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Intermittent Fasting: My Journey With Body Image and My IF Results

TW: Fasting, mentions of eating disorders and disordered eating; if you’ve struggled or are struggling with an ED, I recommend picking a different article to read. (Sending love, and wishing you luck in your recovery)

Since elementary school, my dad has tried dozens upon dozens of diets and weight loss trends. Due to genetics and everyday stressors, he wanted to create healthy eating habits in order to promote his health and prevent complications in the future. I’ve witnessed him try and fail almost everything you’ve ever heard of: Keto, Vegetarian diet, Vegan diet, Paleo, Whole 30, Gluten-Free, No Carbs, Juice Cleansing…seriously everything you can name, he’s tried. In every case, he would start off strong, educating my family on the health benefits of each one, explaining why this diet would really work this time. But every time, he would run out of steam and fall back into normal (or unhealthy) eating habits. That was until he tried Intermittent Fasting (IF). One summer in high school, I went to sleepaway camp, and when I returned home, my dad looked like a completely different person. He had lost over 40-50lbs within only a few months, he had more energy, and he was happier. I was shocked. 

Growing up, I had severe body image issues of my own. I was never blessed with a fast metabolism, and I preferred reading to sports. Things got worse as I entered middle and high school, especially with the exposure to social media. In the winter of 2019, I was at my lowest point and had a breakdown about my appearance in front of my mom. When I told her what I was feeling, her response was not what I expected or what I really wanted to hear. She told me she agreed that I didn’t always make the best nutritional choices and that she would help me lose weight. I always wished that she had empowered me and taught me more about body positivity, but you can’t control other people’s reactions, or how they feel (that’s a hard lesson I’ve had to learn). To make matters worse, she told my dad about my confidence issues with my body. He pulled me aside and strongly encouraged me to try intermittent fasting, as it had worked so well for him. I agreed, and downloaded the fasting timer app, Zero, to help me with my IF journey. 

Initially, it was very apparent to me that IF was essentially starving yourself for allotted periods of time. As a beginner, you’re supposed to start small and work your way up to longer fasts. I started with the Circadian Rhythm Fast, which is a 13 hour fast and an 11 hour eating period. Essentially, you fast from after dinner (let’s say 9 pm) to late breakfast the next day (10 am). Not so bad. 

Each week, your goal is to add an hour onto your time and ideally reach 24+ hours of fasting for optimal weight loss. During the beginning of my intermittent fasting, I worked up to about 16 hours. I was feeling good about my progress. When I told my dad, he smiled, praised me, and asked “You’re going to keep going, right? You should probably work up to 18 to 20 hours.” It was definitely a blow to my confidence. It felt like he was telling me that he thought I needed to lose weight and that my progress wasn’t good enough. 

Eventually, I couldn’t maintain the IF lifestyle when I was in high school — I was waking up at 6 am, going to school until 3 pm, and then going to dance or gymnastics until 9 pm, and needed food to get through the day. I felt irritable, nauseous, and lightheaded if I tried to make it through the school day without eating. I was rude to my friends, I couldn’t pay attention in class, and I drank an incredible amount of water, which led to frequent bathroom trips. Of course, my dad had an answer to all my symptoms: I needed to drink magnesium to avoid headaches and stomach aches, and I could drink apple cider vinegar to reduce hunger pangs — it would go away in time. The only thing I never heard was that it was okay to eat or that it was okay to stop fasting. 

I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t sustain 18:6 fasts (fast for 18 hours and eating for 6) and gave up. My dad never really knew since he wasn’t at school with me, and he didn’t say anything about it. He was never judgemental, but I think that he was excited that I was trying something that had made a positive difference for him. He gave me research books to read about the benefits of IF, but all I could see was that it was an eating disorder in disguise. 

When I finally went to college, I felt that I was free of food judgment from my parents and that I could focus on myself and my body. But things didn’t go to plan, and my freshman year was filled with depressive episodes and severe anxiety. Food was a coping mechanism, and college dining halls are just the thing for stress-eaters. After the first month of school, I could tell that I had gained weight and was feeling horrible about my body. I started going to the gym, but I couldn’t get around the high-calorie meals and the constant eating I was doing to combat my anxiety. 

When I came home for winter break, I knew I had to make changes, or I would continue my never-ending battle with body image. Being at home gave me more control over what I was able to eat, and I felt comfortable enough to plan out what I wanted to do. I thought about the positive results IF had given my dad, and I figured that if I took the fasting more seriously, I could achieve similar results. So I downloaded Zero again and started small with the 13-hour fasting. Additionally, I tried to pay attention to what I was eating, but it was difficult to eat clean around various holidays. That being said, I continued my intermittent fasting when I went back to school after Christmas and started to feel the effects. I felt less bloated in the morning, my face was losing its puffiness, and I felt in control. This gave me the confidence to go to the gym more often, and I continued to up my fasting hours weekly. I reached 16 to 18 hours a day and felt happy with my progress. I started drinking tea in the mornings, which helped prevent nausea and headaches. This time, I was able to see and feel the results of my fasting.

In March, I was sent home from college due to COVID-19. I decided not to mention that I had restarted IF to my dad, and continue my journey on my own. During the peak of quarantine, I hit 20 to 22 hours of fasting per day. For the most part, I felt good. I drank water and tea, and the episodes of nausea became less and less frequent. Most importantly, I was on top of my eating habits. Within a few months, I lost over 11 pounds. I was incredibly proud of myself and amazed that it had actually worked. 

After I hit my goal, I toned down the extremity and stayed at an 18:6 schedule for fasting. However, I also stopped holding myself accountable for the kinds of foods I was eating and the amount that I consumed. I observed a fluctuation of a 3 to 5-pound increase after being more lenient with my diet.

So, what’s my final conclusion? Yes, fasting can work to some extent, but what’s most important is eating foods that make you feel good and listening to cues from your body. Fasting is a good way to help prevent mindless eating (like midnight snacks just because you’re bored), but fasting alone won’t give you dramatic results. And of course, every body is different. What works for one may yield different results for another. If you’re thinking about trying intermittent fasting, I recommend you do your own research (links below), listen to your body cues, to start small with a 13 hour fast, and incorporate healthy foods into your diet. If fasting turns out not to be for you, it is completely okay. IF is not for everyone, and there are so many other ways of getting fit and feeling good about your body. As always, every body is beautiful, and no one ever needs to lose weight. Do what works best for you.

If you want to research more about the science and health benefits of intermittent fasting, these articles provide more information: 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting, Intermittent Fasting: Surprising update, and Intermittent Fasting: What is it, and how does it work?

 

Julia is from Westchester, NY and is a sophomore majoring in Exercise Science & Kinesiology. When she's not writing or studying anatomy, she loves hanging out with her dog, Molly, and watching New Girl on repeat.
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