Monday, February 5, 2018

Monday Matters: Why I Love Intermittent Fasting

One of my goals for this first quarter of 2018 was to get back into my practice of intermittent fasting, and as such, it has come up in several conversations recently, a few of which ended up going something like this:
Person: "OMG, you're fasting? But why? Don't you know how bad that is?"Me: "Actually, it's not. There are a lot of research-supported benefits of several different fasting styles."Person: "Yeah but ... you're like, starving yourself. That's not the best way to lose weight - you're basically anorexic."Me: "LOL. I'm not starving - or anorexic. I still literally eat every single day; I just eat in measured windows of time that allow for fasting in between. And it's not about weight, it's about health."Person: "...."
When I had the third conversation in a row on this topic, I decided to write about it. Apparently there are still lots of misconceptions about what fasting is good for, how to do it properly, and what it does for your body - and I'd love to break down some of the facts by talking about my own personal fasting journey:


When I first started using this practice as a regular way of eating I did do it partly as a weight loss effort, but mostly I did it because since I was very overweight at the time, I had recently been told I was "insulin resistant" - which is sort of a nice way of saying "pre-pre-diabetic." Around that same time, I read that intermittent fasting was thought to be a great way to improve insulin sensitivity - and that it was therefore suspected as a great way to fight the development of type two diabetes.

NOTE: Diabetes runs in my family - and it's probably not a coincidence that there isn't even one skinny little donut-hater among us. As far as I know, we don't have any vegans either.

So yes, I did want to lose some weight (because duh, it's another great way to postpone and/or fight off the development of type 2 diabetes), but what I really wanted was to be healthier in general whether I ended up being fat or not. Because the truth is, there are a lot of worse things to be. Still, in those days ... Well, I truly did care about my health more than my weight, I still cared about my weight enough to try something as drastic as fasting to improve my health.

So I did a bunch of online research and started with just one 16 hour water-only fast - which I loved enough to later try a 24 hour water-only fast. I did a few more in subsequent weeks (usually about one every 10-14 days), completed a few successful 48 hour water-only fasts as well, and then started to imagine going longer and longer - not because I was losing weight while fasting (because I truly don't know if I was or not, since I'm not really a frequent-weighing kind of girl), but because I had started to notice other benefits.

I fell in love with the benefits of fasting in my life - but long-term use of longer fasts really isn't good for you (risk of malnutrition, etc.) - and while I wanted to keep seeing the benefits of fasting, I also wanted my fasting dietary plan to be sustainable when applied to my actual lifestyle, so I went back to researching different methods of fasting.


ENTER INTERMITTENT FASTING
In researching the various intermittent fasting programs, I started to learn more and more about the science behind the benefits of fasting and how to apply the various fasting principles to my daily life. I looked into the Stop-Eat-Stop, the Warrior Diet, and several other plans - not only because these plans are often touted as weight loss plans, but more importantly because ... well, the truth is, I wanted to keep getting the benefits of fasting without having to put in loads of effort or disrupt the lifestyle of my family.

These days, I don't care all that much about being a bigger woman. I'm no longer even remotely ashamed to be living in a bigger body, and when these curves are properly dressed, they happen to look mighty fine. But back then, I wanted to be thinner almost as much as I wanted to be healthy, and since intermittent fasting promised both of these goals could be possible, I embarked on a new journey.

In the years since, my personal fasting habits have changed and adjusted to fit my life as a mother, my life as a writer, and now my routine as a single mom. I need my personal needs and schedules to be flexible because I'm the only person my kids have to count on on a daily basis - I simply don't have time for a complicated or restrictive diet plan, regardless of the motive behind it.

Currently, my fasting schedule is pretty simple - I try to complete a 16 hour water-only fast three times a week, with my week starting on Sundays and each fast lasting from 8pm one night to 2pm the following afternoon.


BUT WHAT IF YOU GET HUNGRY?
DON'T YOU GET HUNGRY???
Honestly, yes. Some days, fasting is easy because I'm not that hungry during those hours anyway on average. But other days I'm hungry pretty much every second of the day because I'm a human and it's normal for appetites to fluctuate. That's why during a fast, I allow myself about 250 calories worth of "cheating" - so long as these calories are taken in no more than 50-calorie-per-hour increments.

