Is intermittent fasting rethinking our approach to food or another fad diet to beat ourselves up with? Niamh O'Donoghue and Sophie White try out the latest craze with mixed results
Intermittent fasting is a fairly broad term for a way of eating that has been making big claims about weightloss (and health in general) in the last couple of years. We all watched the most famous iteration of the intermittent fasting family, the 5:2 diet take over the lives of many of our nearest and dearest and let's be real here, they became unbearable on it.
I always felt the 5:2 – which saw followers eating normally for five days of the week and then eating less than 500 calories on the other two days – was kind of untenable for the average person. It meant that for at least two days a week they were hangry, unpleasant people who were not good company. However there are other ways to adopt the IF lifestyle, many people opt to fast for 16 hours out of every 24. They choose an 8-hour 'eating period', for example 10am-6pm or 12pm-8pm and then fast for the remaining hours, many of which are spent sleeping anyway.
The reported benefits of the IF approach are weight loss, improved blood sugar levels, decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, and, according to some research, it may reduce the likelihood of developing neurogenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Some findings have even suggested the plan can result in improved mood which definitely sounds somewhat oxymoronic given the fact that you may be quite hangry for a good portion of the day. We decided to give the fasting a go and the results were decidedly mixed.
I've been a starving woman all my life and that's no bad thing. For my job, I spend a lot of my time in the kitchen trialling recipes and then scoffing them. I decided to take up intermittent fasting four weeks ago for a couple of reasons. After two kids, my body and my life changed significantly, it was harder and harder to go for a run and I was constantly not sitting down to dinner until after 8pm and going to bed soon after which had a knock-on effect on my sleeping. I was exhausted, unsurprising with two kids under four, and I generally felt like my approach to eating wasn't serving me well at all. I started the 16-hour fasting approach with little faith that it would be remotely doable. I'm usually up at 6am and hungry for breakfast first thing every day, so the thought that I'd have to wait until 10am (FOUR HOURS) to eat was looking impossible frankly. The first couple of days were a bit depressing and I was dying for my egg by 10am, but then I noticed an interesting shift, as the days passed I no longer woke up hungry and I even began to push the feasting window out by an hour here and there.
On the weekend I'd decided to ditch my fast but come Saturday morning, as I was about to start in on the pancakes, I found that I actually wasn't particularly hungry and decided to wait till my usual time for breakfast. This checking in with my hunger levels, I have to say, is a completely new experience for me. Ordinarily, I'd just be shovelling in whatever food is nearby with barely a thought of whether I want it or not. While I wouldn't say I've particularly been losing much weight, my body feels better overall. My digestion has vastly improved (before I would have often felt quite bloated after eating) and I am generally feeling considerably more alert and energised. I like the method as you don't have to change the things you like to eat, just the way you eat.
When my then new-partner Jake suggested fasting for better gut health, I was completely open to the idea. Like me, he's quite knowledgeable when it comes to nutrition and doesn't believe in fad diets or trends and practices methods that have actually been proven to improve gut health and digestion (healthy guts are the new sexy ass, btw). My life has always revolved around food, and even more-so now that I work full-time and train in the gym a lot. Tupperware has become my must-have accessory and my body is regulated to eating a small meal every 3/4 hours throughout the day. I get excited about breakfast to the point that sometimes my stomach will wake me up grumbling in the early hours, and I look forward to a snack before bed. Though considering how smitten I was/am with Jake, he could have asked me to eat candlewax for a week and I would have said yes, so I launched into fasting without much hesitation.
That was until 4 hours into the first day.
I usually have a small snack at 7am as I'm leaving for work (fruit etc), before eating a usually carb-loaded brekkie at 8:30am. But by 11am on day one my energy levels and concentration were very low and food was on the brain. For a week I fought through the hunger and tried to assuage it with water and tea (which definitely helped me to feel more full), but I missed the pleasure of eating a hearty breakfast and feeling ready for the day. Fasting didn't affect my ability to train, but it did restrict how much I ate after I got home so I found myself going to bed hungry and waking up hungry. See the vicious cycle? Like Sophie, I did find that my digestion had improved after a while, but the hangriness, constant night-time/early morning hunger, and a relationship going down the toilet wasn't fully worth it. It's a 'no' from me.