Intermittent fasting is all over the nutrition world, and as more and more of its potential benefits (like weight loss, improved digestion, decreased cravings, and minimized inflammation) get called out by experts, more and more people decide to skip breakfast and give it a try.
What’s tricky about intermittent fasting is that there are so many ways to do it—but generally, you limit the window of time during which you eat and increase the window during which you don’t. The most popular and user-friendly version is the 16:8 method, in which you eat during an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16 each day. Other common fasting protocols include Eat-Stop-Eat, which requires you to fast for a full 24 hours once or twice a week, or the 5:2 method, in which you limit food intake to just about 500 calories on two non-consecutive days a week.
Which form of intermittent fasting you choose depends on what you’re comfortable with and what best fits your lifestyle, says Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., founder of BZ Nutrition. But since it’s a restrictive style of eating, it’s not optimal or safe for everyone—especially those with a history of disordered eating or certain health conditions.
If you decide to give intermittent fasting a try, save yourself some misery and maximize your potential benefit by looking out for these common mistakes.
Mistake #1: Throwing In The Towel Too Soon
Intermittent fasting isn’t easy because, duh, you’re either going all day on fewer calories than usual or going longer than usual without any food at all. No matter what flavor of fasting you choose, the eating style requires a lot of discipline—especially when you feel hungry (or straight-up hangry), says Zeitlin. But take solace in the fact that any feelings of exhaustion and irritability you notice initially should dissipate after the first week or so. If they don’t, it’s possible the method of fasting you’ve chosen doesn’t quite suit your lifestyle and you may need to reconsider your approach.
Mistake #2: Binge-Eating At Meal Time
“When our body is feeling hungry and you sit down to eat, it’s our nature to overeat because we’re so hungry,” says Zeitlin. But overloading on calories isn’t going to help you reap the benefits of fasting—especially if one of the benefits you’re after is weight loss.
If you want to lose weight, one of your simplest guiding principles is ‘fewer calories in than calories out,’ so regardless of when you eat, if you’re taking in the same number of calories as usual (or even more), you won’t drop pounds. And that’s a mistake a lot of new intermittent fasters make. “What intermittent fasting is supposed to do is decrease the amount of food you’re eating in a day,” explains Zeitlin.
Instead of piling food onto your plate when it’s finally time to eat, portion out your meals so you know exactly what you’re taking in and avoid that whole ‘eyes bigger than your stomach’ situation. If you need a little help understanding how many calories to strive for—and what macronutrients those calories should consist of—Zeitlin suggests keeping a food journal or using an app like MyFitnessPal or Fitbit to get a clear picture of how your current food intake matches up to your goals and what nutrients you may need more or less of.
And when you do sit down for your meals, take your time eating so your hunger cues have ample time to kick in and let you know if you truly need more.
Mistake #3: Not Eating Enough
“Some people don’t want to undo what they’ve just done while fasting for hours or they have the mentality that if they eat too much the next fasting period will be harder,” says Zeitlin. But consistently eating far below your calorie needs is a mistake, and kicks your body into ‘starvation mode,’ slowing your metabolism and making it that much harder to shed fat. Even if you’re restricting when you eat your food, “your body still needs an ample amount of food so your organs can function, and you can think straight and be the fantastic human that you are,” she says.
Related: I Tried 5:2 Intermittent Fasting For A Month—Here’s How It Went
If you’re feeling particularly weak, irritable, or unable to focus, it’s likely you’re not eating enough calories. Here, too, a food-tracking app can be helpful. If you want a little more hands-on advice about how many calories you need to thrive, consider consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian.
Mistake #4: Eating The Wrong Foods
When you don’t have many opportunities to eat, what you put in your mouth when you do becomes even more crucial. “It’s not just about calories, but about the quality of your nutrition and focusing on eating nutrient-dense foods,” says Kimberly Snyder, C.N., author of The Beauty Detox Solution. “500 calories of avocado will digest quite differently and have a very different effect on your overall body and metabolism than 500 calories of fried potato chips.”
Focus on eating a healthy balance of all the macronutrients (healthy fats, lean protein, and carbs) and fiber (which will help with satiety, gas, and bloating) your body needs to function well. Zeitlin suggests loading half your plate with veggies, a quarter with lean protein (think fish, chicken, and turkey), and a quarter with healthy starches like brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potato. If you’re going to end up eating slightly fewer calories than usual, you need those calories to be as nutritious and body-serving as possible. Just because you’re eating fewer calories doesn’t mean those calories can come from sub-par sources.
Mistake #6: Forgetting To Drink
Intermittent fasting newbies often think they can’t take in anything during their fasting hours, but that’s not the case. Liquids like water, tea, and coffee are all totally okay—as long as you don’t add anything (like milk or sugar) to them, says Zeitlin. More often than not, what you think are hunger pangs are actually a sign that you’re thirsty, and staying hydrated can help you feel satiated during those fasting hours.
Mistake #7: Taking It Too Far
The 5:2 method and Eat-Stop-Eat approach to intermittent fasting are designed so that you’re only restricting calories or fasting twice a week, so turning the 5:2 method into the 4:3 or 3:3 method—or completely shunning food on three or more days a week—can be dangerous. “You’re not supposed to starve yourself,” says Zeitlin. “Our bodies require fuel to think straight, work well, converse normally, and move around—and that fuel comes from calories,” she says. Restricting your food intake too much takes a toll on your everyday life—and that’s not what fasting is all about.
Mistake #8: Forcing It
“Intermittent fasting is not necessarily the best solution for weight loss, metabolic health, and longevity for everyone,” says Snyder. So if you’re trying it and feeling miserable, it’s okay to re-evaluate whether it’s the right plan for you. Sure, some argue that our bodies can handle starving somewhat regularly, like our ancestors did thousands of years ago when they didn’t always have access to regular meals—but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you to do now.
Not all bodies are built for intermittent fasting, says Snyder. Some traditional schools of health and medicine—like Ayurveda, a mind-body medicine practice born out of India thousands of years ago—identify different types of people who have different experiences with fasting. “For example, Ayurveda’s Kapha type, who tends to carry extra fat, have a slow metabolism, and is rarely hungry in the mornings, finds it easiest,” explains Snyder. Meanwhile, Vata types, who have varying appetites, can handle fasting sometimes, but may be thrown out of balance if they try to make it a regular thing. And Pitta types, who have strong appetites and digestive fire, find adhering to intermittent fasting very difficult—and it could perpetuate major imbalance for them.
If intermittent fasting feels like a constant struggle and mental drain, ask yourself this simple question: Is it worth the reduced quality of life?
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