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My intermittent fasting story

I had a mostly bad experience with intermittent fasting a few years ago. My story is much the same as many others you can read in the comments on YouTube videos promoting IF: it was great at first, then I started seeing some minor side effects, then I became obsessively preoccupied with my eating schedule; my mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly; I recognised the problem (much later than the people close to me did), and started to recover slowly.

The feeling you get when you shock your metabolism with a sudden and sustained calorie deficit is really quite something. A few days into my experiment with an eight-hour eating window and an arbitrarily chosen target of two thousand calories, I felt like my body was in contact with the ground in a way it hadn’t been since I was a kid. Everything was simple and light. A few weeks in I was putting up shelves, buying lamps, plants, coffee tables, pastel-toned pictures for the walls. My taste in music changed.

This was all very exciting and new, but most of all it felt very right. I’d had some mild general anxiety for a few years, and IF just blew it all away. This was how being alive was supposed to feel! It seemed obvious that eating three meals a day had been burdening me with no end of niggling little problems, and that IF was how to avoid those problems.

Then things started to go south. At first I noticed that I was perhaps focusing a little too much on staying within my eating window: I sensed that the balance was delicate somehow, and that I had to diligently maintain it or I would go back to how things were before. Any unpleasant or concerning feelings were attributed to not having done IF right, and I doubled down instead of easing back.

On top of this—to compensate for the significant energy deficit I was building—the meals I did eat had become excessive, almost grotesque. On one occasion I ate so much Indian food that I had to cut my after-dinner stroll short and take myself to bed, where I dreamt of—and forgive me for getting a bit poetic here—a violent thunderstorm above a bleak Martian landscape, each crack of alien lightning corresponding to a spasm of neural activity as I tried to deal with both the immediate digestive emergency and the broader question of where the hell I had ended up. I woke up in a hot sweat.

Next I became hyper-sensitive to what, when, and how much I ate. Family dinners became stressful. Inflammation and energy levels had to be carefully anticipated and accounted for. What had started as a wonderful opening out of possibilities had become a tedious and dispiriting chore.

The turning point came when I found myself getting un-ignore-ably hungry at night, outside my eating window. This was concerning because the amount I was eating in my two meals was already verging on overload. Spreading it out into three was an option, but that would have left only four hours between meals. And two meals a day in an eight-hour window was my magic cure: I didn’t want to go back. But I had clung to this regime, in the face of increasingly alarming consequences, for far too long. The first time I broke my eating window I got out of bed and stood in the kitchen in my underwear and ate a loaf of bread with half a pack of butter and a whole jar of honey.

Recovery was slow and tedious. Would I recommend IF? No – certainly not as it’s promoted on YouTube. What I might recommend would be something like: being open to the idea of going for a slightly longer period without eating now and then – as opposed to, for example, always shovelling something down because “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. But having said that, I think metabolism is such a personal issue that no-one can really offer any useful, specific advice to anyone else. What’s great for me might be terrible for you and vice versa. Having said that, there are a few general principles I’ve learned that might be useful to anyone who’s thinking about this kind of thing:

  • Go slowly, especially if you’re the kind of person that can stick to things: you might find that your ability to decide on and implement a precise eating regime is greater than your body’s ability to adjust to that regime.

  • To the extent possible, having your other needs met such that your appetite generally matches your nutritional and energy needs is better than resisting any not so well-matched appetites—such as those driven by loneliness or stress—as they arise. In case they do, don’t worry too much about how you deal with them in the moment. Spend your mental energy working on longer-term solutions instead.

  • Radical diet changes affect not only your current state, but how you sense that state (your sense of hunger, energy levels, etc) and the tools you use to navigate between states: basically, how your mind works. Be very wary of messing with these things.

So that’s my experience with intermittent fasting. I’m sure it works for some people, but there are many pitfalls to be aware of, and I think the movement would do well to acknowledge more often that IF makes it easy to run yourself into a significant calorie deficit and some unhealthy mental states.