When I started intermittent fasting I searched the internet and found a glut of blog posts beginning with “I tried Intermittent Fasting for one week, (or 10 days, or one month) and here’s how it went.” Invariably, these pieces contain one or more common myths about intermittent fasting. As someone who has successfully used this approach to eating for the better part of a year, I will address several of myths I’ve seen floating around in the news and blogosphere.
1. Intermittent fasting is just another fad diet
Intermittent fasting isn’t a diet at all. It is an approach to eating that calls for stopping all food intake (fasting) for fourteen or more hours each day. There are no food restrictions, or special foods to eat more of, or expensive shakes to buy, or bone broth to consume. You can eat and drink whatever you like, in whatever quantity you like. There is no need to count calories, points, carbs, fats, protein, fiber content, macros, micros, or grams of sugar or any other nutrient. When it’s time to eat, you simply enjoy your food until you’re good and satisfied, then you stop eating for the day.
Now, if you really want to count calories, squint at food labels, etc. or you simply adore keeping a tedious journal of every morsel that passes your lips, IF isn’t going to stop you. It’s compatible with those approaches even as it renders them unnecessary. But it’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle.
Is it a fad? For people who try it for a couple of weeks and give up, sure. But just because some people have jumped on a bandwagon and jumped back off doesn’t mean intermittent fasting is ineffective.
2. You’re starving yourself and trashing your metabolism
Assuming you have any stored fat, what IF does is allows your body to tap into it. Dr. Jason Fung does a far better job of describing why that is, but in a nutshell, fasting lets your insulin levels drop so that your body can get out of fat-storage mode and get into fat-burning mode, a.k.a. ketosis. When it does this, your metabolism doesn’t have any reason to slow down. In the absence of frequent meals, snacks, chewing gum, breath mints, and “diet” drinks, the body can finally tap into those plentiful stores.
3. You’ll get unbelievably hangry!
I used to be one of the hangriest people I’ve ever met. I would get so feisty when I hadn’t recently eaten that my poor husband would hold up one finger, say “I’ll be right back” and return in under ten minutes with Taco Bell for me. He knew there was no reasoning with Hangry Grace. I am not proud of this.
I really believed this was just how I was. I didn’t understand that I was a sugar burner and I didn’t know how to switch to being a fat burner. You switch by fasting until all those glycogen stores are gone. For most folks, that means intermittent fasting several days in a row or undertaking a few longer fasts (36–72-hour fasts. Anything longer should be done under strict medical supervision). This gives the body no choice but to start burning fat.
After a lifetime of frequent “hanger,” I’m happy to say that, thanks to intermittent fasting, it’s something I no longer experience. You may experience some hanger for a few days or even a couple of weeks, but it will go away. You can minimize early IF hanger by slowly building up to longer fasts.
4. Intermittent Fasting is too hard to stick with
It’s not. You know what is hard to stick with? Never again eating ice cream, drinking a beer, enjoying a pizza, a taco, or having oatmeal chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven.
The beauty of IF is you can eat whatever you want, meaning treats lose their “gorge” appeal and guilt-inducement because they aren’t ever off-limits. At worst, they’re delayed for a few hours. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eyed up some goodie or other when it wasn’t time to eat and simply promised myself I was going to enjoy it later, in my eating window. And then I either ate it later or forgot all about it.
I typically eat one meal a day. It’s not huge, just an average, reasonably balanced dinner. I usually have dessert and then I’m satisfied and hardly think about food again until dinnertime the next day.
The key for many people is not jumping in trying to do 24-hour fasts right away. Starting small, at 16 hours or even less, and gradually working your way up to longer fasts can make this lifestyle a lot easier to begin with and stick to.
5. Fasting “tricks the body” into eating fewer calories
“Calories in/calories out” is the real weight loss myth. You can never outrun your fork. Here is a great article on why the calorie is broken.
6. There are things you can eat while fasting
Bone broth has no part in an effective fast. Neither does bulletproof coffee, or diet soda, or chewing gum, or nuts, or celery sticks, or gummy vitamins. Can you eat those things? Sure. Is it fasting? No! Just stop. Stop sticking food into your face because that’s not fasting. Fasting is fasting. That’s the whole point.
Do you love bone broth? Great. Have it during your eating window. Can’t live without your bulletproof coffee? Put it in your window. Love healthy, low-carb nuts? Eat them in your window. Addicted to Diet Coke or fruit-flavored LaCroix? Window, window, window. That’s when you can eat whatever you want and indulge in sweet and fruity beverages, vodka, or whatever floats your boat.
Gin Stephens, author of Delay Don’t Deny, calls her approach “clean fasting.” It allows for plain water, sparkling water, plain black or decaf coffee (no frou-frou flavored coffees or fruit-flavored waters) and plain black or decaf tea (no sweet or fruity herbals). The brilliant thing about this approach is that when you follow it, you’re less hungry than you’d be if stimulating your appetite with all these things journalists (who haven’t actually tried or succeeded at IF long-term) want you to think it’s “fine” to have while (giant scare quotes) “fasting.”
Maybe journalists and bloggers make these claims about “what’s OK to stuff in your face while fasting” because that’s what people want to hear. They want to hear that they can “fast” while eating and never experience a single hunger pang. Regardless of what we may want to hear, that’s not what works.
The irony is that these things we’re being told “it’s OK to eat while fasting” (what an oxymoron that is!) stimulate the appetite and make “fasting” much, much harder.
Gin lost 80 pounds with her approach to IF and has kept it off for five years by enjoying one large, healthy meal in a window of about four hours per day.
