advantage here is that for the most part, you are asleep for a large chunk of the time you are fasting.
Isn’t skipping breakfast supposed to be unhealthy?
Not really. Missing breakfast is regarded as unhealthy simply because it is one of the most common practices among people and is largely marketed by the grain and cereal industries. Often, breakfast may seem necessary if you eat a Standard Western Diet high in processed carbohydrates and sugars, lack sufficient sleep and movement and/or are challenged with metabolic and hormonal imbalances often duet to both of these factors. You can skip breakfast and both restore and maintain health and vitality if you choose wisely when you do eat!
What can I consume during a fast?
Water is always a good idea. After all, water is necessary for optimal cell functioning and detoxification. If you don’t urinate often (6 times a day is what is considered normal) and your urine is dark yellow and odorous, these may be signs that you are dehydrated. Adding a pinch or 2 of high quality salt to your water is also recommended to balance electrolytes.
Another good substitute for food (especially for breakfast) is coffee. No sweeteners are permitted but a small amount of dairy free milk will not break your fast. Bear in mind that drinking multipole cups of coffee with added milk or fats throughout your fast may be enough to technically break the fast. Coffee is a stimulant and can also support appetite suppression.
Tea is fine too, though again there should be no sweeteners and the same principles apply as for coffee.
Bone broth is a savory alternative to sip on throughout your fast. It also provides essential nutrients and electrolytes to support your body healing and functioning.
What about vitamins and supplements?
You can, but it is not necessary. If you are following a 16:8 protocol you can take your vitamins and supplements when you are eating. If following an alternate day or extended day fast, it is up to you. What is important to note is that fish oil and omega-3 supplements along with multi-vitamins and supplements containing Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble. They are absorbed into the body with the help of fats, which is why you should take theses during your feeding window.
Can I work out when I’m fasting?
Moving your body is important and encouraged for optimal health. Just like nutrition, variety is the key to exercise and both yoga and mountain biking are excellent examples of exercises that complement intermittent fasting. As long as you are incorporating some form of resistance training at least two or three times a week you will not lose muscle since intermittent fasting actually increases growth hormone, which helps preserve muscle.
What some notice is that initially, energy levels may appear a little lower when working out in a fasted state. This happens because the workout will be tapping into lowered glycogen reserves, which means you may fatigue sooner than on a traditional ‘eating’ day. As the body adapts this often becomes easier.
Exercising, especially for short durations at high intensity, in a fasted state is a secret weapon many experts strongly encourage you to explore as this accelerates fat loss tremendously (due to the effects of fasting on insulin and growth hormone).
Will fasting slow my metabolism?
Yes, this is an evolutionary response when the human body does not consume calories. The body slows down the rate at which it uses up calories. BUT, this only happens when the fast is extended and dependent on your individual metabolic profile and fat stored. For fasts with shorter durations (2 days or less), the metabolic rate actually gets a boost.
The idea that not eating will slow your metabolic rate is based on the fact the eating increases your metabolic rate; the increase occurs due to something called the Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF): you expend energy to break digest, absorb, and utilize the food you eat. This part is true.
This is where things get a little muddled: the suggestion that the more often you eat, the more often your metabolism will increase and therefore not eating often can lead to metabolic slowdown is inaccurate. Although you may have been told that eating 5-6 small meals per day helps you keep your metabolism elevated, this is not true. TEF is, in fact, determined by your total energy intake, not how often you eat. It matters very little if you have 2 meals or 8, as long as you are getting the same number of calories, the effect will be the same.
All of which is to say that a daily fast of, let’s say 16 hours, does not decrease your metabolism.
Will fasting catabolize my muscle?
There is no need to worry, your body will not catabolize muscle if you fast (in simple terms, you will not lose muscle mass). Studies have shown that up to 40 hours of total fasting does not stimulate catabolic processes that lead to skeletal muscle atrophy.
If you are eating to reduce body fat and/or lose weighty, then you should be engaging in resistance training if you want to preserve your muscle mass. Muscle catabolism will inevitably occur during fasted training, but the increased anabolic activity post-workout seems to be a compensatory response to the increased catabolism that occurs during fasted training. People who are lean and very active may opt to consume BCAAs during fasted training as it may enhance muscle protein synthesis.
Any protein meals consumed within 24-48 hours of a resistance training session will contribute to muscle growth.
To preserve energy and muscle mass caloric adequacy during your eating window is paramount!
What about hunger during a fast?
While fasting you are not eating any food so naturally your stomach might experience the odd growl here and there. Additionally, your hunger hormone ghrelin responds to a lack of food in the stomach, which will naturally have it firing on all cylinders, making your brain think you might be starving. It becomes important to begin to differentiate between an empty stomach and a true need for energy.
Hunger pangs usually dissipate after your first 2-3 fasts as your body adjusts.
Will I get a headache during my fast?
First of all, not everyone does, but research on religious fasting rituals has shown that women can be particularly susceptible to headaches while fasting.
Headaches are generally not due to dehydration and may actually be associated with withdrawal symptoms, similar to the headaches one may experience when quitting drinking coffee cold-turkey.
From my experience, if you to experience headaches they do tend to dissipate after your first couple of fasts.
It is important to drink lots of water, add a pinch or two of high quality salt and get some fresh air, if possible, during your fast to both prevent and treat possible headaches.
Can children and the elderly fast?
The safest answer here is no. Children need food to grow, though they should learn about avoiding junk food. Although a child may forget to eat once in a while, a fasting regimen is not recommended and highly discouraged.
The elderly, on the other hand could absolutely try it. Seniors can benefit greatly from the neurological, life-extending, and health-promoting benefits of fasting. It might even increase health, stave off age-related cognitive decline, and improve quality of life.
A few extra considerations
The first attempts at fasting will be challenging and difficult. This is NORMAL and to be expected. Your body needs time to adapt to using fat as fuel. When breaking your fast it is best not to over-eat. As tempting as it may be to eat a huge meal, try to resist this urge. Pretend like the fast never happened. Pretend like you have been eating the whole time which is technically correct as your body has been feasting on excess stored fat on your body.
Try to chew your food on both sides of your mouth - this will help you break down and begin the complex digestion of your food, reducing gas and bloating, and help your body absorb the most nutrients it can. Do your best to eat slowly and stop eating when you are full. Become more connected with how you feel during and after eating.
Remind yourself to adapt your fasting regimen to your lifestyle. Fasting works because you can make it fit into your life, not the other way around.