I haven't always lived in the dietary world of prancing unicorns. And I still don't - alas! However, I definitely spent a substantial amount of time wandering through the neurotically draining Dietland - a veritable world of flashing neon signs, false promises, miserable commitments, and lackluster results. I do not regret my dietary escapes, lamentable though they may be, as they ultimately lead to the dietary/food equivalent of "the secret," as I finally realized calories and restriction are ultimately futile, and don't work for very logical reasons, once you assume the analyze the biological mechanism at play. Indeed, fat burning and lean vitality is actually easy once your team up with your body rather than scold it, and eat natural whole foods in timing patterns which align with our biology. Conscious food choices can truly free us from cravings, guilt, disease, and resentment. Without further adieu, here is the madness which ultimately, thankfully, lead me to where I am today.
MELANIE AVALON'S DIET HISTORY: A LAMENTABLE TALE OF MISERY, EXPERIENCE, AND ULTIMATE REVELATION
I first encountered the concept of “dieting” as an elementary youngster. It was a time motivated by grades and sleepovers, not yet tormented with woes of body image, scale numbers, and peer pressure. I was standing in the kitchen of our Sanibel Island summer condo, when my aunt informed my mother that my older cousin was “on a diet.” She said the words with a disapproving laugh, insinuating the choice was simply silly. But as this was a cousin I admired, the idea of being on a diet sounded so grown-up. I didn’t give it much thought beyond that, though it unknowingly etched an echo in my mind.
I soon would enter the “diet” universe - the cool thing to do in burgeoning adolescence. In middle school, I floundered in a casual world of perpetual weight loss desire. While never overweight by official BMI standards, I still eyed photoshopped celebrities with envy, and admired the chosen friends I’d identified as maintaining perfect bodies. (Emily*, I’m looking at you!) A vague sort of calorie counting and portion control defined my “efforts” of losing a pound or two. I saw 110 pounds as ideal, 112 pounds as tolerable, and 113 pounds as irrevocably unacceptable. Because obviously it works like that…
A far more sinister issue overshadowed my weight loss desires: my middle school years were plagued by acne. And I mean plagued. It was the bane of my existence. I flinched in the sunlight, wondering if those girls with flawless complexions appreciated such divine beauty. I loathed my “combination skin,” dreaming of what it would be like to not panic over the state of one’s foundation. I dreaded the inevitable bumps and redness demanding my never-ending desire for my next Proactiv® order. I cried when a younger cousin told me my face looked like a volcano, and when a school friend made a “helpful” suggestion to better cover my blemishes. I tried a myriad of topical treatments, and downed antibiotics prescribed for skin ailments. I now wholeheartedly regret the later - who knows what damage I did to my poor gut microbiome! But such is the topic of another book entirely.
Things got real Sophomore year of high school, when I began taking birth control and Accutane for acne. On the one hand, the drugs worked. Birth control made a dent, and Accutane eradicated the condition, transitioning my oily skin into dry skin, which I gladly welcomed. I was trying on dresses for the upcoming Valentine’s Sadie Hawkins dance when I noticed something else had changed as well. Though I hadn’t mustered the courage to invite my crush to the dance, I figured I’d find the perfect pink dress to make him jealous. In the Macy’s dressing room under a pile of rejected gowns, I realized - somewhere along the line - I had jumped up two sizes. While my newfound size was not lamentable by any means, it was nevertheless a marker of definite weight gain within a small period of time, and without any discernible dietary change. I also noticed I was becoming more bloated in general, likely related to the pills I’d been popping.
So things got #real.
Calorie counting became the consistent tool in my arsenal, with appetite suppression as the goal. I figured if I could just find that perfect low-calorie meal to keep hunger at bay, I could survive until my next low-calorie meal to keep hunger at bay. I fostered an unsatisfying crush on Lean Cuisine®. I secretly munched on calorie-controlled snack bars in class. I even took up skipping school lunches for a bit. (Foreshadowing!)
Motivation intensified when I was accepted to the early entrance program at USC in Los Angeles - a solid step in my entertainment industry goals. This also meant I had Junior year to get my act together, and lose those lingering pounds. A year of calorie-counting, hunger, and struggle later, I found myself at a self-accepted weight when entering those collegiate Californian doors.
