Long before I heard of the concept of intermittent fasting, around 2 years ago, I started to skip breakfast. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, or follow any sort of plan, but I found that I genuinely wasn’t hungry in the mornings, and instead, I would drink a cup of warm water plus lemon juice(this tends to kick start our digestion), followed by a coffee or tea. Some mornings, I would even have enough energy for a workout at the gym or a 40 minute yoga flow before having my breakfast. But if you know me or you’ve worked with my in practice before, you know that I’m a big believer in listening to our bodies and using the cues we receive on a daily basis as communication, telling us what our bodies need. And as a result, now for the last 2-3 months, I haven’t been skipping breakfast, and I have been consuming my first meal of the day around 1-1.5 hours after I wake up. I’ll explain why later…
BUT FIRST, WHAT IS INTERMITTENT FASTING ANYWAYS?
Without getting too sciencey and technical, just like the name implies, it is a period of time where we are not consuming food or we are restricting calories during certain windows of time, but are then taking in the majority of our calories during limited windows throughout the day(or sometimes this is done on one full day, and then back to normal eating the next day, and alternating in this way). Many people choose to follow along with this type of diet because of some reports claiming faster weight loss, and some have been advised to eat in this way by their health practitioners for blood sugar managing and therapeutic benefits.
WHAT’S MY HOLISTIC NUTRITIONIST TAKE ON IT?
I don’t disagree with it, but I also don’t entirely agree with it either. The short answer is that I believe it has many health benefits (especially for blood sugar balance and Diabetes control). But I think it’s unfortunately too often used as a fad diet for weight loss, and we once again find ourselves falling into the cycle of dieting, counting calories, and ignoring our body’s cues. In my practice, I’ve experienced 2 types of clients when it comes to intermittent fasting:
1. Those who come to me saying “I’ve tried intermittent fasting, but I always felt dizzy, headachy and experienced low mood and energy the whole time”.
2. Those who have been working with me for a few weeks and they say to me “I felt like skipping breakfast the past couple of days, and having my first meal of the day at noon instead, because I wasn’t hungry in the morning, and I had enough energy and focus to fast for a few hours”.
The reason for both of these experiences comes down to blood sugar and hormonal balance.
WHAT’S BLOOD SUGAR GOT TO DO WITH IT?
When blood sugar is out of wack (which can happen to any one of us, not only those who have Diabetes), we frequently experience symptoms of hormone imbalance, cravings for carbohydrate dense and sweet foods, and we can feel anywhere from dizzy, to nauseous to general moodiness or lack of focus in between meals. When someone who’s blood sugar is in a state of imbalance(usually depicted by these symptoms), these symptoms become doubly as heightened when we start to restrict our calories, or go long periods of time without eating. On the other hand, when our blood sugar is balanced, we often don’t experience cravings for sweet foods, and don’t experience symptoms of “hangry”: low energy, moodiness, or extreme feelings of hunger in between meals. This is why many of my clients who work with me consistently, often intuitively participate in fasting during the day, in a somewhat unintentional and un-timed kind of way.
OUR BODIES ARE WORKING FOR US, NOT AGAINST US:
I think one of the biggest problems with diets is that it sometimes has the tendency to make us forget how to listen to our bodies. And as much as the terms “intuitive eating” and “listening to our bodies” sound hokey pokey, the reality is, our bodies are always communicating with us, and they have been doing so before any of these diets came about. When we feel dizzy, nauseous, have a headache, experience frequent ups and downs in mood, it’s not an opportunity to “push through” to fit the mould of the diet. It’s our body telling us something. That something might be out of balance. If these symptoms are happening when introducing some sort of fasting or any other type of diet, it might be an indication that now is not the right time for your current hormonal state to begin this lifestyle. Instead, we should be focusing on learning how to nourish our bodies in a way that manages these symptoms. What I always say is “food is medicine, but we need to be eating the food in order for it to be medicine”. The good news is, there are ways of eating and certain foods that help to support hormonal balance and blood sugar management. The most popular diets might not always be the ones that are right for YOU and your body.
SOME POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF INTERMITTENT FASTING:
With all the pros and cons combined, I do believe that fasting can be effective in the short term, for therapeutic purposes.
BLOOD SUGAR MANAGEMENT: *disclaimer(based on what I mentioned above): your blood sugar needs to be stabilized through food first, before introducing a fasting schedule. Once that has happened, fasting does have the potential to further balance out blood sugar levels. By giving the body a break from food throughout different times of the day, and it can help the body to level out from the usual ups and downs of blood sugar. Not to mention, if there is no food going in, our body can take a break from releasing insulin, only releasing it at set times.
DIGESTION: Many times, people who experience frequent bloating, acid reflux, gas or even constipation, have noticed a difference when they have fasted for a period of time. Same as what happens when we give our blood sugar a break, giving our digestion or digestive organs a break, can allow the body to do what it needs to do naturally.
