Intermittent Fasting Is Confusing: Here's Exactly When To Eat

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As a functional medicine practitioner, I see a wide range of health problems that all stem from chronic inflammation. And while acute inflammation is a natural and healthy response to help fight off pathogenic bacteria and infections, ongoing chronic inflammation that doesn’t subside when the threat is gone can contribute to everything from autoimmune conditions to cancer.

There are many amazing natural remedies to drive down inflammation, but intermittent fasting is one of my all-time favorites. Intermittent fasting is when you go without food for a certain amount of time.

The benefits of intermittent fasting.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: What’s wrong with eating whenever you want as long as your meals are from healthy, whole-food sources? Well, giving your body a break from food allows your gut time to rest and inflammation to cool down, thus producing some amazing benefits to your overall health:

1. Lowers cancer risk.

Multiple studies have shown a link between intermittent fasting and a reduced risk of breast cancer.

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2. Enhances heart health.

Intermittent fasting is thought to lower heart disease risk due to its ability to lower triglycerides and blood pressure and raise beneficial HDL cholesterol.

3. Improves autoimmune conditions.

A fasting-mimicking diet under 1,000 calories a day for three-day cycles has been shown to improve symptoms associated with autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis as well as lupus.

4. Improves blood sugar.

When it comes to managing blood sugar, intermittent fasting takes center stage. With its proven ability to lower insulin resistance and increase metabolism, it's one of my favorite tools to recommend to patients with blood sugar problems.

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5. Encourages weight loss.

Weight-loss resistance can often be due to an underlying hormone imbalance. Leptin resistance occurs when your brain stops recognizing leptin's signals to use your body’s fat stores for energy. This causes your body to continually store fat instead of using it. Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve chronic inflammation that can dull the brain’s leptin receptor sites.

6. Curbs cravings.

If you're worried you’ll be starving while fasting, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! Intermittent fasting decreases your hunger hormone ghrelin, which in turn can increase dopamine levels in the brain. (Just another example of the gut-brain axis at work.) Fasting can also help free people from emotional eating and kill cravings by transitioning your metabolism from unstable sugar-burning to steady fat-burning.

7. Increases cognitive function.

Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can improve degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

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8. Improves lung health.

One study showed intermittent fasting’s ability to decrease asthma symptoms as well as reduce oxidative stress.

9. Helps heal the gut

Lowering inflammation in the gut with intermittent fasting improves inflammatory gut problems such as IBS, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

While the idea of fasting can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t done it before, intermittent fasting can actually be a lot easier than many other types of eating plans. Since you are fasting for a good chunk of the day, you’ll be eating less food, which eliminates a lot of the stress around having to meal prep. When you are eating, you’ll still want to focus mainly on healthy fats, clean protein, and carbohydrates from whole food sources—but this isn’t an excuse to hit the drive-thru and load up on sugar the rest of the time!

How to schedule meals: Intermittent fasting for beginners.

Before you start your IF plan, it's important to talk with a professional to make sure it's right for you. Women should be especially cautious as there are some mixed opinions on whether or not certain fasting protocols are healthy for female hormone balance. In addition, if you have adrenal fatigue or gut health issues you'll want to proceed with caution. If you have a history of disordered eating, you'll probably want to avoid fasting altogether..

Once you start your IF journey, you’ll most likely find that you feel fuller longer and can keep the meals you do eat very simple. There are a few different ways you can fast, so I broke up each of the different plans below into beginner, intermediate, and advanced along with a typical meal plan for each day. The combination of nutrients will give you the energy you need to enhance the benefits of your fasting journey. Just make sure to take into account any individual food intolerances, and use this as a guide for your particular health case, and adjust from there.

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1. The 8-6 window plan for beginners.

Eat only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. This is a great way to dip your toes in the fasting waters because it allows you to eat every meal plus some snacks but still get 14 hours of fasting within a 24-hour period.

Breakfast: Green Smoothie at 8 a.m.

After fasting, I like to ease into my day of eating with a smoothie since it is a little easier for my gut to digest. You’ll want to go for a green smoothie instead of a high-sugar fruit smoothie to avoid starting your day on a blood-sugar roller coaster. Add in lots of healthy fats to keep you going until lunch!

Ingredients:

  • 1 avocado
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 small handful blueberries
  • 1 cup spinach, kale, or chard
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds

Method:

Add all ingredients into blender, blend, and enjoy!

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Lunch: Grass-Fed Burgers at 12 p.m.

Grass-fed liver burgers are one of my favorite choices for lunch during the week, and they are extremely easy to prep to have throughout the entire week. Eat on top of a bed of dark leafy greens with a simple homemade dressing for a meal packed with B vitamins for healthy methylation and detox pathways.

