Fasting as a means for weight loss/control seems to be a trending topic recently. More specifically, information about a study published in December 2014 by the Salk Institute in La Jolla is making the rounds in digital and social media. Last week Longer Fasts Might Help With Weight Loss was in the Los Angeles Times and through a Facebook newsfeed I saw this article, How Screwy Weekend Eating May Wreck Your Metabolism, posted on Yahoo! Health. The study these articles reported on found that most Americans are eating or grazing almost non-stop throughout the day from the time they wake, going from meal to snack and back again for most of their waking time. It was also noted that patterns of eating often differed during the week than over the weekend when the study participants’ schedules allowed them to sleep later. As a result, people in the study would have breakfast later on the weekend than during the week but they would also stay up later and eat later into the evening. The study’s researchers theorized that these erratic, round-the-clock eating patterns have likely contributed to increasing levels of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in American adults and they believe that the restoration of a longer night time fast shows promise as a means to lower weight and better health.
The headlines of these articles caught my attention because for over a year now I’ve somewhat been following an eating program called intermittent fasting (often referred to as IF). I am neither a doctor nor a expert in nutrition and this is not a paid endorsement for anything of the programs or websites referenced. I found the subject and articles to intriguing and wanted to share my experience with IF. In the course of writing this post, I did some internet sleuthing on the subject and found some interesting pro and con opinions of IF.
First, a quick background on how I started with IF. Back in March of 2014 I stumbled across something called The Venus Factor, which is advertised as a complete weight loss and body re-shaping system. I watched an on-line infomercial, which had enough information in it to intrigue me, and I signed up for the basic package for a few dollars. Of course, there were efforts to up-sell me to buy program add-ons which I opted not to do. Like other programs, the basic system has both a nutritional plan and a workout plan. There are several aspects to the nutritional plan and the authors provide scientific explanations as to the benefits of each of them. One of the aspects is intermittent fasting or, as it is referred to in the Venus Factor, strategic meal skipping. Again, this is not an endorsement, just a history of my experience with IF.
From my internet research I have learned that there are three methods for IF that can be followed independently or in combination; 1) skipping meals, 2) cycling between full and partial daily calorie intake, and 3) eating during a compressed window of time. Many IF plans are centered the third method and advocate a daily eating window of 8 to 10 hours which translates to a fasting period of 14 to 16 hours. This is not as drastic as it may sound when you consider that most weight loss programs counsel a dieter to avoid late night eating after dinner so by default those plans are advocating for a fast of about 12 hours every day. This is not a religious fast where you need to forgo drinking water as well. Not caloric, non-sweetened beverages are permitted during the non-eating hours of the day.
In reading the Venus Factor nutritional plan, it was the concept of delayed eating that intrigued me the most. The authors of the plan assert that we wake with our emotional reserves or will-power at full strength and it is through the course of the stresses of the day that it weakens. Also, once a person has had their first meal of the day, their body begins to anticipates its next meal and its next meal and its next meal until the daily rhythms slow down at the end of the day as the body gets ready for sleep. It is for these reasons that binge eating typically occurs later in the day because we are less able to resist temptations due to our weakened emotional reserves and once you start eating, it’s hard to stop. A person’s ability to delay eating is strongest in the morning if you have not yet eaten than it is to resist eating later in the day (and face a longer period of non-eating) if you have already been eating.
Although the plan advises to delay eating until ‘lunchtime’ and refers to this as “skipping breakfast”, I prefer to think of it as having a late breakfast. My preferred schedule has been to have breakfast no earlier than 10am, to be finished with dinner by 7pm, and to have lunch sometime in between. I follow this schedule for the most part every day, weekday or weekend. I try to eat a balanced, calorie appropriate diet which includes some in-between meal noshes as well. I fully acknowledge that there are days that I eat more than I should but I still stick to my eating window. By my own experience I know that I do best with weight management if I avoid eating after dinner and if I have eaten my dinner at least a few hours before I go to sleep. The program instructions tell you to take a gradual approach when starting out to delay breakfast and increase the time of your overnight fast. There are other recommendations made in this system that you should follow like getting enough sleep, a nutritionally sound diet, and exercise that will make it easier to adapt to eating within a compressed window of time.
As I pointed out earlier, most of us ‘fast’ for 10 to 12 hours overnight without trying so the program simply directs you to push back the time you eat your first meal an hour a day until you are in the 14 to 16 hour range. I started by waiting to eat my first meal until after I arrived at work rather than eat in the car on my way during my commute. I always load up my travel mug with green tea in the morning and I have found it helps to curb any slight pangs of hunger I might feel in the morning. And on the topic of hunger, I find that I feel much less hungry on this schedule of eating when I wake up than before especially since I avoid eating after dinner.
Remember that one of the outcomes of the Salk Institute study was the belief that “the restoration of a longer nighttime fast shows promise as a means to lower weight and better health”?. In my case I have found it to be true. After adapting to IF, I lost over 15 pounds and have maintained this weight loss for the past 18 months. I didn’t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or any diabetic issues so I have no comment on improvements related to those health concerns but I do suffer from GERD. The avoidance of acidic foods and 20mg doses of a proton pump inhibitor twice a day (morning and evening) were barely keeping the symptoms in check. After my body had adapted to an extended overnight fast of 15 to 16 hours, I gradually found that I didn’t need the evening dose of the proton pump inhibitor and eventually I was able to stop with the morning dose as well. I think that this is a huge benefit to me because studies have shown that proton pump inhibitors can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb calcium (nutrient needed to maintain bone density) due to the reduction of stomach acid.
Before you run out and try intermittent fasting for yourself, please don’t just follow my simplistic how-to description. Do your own research and seek expert advice as to whether this type of program is suitable for you. I did find articles disclaiming the benefits of intermittent fasting, some that were specific to its potential adverse affects on a woman’s body and whether it actual works as a program for weight management for women. That being said, I tried it and I liked it.
Are you up for a ride in the ‘fast’ lane?