Trigger warning: The following story discusses eating disorders and disordered eating behavior.
At the beginning of my four-year intermittent fasting (IF) journey, I was experiencing so many health benefits such as decreased bloating, improved mental clarity and sleep, and I was able to lose the baby weight I'd been holding on to for four years. It was going so well in the beginning that I thought I'd do IF for the rest of my life. But as I slowly started to try more restrictive methods of IF to reach my weight-loss goals, it started to not work, and I was actually gaining weight.
I was feeling so frustrated, sad, and hopeless because I was losing control over my relationship with food. Here's my story of how intermittent fasting started to fail me, and how giving it up for intuitive eating actually helped me have more peace with food and achieve my body and fitness goals.
The Methods of Intermittent Fasting I Tried
In case you're unfamiliar with intermittent fasting, it involves incorporating periods of fasting (not eating), whether it be fasting for certain hours out of the day or fasting certain days out of the week. There are tons of different methods of IF, and when I started in February 2017, as with anything new in my life, I went all-in and tried just about every style. I started with 16:8, where I fasted for 16 hours and ate in an eight-hour window, from noon until 8 p.m. I found success, but had the misguided notion that "more is better," so I shortened my window to 17:7, then to 18:6.
During this time, I was doing hour-long rigorous CrossFit workouts four to six days a week at 5:45 a.m., and shortening my eating window to six hours made me so hungry in the morning, that pushing through to make it to noon became a huge mental struggle. So I ended up eating earlier, telling myself I'd just eat from 9 or 10 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m., but not eating dinner with my family was terrible for many reasons (the most important being that I didn't want my kids seeing me not eat), so that didn't work.
I also tried other methods of IF such as Eat Stop Eat (fasting 24 hours once a week), 5:2 (eating normally five days a week and eating 500 calories two days a week), and Alternate Day Fasting (fasting every other day). It was too hard to exercise regularly and do these more restrictive IF methods (I was too hungry!), so I stopped working out, but that was a terrible move for my mental health.
During that time, losing weight became my goal, and I tried Fast 5 (eating in a five-hour window), 20:4 (also called the Warrior Diet, eating from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m,), and when that wasn't enough, I also tried 20:1 (also called One Meal a Day or OMAD). I'd lose weight initially with those methods, but hunger caused me to binge eat during my eating window. I even went so far as to try longer fasts like 48-hour fasts (I even tried a seven-day water fast!), but again, those were unsustainable. Thankfully, my body's instincts to eat took over, and I just ended up gaining weight.
Why Did Intermittent Fasting Cause Weight Gain?
"Research shows us that dieting, which includes intermittent fasting, is a consistent predictor for weight gain," explained Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and owner of Kara Lydon Nutrition. The majority of people who lose weight while dieting end up gaining the weight back long-term, and up to two-thirds will gain more weight than when they started.
The physiological mechanisms your body activates when in starvation (aka dieting) mode, such as increasing your hunger hormones, decreasing your fullness hormones, and releasing neuropeptide Y (a hormone that stimulates food intake, specifically carbs), often lead to overeating, she added. Most dieters will be familiar with what's known as the restrict/binge cycle, although they may not know that exact name for it. This goes something like this: you "restrict your food intake, then feel extreme hunger and food preoccupation, which leads to a binge episode, followed by intense feelings of guilt and shame, which brings you right back to restriction in an effort to 'gain control,' but it just perpetuates the same cycle over and over," Lydon explained.
When your body is in starvation mode, it is essentially perceiving the restriction as a famine. "From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies are designed to fight famine and starvation in an attempt to help us survive. Our bodies don't realize it's 2021 and what it's perceiving is actually self-imposed," Lydon said.
Another physiological mechanism that might be activated is energy conservation, which can cause you to stop getting your period, mess with your digestion, or make you feel cold and tired all the time. "This is your body shutting down or redirecting energy from non-essential systems in the body. This might also look like your body holding onto its fat stores in an attempt to conserve energy," Lydon said. I did experience feeling cold and tired, and I was bloated from bingeing, but this also explains why I got leaner when I started eating more regularly.
Intermittent Fasting Caused Disordered Eating
I felt stuck thinking my only option was to fast longer, and that's when it started to feel like an eating disorder.
Trying so many IF methods and feeling like I was failing and fighting against my body was unbelievably exhausting and frustrating. Ultimately, it became detrimental to my well-being because it led to disordered eating habits. I was constantly thinking about food, what I was going to eat, when I was going to eat, when I was going to fast — and I became depressed because my weight was slowly creeping up. I felt stuck thinking my only option was to fast longer, and that's when it started to feel like an eating disorder.
"Intermittent fasting is essentially glorified disordered eating," said Lydon. She explained that fasting for weight control purposes is recognized by eating disorder professionals as an eating disorder behavior, but unfortunately the diet industry has marketed IF as an easier way to lose weight compared to other traditional calorie-restricted diets.
