Is There a Dark Side to Intermittent Fasting?
Disclaimer – I know some people are getting on their huffy bikes ready to defend intermittent fasting (or IF as it’s also known) to the death, so please keep this statement in mind. This article reveals my personal experience with daily intermittent fasting. I’m not going to quote or claim any science or research or anything like that. This article is written entirely from a personal experience stand point and should be taken as such.
Let’s kick this off with why I tried IF in the first place and what I initially enjoyed about it.
Daily IF – The Good
I’ve discussed my personal experience with three different methods of intermittent fasting before so I’ll keep this brief.
First, I must differentiate between two main methods of intermittent fasting. There’s a method that calls for daily practice such as following a 16 hour fasting window and an 8 hour feeding window and a method that calls for once to twice weekly fasting for approximately 24 hours. (Both methods — Leangains and Eat Stop Eat, respectively — are discussed in the article above).
In this article I’ll be referring exclusively to my experience with daily intermittent fasting that varied between a 16-18 hour fasting window and 8-6 hour feeding window. We’ll begin with what I really like about IF.
After spending years doing the whole “5-6 small meals per day and eating every 2.5 to 3 hours” thing, intermittent fasting was a welcome change. Practicing IF provided the opportunity to eat fewer and larger meals during the feeding window; I usually ate 2-3 times per day. Initially I absolutely loved this because I was able to eat large, filling meals. There was less food to prep and clean up after, I didn’t have to watch the clock out of fear of missing my next scheduled meal, and it was nice to finally feel full after eating a meal.
Recapping the positives:
- Larger more satisfying meals
- Fewer meals to prep and clean up after
- Didn’t have to worry about eating smaller meals on time as compared to when I ate 5-6 small meals
That’s the gist of my positive experience with IF. However, as I discovered a few months ago, daily IF has some cons to it as well. At least, it does for me.
The Dark Side of Daily IF
Admittedly, many of the problems I began to experience with IF weren’t because of the method itself, but more to do with me and my personality.
I’ve shared my previous battle with disordered eating habits and what I did to break free from them, and for a period of time IF was part of the solution.
But just like the other “nutrition rules” and diets I followed in the past, I soon became obsessed with following the IF protocol precisely. I was very adamant about following the fasting/feeding window to the minute. I wouldn’t eat a minute before I was “allowed to” and I certainly wouldn’t eat a thing when the fasting period began. Even if I was “allowed” to eat my first meal of the day around 1pm and I was starving at 12:45, I’d wait the 15 minutes because I was determined to stick to the protocol, no matter what.
Furthermore, sometimes my spouse would have to work late and I’d eat my dinner solo instead of waiting to share our meal together because I wanted to stay within the feeding window.
Once again, I was developing OCD eating habits, and I didn’t like it.
Beyond the OCD habits that were creeping up, there were a couple other issues that slowly developed. In the evenings I was insatiable and felt like I couldn’t get full, even if I ate a ton. My stomach would feel physically full, but my mind kept telling me to eat. As a result, I’d eat a lot of food and become overly full and uncomfortable even until hours after I ate the meal. Part of the problem came from me rationalizing that it was okay to eat that much food at once because “I didn’t eat much during the day” and “I won’t get to eat again for another 16-18 hours after this meal”. I felt the need to cram in as much food as possible in a short period of time to make the feeding window cut off.
And I noticed the most recent “dark side” to daily IF a few months ago when I became aware that my energy levels, especially during the first part of the day, were steadily decreasing. I felt mildly lethargic and concentrating on my work was becoming a struggle.
As time went on, I became increasingly hungry in the morning time but wouldn’t eat because it wasn’t the “feeding” time despite hunger and fatigue.
I was forcing myself to follow an IF protocol even though it wasn’t ideal for me at the time. I’ve discussed this — forcing myself to follow nutrition strategies even if they weren’t suited to my lifestyle and preferences — in My Biggest Nutrition Mistake.
It was these main issues combined — becoming obsessive-compulsive about following the fasting/feeding window, feeling like I had to eat gigantic meals and becoming overly full, and declining energy levels — that caused me to reevaluate the whole daily IF thing.
Recapping the Negatives:
- Became obsessive, down to the minute, with the fasting/feeding window
- Would “rationalize” that it was okay to eat such large quantities because I’d be “fasting” for 16-18 hours
- Felt overly full from the large meals
- Energy levels, especially in the morning, started to decrease
So, for me personally, there is a “dark side” to daily intermittent fasting. Again, this is based completely off my personal experience. But practicing daily IF for years revealed to me it’s not some holy grail approach like some people make it out to be, and like I, admittedly, once thought it was. It’s not a miraculous end-all-be-all for everyone.
