I recently let myself off the hook, and it was probably one of the best decisions I have made for my health. I was coming off my umpteenth “failure” at trying to seriously tighten my eating window. A tight eating window is another term for “intermittent fasting”, which means some flavor of not eating for longer periods of time on at least some days of the week than most people normally do. The most widely practiced version of intermittent fasting is 16:8, which means you don’t eat anything for sixteen hours a day and eat during eight. What’s “intermittent” about this I’m not really sure.
For the many thousands of years that fasting has been practiced, until recently, it has been primarily for religious purposes and/or to clear the mind and/or to recover from illness. Now the practice is generally done for weight loss and/or appetite control and/or because everyone else seems to be doing it. For a few years now I haven’t eaten for a longer period of time than about eight hours a day and a few weeks ago I was really trying to narrow this down to five, four and even one. Eating for only one hour a day essentially allows a single meal, and this is called OMAD (One Meal a Day). There are many health benefits associated with the OMAD diet, and you can’t beat it for simplicity.
But if I’m being honest, I’m not exactly sure why I have been on an eight hour eating window for so long, nor do I really know why I was trying to reduce this eating window. And that fact really is the impetus for this article. When you get to be a certain age, you really must ask yourself why you are doing certain things for which the reason is not obvious. I had vague notions of improved health and weight loss and increases in growth hormone and other things that people who love fasting talk about. But honestly, I’m not really sure why I was doing it. But I do know that in the process of trying to do it I learned to frown upon breakfast and snacking (even though I snacked) and other “normal” eating behaviors. One salient thing I also noticed is that on the rare occasions that I decided to “cheat” and eat breakfast or otherwise not worry about the clock, it was a thrill. Just contemplate that.
In addition to such things as eschewing breakfast, I learned to question, second guess, doubt, and feel guilty about just about everything I put in my mouth based upon what the thing was, how much of it there was, and at which time it was put. Days were colored by clock watching and attempts to ignore or distract hunger. There were plenty of awkward attempts to explain to other people why I don’t eat breakfast. “I’m just not hungry in the morning.” (That’s not true at all.) Inopportunely scheduled social meals were either avoided entirely or scheduled around these constraints.
Finally, about four weeks ago, I just quit all this. I guess I’d had enough. Will power is supposedly a finite resource and my well was dry. I decided I’m going to eat when hungry, I’m going to eat what I want and feel I need, I’m going to try to eat until I am almost full but not totally full, and I’m not going to worry about any of the rest. Imagine that! You see, in addition to running out of will power, I decided that my body really MUST be a lot smarter than my mind is about what it needs and how often and how much. I sure hope it is. How else would I as a (fairly) evolved person and we as a species have made it this far? I just no longer can see how my fad-susceptible hyper-conscious over-thinking mind can possibly engineer a process that could be any more successful than the one my physiology has hard-wired into it based on countless generations of experience.
Most importantly for purposes of daily functioning and relatively stress-free existence, I ought to be able to figure out for myself when and what and how much I should eat rather than relying on someone I’ve never met to tell me.
It turns out that what I’m describing here actually has a name, because of course it does, and it has books and coaches and blogs designed to help you do it. It’s called “intuitive eating” if you want to look into it. I feel good that I came to my decision without having been taught to do so by such resources because it feels much more genuine and honest to me, but they may help you if you are having similar thoughts.
Here’s what I realized. I’ve been following an eight hour eating window (or less) for several years now. What do I have to show for this? Other than a frustrated Greek mother-in-law, I really don’t know. My body composition is pretty good, especially for my age (56 as of this writing), but I believe that has far more to do with daily calisthenics and walking and avoiding long periods of sitting than dietary self restraint. I feel like my body, deep down, knows where it needs to be. I’m pretty athletic and always have been, and I like working out, I’m naturally pretty slim, and strength training comes naturally to me. I rather enjoy it. I don’t like sitting for long periods of time. And I recognize that I’m lucky that these things are true for me. I didn’t earn them or develop them, they are just true. And because they are just true, I feel that my physiology knows what it needs to do to maintain this condition.
If I’m hungry, honestly hungry and not just in the mood to snack, then I should eat. I need to get back to respecting that hunger signal. It is, after all, buried deep within the primal brain. I’m also fortunate that a preference for real food also comes naturally to me. If I’m hungry, I’m more likely than not to go for something my great-grandmother would recognize as food rather than something bleached, pounded, extruded, reconstituted, sweetened, fortified and boxed. I grew up around farmers and gardens and livestock. I don’t restrict junk, I just don’t have much of a weakness for it and so I don’t think I should worry about it.
In the month since hopping off the restrictive diet hamster wheel I have neither gained nor lost weight. I do feel more free and seem to have more energy and feel significantly less like napping during the day than I did. My mood is better and I feel like I have less stress. Mostly it’s really comforting to not feel guilty about eating when hungry and stopping when full. It’s helped me focus on what I think is much more critical for health, fitness and longevity, which is strength, mobility and flexibility training and frequent movement that is fueled by the right amount of (mostly) real, great-grandmother approved, food. And I also recognize only now the importance, for me, to feel like a I am really a part of the world in which I live and a grateful product of my upbringing.
Like other extreme diet practices such as keto, paleo, Whole30 or veganism, intermittent fasting can be a powerful tool to address a specific problem such as obesity or addictive eating or insulin sensitivity or a myriad of other things. It can also be a great tool for those of us who are dedicated and goal driven, and most importantly, tolerant of rather severe restriction, to achieve a finite goal without too much complexity. But if you’re an active person with good body composition and don’t necessarily suffer from any of the aforementioned problems, you may not need to follow these practices just because they are popular. And you might be better off giving your physiology a chance to tell you what it needs and when it needs it.