Is Intermittent Fasting Worth It?
After a lifetime of resisting calorie-counting and meal-skipping, food writer Laurie Woolever dips a toe into the "intermittent fasting" trend. Read on to get the skinny.
I never really understood fasting, nor had any desire to try it. Growing up, the closest my Catholic family came to it was during Lent, which just meant that on Fridays, we’d eat big planks of deep-fried haddock, smothered in tartar sauce, instead of the usual burgers or steaks.
Denying myself food the second a hunger pang struck was a terrifying, nonsensical notion, as both a food writer and a sentient human. Fasting was for actors subsisting on oat paste, cash and self-satisfaction in order to shrink down to ghostlike versions of themselves for a starring role. Fasting was for political prisoners, the pious, and patients preparing for medical procedures. It was not for me.
Then I started hearing about intermittent fasting. My father-in-law, a retired stonemason, dropped two sizes by skipping lunch every day. The book publisher Dan Halpern told me he forgoes breakfast and barely eats lunch, which has helped him keep off unwanted weight. Even TV host Jimmy Kimmel confessed to having lost 25 pounds by restricting calories, and has kept them off by fasting.
I’ve long maintained a healthy weight with portion control and exercise, but vanity wins, and I wanted to drop some pounds before a TV appearance to promote the book I’d co-written with Anthony Bourdain, so I decided to give this fasting fad a try.
Turns out, there’s a whole menu of fasting diets to choose from. Some people (the idle rich, the criminally insane) choose the truly punishing all-liquid Master Cleanse, a 10-day fast meant to “detox” the digestive system. Others skip meals or restrict their eating to an eight-hour period each day, then fast for the remaining 16. Because it seemed reasonable and doable enough, I followed the 5:2 Fast Diet, devised by British physician Michael Mosley, on which one eats a weight-maintaining number of calories—2,000 for women, 2,400 for men—five days per week. On the other two days, consecutive or not, you eat a quarter of those calories—500 and 600, respectively—causing the body to burn through fat reserves without depleting muscle mass. Research suggests that intermittent fasting also speeds up cell repair and toxin elimination, reduces inflammation and lowers cholesterol.
For guidance, I read The Essential 5:2 Fast Diet Planner by nutritionist Charlotte Debeugny and food stylist Delphine de Montalier, which includes calorie tables, menu plans and recipes whose titles (“My Ratatouille for the Day,” “Like a Chili”) made me laugh with nervous dread. Armed with guarded optimism and the mortal fear of looking chubby on television, I started a month of 5:2.
On the non-fasting days, I stuck to my well-established routine, eating vegetables, fruits and lean proteins, snacking on nuts and dark chocolate, and consuming my carbs in wine form. The fasting days, however, were a different story. After the first week I started to experience an emotional arc akin to the five stages of grief as I mourned the loss of each calorie.
First came denial. “With energy and a positive outlook,” said the book, “you’ll get through the Fast Days without too much difficulty, if any!” I felt satisfied with tea and a hard-boiled egg (90 calories) for breakfast.
That is, until anger (and hunger) kicked in. It’s only 10 a.m., I’d realize, and I’ve already blown through nearly 50 percent of my calories with a second egg and some almonds (50 calories). How am I supposed to work? Why won’t that dog stop barking? How many calories are in a goddamn shot of whiskey (95), and is it too early to start drinking?
I’d begin bargaining with myself. If I made it through an hour without eating (or breaking) anything, I’d take a half-shot of whiskey and smoke a cigarette (0 calories), the original diet lunch.
Which, naturally, led to depression. “I’m not meant to succeed on this diet,” I’d moan. “I’m enraged, a little tipsy, I’ve picked up smoking, and I’m hungry.”
After two weeks, having shed four pounds and the will to live, I contacted Debeugny. I complained about my irritability (irritably), whined about how little food constituted 500 calories, and asked what to do with my rage.
“That’s just your blood glucose levels dropping below normal. When you feel that way, eat a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit,” she said. “The idea of 5:2 isn’t to torture yourself; it’s to become accustomed to being hungry without panicking, which takes some practice. If you go over by a few hundred calories, it’s not a failure.”
Huh. I’d apparently been a little too hard on myself.
Debeugny’s reassurances got me, eventually, to 5:2 acceptance. I tried the book’s 500-calorie recipes—a Thai chicken stir-fry, a lentil and smoked haddock salad—that kept me satisfied far longer than hard-boiled eggs and whiskey. And I started to think of my fasting days as practice for eating less overall, instead of a crazy crash diet meant to hollow out my cheekbones and my soul. By letting go of the superstrict calorie monitoring, I soon found myself satisfied with less food, even on non-fasting days. It became easier to push past that feeling of being hungry.
After a month, I’m pleased to report that I’ve lost a grand total of eight pounds—as well as my temporary cigarette habit and my fear of going hungry.
Laurie Woolever is the co-author of Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites: A Cookbook.