Ingredients:

  • ½ pound ground grass-fed beef liver
  • ½ pound ground grass-fed beef
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • Desired cooking oil

Method:

  1. Mix together all ingredients together in a bowl and form together desired-size patties.
  2. Heat cooking oil over skillet on medium-high heat.
  3. Cook burgers in skillet until desired doneness.
  4. Store in a container in the fridge and use within 4 days.

Snack: Cinnamon Roll Fat Bombs at 2:30 p.m.

Fat bombs will curb your sweet tooth and give you enough healthy fats to sustain you until dinner, and these are especially satisfying because they taste like cinnamon rolls.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup coconut cream
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons almond butter

Directions

  1. Mix together coconut cream and ½ teaspoon cinnamon.
  2. Line an 8-by-8-inch square pan with parchment paper and spread coconut cream and cinnamon mixture at the bottom.
  3. Mix together ½ teaspoon of cinnamon with coconut oil and almond butter. Spread over the first layer in the pan.
  4. Freeze for 10 minutes and cut into desired-size squares or bars.

Dinner: Salmon & Veggies at 5:30 p.m.

Seafood is an excellent source of omega-3 healthy fats. Salmon is one of my personal favorites for its taste and nutrient density, but you can select any wild-caught seafood of your choosing. Serve alongside some of your favorite vegetables roasted in coconut oil, and you have a quick and easy superfood meal.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound salmon or other fish of choice
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons ghee
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely diced

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Mix together lemon juice, ghee, and garlic.
  3. Place salmon in foil and pour lemon and ghee mixture over the top.
  4. Wrap salmon with the foil and place on a baking sheet.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes or until salmon is cooked through.
  6. If your oven size allows, you can roast your vegetables alongside salmon on a separate baking sheet.

2. Intermediate fasting plan: 12-6 window plan.

This is the same as the 8-to-6 window plan, but you are extending your fasting time an extra four hours. I personally practice this plan during the workweek. I'm not a breakfast person, so I just enjoy a few cups of herbal tea to start my day. With this plan you will be eating only between the hours of 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. for a full 18 hours of fasting within a 24-hour period.

Even though you aren’t eating breakfast, it's still important to stay hydrated. Make sure to still drink enough water. You can also have herbal tea. The catechins in tea have been shown to enhance the benefits of fasting by helping to further decrease the hunger hormone ghrelin, so you can make it until lunch and not feel deprived. Since you’ve increased your fasting period an extra four hours, you need to make sure your first meal (at noon) has enough healthy fats. The burger in the 8-to-6 window plan will work well, and you can add more fats in with your dressing or top with an avocado!

Nuts and seeds make great snacks that are high-fat and can be eaten around 2:30 p.m. Soaking these beforehand can help neutralize naturally occurring enzymes like phytates that can contribute to digestive problems. Eat dinner around 5:30 p.m., and just like the 8-to-6 window plan, a dinner with some sort of wild-caught fish or other clean protein source with vegetables is a great option.

3. Intermediate fasting plan: The modified 2-day plan.

For this plan, eat clean for five days of the week (you can pick whatever days you want). On the other two days, restrict your calories to no more than 700 each day. Calorie restriction unlocks a lot of the same benefits as fasting for an entire day. On your non-fasting days, you’ll need to make sure you're getting in healthy fats, clean meats, vegetables, and some fruits, and you can structure your meals however best works for you. On restricted days you can have smaller meals or snacks throughout the day or have a moderate-size lunch and dinner and fast in the morning and after dinner. Again, focus on healthy fats, clean meats, and produce. An app like MyFitnessPal can help you log your food and keep track of your calories so you don’t go over 700.

4. High-intermediate: The 5-2 plan.

On this plan you'll eat clean five days of the week but will not eat anything for two nonconsecutive days of the week. For example, you can fast on Monday and Thursday but eat clean meals on the other days. Food on these five days will look just like the rest of the fasting plans—healthy fats, clean meat sources, vegetables, and some fruit. Keep in mind that this plan is not for beginners, and you should always talk to your doctor before starting any fasting regimen, especially if you are on medication or have a medical condition.

5. Advanced: Every-other-day plan.

Even though this plan is advanced, it's very simple. Don't eat anything every other day. This is the most intense form of fasting but can produce amazing results. Every other day, eat healthy fats, clean meat sources, vegetables, and some fruit, and then on your fasting days, you can consume water, herbal tea, and moderate amounts of black coffee or tea.

With this information in hand, you should know exactly how to schedule meals when starting an intermittent fasting plan. And while it might seem complicated at first, once you get into the habit of fasting, it will feel like second nature and fit pretty seamlessly into your days. Just remember to always start slow and gradually work up to more advanced plans.

Want more fasting info? Here's our definitive guide to fasting.

And are you feeling a little fatigued? Feel like something's just not right, but Western Medicine tells you, "you're fine"? Jason Wachob, founder & CEO of mindbodygreen, tells all in his health story. Sign up now for FREE!

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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