LIVER HEALTH: Our livers are always working. On top of that, our livers have 500+ jobs to do in a day. Among those, processing the food we eat is part of it, as well as storing and releasing hormones that help to turn that food into energy(there’s SO much going on inside the body! It’s fascinating!). Our livers need a rest too, and that’s why our bodies were designed to allow for that. When we sleep, that’s the time when our bodies are repairing. The liver is taking the time to rest, cleanse and repair somewhere between 11:00pm-2:00am in the morning…or it’s supposed to be anyways. But, if we still have food in our system, or are still digesting the tail end of our dinner or post-dinner snack, our livers can’t take the necessary break, and instead, work on helping to process food during that time. When we are fasting however, both during the day at various times, and in the evenings, we are allowing our livers to take that much needed break so it can work even more efficiently in all of its 500 jobs.
OUR BODIES WERE NOT DESIGNED TO “PUSH THROUGH” THOUGH:
Our bodies were designed to keep us alive(on the most basic level). And when we get cues like digestive issues, headaches, dizziness, these are communication from our bodies saying something is a bit out of balance. Meaning the body has to work doubly as hard to keep us alive. And when we force our bodies to just “push through” and work even harder than they already are, it will eventually get tired and organs will start to slow down in their function(symptoms of low functioning organs is one of the biggest problems I see in my practice). One of the simplest cues our body gives us is the hunger cue. And I know there’s a lot of controversy with this, where some people say “but how do you know if you’re actually hungry, or if your body is just tricking you”. In my opinion, this mentality only came about due to diet culture and the idea that our bodies can’t be trusted and they are trying to wok against us. But the reality is, the more we ignore these cues and work hard to push against the grain with our bodies, the more sudden and unexplained health problems start to pop up. When our bodies give us the hunger cue, it’s because they need fuel for energy: energy for our day, but also energy to produce hormones that help to regulate our blood sugar and manage our weight, and a 100 other things. When we feel that hunger cue, but instead decide to tell our bodies that we’re going to push though, not only can the body not perform what it was going to with the energy from the food, but eventually, our bodies will give us an even LOUDER cue, to really get our attention: migraines, blood pressure issues, muscle cramping, and even emotional and mental cues like anxiety or depression. It’s all connected.
WOULD I EVER RECOMMEND INTERMITTENT FASTING?
The short answer is no. Would I be all for it if a client decided on their own that they wanted to fast in between meals because that's the cues their body was communicating at that time? Absolutely! I believe fasting can have many benefits(in the shot term), but I also believe that the biggest benefits come from learning to listen to our body’s cues. In the beginning of this post, I talked about how I have been skipping breakfast for a couple of years now, and feeling like I have all the energy and focus I need for my morning and even a workout. But the rest of that story is this: for the last couple of months, I have been feeling hungry again in the mornings, but because my usual routine has been to drink water and have a coffee in the mornings instead, I have unconsciously(and due to lack of making time for myself), been “pushing through” the hunger cue and moving on with my morning until around lunch time. It’s no surprise that over the last couple of months, I have had more migraines and general headachy-ness than ever before, and I’m starting to experience symptoms of hormonal imbalance(difficulty sleeping and more facial acne breakouts than my normal). In my personal example, fasting was working for me for a period of time, because I genuinely was not feeling hungry in the mornings, but now, for whatever reason, it’s no longer working for me. And it’s time to pay attention to the cues my body is giving me now, versus just sticking with the benefits I was receiving before. Because I really can’t say that I feel well right now, and for me, that is directly related to ignoring my body’s signals.
WHAT DO I RECOMMEND INSTEAD?
I always recommend you listen to your body and the signals it’s giving you. Sometimes this concept can be hard to wrap our minds around though, and I get that. On the simplest level, I always recommend you listen to your hunger cues. Both a lack of appetite and the hunger cue are both things your body is communicating to you. My advice for both scenarios is:
NO APPETITE/NOT FEELING GENUINELY HUNGRY?
That is your body telling you that for whatever reason, it doesn’t need food right now. Either our last meal was heavy and the body is still working through it, or our body needs a break to process something that might be brewing(like a cold or a flu). In this case, I would have a herbal tea(peppermint, camomile, ginger, etc), or a cup of warm water with fresh lemon juice squeezed into it(really good for kick starting digestion). If you’re a coffee drinker, or you feel like having a coffee after your tea or lemon water, you can try that as well(coffee tends to help things move through our system). Normally at this point, I start to feel hungry and I’ll start preparing a meal. I recommend a good blood sugar balancing meal, that contains at least 20g of protein, fats and fibre(check out my Diabetes Prevention post or my Food and Mood post for more explanation on what I mean).
This is also your body telling you something too. That blood sugar is low, and there isn’t enough resources in the body to create energy for the things that it needs to do. Therefore, it’s time to EAT, not time to “push through”. I always start my meals or my day with a warm water and lemon anyways(again, because it’s good for starting your digestion), and then I would prepare a meal that contains 20g of proteins, fats and fibre because that’s what’s going to keep my blood sugar balanced.
KEEP IN TOUCH…
This is has been my own personal experience with fasting, both for myself and what I have seen in practice with my clients. If you have any questions or want to discuss this further, don’t hesitate to reach out on social media(instagram or facebook) or send me an email. If you want to learn more about how to listen to your body’s cues in a way that helps you to reach your health goals, check out my services page for my programs, and reach out! I would love to work with you!