Intermittent Fasting? Here's Exactly What To Eat At The End Of Your Fast
If you've been experimenting with one of the many iterations of intermittent fasting (IF)—i.e., abstaining from all (or most) food for anywhere from 12 hours per day to several full days in a row—you've undoubtedly wondered, what's the best way to actually break a fast?
Turns out, some experts believe that the foods you include in your first post-fast meal (especially if you've fasted for a full day or more) are particularly important, helping to either amplify or sabotage your results. Here's what you need to know, directly from the IF experts.
What to eat to break your fast (shorter, time-restricted eating fasts).
By far, the most popular forms of intermittent fasting are the 18:6, 16:8, and 14:10 time-restricted eating plans, in which you abstain from food for 18, 16, and 14 hours per day, respectively. While breaking these types of fasts doesn't require quite as much planning as breaking an extended fast, there are still some general recommendations.
First and foremost, stick to whole foods and opt for a mix of macronutrients when you break a fast—you don't want a straight shot of carbohydrates (especially refined carbs) on an empty stomach.
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"Definitely avoid carb-loaded meals and sugary drinks as they will cause a blood sugar roller coaster, raising your insulin levels and making you feel even more hungry," says Amy Shah, M.D., who uses intermittent fasting in her practice. "Additionally, having lots of sugar will make fasting for the next day even harder because your hunger hormones [like ghrelin] will be raised."
So what should you eat? "For a standard 16:8 plan, one could break a fast with a low-glycemic meal of choice," says Ali Miller R.D., L.D., CDE, registered dietitian and functional medicine practitioner. "If you're going to have carbs, ensure that they're balanced with protein and fat. A salad with protein, eggs with avocado and vegetables, a homemade protein shake, or a leftover protein and roasted veggies could all work as meal number one."
Portion size matters a bit—particularly when you get into the more intense time-restricted eating plans like 18:6 or 20:4. Even though you may be quite hungry when breaking your fast, particularly if you're new to IF, avoid eating a huge meal or you might overload your digestive system and experience symptoms like bloating. Typically, "hefty snack or small meal is best," says Miller.
Some specific foods you can mix and match to incorporate into your first post-fast meal include:
How to break an extended fast.
While the "rules" of breaking a shorter, time-restricted eating fast are pretty flexible, you want to be a bit more mindful about how you break an extended fast (i.e., a fast of a day or more)—especially if you're new to fasting. Not only do you want to avoid excessive carbs and sugar, but sticking to easily digestible foods and small portions is also a good idea.
"When you are new to fasting and just suddenly stop eating, your body is confused and will stop producing a high volume of digestive juices," says Jason Fung, M.D., fasting expert and co-author of the upcoming book Life in the Fasting Lane. "When you start to eat again, your body might not have what it needs to properly digest the food items. The result is often GI discomfort and diarrhea."
The solution: Ease back into eating. "Oftentimes, it can be nice to break a fast with a nourishing soup and some cooked veggies because they are easier to digest and absorb," says integrative physician Vincent Pedre, M.D., bestselling author of Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program To Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain.
Miller agrees, saying, "It's best to ease out of a fast in order to reduce digestive and blood sugar stress on the body. I'll often have clients sip on bone broth followed an hour or so later by soft, easy-to-digest proteins such as fish." Both Miller and Pedre agree that dense meats (think steak) may be too intense right off the bat, as they require a lot of digestive enzyme strength. And if you do eat something like this, give your body a little extra digestive support by taking digestive bitters or a shot of apple cider vinegar with your meal.
Don't stuff yourself when breaking an extended fast either—even though you may really want to. "Portion size definitely matters, especially for prolonged fasting because your stomach will be less accustomed to holding as much food," says Pedre. "You can think of it as if your stomach contracts when you're not eating as much. Start with smaller portions, test them out, and if you tolerate them, then move on to bigger portions. Temper what your brain wants with what your body can actually handle, and stop when you feel about 75% full. On that first day, it might be best to eat multiple small meals over the course of the day."
To reiterate, these foods can be great choices when breaking a longer fast:
- Bone broths and nourishing soups
- Cooked vegetables
- Easier-to-digest proteins such as fish and poultry
What not to eat when breaking a fast.
As mentioned above, you definitely want to avoid excessive carbs, particularly refined carbohydrates and sugary beverages, when breaking any type of fast in order to avoid a blood sugar roller coaster. Other than that, most real whole foods are acceptable.
With extended fasts, what you can tolerate will vary (it will depend on the state of your gut, says Pedre, and may take a little trial and error to figure out what you can tolerate. But according to our experts, you may want to avoid anything that requires a lot of digestive energy. Raw vegetables, beef, and occasionally eggs and nuts can be difficult for some people immediately post-fast, says Fung. And anything fried or greasy should also be avoided until you get your digestion revving with gentler foods.
Side effects of eating these foods to break your fast can range from discomfort and bloating to diarrhea. But that said, if you have a "happy gut" that produces adequate amounts of digestive enzymes, it's possible for you to break your fast with something like meat and experience no issues at all, says Pedre. It's all about the individual, so experiment a bit and see what works for you.
What to eat to prolong your fast.
Now you know how to break your fast, but what if you don't want to end your fast just yet? When you're first starting IF, or if you're trying to graduate to a longer fasting window, there are certain things that can help get you over the hangry hump without sabotaging your results. (Of course, you should always end a fast early if you're feeling lethargic and can't perform your normal day-to-day activities.)
Noncaloric (or very low-calorie) options that are widely accepted among intermittent fasting experts include seltzer water, coffee, and tea. Miller likes Earl Grey tea in particular, as it contains bergamot extract, which can help suppress appetite. "Just be sure not to add stevia or noncaloric sweeteners, which may provoke an insulin response," she says.
If you need something a bit more substantial to hold you over, or if you have a low body fat percentage (in which case, strict forms of fasting may not be wise, as they could throw your hormones out of whack), then sipping on a high-quality bone broth, or coffee or tea blended with coconut or MCT oil, during your fasting window are both great options.
"You can essentially 'fool' your body into thinking it is still fasting by having a fat like MCT or coconut oil because they don't bump up your blood-glucose-regulating hormone, insulin," says Pedre. "This works great to curb your appetite during prolonged fasting hours." And while this may not preserve all of fasting's benefits (for example, autophagy may be downregulated a bit), it seems to be beneficial for things like weight loss.
In general, breaking a fast isn't rocket science, but you do want to follow some general rules to keep blood sugar stable and minimize digestive distress. For shorter, time-restricted eating fasts, break your fast with a hefty snack or small meal comprised of real, whole foods with a mix of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, fats). For extended fasts, opt for small portions of foods that are easier to digest such as bone broth, cooked veggies, and fish before eating a heftier meal.