Reader Q&A: Intermittent Fasting Problems

intermittent fasting energy levels hunger weight loss

When I first decided to go public with my ideas of intermittent fasting, I was the only person I knew who had actually done it, with the exception of my fabulous friend Ben Empey, my co-conspirator in my initiatory Warrior Diet trial run in Spring 2011. Whenever I mentioned the words “intermittent fasting,” I’d wait with a knot in my stomach for the questions, concerns, worries, and even attacks. (See my video Five Reactions to Intermittent Fasting, for more on that!)

So when I finally wrote The What When Wine Dietto explain the science of fasting, why it worked, how it worked, and how it could aid weight loss, I was nervous. While the supportive studies were almost shockingly easy to find, the personal testimonials… not so much. What if it actually just worked for me, and no one else? What if people started trying it, and found it miserable and awful? What if it was all… a lie?

Thankfully, the book’s release garnered an overwhelmingly positive response. Friends and strangers began approaching me in a merry-go-round of similar claims: “It’s so easy! I’m not hungry! I have such great energy! Why didn’t I try this before?” 

That being said, intermittent fasting may not work all the time, or for certain people. There may be hang ups. In fact, I recently received three different reader emails expressing issues with intermittent fasting. I’m not one to sugar coat things. I’m not one to sell a magic diet pill or make unrealistic promises. I honestly want everyone to find what works for them personally – what REALLY works, and with ease. And if something isn’t working, I’m a big fan of finding out why. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broken… you better search for solutions! Because guess what! They’re out there!

UnknownIF PROBLEM #1: STILL HUNGRY

“Now that I have completed a week back into the IFing routine I have found it much easier to go more than 16 hours just fine without eating. But I do notice that around 6pm (20 hour mark) I get this rumbly feeling in my tummy and I start feeling a desire to eat. Food starts entering my thoughts and I have this empty sensation in my stomach that I want to fill. The longer I go the louder this gets! I even start to feel a headache coming on, anxiety, tension and a buzzy sensation in my head.  

Now I know that when you are fat adapted you start using your fat stores for food, and I have plenty left to use. What do you think triggers this familiar ‘hungry’ sensation later in the fast? Is it just psychological, is it your body just thinking it NEEDS food, or is there an actual thing going on inside you? I know water fasters can go weeks sometimes without eating and feel perfectly happy. I wonder if its a time-adapted thing. Since you have been doing this for a few years now, is this experience easier or do you experience it every day too? 

– Chad in West Virginia 

Intermittent Fasting definitely becomes easier as the body becomes more fat adapted, but you can still experience the occasional unanticipated swerve. You may be like “I’m so awesome I can IF FOREVER” one second, and then all of a sudden you’re super hungry, conjuring up mental salivations of savory steaks. When I first started IF, I’d hit that empty-stomach-hungry feeling, when eating felt VERY mandatory, around dinner time every day. These days, I’m usually pretty good regardless. 

Where does this random confidence-testing hunger come from? I think it relates to a few potential things: the oft debated body “set point”, the ghrelin hormone which instigates hunger, as well as the fact that certain fat stores are more “stubborn” than others, given their particular fat receptors (alpha or beta). Inherent cellular circadian rhythms also likely play a huge factor, causing your body to “anticipate” food and instigate hunger at specific times.

So what to do when the hunger strikes early, despite your best efforts? Well first of all, you can always eat. That’s an option! Intermittent fasting is awesome because it’s just that – intermittent! Cutting your window short one day won’t be the end. Or if you do want to stick it out, you can do just that! You can practice mindfulness techniques, where you basically just observe your hunger, without judgement. The more you do this, the more “in tune” you become with your body. (I’m currently reading Mindful Eating by Jan Chozen Bays at the moment, because I realized I’d become so enthralled with my “I can eat so much food and drink wine and feast!” that I wasn’t practicing mindfulness in my eating. More to come on that.)

You can also help your body by smartly supplementing with things which will up regulate fat burning, or even just add in some intense exercise/energy requiring activity near the end of the fast. This activity can force your body to tap into the stubborn stores, effectively freeing up energy and nullifying appetite. I’ve found that, when I reach a moment where my body “thinks” it needs to eat right then and there, if I do something distracting and/or stimulating for the mind or body, it connects me back into a fat burning mode. Presto! Appetite gone! (This was more an issue back when I was trying to lose weight. Now if I’m hungry, I pretty much just eat.)

Note: As a followup, Chad actually emailed me the next day to say he stuck it out, and the hunger dissipated. Oh hey!

Unknown-1IF PROBLEM #2: LACK OF ENERGY

I’ve been eating Paleo for 2 years now, losing over 100 pounds. I’m also a runner and participated in my first half marathon in January. I hit a weight  plateau and then gained 10 pounds back with a big move. After reading your book, I decided to give IF a try. It sounds very much like what I have been looking for. That said, I have been fasting for one week… fasting 19 hours with a 5 hour eating window. My problem is… I do a lot of manual labor and run a sheep ranch and I am exhausted!  What am I doing wrong?? Today, I was exhausted and grumpy which was not a good combo…. I keep thinking that if I stick with this, I will experience the energy surge you have spoken about.  Any words of encouragement of ideas/suggestions??

