Is It OK to Skip Breakfast? My Experiences with Intermittent Fasting
I first heard of intermittent fasting as a "thing" somewhere around 2010. I remember reading an article about Kelly Ripa, and in it, she mentioned that she didn't eat breakfast before her shows and typically ate her first meal around 11:00AM. This was interesting to me because I'd always heard that breakfast was the "most important meal of the day" ... that you had to re-fuel your body within 30 minutes of waking; that it was important for regulating daily caloric intake, for powering workouts, and for overall health. But look at Kelly. She was filled with energy. She was lean and toned as heck. She seemed to be the picture of health.
I decided to investigate further. My Google search for "skipping breakfast" led me down a rabbit hole into the world of intermittent fasting (IF).
I soon discovered Mark Sisson, author of many books including The Primal Blueprint and founder of Mark's Daily Apple, a website geared towards all things health and nutrition. I came across an article in which he discussed the differences between grazing (eating small frequent meals) and occasional fasting. He compared the research for each, and intermittent fasting won out in so many areas. IF was found to decrease fat, drop weight, improve insulin sensitivity, turn off unwanted genes, repair cells and tissues, prevent disease, and increase longevity. What??!!
This was pretty much earth-shattering, so I decided to delve further. I found resources and IF diet plans like Eat Stop Eat and Leangains which described the "how." Essentially, for both of these, as with other IF strategies, your eating window is condensed into a certain time frame, and for the rest of the day, you're in a fasted state. So, for example, you might stop eating at 8:00 PM and not eat again until noon the next day (a 16-hour fast).
What was even more amazing to me was that these proponents actually recommended fasted workouts! The rationale is that eating prior to working out reduces the fat-burning potential. Conversely, working out in a fasted state forces your body to deplete glycogen stores which then begins the literal fat-burning process, relying instead on ketones for energy.
The benefits of IF seemed to be astounding. I decided to give it a try.
My Personal Experience with Intermittent Fasting
I've never had much of a weight issue, but I've definitely been about 20 pounds heavier than I am now. I always ate "healthy" and exercised, but I never could drop any weight. In my 20s, I was also diagnosed with PCOS, a metabolic condition that can exacerbate weight gain. I was excited to try intermittent fasting since nothing else really seemed to work. IF was so different than anything I'd ever heard of or tried.
I remember the first time I went to work without eating breakfast. I had this absolute energy and buzz I'd never felt before. I figured this was just my brain's lack of fuel, some kind of short-lived deprivation high, or that I was just imagining it. But as the morning went on, I continued to feel pretty darn good. I was teaching second grade at the time and was on my feet and active the whole day. By lunch time, I was definitely hungry, but I'd made it!
Over the next few weeks, I learned that leaning towards eating a lower-carb, higher protein, moderate fat diet helped me with the fasted periods. When I wasn't spiking my blood sugar ridiculously high during the eating window (ie. cutting out processed junk foods), I was better able to fast the next morning.
Most mornings, I began waking up a little earlier to do a 30-minute exercise DVD at home. I had several different ones that I rotated, but each involved short bursts of cardio with some weight training.
I tried this for about a month and dropped some significant weight. People noticed.
In July of 2012, I got married, and we immediately began trying to start a family. I went back to eating three meals a day to make sure I was getting adequate nutrients and enough calories. Within 5 months, I was pregnant!
Our son Nathan was born in September of 2013. When he was only 11 months old, I discovered I was pregnant with our second son. This was truly remarkable for several reasons. I had just stopped nursing. We were not even trying. And it happened without medical help.
Prior to my first pregnancy, based on my doctor's advice, I had decided to take a drug called Clomid to help me become pregnant with Nathan (due to that prior PCOS diagnosis and not wanting to waste time ... I was 38 years-old after all). But, this time, I needed no intervention. What this told me was that my body had re-set itself ... dare I say even "healed" itself?
Post-Partum Intermittent Fasting
After having Adam, I was excited to just get my body back. I wasn't worried about dropping weight quickly, but I was so tired of being pregnant. (I know many women totally get this, especially those who have been pregnant even more times than me!)
I began to do some intermittent fasting again. At first, this was not in the least bit intentional. I literally just didn't have time (or make time) to eat.