Fasting (or any arbitrary food rules, for that matter) disrupts your body's innate ability to produce physiological cues to tell you when to eat and when you've had enough, Lydon said. "When you override your body's hunger cues, your body, in an attempt to help you survive, triggers certain physiological mechanisms to encourage you to eat." This explains why I felt so preoccupied with food, and why I felt so out of control when I did eat.
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Jenny Sugar
Intermittent Fasting Affected My Mental Health
"If I saw a friend struggling like this, I knew I'd step in and help her. I had to be that friend for myself."
Dealing with intense hunger made me cranky, bingeing made me feel guilty (and so bloated!), and constantly thinking about food and how to lose the weight that bingeing was causing all took up so space in my brain.
Lydon explained that intermittent fasting can also interfere with your social life, since you may avoid plans with friends that involve food. Fasting definitely affected plans with my family, depending on which method I was doing at the time, and that's one of the parts about IF that I really hated.
I also felt sad about not being able to cook and bake when I wanted to. I'd sit in bed flipping through my vegan cookbooks, or watching vegan recipe videos on YouTube, just to satisfy that need. It was so sad. I felt like I was missing out on so many levels.
My husband noticed my weird behavior around food, and he was definitely worried. He felt bad that I was imposing all these lame food rules on myself. I finally realized that while IF did have positive effects on my health at first, I had taken it too far. If I saw a friend struggling like this, I knew I'd step in and help her. I had to be that friend for myself.
I Stopped Intermittent Fasting in July 2020
The true driving force behind me deciding to stop doing IF and to focus on healing my relationship with food was because I have a 10-year-old daughter. I knew I wanted to be an inspiring role model for her, to teach her how to have a positive relationship with food and her body, and this was anything but positive. I had to stop this terrible cycle of restricting and bingeing, but I wasn't sure how. I wanted to move toward intuitive eating, but when I tried jumping in, I just felt out of control and feared gaining even more weight.
In the spring months at the beginning of the pandemic, like everyone else, my world was flipped upside down. I stopped going to my gym, was stress-baking and overeating, but was still eating from noon until 6 or 7 p.m. most days. I was eating a somewhat junky, mostly plant-based diet, and ended up gaining even more weight and not feeling like myself.
It was during one summer night while looking up vegan baking recipes on YouTube that things changed completely. I stumbled upon the Nutritarian diet and Dr. Joel Fuhrman's book, Eat to Live, and immersed myself in all the research I could about whole-food, plant-based diets. I also read The Starch Solution and combined the two and started eating a low-fat, high-carb, whole-food plant-based diet, free of oil. I was already eating lots of veggies, but I increased my starch intake, so I was eating tons of potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, oatmeal, and rice. I stopped eating salad dressings made with oil, and limited my nut and seed intake.
I loved that this way of eating wasn't a diet, but was all about abundance, focusing on promoting health and preventing disease by eating all the nutrient-dense foods I could. I stopped watching the clock and started listening to my hunger cues.
I Started Intuitive Eating
After a few months, I felt amazing! I realized how much eating breakfast brought me joy. I'd wake up looking forward to my bowl of oatmeal and felt so happy knowing I had full freedom to eat whenever I wanted throughout the day.
I also noticed that my body started to get leaner — that really surprised me because I was eating so much food!
I had tons of energy and felt inspired to start rowing and doing yoga every day. I slept well, felt clear-headed, and loved how my mood had improved. I also noticed that my body started to get leaner — that really surprised me because I was eating so much food!
I can now proudly call myself an intuitive eater, but it didn't happen overnight. This has been a six-month journey of trusting my body, re-learning how to observe my hunger and fullness cues, and making lots of mistakes. There were definitely times I ate too much, or ate too much of the foods that don't make me feel good. It was interesting watching how my brain reacted to me allowing myself to truly eat when and how much I wanted. At first, it felt out of control, and I was eating a lot. But I had read from intuitive eating counselors that this would happen, that my body was just soaking in the fact that the "famine" was over. That urgency and drive to eat often and eat a lot slowed down after the second month, and was replaced with a sense of calmness and happiness around food.
Now as soon as I get that first glimmer of hunger, I eat. Sometimes it's at 9 a.m., and some days, it truly isn't until noon — I have no rules about what times I eat. If I want lunch at 11 a.m., I have it! If I get hungry an hour after I've eaten, I eat again. It's so liberating! What's funny is eating whenever I please has made me think so much less about food.
Is There a Healthy Way to Do Intermittent Fasting?
There are some days that I naturally eat in a seven- to eight-hour window, because that's when I'm hungry, so I asked Lydon if there was a healthy way to do intermittent fasting. I wanted to make sure I wasn't going back to my old, destructive ways. She said, "I always remind my clients that they are the experts of their own bodies. Only you can truly know for yourself if there is a 'healthy way' to do intermittent fasting." The key here is to listen to your body - noticing and honoring hunger cues as they arise and not waiting for some arbitrary time window to allow yourself permission to eat.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has resources available including a 24/7 helpline at (800) 931-2237.