Freshmen year at USC was a vibrant whirl of enthralling environments, new friends, and outstanding possibilities. It was also a time of food. So. Much. Food. Limitless buffets for every meal. Papers fueled by cakes and cookies. There was no better motivation to write just one more sentence, than making a pit stop at the resident snack shop for a giant Coke Zero and luscious blueberry muffin. Everyone knew the surefire way to draw a crowd to an extracurricular info session, was by posting fliers proclaiming Free Pizza! Even finals week was marked by 7 inspiring nights of free food, from Diddy Riese cookies to tacos. Texting your friends, “Wanna get some food?” became the equivalent to grade school’s, “Want to sleep over on Friday?”
So it comes as no surprise that I gained the Freshman 15. Granted, I hadn’t actively avoided it, figuring the constant storm of activity and biking to class on my pink beach cruiser would grant protection from any assaults in the weight department. And yet, as I nonchalantly stepped on the bathroom scale that spring break with my family in Aspen, I saw, to my chagrin, that I weighed 20 pounds more than when I’d left my home in Memphis.
Things, once again, got #real.
I resolved to lose the weight. I would and I could! Thankfully, Sophomore year signified the transition from dormitory-dining-hall-life, to apartment-grocery-shopping-life. It was much easier to make wise meal decisions when actively deciding what to purchase, compared to grazing at a tempting, unlimited buffet. Calorie counting returned with a vengeance, and daily life became planned around meals. I would wake up and eat breakfast (Yum!), then busy myself with other matters until lunch. After lunch (Yum!), I would busy myself until dinner. After dinner, the lovely cushion of sleep would suppress appetite until breakfast. (The whole, I-want-to-keep-eating-more-food-but-I- guess-I-can-just-go-to-bed-and-then-eat-more-food-in-the-morning type thing.)
Typical meals at this time involved carefully measured medleys of lettuce, chicken, and almonds, with low-fat, low-calorie salad dressings, or low-fat, processed chicken quesadillas featuring whole grain tortillas and sugar-free teriyaki sauce. (I shudder just typing this.) I’d also visit the resident Lyon Center gym like an exercise Barbie lioness. I’m ashamed to confess I was one of “those girls” who wore a full face of make-up to work out, trying to make it look “natural.” On rare occasions, I’d forego the cosmetics and cover my face in a pink hoodie, avoiding all eye contact.
And I’d step on the scale every morning to see how my constant efforts had (or more likely, hadn’t) paid off. But surely this was all healthy right? I was keeping my metabolism fueled! I was eating low fat! I wasn’t overeating! Then why wasn’t the scale budging… and why were my hours of cardio at the gym doing, well, nothing?
So I continued on, trying anything and everything I could get my stomach on. I built up stores of diet pills and thermogenics, which provided a nice caffeine boost and placebo effect, if nothing else. Shortly after ordering one specific concoction called Slim Xtreme, I received an email asking me to return the product, due to a recall. Seeing this as the ultimate testimony to its fat burning power, I stored the sacred bottle away for “special times.” I remember telling my best friend Jason*, between belts of A Whole New World while en route to Disneyland, how I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, thanks to the magic pills. He responded with, “Melanie, maybe you should stop taking those.” Maybe I should have listened Jason, maybe I should have listened.**
A more serious endeavor involved Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet. You heard me right: Cookie. Diet. For circa $200 a month, I received a shipment of specially-formulated diet “cookies,” in oatmeal raisin, chocolate, and blueberry flavors. The protocol called for eating 6 cookies spread over breakfast and lunch, followed by a healthy dinner. In reality, I usually ended up eating them all at once (with perhaps an extra thrown in), and the boxes rarely lasted the full 30 days. Diet. Fail.***
Of course there was the obligatory fling with the ultimate playboy in the dieting world: Mr. Vegetarianism. For our marriage ceremony at a newly opened restaurant by USC, I carefully selected an appropriate dinner salad, drawn to the romantically fitting “Green Goddess” dressing. Thankfully, my meatless attempts were embarrassingly short lived - I lasted maybe a week, at most. I don’t even remember when I decided to once again adorn my lips with animal flesh. As a self-proclaimed lover of moments, such amnesia is telling. (To my vegetarian readers, I still love you! I’m just a #carnivore at heart.)
I even ventured into the world of HCG drops, sublingually administering the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone while following a severely calorie-restricted diet. (Oh hey 500 calories a day!) The idea was to convince the body it was pregnant, encouraging it to willingly tap into stored body fat to support a (non-existent) baby. I’ll leave it at that. Ridiculously low calorie intake aside, the diet was essentially whole foods in nature, since I basically just ate chicken and lettuce. My appetite did in fact diminish, though I’m not sure if that was due to the drops or placebo effect. (Or if the drops were doing something because of the placebo effect - same thing?) In any case, I lost a decent amount of weight on the protocol, while cutting out the processed junk lowered inflammation. Though I cannot recommend the severely restricted diet, it is nevertheless a testament to my commitment to finding the perfect weight loss method.****
THE LOW CARB WORLD
One night late Sophomore year as I procrastinated in Internetland, I happened upon a crazy concept called ketosis, in the depths of a low carb forum. At this point, a single lone memory defined low carb for me. In high school, on the way to play practice for It’s A Wonderful Life (I played Violet), my dear friend Katie* had explained the stupidity of the low carb Atkins diet, in which she could eat a steak but not a carrot. I remember thinking to myself, Wow. That really is stupid.
