What they don't tell you about Intermittent Fasting
Myth or fact: You shouldn’t eat after 7pm… or 6pm or 8pm, or whatever time some random stranger says.
And one that’s absolutely horrendous advice.
We’ve heard this kind of thing for years and for years, women everywhere have been scared to eat in the evening and have been trying their best to resist the temptation to do so -- mostly unsuccessfully, I must point out.
First this horrible advice seems to have started as a means of weight management. We were told that was the key to not gaining weight, or to losing weight.
Yet, despite our best efforts to not eat after whatever time, we kept gaining weight… or at least not losing.
Then it got switched to supposedly being the healthy thing to do… because intermittent fasting.
And “many people say IF is really healthy”.
Yet despite the fact that this has been one of the more popular diet fads in recent years, we don’t see huge portions of the population getting much healthier or able to make healthy eating habits stick for any length of time.
One of the more common justifications for intermittent fasting that annoys me no end is something along the lines of this idea that it’s a good thing to do because “our digestive systems need a break”.
It’s framed as a loving way to help support our bodies in doing their work.
But I call bullshit on that framing for four main reasons.
First, in no way shape or form is it loving or kind to withhold food from your body if it’s telling you it’s hungry and in order to follow the rules of IF, inevitably, that’s going to happen at some point.
Second, notice that nobody ever says that about our lungs. Or our hearts. Can you imagine …”you should stop your heart for 14 hours per day to give it a break”.
Third, our bodies already have a handy dandy little built in process for getting their systems the rest that they need… it’s called sleep.
If we’re not sleeping enough to give them as much rest as they need that’s not a “don’t allow yourself to eat because it’s not the right time of day” problem, that’s a sleep problem.
Fourth, if our digestive systems actually do need a break, they’ll tell us by not sending us hunger signals and if we actually want to support our bodies, we’ll listen to them, not scientists in a lab who have never even met us and can’t even agree anyway.
But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that it’s true. Let’s pretend that our digestive systems geniunely function better and that it’s healthier to give our bodies many hours of a “break” from digesting food for 12, or 14, or 16 hours (who can tell the right amount you’re supposed to go hungry for because nobody can even agree) per day.
Here’s the thing… our bodies know when they need food and when they don’t.
And they have the ability to communicate that with us.
If they want to go 12, 14 or 16 hours without eating, we simply won't be hungry.
In fact, I often go many hours without eating now.
Not because intermittent fasting or becuase someone else told me I shouldn’t eat at certain times or because weight loss or anything else.
It happens because I’m connected to what my body wants and needs and I don't feed it when it doesn't want to eat (at least not anymore, I don't. I used to, all the time).
Somedays now that means I eat at 2 or 3pm in the afternoon and then I’m not hungry again until the next morning.
Somedays that means I eat at 7:30pm and I’m not hungry again until noon the next day.
On the other hand, some days I find myself hungry before bed, again first thing in the morning and at regular intervals through the day.
Somedays I only want a couple larger meals, other days I'm more drawn to smaller amounts of food more frequently.
The point is, as it is for everyone, my needs change day to day based on a ton of different factors and my body is more than willing and capable of communicating with me and telling me exactly what those needs are every day.
Suggesting that we should ignore our own body’s communication in lieu of following other people’s rules is one of the unhealthiest messages we could ever promote.
It’s important to point out that there are many reasons why people tend to eat and physical hunger may even rarely be one of them which is where this whole listen to your body message may feel like it falls apart but that’s not the case.
If you’re not listening to your body and often find yourself eating or overeating when you’re not hungry, that’s a whole nother conversation and something I would be happy to help you with if you want to actually start helping to support your body.
But trying to force yourself to not eat during certain times just because someone else says so is a terrible way to try to solve that problem because it causes so many other issues.
Because even if it were true that it’s healthier to not eat for many hours per day, “intermittent fasting” …that is, purposefully withholding food for certain times per day or not allowing yourself to eat during certain time frames, is still not health promoting.