The 50-calorie thing is a bit controversial among the fasting community, but it works for me so I use it as a crutch on the days when it's needed - mostly, this just means I can have my coffee with a splash of creamer when I don't want it black.

Or if I'm really hungry that day, it means I can eat any number of possible 50-calorie snacks without guilt over breaking my fasting plan. I've even created a few 50-calorie recipes, my favorite of which is actually a huge salad that's filling, healthy, and delicious while being easy to make and still coming in at just under 50 calories: a cup of raw spinach, four cauliflower florets, a cup of cucumber slices, and a half-cup of raw diced summer squash, dressed with the juice of half a lemon, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and maybe a dash of garlic. I have a similar recipe for a fruit salad which goes deliciously with my morning cup of black coffee.

The idea, for me, at least, is that when I can, I complete my 16-hour fast three times a week, with just water, black coffee, or other zero-calories drinks during the fasting hours that I'm awake. But as I mentioned before, I wanted to follow the concept of the fasting diet for the health benefits without allowing it to be so strict I couldn't keep up with it.

That being said, I still don't really know if my fasting efforts have added up to any weight loss this quarter - and I mostly don't care. What I have noticed is that when I follow my plan, I have:

1. More Time.
In a lot of ways, fasting gives me a mental break from all the things food generally requires me to worry about. Is this healthy food? Do I already have all the stuff for this recipe - and if not, how expensive is this to make? How many people will it feed? Will my family like it? How long does it take to prep? How long to cook? How labor-intensive is it? If I'm having THIS for breakfast ... then what will I have for lunch? And what about dinner? You'd be surprised how much a person can get done in a few hours when food is not part of the equation.

For me personally, this means more writing that's better quality, more focused time to spend using social media to interact with my readers, more quality time spent with my kids, more time to read and play and just ... be me.

2. Better Sleep.
When I'm fasting for longer periods of time I tend to sleep better - so the more regularly I'm fasting, the more regularly I sleep better, and I don't know if this means better quality sleep specifically but I do know that a larger quantity of sleep generally means a better chance of stumbling upon a better quality of sleep even if it is pretty much by accident. That being said, I do tend to wake up feeling rested more often, and the feeling of being rested tends to last longer in general - so instead of being up at 6 and already tired again by 10, I might be up at 6 but make it until closer to 2 before the afternoon fog begins to roll in.

Personally, I also tend to fall asleep faster for the most part - and this bleeds into other things such as my moods, how I feel in general, my ability to focus, etc. Being rested well changes my quality of life in huge ways (which also tends to have a strong positive impact on my mental health) - and if keeping a slightly emptier belly now and then is the price of that, I'll pay it gladly.

3. Better Health.
This might be because I'm sleeping better, which gives my body more time to heal. It might be because giving my digestive system time to rest during fasting periods helps keep it from being so overworked, leading to a more efficient fuel using process.

Or maybe it's because fasting for longer periods awakens certain hormonal systems and processes in the body, leading to improved insulin sensitivity, increased human growth hormone production, increased ability to heal and function at the cellular level, reduction in the toxic build-up of free radicals in the system, healthier levels of cholesterol, and better blood pressure - among other things. And while these aren't things you can see in the mirror, they are things which will have a noticeable impact over time; additionally, they're proof you can look for in the blood counts at your next annual well check.

4. Less Pain.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to decrease systemic inflammation, which leads to decreased overall pain for people living with chronic stress tension, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and other similar ailments. This is in general probably due to the previously mentioned better health and increased sleep, but it bears mentioning on its own simply for it's high value.

For people living with mental health issues leading to chronic stress tension and other complaints, this can be beneficial as well - and it has made a huge difference for me in stress-related neck/shoulder pain as well as chronic joint inflammation pains as well.


In addition to all these things ...
I've also noticed improvements in my skin and hair, focus, concentration, and hydration levels. I tend to drink my water a lot more easily now, partly because not chewing all day means I have a lot of time for drinking water, and partly because drinking so much water helps stave off hunger until it's time to break my fast. And I guess I'll be able to tell you more about whether I lose weight or not after the end of this quarter - I've got a doctor's appointment to recheck my bloodwork in April.


Have you ever tried any fasting programs in the past, and if so, what were your motives and goals? Did the fasting work for you, and if it did, are you still using it? If you didn't like it or it didn't work, why not - and what did you switch to? Leave a comment below - I'd love to hear from you!

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