How to get started with intermittent fasting

What is it?

Intermittent fasting has got to be one of the hottest health trends of the past decade. In case you’re just getting on to the fasting train now (or have been living under a rock), intermittent fasting is simply refraining from eating during a certain period of time, depending on which method you are choosing to follow. The methods are often named after the number hours or days you spend eating vs the number you spend fasting, i.e the two most popular methods: 16:8 equates to 16 hours fasting and a window of eight hours for eating, and 5:2, which refers to two days spent fasting, and five days spent eating normally.

Acolytes of intermittent fasting (I include myself among them, FYI) will shout to the heavens about how effective it’s for weight loss –  I myself lost over 10 kilograms last year doing 16:8, and after the initial hump of getting used to it, found it amazingly easy. There’s other benefits too, with research showing it can be effective in reducing cholesterol, helping alleviate high blood pressure, poor sleep, stress and anxiety, among a laundry list of other benefits.

As it was my entry into intermittent fasting (after a disastrous attempt at 5:2) and the method I had great success with, I’m going to recommend 16:8 as the best way to get started with intermittent fasting.

How to do the 16:8 fast

In my opinion, the best place to start is with 16:8. This simply involves choosing a 16 hour portion of your day where you will fast, or in other words forgo food completely, except for water, black tea and black coffee. After that you have an eight hour window where you can eat normally.

You’ll want to include the time you spend sleeping in your fasting window, and then have your eating time set at whatever timeframe works for you. For instance, many people choose 9am to 5pm as their eating window to start with, as this feels a bit like simply having a late breakfast and early dinner. As you get used to the fasted state, you might find your preference slipping to later in the day, as it often becomes easier and more convenient to forgo breakfast rather than the other meals.

For instance, I don’t care much for breakfast foods, and enjoy eating later in the evening, so I fast from 1pm to 9pm. It took a week or two to get used to, but now it’s simply the norm for me to simply have a black coffee in the morning, and then tea and sparkling water until 1pm – after which I enjoy a hearty lunch.

The other intermittent faster in my co-working space is the opposite to me.  An early riser who prefers a light dinner and loves breakfast with the family, she sets her eating window from 7am till 3pm, getting in a hefty breakfast and lunch and tiding over the evening with green teas and plenty of water. This allows her to enjoy family time, and take advantage of lunch meetings and lattes with clients in the morning.

It might take a bit of experimenting, but you’ll soon find your rhythm.

What should I eat during my eating window while Intermittent fasting?

There’s no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing what to eat while doing intermittent fasting, and may people report results in weight loss and well being without any adjustment to their diet besides the fasting itself. However I have found that combining the fasting with a bit more focus on eating healthily and cutting down on unnecessary calories (and without going nuts about it, simply making the healthier choice when available) can give amazing results.

You might even find, as I did, that you crave healthier, more nutritious food after fasting – your body simply craves the nutrients a bit more than it does the naughty stuff like sugar and bad fats.

Eating a balanced healthy diet in your eating window will go a long way to enhancing your benefits of fasting, so if you can, try to choose a balanced diet including fruits and veg, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats.

Healthy food image

How to stick to the 16:8 diet

It took me a couple of tries to get it to stick, but now that I’ve got the variables figured out, it has become simply part of my life. It doesn’t feel like a diet, or a punishment, it’s just how I live my life five days out of the week. Here’s a few things that helped me.

Gradually increase the hours

The first time I tried 16:8, I got to about 13 hours and felt like I was starving, and caved in. I felt defeated and didn’t even attempt to fast again for a couple of weeks afterwards. I got back on the wagon eventually, and what worked for me was gradual change, rather than going whole hog all at once. Start with a 12 or 14 hours fasting window, and try that for a week or two. As your body gets used to the change, increase by an hour or 30 minutes per day, and gradually build your way up to 16 hours of fasting time. This is a great way to get your body used to the changes and reduce the impact of cravings and pangs. Remember to drink plenty of water.

Stay Hydrated

This is one of the most important things to remember when fasting. Keeping hydrated will keep the hunger pangs at bay and is vital for health and wellbeing, whether you are fasting or not. Tea and Coffee are fantastic, but remember to drink plenty of good old fashioned water. Hot tip: Sparkling water is fantastic while fasting, the carbonation gives you a bit of variety and helps you feel full.

Fast with a Friend

If you’ve got someone at home or at work who wants to give fasting a try, team up and tackle it together. Even if your fasting and eating windows don’t line up, you can be there for each other and offer support, motivation and accountability.

Goals and Rewards

Get a notebook or tracker app (There’s plenty, but I reckon Zero is the best one, and it’s free) and keep track of your fasts, and give yourself concrete, short term goals and rewards. I’d also recommend making rewards not food related so you can keep your focus away from food when you’re deep into that fasting window.

When I hit my first 30 total fast days, I treated myself to a new PS4 game. You might go for a massage after a successful week of fasting days, or a trip to the movies after you lose your first kilo. Choose something you can look forward to and aligns with your interests.

Side Effects

There are some side effects you may experience while intermittent fasting. For the most part they are either fleeting or manageable, but if you experience significant ill effects, you should stop fasting immediately and see your doctor.

Side effects can include hunger, tiredness and ‘fogginess’ (a sort of hazy, forgetful or ‘slow’ feeling in the mind that comes and goes) in the initial period of fasting, these usually only last for a couple of weeks at most, your body will soon acclimatize.

In my experience, the fogginess eventually gave way to a beautiful mental clarity and focus (this is a commonly reported brain boosting benefit of fasting) during my fasting window, the hunger never really left – but became completely tolerable – and the tiredness, well I still get that from time to time. It’s annoying but I try to make sure I get enough sleep at night and nutritious meals during my eating window, as well as plenty of hydration. I do occasionally have maybe one too many coffees – this is something I’m still working on!

It’s also important to note if you have diabetes, are pregnant or breastfeeding, have chronic disease, heart conditions or are elderly or a child, you should NOT be fasting.

Also, do the right thing and talk to your doctor before you start any sort of diet or fitness plan, better to be safe than sorry.