Going from one kid to two kids made our home go from relatively quiet and peaceful to loud and chaotic. (And remember, Nathan was not even two years-old when Adam was born.) Most days, I was running myself ragged ... making food for Nathan, nursing Adam, changing both of their diapers, playing with Nathan, trying to get Adam to nap, bathing both boys, dealing with bedtime, and sometimes doing it all by myself as my husband was traveling a lot.
Let me tell you what I learned ... It is NOT a good idea to do intermittent fasting when you're stressed and especially when you're nursing.
I was under-eating ... like way, way under. A woman needs more calories when nursing than she does when pregnant! I was probably eating less than 1,500 calories a day even though my body really needed closer to 3,000. Seriously. I was breastfeeding, never sitting, constantly running around, and on top of it all, not sleeping well at all.
This calorie restriction and lack of sleep coupled with hormonal changes led to major post-partum anxiety. Crippling. I didn't want to leave the house. I would have near panic attacks on a simple trip to Target, especially if I had to bring both boys with me.
I dropped down to the lowest weight I'd seen in my whole adult life. But I was miserable.
I went to see my doctor who put me on Zoloft. I hoped this would be the answer to my mental and emotional woes, but alas, it was not. It made me feel apathetic. I weaned myself off of it after about three months.
It took me a long time (like more than 2 years) to understand that the best thing for me to do was to focus on eating nutrient-dense food whenever the heck I felt like eating it. I needed to sleep as much as possible, too. My youngest wasn't (and still isn't) sleeping through the night. There was a time, like when I was writing my book 360 Health, that I was trying to wake up early, before the kids, to write and workout. I gave that up and prioritized sleep. I started sleeping until the kids awoke for the day. I even stopped exercising ... gasp! And guess what? My anxiety lessened a ton. My adrenal fatigue basically went away. The brain fog lifted. Did I gain some weight? Yes. Was it a lot? Nope. My body just found its comfortable weight. I achieved homeostasis again.
Fasting in a Healthy Way
After learning what my body needed and actually listening to it, I really felt good. I continue to try and tune in to what I need and desire on a daily basis. I try to make time for reflection and for fun.
That being said, I still believe that intermittent fasting can be extremely beneficial from a health standpoint. If someone needs to lose weight, IF can certainly help with that. But more importantly, IF has all of the other amazing health benefits mentioned above (and here). And after writing a book on cancer prevention, I even more firmly believe that taking breaks from eating is important for disease prevention and cellular detoxification.
So, how do I implement intermittent fasting now without depriving myself and triggering anxiety? It's easy. I don't do it every day. I don't even do it every week. I fast when I'm feeling strong, motivated, and well-rested. I do NOT fast when I'm stressed, tired, or hormonal. The result is that I'm able to maintain a perfectly healthy weight despite not exercising much, and I have energy to get me through the day. My body just regulates itself effortlessly.
Most weeks, I may implement IF three or four days a week ... and again, that's because I'm feeling pretty good these days. I typically stop eating around 9:00 PM. I like to have a little snack after the boys go to bed (or when they're having an evening snack). Then I don't eat again until around 11:00 AM or noon the next day. So that's about a 14-15 hour fast.
I also do not often fast for longer than 14 hours. When I've tried to do a 16:8 fast, I find that my blood sugar drops too low. I get a little shaky. But at the 14 hour mark, I'm still feeling great. In general, women may have a more difficult time fasting for longer than 14 hours. This has to do with hormonal fluctuations and cortisol levels.
Another tip is that I usually try to fast on non-consecutive days. This allows me to replenish nutrients and glycogen stores every other day. This works well for me.
There are lots of reasons to try intermittent fasting. If you have extra weight to lose, if you have an autoimmune condition, are trying to prevent disease and illness, or want to improve mental clarity. The list goes on and on.
If you're interested in learning more about the specific well-researched benefits of IF as well as the "how to's," please check out my article "How Intermittent Fasting Benefits Your Health and Assists With Permanent Weight Loss." There are also some contraindications to IF that I discuss in the article. You can read it and make a decision whether or not it's right for you. Let me know what you think!
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