Yet as I now read about the sciency mechanisms at play, the whole low carb thing seemed a smidge less stupid. According to the logic, weight loss wasn’t so much about counting calories, as it was about teaching your body to burn fat through dietary choices. Drastically reducing carbs made the body go into the nebulous fat-burning state called “ketosis,” evident by the body’s production of ketones for fuel. You could even roughly gauge the level of ketones in your system with some spiffy urine analysis strips. In other words, you could scientifically measure your fat-burning potential! This was ridiculously tempting. Who needed questionable body weight scales when I could get such piercingly telling results. I committed, ordered the Ketostix analysis strips, and kissed carbohydrates a momentary (or so I thought) goodbye.
As I entered this elusive “fat-burning” state, evident by the dark pink Ketostix, my body just seemed to finally get it. Lack of calorie counting aside, I just felt like I was finally tapping into stored fat. Appetite dwindled, and I no longer hungrily awaited meals like a ravenous dog. Unlike previous diets, my energy levels, mood, and even skin improved. Perhaps there was something to the whole “diet” thing, beyond mere calories? It was like seeing the forest for the trees, whereas before I’d been fixating on squirrels.
Although my razor beam, weight loss focus was slowly widening to a more holistic approach to metabolism, one neurosis replaced another. Carb counting slyly replaced calorie counting. I continued to judge food by its label, now identifying grams of sugar rather than number of calories. While I didn’t give a second thought to ingesting hundreds of grams of fat, I’d break a sweat at the idea of consuming an extra carb or two, convinced such actions would throw my body into sugar-burning mode, rerouting my meals into fat storage.
One night Junior year, my all too familiar Internetland procrastinations (which now often featured low carb research) lead me to a life-changing post: Rusty Moore’s Lose Body Fat By Eating Just One Meal Per Day? The blog expressed a radical idea of eating the majority (if not all) of one’s daily sustenance in the evening for weight loss, as originally discussed in Ori Hofmeklers’ The Warrior Diet. Hundreds and hundreds of reader comments testified success. (I literally read each and every one at that time.) Today, the post has over 2,500 comments, though the blog itself is defunct.
This idea was a bit absurd. After all, everyone knew breakfast was the most important meal of the day! Whenever I went too long between meals, I immediately felt guilty. If my appetite oddly vanished in such a situation (as it often did), I took this as a sign that my metabolism had abandoned ship.[ Historically, I harbored one related ritualistic experience. Every Wednesday in grade school, my family would dine at our resident country club for the buffet dinner. In preparation for that inevitably gluttonous binge, I’d forsake eating all day. While I felt slightly guilty over such actions, I figured it might minimize collateral damage. ] Yet I now reanalyzed such actions with newfound perspective. After all, calorie counting was basically the introduction chapter of Dieting 101, and that hadn’t exactly panned out. On the other hand, my low carb profusion of meat, rich in “unhealthy” fat, was granting me an insane amount of success and clarity. Why not continue flying in the face of common wisdom? So despite my skepticism, I committed. I resolved to eat one giant meal per day, for a week. I could do anything for a week, right? What harm could it bring?
For my first date with the stranger I would soon know as Intermittent Fasting, I selected a day I’d be busy on the film set for my insanely talented friend Carmen.* I consumed a large preparatory meal the night before, and awoke to a new a dawn, combating hunger with an arsenal of coffee and adrenaline. I took a slight though silent pride in willingly foregoing the catered pizza, instead sipping on one (or 10) teas from the snack set-up known as craft services. And oddly enough, I survived. I went home that evening and ate to my heart’s content, laying my head to rest with the thought of a diet job well done.