– Lora in Oregon

For most people, IF leads to massive and notably stable energy surges, and many studies show fasted exercise increases endurance. For some, this adaption to energy from fat may take longer than others. Depending on your level of insulin resitance, and personal body’s baseline “preference” for fat use and storage, it make take shorter or longer to become truly “fat adapted.” But it can definitely happen, even with intense exercise. My highest and steadiest energy levels, in fact, occur when I’m performing a lot of manual or high intensity labor.

That being said, if you’re doing IF in conjunction with ample physically activity, and not experiencing an energy boost, feel free to tweak things! The issue could involve a myriad of factors. Perhaps you’re simply not eating enough, which can easily happen with IF. Or you may need to change the macronutrient profile of your meals. While some run best on a low carb, high fat or even entirely ketogenic diet (composed of 70-90% fat), others function better with a few more carbs in the eating window. Either way, I definitely encourage a Paleo template of eating for maximum energy, be it low carb or high carb. (All real foods, no grains or processed sugar, and nothing processed.)

Something may also be off with your adrenals. You can try supplementing with energy and endurance supportive supplements, such as the various ginsengsrhodiola rosea, maca, or ashwagandha root. Relaxation, meditation, and stress-reducing techniques can also help in that area. And of course, make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep!

So if the energy just isn’t there, stick it out. If things don’t change… change things! Try different meals and different timing windows, and experiment with supplements, till you find what works for you!

IF PROBLEM #3: GETTING TOO SKINNY 

Italy Pink melanie avalonFirst of all I’d like to thank you for such a well researched and informative book that has given me an excuse to keep red wine in my diet. I must say that you make a very good case for the Paleo diet and were I a single gal living in the US I’d probably jump right in. But alas, I find myself in Italy, happily married to an Italian man, and daughter-in-law to a VERY Italian mother. And as you’ve probably guessed… pasta is a way of life!!! My husband would never dream of forgoing his daily dose of pasta or friday night homemade pizza.  And my mother-in-law might have me deported for child abuse if I didn’t provide her grand children with “proper nutrition” in the form of good wholesome pasta dishes EVERYDAY!  

(Side note: I just read your post about foods that want/don’t want to be eaten and I came to a realization… I remember as a teenager – back when I had a rockin body – that all I ever wanted to eat was meat and fruit! My daughter’s the same way.  Maybe our bodies know something we don’t). 

Anyway, I have begun an IF protocol. I choose to have one meal a day for logistical reasons. So far it’s been great! In four weeks I’ve lost about 10 lbs and my body shape is changing in a very noticeable way. Who knew it could be this easy!!! I mean with any diet you’re gonna feel hungry but with this “diet” you at least get to feel satisfied once every day! I haven’t gotten to a point where I don’t feel hungry (maybe ’cause I haven’t gone Paleo), but it’s so totally manageable that it’s not much of an inconvenience.  So my question is this (finally)… losing weight is great and all, but at a certain point I’ll need to stop losing. Will my body just automatically stop losing and start maintaining at at certain point or will I have to start increasing my eating window or something. I don’t want to become scary skinny and losing too much weight does tend to “age” you. If I get down to a weight that I’m happy with, what are your suggestions to stop further weightloss? Also, what if I stop losing weight before I get to the point that I’d like to be. Any suggestions there? Have you heard stories from others who have encountered these problems?  Thanks so much!

-Lauren in Italy

First of all, this is my first international question! Yey! And it particularly hits home, since I am oft accused of being too skinny. I’m just going to stop myself there before I enter soapbox territory…

When you free your body from misguiding processed foods and reach a state of holistic, hormonal health, you really shouldn’t need to force your body one way or the other, weight wise. In its natural state, the beautiful and wondrous human body is quiet adept at “taking care of itself.” This is a reason IF is so easy – It allows the body to naturally do what it should be doing. So with intermittent fasting, your body should stabilize at a healthy weight in theory. If you reach a point that’s too skinny for health, you’ll likely become hungrier. Whereas if you gain too much, appetite will likely subside. However, everyone is different. If you do find yourself at a weight too skinny for your health or liking, then you can increase the eating window, go back to “normal” conventional eating for a bit, or add in more carbs and/or fats. For ultimate weight gain, eat carbs + fats together. The carbs will spike insulin, which will then store the fats as fats. While I don’t find this a particularly healthy approach, you can of course do this with Paleo foods. (Think Paleo starches a la sweet potatoes, coupled with copious amounts of fats).

As for encountering this problem, I do have one friend who recently stopped IFing, because he felt he had lost too much weight. And as mentioned, I often get accused of being too skinny at times, though I’m a very happy camper with my body and IF lifestyle, so I just kinda shrug it off 🙂

ANNOUNCEMENT!!! My next book, which I hope to complete by the end of the year, is actually going to be about IF specifically! I’ve been getting so many (helpful) questions like these, that I really want to tackle the subject in much greater detail!

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