Road-testing intermittent fasting

Posted on Posted in Legit or Bullshit?, Nutrition

You’ve probably heard about intermittent fasting. It’s an eating regime where you limit your kilojoule intake on a few days non-consecutive days a week. (Typically, on a fasting day a woman would aim to consume no more than 2100 kj and a man 2500kj.)

There are many different variations of intermittent fasting (IF), but I tested the 5:2 diet. This meant I fasted two days of the week, Tuesday and Thursday, and ate normally for five.

Why do it?

5:2 advocates say you’ll lose weight, stave off disease and even live longer. Science says it can help you shed kilos, but there’s no solid evidence that it will prolong your life or help prevent disease outside the knock-on effect that comes with losing weight, such as reducing your risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol, and preventing type II diabetes.

What inspired me to do it?

I did some research on intermittent fasting for a story I wrote for ABC Health & Wellbeing Online and a researcher I spoke to said fasting has unexpected psychological benefits, such as reducing our reliance on food in everyday life. She said being aware of how little we actually need to eat takes a weight off you, physically and mentally. It also frees up some much-needed time in your day to do other things … like going for a walk, catching up friends or even doing your tax return.

While I don’t need anymore excuses to avoid doing my tax, I was really interested in the notion that we use food as a crutch. When I’m happy I eat, when I’m stressed I eat, when I’m bored I eat, when I’m busy at work I eat. You get the picture.

So I was curious to see just how legitimate my hunger pangs are. Being a personal trainer, eating nutritious food comes naturally to me, so quality isn’t my issue – it’s quantity. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to make it past morning tea.

My fasting day?

In the evenings, my meal preparation for the next day is a bit of a process. I prepare and pack my breakfast, snacks and lunch for the next day at work. However on Monday and Wednesday nights for two weeks I didn’t have to worry about that. All I needed to do was whip up my chocolate meal replacement shakes for the day and put them in the fridge. So that left me with half an hour or so in the evenings to come up with other excuses to avoid doing my tax return.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with experts, I decided to use meal replacement shakes on fasting days. (Not everyone does this, and you can make up your kilojoules with food, just remember to stay below the kj limit.) I’ve never been a fan of diet shakes, but I have to admit, I felt a bit like a rebel having chocolate for breakfast instead of eggs.

In terms of the nuts and bolts, there’s really not much to it. Drink your shakes – that’s all, folks. No risk of overthinking it or getting it wrong. If I were going to stick to an IF regime for the longer term, I would do it with real food.

What were the challenges?

It’s also hard to feel satisfied with a cup of chocolate-flavoured chemicals when your colleague sits next to you eating pulled pork. I was also seriously hungry a few of the days, especially after I had trained. Whenever I do a weights session I’m starving an hour later and usually eat a big breakfast of eggs, vegies and toast. The shakes just didn’t cut it for me then.

Socially it’s hard, too. While Tuesday and Thursday are generally boring school nights for me, Murphy’s Law says that during this experiment I had all the A-list invitations. One night I broke and drank two glasses of red wine, which of course went straight to my head.

What were the benefits?

It did make me realise I don’t need to eat as much food as I do. I felt really proud of myself for making it through my fasting days. On non-fasting, or “feeding” days, I feel like I actually ate less than I usually do (although this might have been my imagination because my grocery bill was still the same). And the researcher was right – it does free up time in your day to do other things. (But I still haven’t done my tax return.)

Thumbs up or down

Thumbs up. I’m going to give it another try, although this time I’ll use real food. There are plenty of healthy and free 5:2 inspired recipes online so you aren’t limited to meal-replacement shakes.

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