Thursday, September 8, 2016

Quick! Fast! Learn How I Lost 15lbs. This Summer

Years ago, when I was single, childless and living in low-maintenance, rented apartments, I was something of a mystic. I read Julian of Norwich and went on silent prayer retreats. I walked labyrinths and even made a pilgrimage to Taize, the French monastery known for it's moving chants.

That's what I did, but really, to be a mystic is more about what you don't do. In Christianity, the way up is often down. The way to salvation rests on someone else's doing, not your own.

I was led to try out some of the traditional Christian disciplines that have been almost totally abandoned by modern American protestants. I learned to sit in a verse (or even just a word) of scripture for a long time. I rested on the Sabbath, instead of stopping off at the grocery store on the way home from church. I made a Lenten sacrifice every year, and... I fasted.

The practice of fasting--that is, intentionally going without food for a period of time--is an ancient one, and it is not limited to Christianity. All the major religions have advocated fasting. Early Christians fasted, typically on Wednesdays and Fridays. It's a practice that's all over the Bible.

I'll be honest, I never really took to fasting. I enjoyed Taize chants a whole lot more. I found fasting profoundly difficult and uncomfortable. Of all the traditional practices that have fallen by the wayside since I've become a mother, fasting was probably the first to go.

However, I've recently learned how profoundly good for us it is! Contrary to modern advice, going without food for a day... or two or three... is extremely healthy. It is when we abstain from eating that our bodies can divert energy to the business of repair. By depriving the body of food for a time, our insulin levels drop. Insulin, the hormone secreted by the pancreas to deal with blood sugar, is a healthy response to eating. It is a storage hormone. Insulin scurries around, putting away all the glucose--first for immediate fuel, then into muscles as glycogen, then whatever is leftover is stored as fat. Without it, we're in big trouble, but over time, the constant eating advocated by the snack manufacturers can lead to insulin resistance, which is the precursor to type-2 diabetes. This nasty disease is so preventable--and, it turns out--reversible!

Fasting makes our bodies more insulin-sensitive. So does exercise. Going without food for a bit is not going to throw our bodies into 'starve mode,' that state in which the body cannibalizes muscle to survive. Most of us have plenty of stored fuel in our bodies to last us a few days... or weeks, even. And, contrary to other weight loss diets, people who lose weight by fasting lose far less muscle. One study found the average lost muscle in the fasting group was only one pound, compared with a 10lb. muscle loss average in the low-calorie diet group. And fasting is, in my opinion, much easier to stick with. You eat normally on non-fast days. It's not a free-for-all, but it's normal eating. It might involve ice cream. Or wine. You're not forsaking treats forever and ever. Just for today.


I'll admit, my renewed interest in fasting was not to get in touch with God in a deeper way, nor was it motivated by a desire to understand the suffering of the poor. I was driven by my growing weight gain.

As I've mentioned before, a couple of winters ago, I put on some weight. I was surprised to find that my summer clothes did not fit at all well after the long, harsh winter of 2015. I had gained 15lbs, which slowly started to increase to 20. I tried all my usual tactics to reign things in, and to my great surprise, NOTHING worked. I even went very low-carb for a few weeks. And I lost a pound. Way to much good stuff to give up for only a pound!

I eventually tried to make my peace with it. I had read that many women gain around 10lbs. during perimenopause, that this was a normal and healthy thing and not something to be feared, so I tried to console myself with that. Yet my weight continued to climb. Despite the healthy eating, despite the workouts, I was getting heavier and heavier. (And no, it wasn't muscle, but thanks for asking.) I went shopping earlier this summer and I could not believe what I saw in the mirror. I didn't even recognize myself.

The next day, I decided to fast. I didn't eat for 24 hours, then had a small, reasonable dinner. The following day, I ate normally. I alternated fast and feed days, and within the first two weeks, I had lost 6lbs. Whoa!

I continued the alternate day protocol for a total of four weeks, at which point I was getting a little sick of it. I transitioned to fasting two days a week,

Many people have taken an interest in fasting, so I'll try to answer my most frequently asked questions:

Did you read any books about fasting? Of course, because I'm a tool. The best book I read was The Obesity Code by Canadian physician Jason Fung. If you're interested in the science of weight gain and loss, this book is must-read. I really couldn't recommend it more highly.

I also read the The Fast Diet by Michael Mosely and Mimi Spencer (aka 'the 5:2 diet.') Mosley is a non-practicing English doctor who presents health-related documentaries for the BBC. The Fast Diet is basically what I'm doing now, though I don't strictly monitor my calories as they dictate. More on that later, but it's a good book that is easily readable.

