Intermittent fasting: How I got started

Cancer
Intermittent fasting regimes are gaining traction as a way to manage weight and long-term health. This is how I got started.
Intermittent fasting
Watching the clock was part of my first month of intermittent fasting.

It’s Tuesday, midafternoon. I’ve felt my concentration slip more than usual in the last half an hour. I’m also feeling quite cold.

Armed with an extra layer, I’m making my way to daycare to pick up my youngest daughter. What to have for dinner?

Preparation is the key; I’ve read it many times. But I only made a firm decision about embarking on this intermittent fasting journey yesterday.

So, it’s going to be a carrot and red lentil soup with basmati rice. But when we arrive home, a quick look around the kitchen reveals a disappointing lack of red lentils and basmati rice.

With a hint of frantic, last-minute adjustments, dinner now consists of aubergine, canned tomatoes, steamed carrot, white beans, and long-grain rice. The baby ate 3 portions, and I made do with 300-ish calories. I certainly felt better and sort of full for about 30 minutes.

The usual evening madness of getting two small kids to bed is a good distraction from hunger pangs, and I am nursing a herbal tea as things begin to calm down. I’ve clocked in just shy of 700 calories for the day.

I am certainly looking forward to a coffee and a big bowl of porridge in the morning, but I’m proud to have made it through my first day.

Why this type of fasting?

My mother is an avid fan of intermittent fasting. She likes to talk about it, and at great lengths.

Mama Martin started 3 years ago with a 5:2 regime that saw her eating around 500 calories on 2 days each week. She dropped down to 6:1 about 6 months ago and now fasts on 1 day a week.

During this time, her body mass index (BMI) has dropped from 24 to 21. Most importantly, she says that she doesn’t experience intense sugar cravings or the accompanying sugar crash that featured as a regular companion in much of her adult life.

I’ve been considering starting intermittent fasting for two reasons. The first one is a stubborn 15 pounds that I’ve not been able to shift after the birth of my second daughter. For the first time in my life, I find myself near the top end of what the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) call a healthy BMI.

“Don’t trust scales, trust how your body feels,” I hear my friends commenting. Well, the scales are saying the same thing that my feelings are saying.

But more than the weight, I’m interested in the long-term effects on our health that scientists have been uncovering in experimental studies of different fasting regimes.

This brings me to my second reason. I lost my dad due to bowel cancer just days before I turned 30; he was 57 years old.

Scientists have found that in animal studies, intermittent fasting leads to a reduction in the risk of obesity-related conditions, one of which is cancer.

While there is no evidence that fasting can prevent cancer in humans, maintaining a healthy weight and metabolic profile may lower my risk of developing bowel cancer.

After dabbling with overnight fasting for the past few weeks, it’s time to get serious.

I’m basing my fasting regime on a modified version of the 5:2 diet and have decided to aim for between 700 and 800 calories on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

My first week of intermittent fasting

After my impromptu start, I am much more ready on my second fasting day. After a morning espresso with lemon juice (mom’s tip), I break my fast with the obligatory British tea with milk at 11:30 a.m., making it a 14-hour overnight fast, which I follow with lunch at midday.

Lunch is a homemade beef and bean stew, which an online calculator helped me estimate at 296 calories per portion.

I felt hungry most of the morning, but concentrating on work helped me take my mind off the sensation.

Although lunch has put a stop to this feeling, I am noticing my concentration slipping — until I realize that I haven’t drunk any water since starting work.

After rectifying this cardinal mistake, I tell myself to keep my glass of water topped up AT ALL TIMES on fasting days from now on.

I continue with some homemade hummus with carrot and celery plus some salty popcorn in the afternoon, which together come to 145 calories. Then for dinner, there is a vegetable and falafel salad, clocking up a total of around 735 calories for the day.

As the evening continues, I am feeling hungry. My plan is to head to bed pretty soon after a warming, herbal tea.

Overall, the first week has gone OK. Picking 2 busy days in the office has helped me keep my mind off food, and being better prepared on day 2 also made it easier.

Week 3 and the hardest so far

The first 2 days of fasting have not brought about any miracles. Chocolate still tempts me in the evenings, and the kids seem to have confused my intermittent fasting memo with a call to intermittent night wakings.

But perhaps most importantly, I don’t feel that the first 2 days were too uncomfortable.

On Tuesday, the feeling of hunger has been coming and going most of the morning, but it’s more of a dull ache rather than a sharp pang. After the usual coffee this morning, I’ve been drinking green tea and water. My concentration levels have been fine, although I do feel myself glancing at the clock quite frequently to check when it will be time to go for lunch.

Thursday has been the best day so far. I’ve cut right down to 2 meals after a 16-hour fast, and food has not been on my mind much.

After last week’s success, the third week turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a cold. I seriously considered giving up the intermittent fasting and replacing my endless cups of water with copious amounts of tea with honey, accompanied by chocolate. Mama Martin came to the rescue with a supportive message that helped me pull through.

Yet, the next evening, with the remnants of the sore throat still vividly etched into my memory, the thought of not being able to snack in between meals and have a milky coffee in the morning did fill me with a certain amount of resentful dread.

Once I got going, though, I was actually fine. I made it to 14 hours — through a night that the children disrupted, and a morning that I managed to fuel with black coffee — to my lunch.

I’ve felt hungry but not debilitated. Plus, the thought of having breakfast on the following morning filled me with a great sense of joyous anticipation and fuelled my resolve.

By week 4, routine has taken over, and my weight has started to shift slowly.

Biggest challenges and top 3 tips

The most difficult moments for me have been when I’ve not felt 100% and when especially delicious foods have confronted me on fast days. Luckily, my cold didn’t last long, and I’ve made sure to include tasty foods of all descriptions on my non-fasting days, at moderate levels.

Here are the three things I found most helpful to get me this far.

1. Organization

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, organization is key.

I use a calorie counting app on my phone to make sure I know how much I’m totting up on fast days. By now, I also know what 400-calorie lunch options I can get within walking distance of the office.

2. Cooking skills

Luckily, I’m reasonably proficient in this area. And I haven’t found adjusting our meals to include my requirements too tricky.

Soups work out well, as do stews and salads with legumes. I can also easily adapt pasta with vegetables, a firm kids’ favorite, by upping the amount of veg and reducing how much pasta ends up on my plate.

3. Attitude

How I feel about intermittent fasting is the biggest factor that has seen me through the first month. I am doing this for me, for my health, for my kids’ futures. No one is forcing me, and I don’t consider it a diet. It’s a change I am making to my lifestyle.

Small goals work well for me. Now I’ve got the first month behind me, I’m looking at 3 months as my next goal, with 6 months looming in the not-so-far distance.

At the half-year mark, I plan to take stock. Stay tuned for an update in 6-months’ time.

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