Beyond the ways that it can be physically unhealthy, like cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, cause sleep disruptions, and even potentially dehydration and muscle loss, …like every other diet, it’s mentally and emotionally unhealthy.
Which brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with it… the damage it can do to mental and emotional health, not to mention the relationships we have with ourselves, our bodies and food.
Because it’s a recipe for creating distrust in ourselves and our bodies, not to mention, overeating or binge eating behaviors.
It often causes cravings and all-consuming, obsessive thoughts about food - especially ones that you’re trying extra hard to avoid and may make you feel like crap, like foods that are high in carbs and sugar.
And those don’t go away when you stop trying to fast.
And it’s like a gateway drug to disordered eating and eating disorders.
Any eating practice that dictates forced restriction of food or food groups is extremely problematic and unhealthy.
IF goes one step farther by encouraging most food only be consumed in sometimes small amounts of time.
This teeters uncomfortably close to the restrict-binge cycles that are present in eating disorders like bulimia, which is why it say it’s like a gateway drug to eating disorders and binge eating.
Now scientists and proponents of IF claim that the benefits outweigh the risks.
But, mental health experts, who see the real life consequences every day, including the incidents of disordered eating and eating disordered eating, completely disagree.
As do I, because I’ve also seen the real life consequences of diets like intermittent fasting.
It leads to disordered eating, body image and body dysmorphic disorders; and intense anxiety and obsessions around food.
There’s no real research that proves there are any sustainable, long term health results and even in the short term, the unnecessary damage that’s done to mental and even potentially physical health make this a practice we need to stop promoting, especially under the guise of health.
I know, I know… there are tons of people who claim IF has changed their life. But how many of these people have been doing it consistently for a year or more? With NO “falling off track”? Very few.
And how many of these people are closet bulimics, hiding their eating disorder behind this supposedly “healthy” lifestyle change? A lot of them.
I lived in that world for years, I know what happens behind the scenes and I know how many unhealthy behaviors can be, and are, hidden behind these supposedly healthy diets.
Even if it’s true that there are potentially some health benefits, they're going to be negated by the increase in stress alone, never mind the overeating or binge eating that typically follows.
Denying your body food when it’s sending you cues that it’s hungry is punishing, cruel and not health promoting.
And whenever I talk about things like disordered eating, binge eating, food shame, etc those who have never lived with or struggled with those things are quick to dismiss them as not being worth considering because they feel like they don’t apply to them or surely they’re rare so they don’t warrant consideration. Right?
Save for a small percent of weak minded, individuals who have other issues or just don’t have enough discipline and we don’t have to worry about those people because it’s so healthy, they just need to try harder. Right?
But that could not be farther from the truth.
The women I work with, who struggle with these things are every woman. They’re strong. They’re normal, brilliant, accomplished, capable, disciplined, hard workers. They’re business owners, health care workers, health coaches. They’re in the military, in creative fields, mothers, grandmothers, executives, teachers.
They’re not the outliers, they’re the norm.
For almost 12 years I’ve seen the devastating effects that food rules like this have on the lives of these women first hand.
How can people ever expect to trust themselves in any area of their lives if they are constantly told by leaders and everyone else around them that they cannot even be trusted to make this most basic of human decisions for themselves?
They cannot. If you’re going through life unable to trust yourself to make this most basic of human decisions for yourself, that distrust is going to permeate and impact every other area of your life.
Bottom line: Humans have certain needs to stay alive and healthy and we’re born into bodies that are more invested in (and working harder to promote) our own individual health and well-being than anyone else on the planet.
And those bodies not only know what their needs are but also know how to communicate those needs to us so we need to relearn to listen to the wisdom of our own bodies.
We need to listen to what our bodies tell us they need--not create hard-and-fast rules surrounding eating (or exercise) habits, especially when those rules are based on what other people tell us.
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