Back in January, I promised Jerry James Stone that I would write a blog post about my experience with Intermittent Fasting and then tweet at him about it. I even created a ToDoist task to remind me of this, but then the January 6th Capitol Insurrection happened and even the idea of thinking about a post on IF got pushed back, and then life and everything else intervened.
The short version of my story with IF is that it worked quite well for a period of time. It was difficult to a degree but ultimately kind of easy for a rather dangerous reason: because I have a history of eating disorders. Ultimately it wasn’t sustainable and was doing real damage, and I had to stop.
My first experiment with Intermittent Fasting was short-lived, happening probably in January (or thereabouts) 2017. I tried the “skip breakfast and don’t eat after dinner” model, aka 16/8 (16 hours fasting, 8 hours eating), but I hadn’t read much about it first. I didn’t realize that maybe I shouldn’t have been doing it every day, and quickly found that this fasting cycle worsened my migraines considerably. (As of this writing, I’ve had a headache of one kind of another every day for more than six and a half years—since November 2014. Anything that makes that situation worse gets jettisoned pretty darn quickly.)
The headaches, however, were a significant factor in my weight gain up to that point. In my younger years, I’d been a lean-bodied dancer. As the years went by, new curves began to emerge and the number on the bathroom scale got bigger. I no longer had one of those skinny Hollywood bodies but was still on the smaller side, just looking more womanly. (More on this below.) Once the headaches came along, my physical activity was stymied. It’s hard to go for a hike or do strenuous yoga when your head is pounding. Worse yet, I found one of the few activities that brought any relief was chewing—something about the motion itself and the taste of food offered a temporary distraction from pain. As a result, my weight went up a good bit and as someone who had always been more body conscious than was probably healthy, my own alarm rose as well.
I wanted to get skinny again. I thought being skinny would mean that I was healthy, and that it would make me happy.
I did some more reading about IF and decided to try the 5/2 method—fasting two days a week and eating normally the other five days. The “fasting” days aren’t devoid of food; you’re supposed to limit yourself to about 500 calories on those days, which doesn’t allow for too many options. My own fasting day calorie count was lower—around 400 calories. I know this because I tracked my caloric intake on fasting days, and I still have that log.
Beginning in the spring of 2017, I “fasted” on Mondays and Thursdays. On those days, I’d allow myself some tea with honey first thing in the morning, and would hold off on eating anything until mid-day or the early afternoon. My food for those days normally consisted of some combination of hard-boiled eggs, baby carrots, vegetable bouillon, canned tuna, and grape tomatoes.
The weight did start coming off. I was thrilled that it was working. I also enjoyed the feeling of true hunger again—something I’d missed while distracting myself from headache pain via my tastebuds. I admit I relished the sense of control this gave me, too. I still had chronic headache pain. I was still challenged by chronic illness, too. But 5/2 fasting made me feel like I could still assert some influence over my body, rather than being at mercy of it. I should have paid more attention to that at the outset, because that desire for control is a warning sign of disordered eating.
I ran into some trouble with social events and traveling. I would switch around my fasting days—from Monday to Sunday or Tuesday, for instance—in order to celebrate my partner’s birthday or to enjoy a gathering with friends. When I was traveling, it was just easier to stop IF for the days that I was away, accept the weight gain consequences, and then get back in the IF saddle when I was back home again. I was loosening the screws as necessary, but was otherwise keeping things locked down tight.
But then I was having problems with my weight loss plateauing. Given my health issues, there wasn’t as much I could add to my physical activity and exercise to tip the balance toward burning a lot more calories, so I reduced my caloric intake on fast days even more. This was a gradual process, and it’s kind of alarming to me now to report that, at the end, I got myself down to about 200 calories a day (sometimes even less) on Mondays and Thursdays. That’s just not enough food.
The problem was that I had very nearly reached my goal weight of 120 pounds—which today I realize is way too small a number. I’d weighed maybe 110 pounds and been a size 2 in my 20s and early 30s when I was a skinny little missy, and I hadn’t yet given up on my dream of reclaiming that body. After a little more than a year with IF, I got down to 123 (from ~150), with some fluctuation, but then my weight started creeping back up—even as I kept fasting. I wasn’t gorging myself on cakes and fast food on my “feast” days, and I was eating so little on my fasting days, but I was gaining weight—because my body knew better than I did what it needed.