As the week continued, my foreign intermittent fasting foray morphed into the dietary pal “IF.” While I had admittedly never been much of a breakfast person, aside from the processed pleasures of Hot Pockets® and Pop-Tarts®,***** I soon found similar ease in forgoing lunch as well. Plus, my activities were no longer needlessly interrupted by mealtimes, which was pretty cool. Rather than furiously biking to my apartment between classes for rushed food I’d barely taste, I spent the time tackling school work. Rather than stressing over the need for snacks to stabilize blood sugar, I contentedly looked forward to the night’s cathartic feast. When I hit my one week goal, I saw no sane reason to stop. So I didn’t! Instead, I dove headfirst into the scientific literature, seeking knowledge for why bouts of fasting were a foundation for health and vitality.
But intermittent fasting came with its own demon. Unlike low carb, which I’d gladly explain to interested friends and loved ones, I felt the need to keep my intermittent fasting a secret. It felt weirdly shameful, as though I were disfiguring the healthy human ideal. Like some secret romance, I denied its existence, fearing ostracizing accusations of disordered eating. Thankfully, things became easier. My go-to diet friend Ben,* who had embarked on the HCG adventure with me, decided to try IF as well. Having a confident transformed me from a loner to a team, while my glowing skin, newfound energy, and resilience to colds, supplied further validation. Visits to the campus health center grew far and few between. And while I wasn’t counting anything - neither carbs nor calories - the weight continued to drop. All the tricky little blips on my body, the ones I’d simply accepted as part of my constitution, evanesced, creating the ungraspable difference between feeling thinner and feeling lean.
The longer I continued intermittent fasting, the more confident I became in uttering its name. The more days I put behind me, the more my testimony seemed somewhat valid, since clearly I wasn’t (to my knowledge) falling over dead from starvation. One semester became many semesters, and many semesters became a lifestyle.
Intermittent fasting carried me smoothly through my upperclassman years, graduation, and initiation into adult life. As I settled into my first post-USC apartment in Hollywood, I beamed with the overwhelming excitement of finally pursing my acting dreams “for real.” On one warm afternoon that summer after graduating, my aforementioned diet-pal Ben* texted me about the “Paleo” diet. Though I had occasionally encountered the concept when it overlapped with the low carb and IF communities, I had never really considered it, figuring that my carbohydrate avoidance and bouts of fasting was “good enough,” diet wise. The Paleo diet, however, took things a step further by advocating complete whole foods consumption, mimicking the diet of humans before the advent of agriculture. Going Paleo would mean quitting grains, legumes, processed foods, and potentially dairy, which apparently encouraged inflammation and disease in the body. I’d have to bid farewell to such pleasures like artificial sweeteners, processed low carb goodies, and the divine beauty of cream cheese. Honestly, I didn’t see how cutting out such items could make that much of a difference, as I’d bestowed the majority of the blame for ill health upon sugar. Many Paleo people also ate way more carbs than I felt comfortable with in my uber low carb state. Yet this Paleo carrot, with its promise of even more radiant health, had me chomping at the bit. So in the name of self-experimentation, I once again decided to #commit. I promptly constructed a Mulan-themed poster outlaying the approach, tacked it to my refrigerator, and dove in.
If low carb opened my eyes and IF gave me contacts, Paleo was like getting Lasik eye surgery. Cutting out the processed tidbits worked wonders. My energy further improved, any remaining headaches vanished, and my skin began to truly shine. Better yet , the Paleo paradigm gifted me an ironically free-er approach to food, compared to my strictly low carb days. I welcomed back veggies, fruit and wine into what had become an incredibly meat and coconut oil reliant diet. Eradicating previously consumed processed frankenfoods widened my palate to newfound flavor appreciation. I no longer needed flavorings and seasonings for satisfaction, as seemingly plain meat, fruits, and veggies began tasting glorious. While low carb killed the fear of calories and IF killed the fear of weight troubles, Paleo bestowed an additional feeling of purity and goodness, giving me a newfound appreciation of food’s effect on the body. The Paleo community also provided a historical perspective for intermittent fasting, one valuing its health benefits just as much as weight loss. In the Paleo paradigm, intermittent fasting just made a lot of sense.
There was no going back.
THE SOCIAL WOES
I continued in my Paleo, intermittent fasting ways. This dietary outfit particularly suited my initial post-graduation “job”: 6 months working as a background actor on basically every TV show known to mankind. The fasted state perfectly fueled hours of fake talking, silent dancing, mock waitressing, and actual running. (Oh hey imaginary fires and shark-filled tornadoes!) Fasting also protected me from the potentially negative effects of sitting around for hours on set, engaging in de-ja-vu conversations while dreaming of one day having a voice in the film world.
