Intuitive eating and intermittent fasting, never the twain shall meet? I say no (and I’m not alone).
The dietetics profession is divided into many camps. Dietitian camps include Vegan, Omnivores, HAES, Functional Nutrition and more. Intuitive Eating and Intermittent Fasting are often pitted against each other, but what if they combined?
I propose that the two approaches don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Intermittent Fasting taught me how to make peace with hunger and understand Intuitive Eating.
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a voracious appetite. Growing up, my grandfather, a career Naval officer lamented “you have an appetite like a stevedore!” He’s not wrong. I eat a lot. It’s alright, I don’t binge foods; my weight and body fat are appropriate for my height.
But, I am hungry all the time. I acknowledge that I have food security, so I am not addressing food insecurity in this article.
In school, I learned to eat every 2-3 hours to “fuel metabolism,” so that is exactly what I did. I taught my clients to do the same for years. What if I was wrong?
Do we really need to eat all day every day for good health? What can I learn from not eating? This question was transformative for me.
Could fasting be a gateway to mindful eating?
What is Intuitive Eating?
In 2003 when I was a newly-minted Registered Dietitian, the first book I read was “Intuitive Eating” by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole.
There are 10 principles of Intuitive Eating (IE).
- Reject diet mentality.
- Honor your hunger.
- Make peace with food.
- Challenge the food police.
- Discover the satisfaction factor.
- Feel your fullness.
- Cope with your emotions with kindness.
- Respect your body.
- Movement-feel the difference.
- Honor your health-gentle nutrition.
I loved the concept, it seemed to be a caring way to listen to your body and let go of dieting mentality.
The problem was that I couldn’t connect with the IE philosophy, it felt too nebulous. I’m an INTJ. Structure, frameworks, road maps are my love language.
The “eat every 2-3 hours for metabolism” mentality became a source of stress for me. I would worry about packing snacks, missing meals and what it would do to my metabolism.
I needed structure and boundaries around eating and food. Enter intermittent fasting.
My husband told me 5 or 6 years ago that he was going to start fasting and let’s just say I was less than enthusiastic at first. It went against everything I learned.
I was skeptical and worried about the potential side effects. Would he starve? Was ketosis dangerous like keotacidosis? What happens to metabolism if it’s not fueled constantly? Was fasting just skipping breakfast? There was an avalanche of questions.
Then, it became clear, fasting is a powerful tool that can help transform your health. Intermittent Fasting isn’t a diet, it a dietary approach about when to eat.
There are many different types of intermittent fasting. 16:8 is the most widely marketed plan. 16:8 refers to 16 hours overnight fasting and 8 hour eating window. Just because it is the most popular, doesn’t mean it was right for me.
There had to be a way to use the basic principles of fasting and adjust them to fit a schedule that is sustainable.
Fasting as a gateway to mindful eating
Before experimenting with fasting, I started eating when I woke up and didn’t give much thought to when I was eating my meals and snacks.
I was scared to try fasting because I feared hunger. Would I pass out if I went too far?
It began slowly with a 13-hour overnight fast. This allowed me 11 hours during the day eat all my meals and snacks. This seemed reasonable.
After a period of time, I started extending my fasts gradually until I was able to do a 24-hour fast. I won’t pretend that it was easy. I do get very hungry and experience fatigue and other side effects of fasting.
Experiencing hunger like that taught me to identify true physiological hunger, but more importantly to trust my body.
Fasting helped me let go of the stress about whether I packed enough snacks or if a meeting runs long, I trust that my body will be okay. This has been personally liberating for me.
Fasting has taught me to tune into what my body is telling me. I’ve learned to trust that my body will indicate that it’s time to break a fast. It brought to light what I was trying to conceptualize with Intuitive Eating.
Setting boundaries around when to eat allowed me freedom of choice and flexibility to design a plan within that window. I can apply the principles of Intuitive Eating in my eating window.
This is where IE and IF intersect, not diverge.
Where Intuitive Eating and Intermittent Fasting Coexist
There’s no rule that says you can only follow one nutrition philosophy.
Personalize your plan. Take what works for you from both Intuitive Eating and Intermittent Fasting to create something new.
In practice, I use intermittent fasting principles to design custom eating windows for my clients.
Once we set boundaries around when to eat, we start to refine what to eat during that eating window.
It’s a non-traditional approach to nutrition. I think it may just be a way to help more people to discover how to set a framework for nutrition that helps them feel better and enjoy good health.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to nutrition.
I write this for you so that you don’t feel discouraged if one approach doesn’t work for you. I’m not afraid to admit was wasn’t working and embrace emerging science to create something new.
You didn’t “fail,” a diet, the diet “fails” you. Think about when you feel really good and have energy. What habits do you have when you feel good? Do more of that. Don’t worry about labels or specific diet plans.
What can fasting teach you about honoring your hunger cues and trusting your body?
This article reflects my own personal and professional opinion on intuitive eating and intermittent fasting. It is not meant to be medical advice or constitute a provider/patient relationship.