The 4 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Intermittent Fasting

Black clock on a plate

Getty Images / erdikocak

I am not a big breakfast person. Don’t get me wrong, I have much love for a cheesy omelet, an eggs benny, or a stack of pancakes… but at 6 in the morning? Hard pass. The only thing I care about when my alarm goes off is that first cup of coffee

As children, we are told “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” As an adult, I learned to listen to my body and just stuck to my black coffee and water until I actually got hungry, usually around 10am or later. But it wasn’t until early 2019 that I learned there was a name for what I was already intuitively doing: Intermittent Fasting (or IF). 

I dug a little deeper and learned that the official approach was simple–pick a window of time during a 24 period when you eat, and a larger window of time when you don’t (8 hours eating, 16 hours fasting is the standard approach, though there are variations). The point of IF, the golden-ticket element, is to lower your insulin levels by giving your body a break from digestion. After the magic 12 hour mark, your body begins to use its fat reserves as an energy source (rather than that burger I ate last night). What could go wrong? Turns out, a few things. Here’s what I learned along the way that I wish I had known at the outset.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Atay Bi Nana Moroccan Mint Tea

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

During your fasting window you should (must) consume non-caloric liquids like water, sparkling water and hot or chilled tea. I start my day with a massive jug of water and a couple cups of black coffee (dehydrating, yes, but essential to my sanity), then move into a choreographed dance between my water bottle and hot tea mug until it’s time to break my fast. 

Being both hungry and dehydrated is no happy place, so absolutely do not think of the fasting window as a time to avoid consumption of everything. Anyone with a job that has them running around all day on their feet knows how hard it can be to even pause for a bathroom break, let alone a sip of water. But you must. I am prone to headaches, but by religiously maintaining my hydration during my fasting time, I have never had a hungry-headache hit me. Instead, I am able to ride out a little fasted-high with loads of energy from what’s already stored in my body. Bonus: I reach my daily recommended water intake all before noon.

Find Ways to Fill Up That Still Keep You In A Fasted State (aka The Fat Fast)

Freezing butter

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

On the days when I am feeling a bit hungry first thing I turn to coconut MCT oil. It’s a fractionated coconut oil that I add to my otherwise black coffee, and while it is high in calories (thus, technically breaking my fast), it is full of special kinds of fatty acids, which means my body can still do it’s insulin regulating magic. MCT oils or keto coffee (blending some grass-fed butter, MCT oil, and black coffee together to make a kind of frothy cappuccino that I affectionately refer to as “butterball coffee”) turns my fast into a “fat fast.”  

After I drink my butterball coffee, I continue my water consumption, and log into work to look at pretty pictures of food all day. I have even gone until 1pm without realizing it’s lunch time. My energy level and mood is fantastic and my brain is clear. This fatty fast hack is my go-to for busy work days.

What You Break Your Fast With Matters

Scrambled Eggs with Spinach

The Spruce / Maxwell Cozzi

I’m sure a nutritionist would be able to name all the “best foods” for breaking your fast from a health perspective. That’s not what I’m here for; instead, I’m going to talk about saving your insides from total annihilation. Pro Tip: don’t break your fast with a raw kale salad or any roughage that will course through you like shrapnel. You can use your imagination for how that journey ends. Your intestines have just been in a state of relative rest, on a liquid-only diet, for upwards of 16 hours. You throw a raw broccoli tree down there and you are choosing violence.

In that same common-sense-is-not so-common vein, greasy foods like fries and  cheeseburgers or spicy foods have all betrayed me as my first meal of the day. Instead, I now ease into the eating portion of the day with a little powdered green juice supplement that is also loaded with probiotics. Then I’ll do some simple protein like eggs, chicken, turkey, or tuna salad and even yogurt and avocado or other fruit. The point of IF is that it’s not a diet in the sense of caring about what you eat, but instead, when you eat. However, the what-you-eat-first bit does actually matter.

Be Flexible and Listen To Your Body

Hot Crab Fondue

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

The biggest reward with intermittent fasting is that I am much more in tune with my body. Am I hungry or am I just eating because I am “supposed to” and “it’s breakfast time”?  While it is best to maintain consistency with your intermittent fasting routine to reap the energy and weight maintenance/loss benefits, I do break my own fasting rules. Wake up sick and need to down some bone broth or a mug of oatmeal? Of course. On holiday and craving a festive brunch to kick off the day? Count me in. Still noshing and sipping wine at 10pm with old friends? It happens. 

While some people may want or need to take a more regimented approach to IF, I know that for me–a person who sees food as essential to any experience–I cannot decline a 10:30am brunch reservation or pass on a round of dessert in the name of my fasting journey. I just pick back up with it the next day, adjusting my breaking-the-fast window back a bit to still account for the late night eating, for example. Anything else would be no fun and unsustainable.

Just because morning fasting works for me it doesn’t mean it works for everyone. The goal here is at least 12 hours of fasting per day, but it’s up to you when that happens. I know people who swear by that 8am hearty breakfast and taper off their eating by 6pm. Like everything in life, it’s whatever feels best for your body and your routine.