Probably my least favorite book is The Every Other Day Diet by Krista Varady. She's a PhD nutritionist who has done numerous studies on fasting. Her schtick is eat 500 calories a day every other day, then eat normally on the feed days. Much of her research is interesting, and the 5:2 diet was influenced in part by Varady's work. It might be worth a read if you get it from the library, but the writing is terrible and she advocates a lot of processed frankenfoods. Yuck. I get that they're easier for the sake of compliance, but Lean Cuisine is gross and I have a hard time with a nutritionist advocating the consumption of frozen dinners with any regularity.

Is fasting hard? At first, yes. The first two weeks in particular were hard. At times, I was tempted to throw in the towel and tuck into a can of Pringles. If I hadn't been seeing such great results, I might have bailed. But I'm so glad I didn't! I'm actually pretty used to fasting now. I'm fasting today, and while I do feel a bit hungry right now, it's totally manageable.

How do you get through the hunger? The interesting thing about hunger is that it goes away. Seriously, it does. I find if I keep busy, out of the kitchen and I don't watch The Great British Bake-off, I'm fine. On fast days, I do things that keep me out of the kitchen. I run errands, work in the garden, clean out closets, whatever. Just stay out of the kitchen.

For me, the hardest time is the afternoon. I breeze through the morning. I'm seldom hungry for breakfast anyway, so mornings are easy.

What does a typical day look like? It sort of depends. Some days I will start my fast after lunch. I just won't eat dinner. Then I'll break the fast at lunch the following day. Usually, I'll go dinner to dinner. I do have coffee in the morning with heavy cream. Since heavy cream is just fat (no protein or carbs) it doesn't stimulate insulin as do other foods. Hard-core fasters would tell me I shouldn't even have that, but coffee is a non-negotiable for me, and it keeps me in the game. If I couldn't have creamy coffee, I would be a beast and I would hate life and everyone would hate me, so for the sake of world peace, I have the coffee.

Then I just don't eat. For the rest of the day, until dinner, at which time I will eat something whole, real and reasonable. Tonight I'm planning on a green salad with steak and a mustard vinaigrette. Ok, now I'm hungry. Let's move on.

Do you exercise on a fast day? Yes (you knew I was going to say that.) At first, I was doing a short, HIIT-type workout. I was afraid doing anything longer would make me ravenous, but now I just do whatever I want on a given day. (I'm trending towards shorter workouts anyway, but that's for another post.) Today I did a 30-minute Physique 57 video, and I felt great.

Are you really strict with it? NO. I'm really not strict at all. The 5:2 and Every Other Day diets say you should restrict your fast-breaking meal to 500 calories, but I don't bother. It's not that I hoover everything in sight (though I might have done that once or twice.) I just really, really hate weighing, measuring and tracking my calories. It feels really obsessive to me, and it makes me crazy, so I don't do it. I just stick to whole, real and reasonable. It might be under 500 calories, it might be over. I don't know and I don't care. What I'm doing seems to be working for me.

On non-fast days, I eat whatever. I might have breakfast, I might not. I might have ice cream, I might not. I really just eat normally, which for me is whole, real food with occasional treats. I am not very restrictive on those days, and I've still lost weight. I know some people still have to be fairly strict on non-fast days, but I just won't do it. To me, life is too short to be strict all the time! I'm still a few pounds over what I used to be, but it's ok. If I don't lose any more, that's fine.

As for Christians fasting, is it commanded? No! You don't have to do it, and I'd say most modern Christians probably never have. But I find there is great blessing to this and other spiritual disciplines. I find my mind does turn to other, deeper things on fast days. I do reflect more on the plight of the poor and others for whom hunger is not optional. I approach my fast-breaking with a more grateful heart than I normally have. It is not a burdensome requirement, but I wonder... in our post-Reformation fervor to avoid legalism, are we missing something very precious when we jettison these old practises? I think we do. The traditional disciplines are good for both body and soul.

I do hope this is helpful for some of you. If you have other questions, please post a comment below! I'll write a follow-up if there is interest.


  1. I lost 15 pounds this spring too - but did something radically different. Partially due to allergies and related health issues I essentially eat fruit, with a regular dinner of meat and vegetables. No grains and no dairy. And lots of chocolate!

    This had been brilliant for me as I've been able to hone in on the things that my body really doesn't like so I feel amazing.

    Seems like you have to decide what your end goal is and find the program that works for you.

    1. Kim, how interesting! You're definitely not the first person I've heard of who has shed pounds from avoiding allergens. I think I must have been developing some insulin resistance. I noticed the only foods that made me feel bad were sweets--including fruit.

  2. Hi Stephanie! I followed your link from VF. I have read a few books on fasting, including The Fast diet that you mentioned above. I have experimented on fasting, but haven't stuck to it. I was trying to stick to every "rule" in the book. I like your more flexible approach! I can really see myself doing this and being successful with it! Thanks for sharing your fasting suggestions!

