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As I write this, I’ve been fasting for the past 15.5 hours. And — a statement that would have shocked me just a month ago — I’m not really that hungry.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting, a style of eating that divides each day into two simple windows: one where you may be eating and one where you don’t. One of the latest trendy diets of the past few years, intermittent fasting may be better described as time-restricted eating rather than a diet. Some studies have found it to be no more effective than outright calorie cutting, but others have touted intermittent fasting for its effectiveness as a weight-loss strategy, its potential to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, and its ability to lower blood pressure and improve insulin sensitivity.
Generally speaking, there are a couple ways to go about intermittent fasting. One method, dubbed 16/8, involves a 16-hour fasting window, during which you can drink as much water, tea, and black coffee as you want, and an eight-hour period where you should consume all your calories for the day. Another popular eating schedule, called 5:2, recommends eating normally for five days and limiting caloric intake to about 500 calories for two nonconsecutive fasting days. (Jimmy Kimmel says he lost 25 pounds this way.)
After some expert counseling and calibration, I found that the 16/8 method of intermittent fasting suited my lifestyle. But in the beginning, mornings were rough. Accustomed to eating breakfast, I’d wake up hungry and spend the early part of the day feeling sluggish. By the second week, I was increasingly more chipper despite skipping my usual breakfast burrito, but even as my body began to adjust to the change, my mind wasn’t as on board. Physically, I was feeling better; mentally, I was still struggling with the long stretches between the sanctioned eating times I’d set for myself.
Instead of ditching intermittent fasting altogether, I talked to a few dietitians for advice on how to make the whole thing feel a little easier. If you’re looking to change up your eating pattern but need a little help getting started (or sticking with it), consult with your doctor first, and keep these tips in mind.
Approach it like learning a new habit
Because most of us are so accustomed to the “three meals a day plus snacks” style of eating, it’s easy to feel like you should take in a meal, even when you’re not hungry, simply because it’s lunchtime. “We don’t necessarily listen to our bodies about whether we’re hungry or not,” says dietitian Carolyn Williams, PhD. “We’re so far distanced from paying attention to our body and hunger cues.”
Intermittent fasting challenges this behavior, but overhauling your eating patterns requires the same mental effort as any big change. Some research suggests that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, so it’s important to remind yourself daily of the behavior you’re trying to modify, says dietitian Jen Bruning, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Behavior change is hard, because we become comfortable with our patterns,” she says. “Changing that up takes a great deal of mental energy until it becomes habit.”
Be strategic but not rigid
In the early days of fasting, I regularly awoke to a strong reverberation in my stomach. To avoid the morning munchies, Bruning says to look at the last meal you ate before starting your fast: Did it have enough fiber? Protein? Whole grains? Are you hydrated? Filling up with balanced and satiating foods before your fast will keep you fuller longer.
Of course, if you’re nearing the end of your fast and no amount of black coffee will fill the void, breaking your fast early is not the end of the world. “You don’t want to hurt your body doing this,” Williams says. “There are some mornings where I’m just like, ‘You know what? I need breakfast today.’” (Though if fasting still seems like a struggle after a few weeks, Bruning says, you might want to return to an eating pattern that better suits your lifestyle.)
Try to get excited
As a journalist, my daily to-do list involves a lot of writing, and there are days when I’d rather clean the entire house than write. I’ve found that repeating positive affirmations to myself — “This is going to be great!” — helps me get into a productive flow. It turns out that the same is true of intermittent fasting. “If you take pleasure in the idea of [fasting], it can be a little easier,” Bruning says. Convincing yourself that you want to do it or that you’ll feel so much better if you stick to it is easier than trying to force yourself into it, Bruning says. Keep the positives, like the increased focus that has been linked with intermittent fasting, at the forefront of your mind.
If maintaining positivity about fasting feels too hard, try focusing on something else entirely. When Williams initially dipped her toes into the world of intermittent fasting, she says, she started during a busy workweek; because her attention was on back-to-back meetings and commutes, she hardly noticed when the end of her fasting period approached.
Keep things in perspective
There’s one small fact I’ve found reassuring during tough stretches: Fasting isn’t a new phenomenon. You may be following a buzzy eating pattern, but you’re not exactly in uncharted territory. Throughout history, people have fasted for religious purposes, to make a political statement, to cure illnesses, and before certain medical procedures, among other things. “If you know people who fast for reasons outside of weight loss, someone who maybe does it for spiritual reasons, having a conversation about motivations from another point of view may be helpful,” Bruning says. “It can be multidimensional that way.”
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Ultimately, there are no set rules when it comes to intermittent fasting, Williams says, so what works for one person may not feel comfortable for you. For example, it took me a bit of toying with my fasting window to realize that a fast from 7 p.m. to 11 a.m. is most in line with my body and daily schedule. As long as intermittent fasting doesn’t negatively affect your relationship with food and make you feel too guilty or too restricted, feel free to play around.
“Some people would probably die that I add a little bit of stevia to my coffee,” Williams says. “You know what? That’s okay. There’s no set protocol.”