Intermittent fasting has been a part of my life for over 3 years. And what I did before I started intermittent fasting was as, if not more, important than the actual fast. As far as fasting goes there is no one size fits all solution. Everyone will react differently to fasts and there are a number of ways to do it depending on your goals. For me, intermittent fasting was a method I used to drop a few pounds permanently and "accidentally" ended up improving my gut health. But the reason I believe it worked so well for me was what I ate during my feasting window. I am sharing my experience with you and hope that you may benefit from what I learned.
I was never overweight, I ate a relatively healthy diet and worked out 5-6 days a week most of my adult life. But once I turned 40 years old my body definitely changed. I no longer was able to indulge in a rich meal on occasion without putting on weight. I tried calorie restricted diets in order to keep the weight off, only to regain the weight back and them some. It was a vicious cycle and I tried every diet only to get the same results over and over again. I tried cleanses (worked great until I went back to my "healthy"diet), strict calorie counting diet with 6 days a week of grueling workouts for 9 weeks (lost 10 pounds, went on vacation and inhaled all the food I could get my hands on and gained all the weight back), high fat high protein diet (I cannot live without carbs) low carb diet (I cannot live without carbs!) and every other diet that promised to get you lean. I could not understand what I was doing wrong. I started to believe that, as a woman over forty, my metabolism was slowing down and I will inevitably gain weight and there was nothing I could about it.
One day while driving in my car I heard an interview on the radio with Dr. Pam Popper about her new book "Food Over Medicine". Dr.Popper is a naturopath and an expert on nutrition, medicine, and health. She is also Executive Director of The Wellness Forum. The premise of the talk was that most Americans are overmedicated, overfed, and malnourished and we fail to realize the answer to lowering disease rates doesn't lie in more pills, but the foods we eat.
In that particular episode, what caught my attention was when she spoke about oils. Like I mentioned before I was always pretty healthy, didn't eat junk or a ton of processed foods. But I did eat lots of oil, olive oil in particular. Being of Greek decent my mom and grandmother used olive oil in everything; in salads, on bread, for cooking, they even poured warm oil on a cotton swab and used it for an ear ache! So I was both appalled and intrigued when Dr. Popper talked about how monounsaturated fat in olive oil may be as detrimental to your health as consuming saturated fat. Her comments based on her research proves that unless people decrease their fat intake to be no more than 15% of calories, they likely won't see any benefits, this includes fat found in oil as well as fat in chicken and beef.
I began to research whole food plant based diets and devoured information from many leaders in the field including T. Colin Campbell (who's book The China Study I had read years earlier), Dr. John Mcdougall, plant based pioneer who has treated thousand of patients with the plant based diet, Dr. Michael Klaper a vegan health educator, Dr. Alan Goldhamer who founded the TrueNorth Health Center and offers physician monitored extended fasting stays and teaches you how to eat a plant based diet without oil. And a slew of other plant based experts. So I went all in on the plant based diet. I cut out all oil, including olive oil. I started eating lots of vegetables, fruits, salads and removed all processed foods from my diet. I learned how to make salad dressings and cook without oil. I also started eating more complex carbohydrates again such as brown rice, oatmeal, potatoes and fruits that I was avoiding because I thought they were making me fat. I significantly reduced my consumption of animal protein aside from the occasional sushi meal. The result, as far as weight loss was concerned, was a steady decrease. But the whole food plant based diet also taught my taste buds to appreciate the actual flavor and taste of fresh, unprocessed foods, without the addition of oil or added fat. If I was hungry I would eat more carbs like oatmeal or a potato and I wasn't gaining weight from all the carbs I was eating. I also didn't have the spikes in cravings. And best of all, I wasn't starving myself.
The reality for me was that fat was making me fat. It was that simple. Before switching to the plant based diet I was eating lots of vegetables but they were drenched in oil. I was also eating, for example, chicken with avocado but I was still always hungry, which then caused me to binge on bread and sweets. Today my diet includes occasionally eating eggs, some fish and a small amount of olive oil. I try to keep my fat intake low and I am very cognizant of the amount of fat I consume. When I am traveling or am eating out a lot and cannot control the amount of fat in my food is when I will notice the affect on my body.
Once I conquered the plant based diet I decided to try intermittent fasting. And oh my goodness that's where the magic really happened. I started fasting straight away for 16 hours. I stopped eating at 7 or 8 at night, worked out in the morning in a fasted state, drank black coffee and water only until 11:00 a.m. the next day. In a matter of days I felt my body start to change. First and most important, I had suffered from bloating for most of my adult life. Before I had my first child at 29 I had such bad bloat that I went to see a gastroenterologist. He asked me what my diet was like and I told him what I ate. He told me to stay away from certain foods. It worked for a while but the bloat eventually returned. Even when I ate super healthy I couldn't figure out what was causing my bloat. Was it fruit, beans, nuts, certain vegetables? I tried eliminating certain foods but nothing worked.
Ben Greenfield author of Boundless says"From digestive glands in your mouth to our esophagus, gallbladder, stomach, small intestine, and colon, there are endless possibilities for what can go wrong in your digestive system." He further writes "there are 9 primary issues than can create frustrating problems such as constipation, bloating, gas, brain fog, indigestion, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, and a host of other disturbances that can plague even the healthiest of individuals." One of these issues is insufficient digestive enzymes and low enzyme activity. My bloat issues may have been a result of these enzymes from completely breaking down my food. Greenfield explains "The amount of food you eat can exceed the capacity of you digestive enzymes, a scenario typical among active, calorie-devouring individuals." You can find out if you have a digestive enzyme insufficiency by getting a stool test. Greenfield recommends the three-day Genova protocol, which involves multiple stool collections that you send to a lab.
Fasting also allows your gut to heal if you have been consuming gluten, gliadin, or other gut irritants, although these benefits, and the many longevity related benefits of fasting reach peak effectiveness after sixteen hours. For me intermittent fasting solved my problem with bloat.
Fasting also helped me shed some weight and keep it off. Greenfield writes "When you don't eat your body switches energy sources. Your body will take the calories it needs from your stores of energy, which is your body fat and glycogen which is stored away. Greenfield continues "The most affective factor in maintaining a lean body is eating all of a day's meals within a short period, preferably somewhere in the range of eight to twelve hours each day. Research also suggests that IF is effective promoting fat loss and improving insulin sensitivity."
Intermittent fasting has worked for me for many reasons. But I did not have a lot of weight to lose nor did I have any health issues. But what research has shown is that the more weight you have to lose and the unhealthier you are the more beneficial extended fasts are for you. For people that are extremely overweight Dr. Jason Fung author of The Obesity Code and an expert on fasting recommends extended water fasts of up to at least 5 days. It is highly recommend that you seek a health professional experienced in extended fasts. TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa California offers extended stays for fasting and will teach you the right way to eat. But whatever you decide to do with fasting you may want to first look at what you're eating. You may discover that, like me, what you're eating in your feasting window may have a profound affect on the results of your fast. As a woman over forty I had to try to a different approach because what worked for me at 35 no longer worked for me at 45. Not all women over forty have the same results with lowering their fat intake. Some women do very well on a high fat, low carb diet that includes lots of animal protein. If it works for you and you feel good and are reaching your goals, keep doing it. But if you're frustrated by the vicious cycle of diets or if intermittent fasting is not working the way you expected it to you may want to, like me, find another way.