I decided to stop doing intermittent fasting because of my mental health, and I don't regret it — though I loved IF for almost a year, freeing myself from the strict eating window relieved major stress. When I first gave it up, though, I couldn't shake the fear that losing those eating restrictions was going to make me gain weight. I have very little self-control when it comes to food; if one piece of chocolate makes me feel so good, why shouldn't I have two? Or 10? Or 20? It's all fine until I start feeling bloated and sick to my stomach.
I was worried about relaxing my eating rules because I didn't know if I could trust myself to eat whenever and however I wanted. And I'll be honest, over the first few weeks, there was quite a bit of binging going on. But after I got it out of my system (and got the leftover Valentine's Day chocolate out of my house), I settled into a routine that combined the lessons I'd learned from IF with some new strategies. The end result was a flexible eating schedule that's kept me from gaining weight since I stopped.
I'll get into what I did, but first, let's talk about why going off of IF might cause weight gain in the first place.
Will I Gain Weight If I Stop Intermittent Fasting?
You can probably guess the most typical cause of post-IF weight gain: overeating. Quick refresher on the variations of intermittent fasting: you can do "time-restricted" eating, which means only eating during a specific window each day (like the 16:8 plan that I did, in which you eat for eight hours and fast for 16), or you can do a more intense fast on certain days of the week, as in the 5:2 plan, where you consume 500-600 calories twice a week and eat normally otherwise.
"Regardless of which type of intermittent fasting you do, excess calories can occur when you go off the plan," said registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick at Cleveland Clinic Wellness. It makes sense: when you have more time to eat, you have more time to snack throughout the day and into the night.
Another potential cause, Kristin told POPSUGAR, is the kind of food you're eating. If you only focused on the timing of your meals during IF and not the quality of the food and whether or not it was actually healthy, "it's possible that the low-quality diet will catch up to you when eating occurs around the clock," she explained.
How I Stopped Intermittent Fasting Without Gaining Weight
- I ate whole foods. After my initial post-IF unhealthy food binge (feel free to skip that step in the process), I took Kristin's advice and shifted my focus to eating whole foods as much as possible. I tried to center my meals on a lean protein, like chicken breast, tofu, or salmon, and vegetables like spinach, kale, or broccoli, reserving just a quarter of my plate for a healthy carb like quinoa. These more filling meals helped me avoid overeating and its related weight gain. Plus, a recent study showed that overprocessed food in general can make people gain weight, while eating whole foods can lead to weight loss — another reason to avoid boxed and bagged foods.
- I ate protein and healthy carbs after workouts. One of my current goals is to put on more lean muscle mass. Eating within two hours after working out is a big part of that, promoting muscle recovery and growth. Within that window, I eat a banana (healthy carbs!) with peanut butter and a low-sugar protein bar or drink. (You could also whip up a protein smoothie.) Strategic eating leads to muscle growth, and more muscle mass increases your resting metabolic rate, which means you keep burning calories even when you're not actively working out.
- I stopped eating at least two hours before bed. Kristin recommended that anyone trying to avoid post-IF weight gain should stop eating around 6 p.m. so you're not going to bed with an excess of calories sitting in your belly. That's early for my schedule, but I do try to stop eating around two hours before I go to sleep, usually between 8 and 9 p.m. This is one of the sustainable practices that naturally carried over with me from IF: learning that I don't need to continuously snack until I go to bed.
- I didn't eat breakfast before morning workouts. I stopped eating breakfast before workouts while I was doing IF and learned that pre-workout snacks usually weren't necessary for me. This depends completely on your body, energy needs, and eating schedule, but for me, fasting through the workout actually helps me perform better. I don't get the stomach cramps and other gastro issues that used to plague me, and it also means that I burn through glycogen reserves and some fat instead of fuel from a pre-workout snack — good for weight maintenance and loss.
- I avoided eating for 12 hours between dinner and breakfast the next day. One of Kristin's tips to avoid post-IF weight gain: "Simply focus on eating during daylight hours." You'd be surprised how natural this feels. I usually finish dinner around 8:30 p.m. and eat breakfast the next day around 8:45 a.m., which gives me 12-ish hours of not eating. As it relates to weight gain, this practice is backed up by some preliminary studies on mice. More research is needed, but a current theory is that humans evolved to eat during the daylight; that's when and how our bodies are designed to handle food. Fasting for 12 hours feels more natural, and even beyond that, it also kept me from snacking late at night, because I knew I'd want to eat when I got into work the next day!
Intermittent fasting is great for a lot of people, myself included; even after going off of it, I've seen how the practices and habits I've learned can help me maintain a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. By refocusing on the kinds of foods you consume and eating when you're hungry — and when your body needs it — maintaining your post-IF weight is definitely achievable. This clean-eating plan has two weeks' worth of healthy meals and snacks to get you started.