I also wasn’t sure I was all that happy. Yes, I loved being leaner again; that felt great. But there was something wrong. I felt on-edge, and it took a while for me to understand what was happening.
Remember what I said earlier about tracking all of those fasting days, and about being prone to eating disorders? I also had undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder, something I didn’t learn about until early 2020. The need to track and control was strong, and disordered eating isn’t uncommon with ASD. However, all of that tracking ultimately showed me something I hadn’t been wanting to see: that during that extended IF experiment, my anxiety had been on the rise.
It was the spring of 2019. I was closing in on two years of 5/2 Intermittent Fasting, and instead of reaching a new, lower bodyweight set point and having a fabulous life, my body was fighting me. My body wanted and needed to be bigger than a size 4. As much as I wanted it to be otherwise, IF was not working for me anymore. When I looked back over my chronic illness symptom trackers in my bullet journals, I saw a disturbing trend: I was having more panic attacks than ever—multiple times a week—and this had been increasing ever since I started IF.
Let me tell you something: panic attacks really, really suck. Having more than one a month changes your life in ways you might not even be able to imagine. Having them multiple times a week will completely derail you.
So I did more research, because digging in like that is something I’m good at when I have a problem I want to solve. When I looked deeper at the materials I’d read previously, I was disturbed to find that all of those studies I’d founded my own IF experiment on were male-centric. There was, at the time, very little data available on the effects of IF on women’s bodies, and what I did unearth related to women and IF supported what I’d experienced myself: that IF and real problems with anxiety can go hand in hand.
Of course I stopped IF. I was starving myself and still gaining weight. I was starving myself and having panic attacks. I started eating “normally” again, though I had to re-learn what normal eating was. I paid attention to my hunger cues, and to when I felt full. I paid attention to when my body craved activity, and when it needed rest. I still had chronic health/pain issues to contend with, and I also had to accept that I was deep into middle age, and that it was okay for my body to be larger and softer than it had been when I was younger.
I’d love to report that I developed a healthy and sustainable habit of intuitive eating from that point forward, and never thought about my body weight or clothing size again. I mean, that is what happened for a while. My body settled at a happy and healthy weight that fluctuated around the mid-130s, and I felt good in my own skin.
But then the flaming atomic chaos of 2020 rained down, with the pandemic and increasingly explosive politics, with grief and loss, with very real anxiety and fear, with outrage and alarm, and all the rest of it. That was a hell of a year, on top of the ongoing trauma of the Orange Administration—there’s no way to leave politics out of this, because I’m not the only person I know who engaged in serious stress-eating during those years, and 2020 was the worst of it by far. My intuitive eating practice didn’t completely evaporate, but it took a seat way in the back for a while, and yes, my weight went back up again as I packed on some unwanted pandemic pounds like millions of other people.
The result of all of this is that no, I do not recommend Intermittent Fasting. Despite short-term weight loss success, it quickly becomes unsustainable. It’s not healthy on multiple fronts, and it’s not any kind of way to live.
Also, even though I was keenly aware of the influence of media on diet culture and body image in general, that didn’t make me any less susceptible to it. I still wanted those tight muscles and that lean physique, even though my body—because of genes and because of chronic conditions—just can’t achieve that anymore. There was a lot of soul searching that went on during this period, where I had to acknowledge the unhealthy mindset of “body weight as moral goodness” that had been handed down to me. It takes a lot to unmoor the “body weight = health” myth, and I’ve been leaning heavily into body positivity on social media instead.
There’s a lot more to all of this, of course. Body image and diet culture and whatever other terminology you want to throw in there can’t be fully covered in a single blog post. There’s decades of baggage—including family stuff, plus internal and external expectations—to unpack here.
These days, I’m focused more on doing what I can to feel better. Chronic illness and pain remain part of my daily experience. Right now, I’m more focused on what I can do about the osteoarthritis in my knees, making peace with the likelihood that I’ll never dance again, and researching what new strategy I might try for my headaches, and I’m less concerned about wearing bigger clothes.
I am also struck once again by the genius of Carrie Fisher, who tweeted: “My body is my brain bag, it hauls me around to those places & in front of faces where theres something to say or see.”