This post is the second in our series on all things “intermittent fasting”. The first post answered the most basic question – what is intermittent fasting? Now that you know what intermittent fasting is, the next logical question is how do I start intermittent fasting? That will be the focus of this article.
Again, let’s start with the simplest answer – you start slow. Remember the tortoise and the hare? Apply that approach.
All things related to your body and health should adopt this strategy. If you want to become an Ironman you do not need to go out on the first day of training and try to ride 112 miles. Want to deadlift 300 pounds? You should not try to begin with that weight. If you want to start intermittent fasting then you should not go out of the gate with a goal of fasting for 72 hours.
Rushing into a change in fitness or diet rarely leads to success. Rather, it often leads to frustration, injury and/or abandonment of the effort.
So, understanding that you should start slow, let’s look at what may be the “easiest” fasting protocol that you could use to get started.
16:8 Fasting Protocol Method
The 16:8 fasting method may be the most common method employed by fasters. Simply, it is 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8 hour eating window. Let’s look at an example. Under this method you will stop consuming any calories at 8 PM. From 8 PM through noon the following day you will not consume any calories.
The key here is that you are not to consume any calories during this 16 hour window.
So, yes, that includes your morning coffee with creamer, sugar or artificial sweetener – or the beloved latte, frappuccino, etc. In all honesty, this is one of the hardest parts of embarking on a fasting protocol for most people. The morning coffee routine is a powerful routine.
Now, it is not to say that you are not allowed to have coffee. Coffee is certainly allowed. The only caveat – it needs to be black. You are also allowed to have tea, if that is more your speed. Just make sure that you are not adding any calories to the drink.
Breaking a Fast
There is a lot of debate in the world of intermittent fasting around the issue of what breaks a fast. The issue of “breaking the fast” will be discussed more fully in another article.
In this article, we will address only one part. How many calories consumed will break a fast? People often ask if they can have a splash of milk in their morning coffee or tea. If they have this splash of milk (or cream) will it break the fast? What about a nibble on some carrots to help get you to through?
It’s All About Insulin
Well, this all goes to the question of what process your body is going through during a “pure fast“. One of the primary benefits of fasting is the natural reduction in insulin production. Reduction in the production results in a reduction in insulin within the bloodstream.
A reduction in insulin does many things, but what most people are most interested in is what it does to accessing your fat stores.
When insulin is active within circulation it is there to do one primary job – push glucose into muscle and adipose tissue. When you have insulin in your blood it is very hard to access your fat stores for fuel, because insulin is trying to do its job. It is trying hard to keep the door shut and the glucose secure behind that door.
When you are in a fasted state the insulin levels drop. This is because there is a reduction in the signaling mechanism telling your glands to release insulin.
Less insulin means that the doors on the fat stores can now be more easily opened. If you can open the door – and if you don’t provide new calories into the system (from eating) then your body can be trained to burn fat for fuel. That’s the goal, right?
So, How Many Calories Break a Fast?
The short answer is that no one really knows. There is a lot of debate out there on this issue as well. One thing that is clear – not all calories are the same. 100 calories of pure fat (say beef tallow) will generate a far different response than 100 calories of table sugar. That should be a starting point for the discussion.
Further, I am 6’7” and north of 210 pounds. I am “above average” in both height and weight. Therefore, the amount of calories that will break my fast may (and probably will) be different than a 5’1″ 110 pound woman. So, as with most things….there are no bright-line rules about how many calories you can stay under to remain in the fasted state.
You may see a number out there of between 50-60 calories. I would caution you to take this with a grain of salt, because there is no clear research to establish the validity of this figure. It is just a rule of thumb that most fasters use.
When you first begin intermittent fasting remember to start slowly. It may be difficult, on your first run of fasting to avoid all calories. For new fasters, this often easier said than done. Calories and “fast-breakers” are lurking out there in many seemingly innocent places. When fasting, you want to avoid all things artificial and all things caloric.
Most artificial sweeteners, even if they do not contain calories, will trick your body into thinking that they are caloric and thereby trigger the release of insulin. The reason that artificial sweeteners are so popular is because they fool us into thinking that they are as good as sugar. Fooling us also, often times, means fooling our hormones.
So, black coffee, plain tea, and water are your friends as you are fasting. We will cover, in later articles in this series, some other possible “safe” fasting foods such as bone broth, kombucha and the like. But for now, getting started, try to stay away from all foods/drinks other than water, black coffee and plain tea.
How Will I Feel When I Start Intermittent Fasting?
This is the most common question from people who have not tried fasting before. Everyone remembers when they have missed a meal and they have been consumed with hunger. This is an unpleasant experience for anyone. Especially if the hunger is accompanied by headaches.
Later in this series we will talk more about a shift from being glucose dependent to fat dependent. Essentially, changing what your body looks to for fuel. From glucose (which comes from sugar and carbs) to your own stored fat (or exogenous calories/fat). Often times the hunger and headaches are a result of your body looking for the glucose hit that it has been so accustomed to receiving. It is a complicated subject that will require a whole blog post to tackle.
Will you feel hungry when you begin intermittent fasting? Yes, you will. Do I still feel “hungry” now when I intermittent fast? Sometimes. There are certainly days when I am fasting that I breeze through and don’t feel hungry at all. There are other days when the absence of food is more obvious. However, the more frequently you fast the fewer and father between these days are.
How do you manage the hunger pains? First you recognize that your body has plenty of fuel available to push through this. Each pound of fat contains somewhere between 3,436 and 3,752 calories, roughly. That is more than the average daily calorie consumption of most people.
So, are you starving? Not unless your body fat is in the 5% range or so. If you have an extra 20 pounds of body fat then you have more than 68,000 calories available to your body for fuel.
If you are hungry, rely on fluids to help fill your stomach. Black coffee can “feel” filling. It can help tamp down the hunger pain. Also, water with a few pinches of sea salt or pink himalayan salt can also help with the headaches as well as the feelings of hunger.
Another consideration is the timing of the fasting window. Some people will begin their fast earlier in the day. Say, they finish their last meal at 4 PM thereby starting the fast then.
This means that they will be asleep through most of the fast. When they awake at 7 AM they can still eat a normal breakfast at 8 AM.
So, if the “hunger pains” are too much, consider starting the fast earlier and waking up to a great healthy breakfast.
All About the Hormones
Hunger signals are hormonally driven. Similar to Pavlov’s Dogs, our hormones are trained to look for food at certain times. When you cross that normal feeding window, your hormones will trigger and ask for food.
We have the power and ability to ignore or suppress this hormone signal with no ill effects to our health. It is more of a reminder than a mandate. Remember, we are not starving unless you are below 5% body fat.
Therefore, ignoring the signal will ultimately help you in re-training the hormone signal.
When you start intermittent fasting just remember that this is not really a diet, it is the development of a new relationship with food. It is more of a lifestyle shift than a diet.
For most people, they will use intermittent fasting as a lifelong tool to manage weight and general health.
Plus, at least for me, it removes more decisions from my day – what healthy breakfast do I want this morning and do I have time to make that breakfast?