Intermittent Fasting: Your Break from Calorie Counting

What seemed to be the latest weight loss fad a few years ago may actually be a formula for weight loss success for some. For others, including Coldplay's Chris Martin, it's a way to become more appreciative and aware of food. What is this "fad-turned-fact" you ask? Intermittent fasting.
 
I'll be the first to admit that I was a skeptic when I first read the dieting steps used with intermittent fasting (IF). How could a weight loss diet be successful when it combines several "feasting days" where food is consumed abundantly, along with "fasting days" where calories are severely restricted? That's right: Fasting days contain only 500-600 calories. I was sure this eating pattern would bring about excessive hunger, resulting binge eating when food was finally permitted. I feared that those with more intense workout routines would end up feeling light-headed, dizzy and fatigued. I wanted to scream, "Come on, people, just stick to your calorie counting plan!"
 
Yet, despite my concerns, people regularly express the need for a break from the humdrum and mundane calorie-counting world. I wondered, "Could intermittent fasting be the break that lowers your weight?"
 
What Is IF?
A variety of IF programs exist, including those in which individuals consume calorie-producing foods and beverages for just four to six hours each day and other that include two days of very low calorie consumption alternating with five days of "normal eating." Other IF plans require individuals to eat just one meal every other day, which contains about 30 percent of their typical daily calorie intake. 

Several studies now compare the weight loss results of an IF eating plan to a more traditional calorie restriction (CR) diet plan. Most of these studies used an IF program of two to three days of low, 500 to 600 calorie intake, alternating with four to five days of normal eating. In the studies, similar weight loss results were reported with both IF and CR eating plans showing both to be equally effective in decreasing body weight and body fat.
 

How IF Works

With only two to three days a week of consuming fewer calories, some find it to be an easier plan to follow. As a result, the caloric intake stays low and weight loss increases. There is also the possibility that the continued daily caloric restriction of many traditional weight loss plans may actually slow metabolism. Eating normally most days of the week, combined with two or three days of fasting may be more effective at keeping the metabolic rate consistent.
 
Lastly, glucose is available in the blood and glycogen stores are filled in the muscles and liver in a traditional weight loss plan, thus the body relies less on stored fat.  However, on fasting days when glucose is not as readily available, the body turns more quickly to fat as a fuel source.
 

What Science Doesn't Say

While there is preliminary research showing that intermittent fasting can be a reliable plan for weight loss, it is important not to get caught up in all the other claims being touted. Magazines, books, celebrities, chefs, documentaries and some doctors are reporting all sorts of miraculous cures as a result of IF.  You'll see reports of stimulating fat burning, boosted metabolism and increased energy, but it's all just slick marketing. Weight loss is weight loss—with IF, you are primarily just cutting out excessive calorie intake. You'll also hear claims regarding IF and longevity, cancer cures and dementia treatment. While preliminary research is occurring in these other areas, we are far from having enough research evidence to make medical treatment recommendations.
 

Is IF for You?

First, establish if IF is not for you. Medical conditions such as diabetes require a more equal distribution of food intake or use certain medications that require specific food intake patterns. Furthermore, if you are involved in an intense athletic training program, are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the future or you have or are recovering from an eating disorder, IF likely is not the eating plan for you. Consider making a quick call to your doctor or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to get the green light before starting an eating program.
 
If your current calorie-counting plan works for you, keep on keeping on. If, based on your physically demanding job or lifestyle, you know that there is no way you could survive on 500 calorie intake days, you are probably right. You know your body best, so follow your gut.
 
However, if you are thinking that IF might work for you and your goals and you're tired of counting every calorie, every day, this might just be the break you need.
 

IF, The Smart Way

If you want to try an IF program, then fast wisely. First, you need to know your Sparkpeople weight-loss calorie range and weight-maintenance calorie amount. For example, let's assume that you lose one pound of weight each week on a 1,500 calories-per-day plan, and you maintain your weight on 2,000 calories per day.
 
Set the calorie amount for your two days of lower-calorie fasting by using about 25 percent of your maintenance calorie amount for your fasting days. If that 2,000 calories per day maintains your weight, aim for 500 calories. The amount that is often suggested is 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men. Very light meals, three to four times a day will bring you to this calorie amount. The chart below includes a few light meal ideas.
 
Remember to use water and zero-calorie beverages to meet your hydration needs, and consider taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement.
 
Examples of 150-calorie meals for fasting days  (pick 3-4 daily)
1 cup skim milk and 1 small piece of fruit
6 ounces light yogurt and 1 cup berries
½ cup cooked oatmeal and ½ cup canned peaches
Omelet made with 2 egg whites, 1 slice lowfat  cheese, and  2 cups sautéed non-starchy veggies
½ cup fat free cottage cheese and ½ cup pineapple
1 cup vegetable or minestrone soup, and 1 piece of fruit
3 cups leafy green salad, topped with 3 ounces canned tuna and 1 T. low-calorie dressing
3 cups leafy green salad, topped with 3 ounces deli turkey breast and 1 T. low-calorie dressing
3 ounces baked tilapia and  1 cup roasted carrots and broccoli
3 ounces grilled skinless chicken breast and 1 cup sautéed summer squash and zucchini
3 ounces roasted pork tenderloin and 1 cup tomatoes, cucumbers and bell pepper strips
 
It's important that you change the way you think about your five "normal" days of eating. Rather than "feasting days," think of the five days as "feeding days." Focus on using your allotted 1,800 to 1,900 calories to give your body the lean meat and vegetable protein foods, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains it needs.
 