Intermittent fasting assailed the food temptations of set life. Despite their lowly position on the totem poll, background actors nevertheless maintained access to the aforementioned craft services. While lower budget sets might feature simple collections of water and peanuts, mainstream TV shows and movies displayed stunning arrays of produce, cheese, meat, sandwiches, cakes, cookies, fruit-infused water coolers, and even the occasional vitamin pack. One set I visited even had a shrimp ice sculpture. Shrimp. Ice. Sculpture. And that was just the snacks! Actual set meals were buffet style, featuring elaborate salad stations, entrees of chicken, steak, and/or fish, as well as a many a delectable side. To dine like a king at minimum wage, just become an extra!
Given the food exuberance, background life could have quickly become a recipe for weight gain. Yet IF nipped that problem in the bud. Freed from appetite, I’d visit Crafty, pick up a bottle (or 5) of water, and walk away without a second thought.******* Come actual mealtimes, I’d only partake in “Lunch” (so called, regardless of it were at 9am or 9pm), when it aligned with my eating window.
Being on set 24/7 also meant interacting with new people for acute yet lengthy time blocks, occasionally forming long-lasting friends in the process! (Here’s looking at you Kellie!*) Both fortunately and unfortunately, my meal patterns often became evident, especially on days which crept near the 16-hour mark of “Golden Time.” People typically reacted to my dietary habits on a spectrum of objection to fascination, and I quickly learned how to approach various scenarios. Sometimes it was best to engage with others, other times to let sleeping dogs lie. Upon initial questions regarding my lack of eating, my go-to response was that I wasn’t hungry, which was true! When pressed further, or if I gauged potential interest, I’d discuss the intermittent fasting concept in more detail. See Social Scenarios for specific tips and tricks for such conversations!
THE CULMINATING EFFECT
While I loved discussing intermittent fasting with interested parties, I didn’t love my vague, “Well, studies show that…” response. I needed a solid reference. I also was becoming a bit worn by the skeptics, and worse, the accusers - those who were convinced I was doing something highly detrimental and/or lunatic, and who made it their momentary goal to right me of my ways. I resolved to research everything and set proverbial pen to paper, the incarnation of which became my first book, The What When Wine Diet: Paleo & Intermittent Fasting For Health And Weight Loss. I was overjoyed with the overwhelmingly positive response, with readers constantly contacting me with questions and feedback. I was no longer alone in my diet journey!
As I often receive a number of questions concerning intermittent fasting specifically, I decided a followup endeavor was much needed. So I bring you this second installment, focused solely on intermittent fasting. In writing this book, I have read and analyzed every intermittent fasting study I can find, ranging from those on Ramadan to starvation to weight loss diets. I’ve looked at fasting with calorie restriction and overconsumption, fasting for health and sickness, fasting in men and women, and everything in between.
But enough about me. This site is for YOU.
*Name may or may not have been changed to protect the innocent.
**Confession: I still have 7 of these bright orange pills in their original bottle. I just can’t bring myself to throw them out, but rather let them lie in my supplement box as a remembrance of my former self.
***This was clearly in my Pre-Paleo days, as I now grimace at the idea of willingly ingesting such processed concoctions with their long list of grainy ingredients.
**** I still get discount emails in my inbox from an HCG supplier, yet cannot bring myself to unsubscribe, out of some weird remembrance. Typical. See **.
*****Writing this sentence brought back a slew of breakfast memories, after which I may or may have fervently embarked on an internet research tangent of all the new Pop-Tarts® flavors, lusting over images and living vicariously through consumer reviews. (Confetti Cupcake Pop-Tarts® and Cheddar Cheeseburger Hot Pockets®! Ahh!!) Some temptations never change.
******90210, Agents of Shield, Bad Judge, Big Time Rush, Beauty Queen Murders, Betas, Californication, Castle, The Client List, Container Wars, Cougar Town, The Crazy Ones, Criminal Minds, CSI, Delirium, Enlisted, Franklin & Bash, Freaks of Nature, Gang Related, Glee, The Goldbergs, Happy Endings, Hart of Dixie, Hit The Floor, Hollywood Game Night, How I Met Your Mother, Jennifer Calls, Justified, Kirsty, Knife Fight, Legit, Million Dollar Arm, The Middle, Mixology, Mulaney, NCIS, Neighbors, New Girl, Perception, Pretty Little Liars, Rake, Real Husbands of Hollywood, Revenge, Scandal, Shameless, Sharknado, Sharknado 2, Stretch, Suburgatory, Sullivan & Son, Surviving Jack, Switched at Birth, Vegas, Veronica Mars, We Are Men
******* Confession: While background actors were often sternly reminded that craft services were for snacking, not shopping, I often snuck away with quite a few water bottles from each set. I justified this by my lack of food consumption.