    1. That's great, Sherry! I'm on a 5:2 group on Facebook and some people are *very* precise in their caloric calculations! I just personally can't hack that. I also refuse to beat myself up if I go overboard. Instead, I look at it as a teaching tool--what could I have done differently? It's enabled me to tweak things here and there to make it more doable. A couple of days I've found fasting to be really too hard, so on those days, I just figure it wasn't meant to be, but I do try to stick it out. Being flexible and not flogging myself when it doesn't work out as I plan has made it much more pleasant for me. Good luck with it!

  3. I have always wanted to try this as I have also read great things about it- but- I have 13 and 11 year old girls who are just now determining thoughts on body image and seeing mom skip meals is somewhat of a deal breaker. :(. Thoughts?

    1. Hmmm... well, I kind of feel that as one who came of age during the eating disorder awareness years, I was almost taught to fear hunger. You must eat! You must not skip meals! Hunger must be satisfied immediately! There was all this fear surrounding not eating as if it were the road to an eating disorder. But really, it's ok not to eat! You're not going to die from skipping a meal. Our bodies are far more resilient than that. I suppose it would be all in how you frame it with your girls. But those are just my off-the-cuff thoughts. I'd be curious to hear what others think...

    2. "I suppose it would be all in how you frame it with your girls."
      I couldn't agree more.
      I think there's a huge difference between obsessively following some protocol to achieve a "bikini body" and taking a healthy approach to a practice that can help you feel better and get healthier. If getting healthier means losing weight, then frame it like that: I want to lose weight because I know I'll feel better and be healthier if I lose it. It's time we divorced weight loss from "bikini body" and all that means.
      We had a wonderful experience yesterday shopping at H&M. I hate shopping for clothes and I hate going to shopping centers. I usually start to feel dizzy and tired after a little while walking through aisles looking for things. When I have my three children in tow (almost 13, 11 and 9), it's even worse!
      Yesterday I skipped breakfast after having a healthy, fairly early dinner the night before. I had two cups of coffee with coconut milk (homemade) and dove into a busy day. I helped my son with his German grammar homework and didn't flip out once at his moaning and complaining. Then we tackled clothing shopping and grocery shopping. All without me feeling tired, irritable or dizzy.
      I'm wondering if IF will help with my mood swings and PMS....

      Good luck!

  4. Do you think there's anything special about waiting 24 hours between meals as opposed to say, 18 hours? I think I could eat dinner at 6:00 and then skip breakfast and have lunch at least to start. I will admit I have a real fear about feeling hungry and having low blood sugar! The word "hangry" applies. I find that if I wait too long between meals (like lunch and dinner), that I tend to overeat a lot. I guess there's no harm in experimenting with fasting to see what happens.

    1. I think 18 hours is a fine idea! Even just extending the natural nighttime fast is beneficial. Easing into it is probably a good idea for some people. I will say, I experience far fewer hangry moments since I started fasting. Even on non-fast days, I can comfortably go longer without eating. One suggestion is to plan (and even pre-plate) your fast-breaking meal. That might help with overeating. Dr. Varady (the Every Other Day Diet author) has found that people, even though they might feel like they're really going on a bender after a fast, really only eat about ten percent more than usual after a fast. I just think as a culture, we have to get over this idea that we must eat all the time, that terrible things are going to happen if we don't. It's just not true! Sure, some people shouldn't fast (pregnant women, for example,) but if eating every two hours, or even three times a day, were essential for health and well-being, we'd have gone extinct a long time ago!

    2. Thanks for posting! I also followed the link from VF. I tried 17 hour fasting a few years back and it worked great then, but now I'm older. I tried it a few times and no way could I do it everyday like I did in the past. It's encouraging you had success with doing a fast only a few days a week! I also use to do bulletproof coffee, but my body can't handle the MCT right now. Was thinking of just butter and collagen. It's protein yes, but has no carbs.

  5. This is really helpful, Stephanie! Like others, I've been intrigued by the idea of intermittent fasting, but it always seems to have so many rules, and for me, obsessing about it defeats the purpose. I will try your approach.

    1. I can be so tempting to over-complicate things! One of the things I love about fasting is the simplicity of it. I mean, really... you just don't eat! Nothing to buy or do, in fact, less to buy and do! Some people do seem to enjoy being very careful about weighing and measuring and getting right under 500 calories. Hey, if that helps, go for it! I just don't find it to be necessary. Let me know how it goes!

  6. Stephanie,
    again, thanks for a well-thought-out and very informative post. I agree with Laura: you know how to simplify things and make this whole thing sound accessible to those of us who view calorie counting and careful planning as a burden that will lead to obsession.

  7. New Diet Taps into Pioneering Plan to Help Dieters LOSE 20 Pounds in Just 21 Days!

  8. Stephanie,
    I’m finding this a bit late, but I love the information. It would be great if you could post a follow up. I’d like to know if this a tool you still use? If you do not use it, did you gain all the weight back? Thanks!