Not having to meticulously count calories is one of the main benefits of an IF eating plan, but you still have to maintain an overall healthy, balanced eating plan.
 

Monitor Your Progress

Trial your IF program for two to three weeks. Monitor how you are feeling and your weekly weight loss.  Tweak your program along the way so that you continue with your calorie deficit without feeling dizzy, light-headed or fatigued. If you continue to struggle with these symptoms, face the facts that IF is not for everyone.
 
As you continue with your IF plan, decide if this is a long-term eating style or one you use only for short time periods to add variety and flexibility to your plan. Ask yourself if IF is helping you to be more successful in achieving your weight-loss goals and gauge whether or not you feel more or less deprived when using an IF plan. No matter what plan you choose, continue to be aware of all food choices and mindfully eat your meals and snacks.
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Member Comments

thanks. Report
Thank you Becky Hand for keeping us informed and sharing your thoughts on the subject. Report
LADY_KILDRAGON
I've been doing IF for about 4 months now and I've lost around 55 lbs with about 100 lbs to go. I'm doing 18/6 hour fasting and it works great for me since I work the midnight shift. I can eat a meal with my family and eat snacks (usually fruit) until I go to work. Great way to save money and clean fewer dishes! My A1C has dropped a 1 full point to 6.3 and the doctor wants to see me again in 3 months so that I can possibly get off of my T2D medication. It was only the first 2 or 3 days that were the most difficult for my body getting used to the change. I'm currently reading Dr. Fung's book "The Obesity Code" and I've bought his 2nd book, "The Diabetes Code". Report
Thanks for the information, Becky! I have used IF very carefully for the past 10 weeks, and am thrilled with the results. My son and DIL are both medical Drs and are interested in how my glucose levels are coming back into a very healthy range (115-129) again. I have T2D. Report
Fasting has been around for years, and there are different types of fasts. However, even with the smaller meals you still must measure or count those few calories. Informative article! Report
There is more research all the time coming out about the benefits of fasting. Makes sense to me to stop feeding your body constantly so it can actually use what you fed it a couple hours ago. Extended fast gives the body a chance to do some housecleaning without dealing with new food to process. It's not a gimmick or fad and certainly not for everyone. I've adopted the 16/8 as a way of eating, it's freeing in a way, you can leave the house and not worry about having snacks to get you through the day. Skip lunch? Really? Oh yeah, easily. :) Report
I also like the information at https://www.homec
uresthatwork.
com/21144/int
ermittent-fas
ting-reverses-diabetes/. Report
I am always amused at how the diet industry jumps on to trends, and totally distorts the meanings of words in order to make an old idea seem new and trendy... "Fasting" means NO food - NO calories --- not LESS calories. "NOT counting calories" means just that --- it does NOT mean "having a larger calorie range on most days and a lower range on others". Honestly, this approach was better described in the last rendition as "calorie cycling" and the results don't change just because people want to redefine words. The "16/8" or whatever version is just a rewording of the "don't eat after whatever o'clock", with at most a slightly smaller window in order to fit in your meals.

Realistically, for many people the combination of calorie cycling and intuitive eating, along with a focus on nutrient-rich foods, can be a very healthy and sustainable means of controlling their weight without destroying their metabolism. It is definitely an approach that is worth experimenting with, even just for the opportunity to become more in tune with our natural hunger and satiety signals.

I just wish that the diet industry would start to consult a dictionary before announcing their "latest and greatest"... Report
Used to fast as part of my religion but have given it up as am diabetic but would appreciate more information on it Report
While I don't fast as part of a diet program, I have skipped meals mostly because I was not hungry. I also fast as part of my religious obligations. Report
I have bought Dr. Jason Fung’s book for my doctor. I’m very hopeful about how IF can help correct insulin resistance. Ive been surprised how easy it is to intentionally not eat for 12-16 hours. I found this method through the fitness community and it’s nice to see Spark catch up. I haven’t seen this offered in the medical community so it’s nice to see that some have had that support. Report
THANKS Report
My obese but hard-working, physically-fit husband has been doing intermittent fasting for several months now, on the advice of his physician, who also battles her weight. IF works for him. He is losing weight slowly and steadily. I read the books and started IF using the 16/8 schedule. It was much more difficult for me than my husband (who is fine with eating one meal a day - how, I don't know!). I had to work up to the 16 hour fast, where I don't eat until it's lunchtime at work, because I ate like a hobbit, with first breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, brunch, tea time and so on. I knew I could do it, however, because on weekends when I was busy out in the barn from dawn to late morning, I had no problem not eating! I've been successful with 16/8 for about 4 weeks now, other than a couple of days when I was just plain hungry in the morning! I find those days are ONLY if I have eaten refined carbs the day before. If I stick with high fat / low REFINED carbs and the 16/8, I can lose 1-2 lbs/week. My advice would be - don't blow this theory off! Look at the science behind it and consult your physician! Report
Besides being diabetic this would not be for me. I make one small change like switching to skim milk and then wait until I am used to doing that before I make the next change. Report


 

About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.