Like many people out there, I’ve always had a few pounds to shed and post pandemic, a few became a lot. In the past I’ve tried many different diets but the only one that was ever effective was the “I literally can’t afford food” diet, which I certainly don’t recommend.
Diets are a lot like jeans – there is no “one size fits all”. Sure, the overall rule stands – a calorie deficit equals you lose weight. But the nitty gritty is a lot more complicated and there is a reason why some diets work like a charm for some people and are completely ineffective for others.
Obviously, this goes without saying – I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, I’m merely speaking from my own personal experience and you should definitely speak to one of the above before making any drastic changes to your diet. But this is actually more than just a disclaimer.
Our bodies are pretty complex machines and there are a lot of invisible processes at work that have a direct impact on our weight gain or loss. Hormones have a direct effect on our metabolism and energy levels, so if you’ve been having issues with weight loss that seem to make no sense – and trust me, I’ve been there – it’s super important to get yourself checked. It could be a thyroid issue, a nutrient absorption issue or something like PCOS. Bottom line is, you might spend a lot of time eating miserable foods and working out a lot, for next to no improvement. This is not only counterproductive, but it’ll make you super unhappy and can lead to relapses in bad behaviour. If you don’t fix your insides, you won’t see any improvement on your outsides! You may require some medication, or supplements or a very particular diet plan.
I personally love food. LOVE it. I love carbs, I love cheese, I love fruit, I love cocktails and I definitely love seconds of all of the above. So needless to say, diets are tough for me, but I’ve found one approach that not only is proven to be very good for you (maybe not for years on end, but certainly for a while), but it also suits my all-or-nothing personality type. Moderation is not my forte and just the prospect of eating things I find gross because they’re good for me makes me want to stick my head in a bowl of cookie dough and cry. I prefer to adopt Ratatouille’s Anton Ego approach to food – if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow. Yes, I would much rather eat nothing than eat disappointment. No amount of money or promises I’ll look like Halle Berry will convince me to eat cauliflower. That poison is not worthy of becoming my poop.
Enter intermittent fasting. A lot of people instantly recoil at the thought of going hungry for hours and hours at a time. I’m here to tell you that it’s all a matter of getting used to it. The first couple of weeks are tough, yes, but eventually, it becomes a matter of habit. And the best part is that with intermittent fasting, you can eat normally during the interval that you do eat. Obviously, that’s not to say, celebrate the end of your fast with 2 pizzas and a litre of coke, but you don’t need to have a measly calorie counting meal that’ll have you going to bed with a growly tummy.
There are different types of intermittent fasting and you’ve probably heard of some of them. 16-8, 5-2, these things ringing a bell? Put simply, with 16-8, you don’t eat for 16 hours of the day and eat normally for 8 hours. With 5-2, you eat normally for 5 days of the week and only consume 500 calories (for women) or 600 calories (for men) for two days of the week. I’m personally not a fan of that one, because those two days would always be… painful. And like I said, I’d rather eat nothing than eat a sad salad or tease myself with 500 calories and then groan for the rest of the day. Which brings me to the 24 hours fast. And I can almost hear you saying – so 500 calories a day you hate, but not eating at all is better? Well, contradictory though it may sound, yes. What I’ve opted for of late is doing 16-8 on most days and trying to do 1 or 2 days a week with a 24-hr fast. I still try to eat healthy during my eating windows, but if I have an occasional takeaway or a grilled cheese, I don’t have to feel too guilty about it.
So here’s how to get through those tough fasting periods, especially if you’re new to it. Bear in mind, these are not necessarily health professional bits of advice, this is just what works for me:
Poppy Rule 1. Hydration!
You may or may not have heard that when you get those first pangs of hunger, that’s not actually hunger. That’s your body telling you it’s thirsty, but you misinterpret it as hunger. Especially when doing a 24-hr fast, I make sure to have a cafetiere by my side at all times and drink a LOT. If regular water is too dull, and even for me it can be, I make myself warm water with lemon or herbal teas. Technically, the lemon does have some calories in it, but the amount is so minimal that it doesn’t affect your fast much. If you do want to be super strict, then fresh mint tea is a great choice. I don’t drink caffeine anymore but you can have tea and coffee, as long as you drink them black and without sugar or sweetener.
Poppy Rule 2. Keep busy.
Think about when you’re most likely to snack? When you’re watching a movie, when you’re bored, when you’re depressed. I find down time to be the most difficult time to stick to a fast, so I avoid doing my 24 hr fasts on weekends. When you’re busy with work or studies or life admin, the hours of the day fly by and you will have reached your eating window before you even know it. When you’re chilling at home and don’t have any plans, it’s all too easy to reach for the crisps or chocolates. Speaking of plans, Friday and Saturday nights are the days you’re most likely to be going out – ie takeaways, meals out, dinner parties or drinks – fasting with company is nigh on impossible, so try to plan your fasting windows around your social engagements.
Poppy Rule 3. Treat yourself!