Recently my good friend, Jen Keck, wrote an articles series about her thyroid, adrenal, and hormone issues and what she did to correct them. One thing she did was avoid intermittent fasting and that appeared to have produced positive results. I asked Jen to share a bit more about her personal experience with intermittent fasting to get a better health and hormonal perspective on the effects of IF and women:
Any food prepper can tell you that it is a giant pain in the butt. Setting aside an hour or two every couple of days to prepare plenty of food is a hassle, and that’s not even mentioning the headache of finding matching tupperware to shove it all in.
When Intermittent Fasting starting gaining ground about two years ago, a lot of people were asking my opinion on it. I pride myself on being able to speak from experience on things rather than take an unfounded stance, so I embarked on IF.
For 3 weeks I stuck to a standard 16 hour fast and 8 hour feeding window every day. Of course it was a rough start, but like anything else, my body quickly adapted.
The problem was that I was consuming a ton of coffee in order to kill my appetite and keep my mind off of food. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that lots of coffee on an empty stomach with a tough training schedule and a super busy lifestyle is murder on the adrenals. In the end I decided I didn’t care for IF and nixed the structured fasting, but found I enjoyed waiting to eat my first meal around 11am or noon, and continued to do that.
A little over a year ago I was diagnosed was thyroid problems and hormonal ugliness, most of which was (go figure) an unhealthy cortisol rhythm. I sought out the advice of three different Naturopathic doctors in order to get things under control and every single one of them told me to stop fasting for the sake of my adrenals and thyroid. Fasting increases cortisol levels which, in turn, increases blood sugar levels. Breakfast is now imperative for me (along with substantially increasing my carbohydrate, but that is another story.) and my hormones and thyroid have been creeping in the right direction.
My personal opinion is that Intermittent Fasting is fine for some, however men tend to handle it better than women from a hormonal standpoint. I’ll keep prepping my food, buying new tupperware and eating four meals per day. ;)
Now you know my personal experience with IF as well as Jen’s.
Here’s a discussion about intermittent fasting with my good friend, Marianne Kane. We share our own experiences with IF — why we tried it, what we liked, and what we do now.
Bottom line here: I no longer follow a specific IF protocol or any rigid nutrition guidelines. Here’s what I do now . . .
What I Do Now and Why
Any nutrition regimen, in my opinion, should make your life easier and less stressful while allowing you to reach your physique and performance goals. If it’s not, then something needs to change. That’s why I stopped daily intermittent fasting.
What I currently do is incredibly simple. I listen to my body, eat when I’m hungry, stop when satisfied and not stuffed, eat a variety of foods that I enjoy, and follow some common sense nutrition guidelines (like eating primarily real, whole foods). That’s it.
I explain those guidelines and more in detail in Sane and Simple Nutrition, but it really is that simple. And it’s supposed to be.
No longer do I care about hitting a specific feeding and fasting window. If I’m hungry, I eat. Personally, this change alone — eating when I’m physically hungry — has made a huge difference with my mindset when it comes to food.
Now that I allow myself to eat whenever I’m hungry, I don’t feel the need to eat beyond satisfaction because I know I can eat whenever I become hungry again. Contrast this when I was doing IF and I’d think, “I better eat a lot because I’ve got to fast for 16 hours after this.” No longer do I eat so much that I’m uncomfortably full either, because I don’t feel the need to.
What About Daily IF and You?
Am I suggesting you abandon or completely avoid daily intermittent fasting?
If you’re currently following (or considering following) a method of IF that you enjoy, fits into your lifestyle and schedule, and allows you to achieve your health, fitness, and physique goals, then by all means keep doing it. You should always do what works best for you. Period.
Many individuals prefer and can achieve better results with a more structured nutrition plan, and for many of those people a daily IF method is a great fit for them because it keeps them on track. If you think IF could work for you, or you currently practice it, then be sure to read this article by Brad Pilon – Fasting – You’re Doing It Wrong – for some terrific insight on the most common mistakes people make with IF.
However, to some people, intermittent fasting is another fad “Get-Skinny” diet they heard about that’s promised to solve all of their problems, allow them to lose fat with ease, and build a super sexy slim and trim body with minimal effort, so they force themselves to give a shot even if they don’t enjoy it.
But know this — neither intermittent fasting nor any other diet or nutrition regimen, not even my Sane and Simple Nutrition Guidelines, will work for everyone. Individuality, lifestyle, and preferences must be taken into account when it comes to eating patterns.
Here’s a terrific quote from Alan Aragon in an interview that pertained to intermittent fasting that sums things up well: “On a final note, I’ve seen the greatest client success come from letting individual preference dictate meal frequency. Some people do great on small frequent meals, others do great on the opposite (and all points in between). The theoretical advantages of any given dietary approach go straight out the window if it’s at odds with someone’s personal preference & adherence capability.”
Bottom line — do what you enjoy and whatever best fits your lifestyle and preferences.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and simplify if your current nutrition regimen is causing too much stress or isn’t producing the desired results.
And if you want to ditch diets and break free from OCD eating habits, you may want to check out Sane and Simple Nutrition. Click here for more information.