Before I delve any deeper, I want to take care of a little vocabulary, just to make sure we are on the same page. Intermittent fasting has been lauded by the fitness and nutrition communities as a way to lose fat while maintaining lean mass, regulate blood glucose, even live longer. There are many different ways that people experiment with intermittent fasting, some of the most popular being fasting 12-16 hours per day (therefore eating for periods of 8-12 hours only), eating an extremely calorie restricted diet of around 500 calories every other day, or engaging in a 24 hour fast a couple days a week. While calorie restriction has been demonstrated to increase longevity in mammals, and intermittent fasting has been generally studied in male populations, there is a very limited bed of research of the benefits of intermittent fasting for the human female population.
Of the research that has been conducted in women, much points to negative hormonal and physical outcomes, including imbalances in hormones leading to compromised reproductive viability, sleep disturbances, decreased circulation, cardiac arrhythmias, and other general health issues. So, then the question is: what does intermittent fasting do…why do people do it? According to this study in a 2014 issue of Cell Metabolism, among many others, fasting has been demonstrated to have the potential to protect against disease and delay aging by generating adaptive cellular responses…basically reprogramming metabolism to optimize its function within the organism.
And this is why I chose to engage in a little self-experimentation to see what it would do to me, despite some glaring warnings. What I chose to ignore, and what was stated and restated in all of the articles I read about intermittent fasting prior to starting was this:
BIG RED FLAG. IF YOU HAVE HAD AN EATING DISORDER, DO NOT DO THIS.
I’ve never talked about this in a public forum, but here goes: Like (too) many young women, I struggled for many years with a brutally serious eating disorder. Before the age of 18, I had already been hospitalized three times. There are lots of reasons why I think it started, which I won’t go into here, but what I will say is that trying to shake this thing has been a bear. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started to finally feel some freedom (keep in mind that as I am writing this, I am 29 years old) through support from friends and family as well as some deep spiritual and psychological work. But the trajectory to recovery looks more like a messy, multidirectional squiggle than a straight upward traveling line.
So what happened to me over the past few months was this: I had increased energy during the day, increased mental focus, and fewer food cravings. All of this was great. But I also experienced acute imbalances in my hormones and an increase in body dysmorphic thoughts. The delicate balance and serenity that I had found in my relationship with food started to dwindle, and I found myself becoming overly rigid and controlling around meals and meal timing. What was most alarming to me was that even when I realized this and made the commitment to go back to my regular eating pattern, I couldn’t. It was as if I had flipped a switch in my brain, a dangerous switch that only leads me backwards. Honestly, it has been a struggle over the past couple of weeks to work back to normal.
So I think that the take home message is this: taking a step backwards is okay as long as you start to take the action to move yourself forward again. Self-experimentation is okay as long as you stay honest about the results. Sharing openly about yourself is cathartic. And intermittent fasting works well for some and not for others, just like so many other diet and exercise programs. Take an honest self-appraisal before embarking on a new program. Get other people involved if you have questions. We are all in this together.
Until next time,