Yes, you read that right. Since the rules state that you can eat normally when you DO it, then eat normally. If you want to have a bowl of pasta after your 24hr fast, then have the bowl of pasta (just maybe throw some fresh veggies in there too). I find it a lot easier to get through a fast knowing there’s a satisfying meal at the end of it, so you know those plans we mentioned? If you know you’re going out for dinner and drinks with friends on Friday night, then do your 24 hour fast from Thursday – that way, you’ll have “been good” in the run up to that meal and you actually won’t feel as stodgy the next day, having had your indulgent treat. Obviously, try to be as healthy as you can, but whereas a calorie or sugar restrictive diet might say – no dessert EVER, if you’re doing 16-8, go ahead and have a chocolate eclair for dessert. Don’t eat the whole box, obviously, but you can have one, and it’s ok! Also, be sure to eat enough in the run up to a 24 hour fast. I once made the mistake of getting a bit confused with all my timings, and thinking I was being very good, I only had a salad and lean meat lunch … and that’s all I ate that day, before starting a 24 hours fast – and that fast was hideous. Make sure to eat a balanced but filling meal before a fast, or you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Poppy Rule 4. Sleeeeeeeep.
Sleep is your best friend when it comes to intermittent fasting, because the hours you are asleep count towards your fast. Let’s say you had dinner at 7.30pm on one day. 16 hours later is 11.30am, which really isn’t that bad. If you do this Friday to Saturday, then have a nice long lie on Saturday morning and get up just in time for brunch. If you’re doing a 24 hr fast, go ahead and take an afternoon nap! Drink lots of fluids in the morning and lunchtime, lie down for a nap, then by the time you wake up, it’ll be time to start cooking dinner. If you have a lot of things to do, or kids, and napping isn’t possible, then stick to rule 2 – keep busy! If it’s possible, go to bed earlier instead.
Poppy rule 5. It’s all in your head.
Try not to think of it as 24 hours of hunger. Think of it as meal-to-meal. I’m personally a night owl and I almost never eat breakfast, but pick an interval that works best with your daily routine. Breakfast to breakfast, lunch to lunch, or dinner to dinner. I personally prefer dinner to dinner, especially if I know I’ll be having an indulgent one. Once you’ve done this a few times, you do get used to it – I promise! It’s not just something I say to pacify you and make it seem like it becomes a piece of cake. Mmm cake. It’s still a challenge and it can be very tough, especially if you’re stressed or upset or unwell. Intermittent fasting is still a diet, like it or not. But all you have to do is tough it out a couple of times to see that you CAN do it, and it’s really not as painful as you feared it might be. Even skipping one meal a day can make a big difference, so just give it a try!
Poppy rule 6. Tell people you’re fasting!
The hardest thing about sticking to a diet is being surrounded with people that don’t. If you live with someone that can get away with shovelling food like a tractor or go out with people that drink wine by the gallon and want dessert, it can be very hard to be strict with yourself. But it’s all the more difficult if you suffer in silence. Tell people in advance what your dietary restrictions are – unless your friends are being selfish jerks, they’ll understand and they won’t make things worse for you. Agree to meet up later, when your fast is over, agree to have some healthy snacks and no high-calorie booze. Agree not to be out past a certain hour. Whatever it is you need to do, but make sure the company you keep is sensitive to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Of course we all want to look like sexy celebrities, but fitting into skinny jeans is just a happy by-product of weight loss. You might need to do it for important health reasons and if that’s the case, people will be far less inclined to “tempt” you if they know that – so don’t be embarrassed and explain why you need to lose the weight. Heck, if your friends see results and how much better you feel, they might even get motivated to join you.
Poppy rule 7. Time your exercise carefully.
Obviously, diet alone isn’t enough. Exercise is important whether you’re trying to lose weight or not. It’s good to get the blood pumping, get some fresh air, and if you need a shallow reason – skinny legs can still be cellulite-y and they’ll look worse than thighs twice as big that are nice and toned. Exhibit A – Beyonce. Plus, exercise improves the quality of your sleep, which is very important for weight loss and general well being anyway. BUT – you can’t exercise as well on an empty tank. I try my best to fit in my exercise during the periods I am allowed to eat, or shortly after. I once did my exercise in the final third of my 24 hr fast and felt genuinely ill in the process and the final few hours’ wait for my food was excruciating. Do your exercise during your 8 hr window, or a little bit after your post fast meal (of course, don’t go on the treadmill 5 mins after eating dinner!). Also, use mild exercise to your advantage. The house is full of temptations so the best thing to do is just get away from it. Maybe even leave your wallet at home, lest your walk takes you past a bakery. I personally love walking, it’s therapeutic, it’s good exercise but it won’t give you cardiac arrest. Go for a nice long walk away from the fridge and then you can look forward to the walk back, when you’re reunited. Hopefully in time for your fast to finish!
So there you have it, 7 simple rules to get you through your intermittent fast. As I said, this style of dieting is not for everyone, but I must say that so far I thoroughly enjoy it. I must make more of an effort to add more cardiovascular exercise to this regimen, but on the whole, I feel less bloated, I sleep much better and I have started to notice those pounds falling off bit by bit. Give it a try, and if it’s not for you, at least you will have given yourself a nice detox for a day or two.