My intermittent fasting (IF) journey began at the end of February 2017. I only researched for a few days before diving headfirst into this eating style, so most of what I've learned has happened along the way. Here's what I wish I'd known before starting and what I share with people who ask me about how they can start intermittent fasting.
Before starting any new diet plan, including intermittent fasting, be sure to check in with your doctor first.
1. Choose a Plan That Suits Your Life
There are a few types of intermittent fasting, including 16/8 (fast for 16 hours, eat for eight), 5:2 (significantly limit your calories two days a week and eat regularly the other five days), and the Warrior Diet (eat four hours, fast for 20).
I started off eating 10 hours and fasting for 14 hours, and now with almost nine months of IF under my belt, I pretty much eat during a seven-hour window and fast for 17 hours. That's just what works for me and feels the most effortless.
Some people might want to skip dinner instead. Find a plan that works with your schedule and lifestyle, a plan you can sustain, especially if IF is something you want to do for the long-term. This may take a little time, so be flexible and open to trying different fasting and eating windows.
2. Go Gradual For Greater Success
Say you've chosen the 16/8 plan. You decide to start tomorrow. If you're used to eating at 8 a.m., no need to push yourself the first day until noon. It's OK to work your way up to it. Delay your breakfast 30 minutes, then an hour, and so on. It took me a couple weeks to be able to comfortably skip breakfast. Gradually increasing your fasting window will prevent issues like headaches, dizziness, low energy, and general sadness about not eating.
3. Fasting Doesn't Suck
I had heard about intermittent fasting years before I actually tried it. I was scared to implement it because I thought fasting would be the worst ever. How would I be able to get work done and not lash out at my kids because of hanger?
I wish I'd known that, while fasting does suck for the first four to seven days, your body quickly adjusts. After the first week or two, you'll start feeling amazing — you'll wonder why you waited so long to try IF! It's shocking how much mental clarity and focus you'll have, how much more energy you'll have (eating always made me feel tired afterward), and how much you'll enjoy feeling light and not having to think about food.
I was also shocked by how not eating curbed my hunger for the rest of the day. I used to want to eat all day long. Fasting actually makes me feel fuller with a smaller amount of food and keeps me feeling fuller for longer periods of time.
4. Drink a Ton of Water
Within 30 minutes of waking up, pound at least 12 ounces of water. If you feel a pang of hunger, drink another 12 ounces or more. One thing intermittent fasting has taught me is that what I thought was hunger was probably thirst or boredom. Drinking tons of water throughout the day (128 ounces, anyone?) will keep your belly full, help you feel more alert, and help satiate that need or habit of having to put something in your mouth.
Drinking tea, black coffee, or sparkling water can help too, but I'd stay away from those zero-calorie energy drinks. I often sip tea or coffee around 9:30 or 10 a.m. if I feel a little hungry, and it kicks the hunger immediately. Chewing gum can also keep your mouth busy.
5. Do Your Research!
Reading tons of articles and watching YouTube videos (Fledge Fitness is one of my faves) on intermittent fasting will solidify your decision to try it. You'll learn all about the benefits of IF, and it'll get you pumped! And if family or friends give you sh*t for it, you can talk about how intermittent fasting may prevent disease like Alzheimer's, increase lifespan, improve digestion, prevent belly bloat, and can help you get a handle on food addiction or issues with overeating.
6. Keep Busy
Day one of intermittent fasting might feel amazing. You'll be on a high from trying something new, and you'll love the increased clarity and energy you'll feel in a fasted state. Days two through four may be absolute hell. Thoughts of doubt, sadness, rage, and daydreams of swimming in bowls of mac and cheese will absolutely happen.
The best way to get through this is to keep busy. Start intermittent fasting on a day or week that you're on the go. I actually did my first day of IF on a six-hour plane ride because I was able to sleep, read, and watch movies most of the time without being inundated with images of food or the temptation to eat.
Don't torture yourself by doing things that involve food. Stay out of the kitchen and away from grocery stores and restaurants. Avoid watching other people eat, preparing food, or scrolling through Pinterest recipes for tomorrow's dinner.
7. Don't Just Eat a Salad
One of the benefits of IF is that it gives you more freedom in your diet to eat foods you may have put limits on before (like no carbs or no pizza). It allows you to eat larger meals. So while you're restricting your eating window, don't be too restrictive in what you eat during that time. In other words, don't just eat a tiny kale salad and call it a day.
Go ahead and eat the foods you love, within reason. Have a big bowl of pasta and enjoy that cookie after dinner — and that glass of wine. You want to make sure you're eating enough during your eating window, and that will ensure you're not hungry the next day during your fasting window. Aim to eat healthy 80 to 90 percent of the time, and include protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs.
8. Don't Overdo It
If you're doing intermittent fasting to lose weight, some of the research you'll come across might say that you can eat whatever you want and you'll still be able to lose weight. Having fewer hours in the day does make it easier to create a calorie deficit, which is what you need in order to lose weight, but it's not automatic. If you skip breakfast, but then eat three huge meals during your eating window, you're probably still eating the same number of calories — or more.
Personally, I found that if I didn't monitor my calorie intake, I'd end up gaining weight, even though I wasn't eating breakfast. So be sure to count your daily calories. You can use an app or a food journal; just be sure to create a calorie deficit if losing weight is your goal.
One trick I learned to help avoid bingeing on that first meal (and during the rest of my eating window) was to break my fast with a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts. It usually did the trick for taking the edge off my hunger, then I'd eat a big meal about 30 to 60 minutes later, and I could eat slowly, really enjoy it, and stop when I was full.
9. Go Easy on the Workouts
The only time I can work out is at 5:45 a.m., which means I'm awake by 5 a.m. I used to get home from the gym and I'd be eating by 8 a.m. Waiting until noon was brutal. I was seriously so hungry that all I could think about food, so I ate. I didn't want to shift my eating window because eating dinner with my family was too important for me.
So I actually took some time off from my CrossFit classes in the beginning of my IF journey, about a week, just to get my body used to fasting. Now I can easily go until noon or 1 p.m. without feeling a twinge of hunger. If there are days when I'm famished by 10, then I listen to my body and eat.
You might have to go easy on hitting the gym in the beginning or change up your workouts if you find long cardio sessions just increase your hunger. Or you might need to switch up the time you work out. Just be patient, and know that with time, intermittent fasting gets easier.
10. Take Pictures of Your Progress
If losing body fat is your goal, and you're working out while doing IF, sometimes the scale will lie to your face! You may end up gaining weight if you're building muscle, so be sure to take progress pics at least once a month as well as measurements. That way you'll be able to see proof that intermittent fasting is working.