7. But but but keto, though! Fats don’t raise blood sugar so heavy whipping cream and avocados and nuts are fine to have while fasting, right?
Again, no. Too many people are conflating foods that don’t increase blood glucose with things that do stimulate insulin. If it’s food, it’s going to stimulate insulin. If it’s flavored, especially if it’s sweet, it may increase your insulin (everyone is different) so why chance it? Insulin is a nifty hormone that switches your body over to fat storage mode. To burn fat, you’ve got to let your insulin come down and give your body a chance to access those fat stores for energy. This is what the F (fasting) part of IF does.
Even if some foods don’t stimulate insulin and interrupt ketosis (and I think they do, but let’s not waste time arguing that point), your body is still going to need to burn off the fat in that hot buttered coffee or avocado or a handful of walnuts before it will bother tapping into your stored fat. So if you’re here to lose fat or are struggling with great hunger during your fast, at least try clean fasting before giving up.
8. It’s hard to get all the calories and/or nutrients you need in a short feeding window
I doubt we are anywhere near as nutritionally brittle as some folks would have us believe. Should we eat mainly whole, healthy, natural foods and all that? Yeah, sure. Eat the good stuff. Skip or minimize the junk. It’s easy to make healthy food the majority of my diet when I only need to prep one meal a day. It’s a lot harder if I’m constantly stimulating my hunger, even with “healthy” meals and snacks, questioning food origins, nutrient profiles, and levels of processing while making decisions all day long about whether and what I should eat.
Why 16:8 isn’t always enough
If you’re on a 16:8 intermittent fasting schedule and ravenous, it may seem counterintuitive to push your fast a little…
9. You’ll gain everything back when you stop
While technically this may be true, it’s true for every weight loss approach known to mankind. Stop your keto diet, what happens? Quit Weight Watchers and watch your scale creep back up. Return to your old eating patterns after weeks of Shakeology and get back to me on how long those new skinny jeans fit. As Gin Stephens likes to point out, all diets work when you stick to them and “fail” when you stop.
But since it’s not a diet, IF offers three distinct advantages even after you stop.
- It tends to correct your appetite so you desire less junk food and lower food quantities overall. When you’re eating for a period of only a few hours each day, you tend to be pickier and the capacity of your stomach gradually shrinks. In the eight months that I’ve been intermittent fasting, I haven’t eaten fast food once because I’ve had no desire for it. I could have it if I wanted it, but it’s unappetizing to me now.
- It preserves metabolism and even boosts it. This is because once your body taps into its fat stores there is no need for it to slow your metabolism down ( as it does with low-calorie diets). Low-calorie diets prompt the body to reduce metabolism to match the reduced energy intake. On IF, the body doesn’t need to do that because it’s able to tap into stored fat. For more information on this, I highly recommend reading Dr. Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code.
- Once you’ve experienced the awesome energy and mental clarity of fat-burning mode, you realize how crappy you felt when you were stuffing your face and digesting food all day long. So even if you’re no longer doing intermittent fasting per se, you may find yourself eating less often anyway.
The idea that you’re going to stop belongs to the world of diets, not IF. IF is a lifestyle. It is effective, flexible, sustainable, and free. There is no need to stop, and if you feel as good on it as I do, there is absolutely no desire to stop.
10. Intermittent fasting is a glorified eating disorder
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that someone who has suffered from eating disorders should avoid an approach to food that may trigger them to return to a dangerous obsession.
Likewise, IF is not the best approach for everyone. People with certain health conditions, on medications that must be taken with food, children, anyone who is pregnant or nursing should find a different approach. It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor before making major changes to your eating patterns.
But none of this makes intermittent fasting an eating disorder. It is simply a pattern of eating that alternates brief periods of abstaining from food with brief periods of eating food on a regular basis. It seems disordered to me to view a small tummy rumble as an emergency, to snack all day, to eat multiple large meals each day, to obsess over micros and macros and calories.
Focusing on things other than food all day and then enjoying a healthful and satisfying meal feels like the sanest approach to food I’ve ever tried.
IF has been a huge positive for me
Intermittent fasting works for me. I’m in my mid-50s with a desk job and some spine damage that makes high-intensity workouts a no-go. During my first six months of IF I gradually lost 36 pounds. I’m easily maintaining my goal weight of 120 (I’m 5'5" with a small frame, so that’s my sweet spot). My pants size is down from a US 12 to a US 4. My bloodwork looks great. I feel energetic, sleep better, and find eating more enjoyable than at any other time in my life. Even my hair is thicker.
My minimum daily fast is 16 hours but I feel my best if I fast for around 20 hours a day before eating whatever I feel like for dinner, including dessert. This pattern is often referred to as OMAD (One Meal a Day). But that’s just me: to succeed at IF, you’ll need to experiment and find the eating pattern that works best for you.
I don’t restrict anything during my eating window, but I have found that I’m much pickier and lean towards whole foods much more than I used to. If it’s not window-worthy, I won’t eat it. I’ve given up fast food entirely and don’t miss it at all. I hardly think about food until dinnertime is approaching.
I use the LIFE app and I like the way it tracks my fasting data, but all you really need to succeed at intermittent fasting is a clock and the willingness to limit your eating to a flexible window.
If you’re interested in trying intermittent fasting, or if you're struggling with it a little, learn about it from people who’ve succeeded at it like Gin Stephens, and from researchers like Jason Fung — not from stunt journalists/bloggers who halfheartedly tried it out for a few weeks and now want to regurgitate Wiki research along with myths about all the snacks you can eat while “fasting.”
Intermittent Fasting is an elegant health solution and it can work beautifully when you know what you’re doing.