On spaciousness + intermittent fasting..

I just got back from teaching an Ayurveda and yoga retreat in Greece. It was my first time doing my coaching program in a shorter, but more condensed “hands-on” way, so I wasn’t totally sure it was going to work. It turns out, it was amazing! (So amazing, I decided to do another September 28 in Kea, Greece.. Click for deets). I got great feedback from my students - they ate really healthy food but were totally satisfied, MANY cut the 3-4 cups of coffee or nightly wine/beer habit, and all got to know which health habits are most important for them and had lots of resources to bring back home with them. We ate 3 meals a day, based primarily on plants, but actually ate quite a lot. We experienced true hunger and true satiation (i.e no snacking and SPACE in between meals). Many lost weight and continue to lose weight when following the same meal times and meal spacing as we did on retreat. AND they had higher energy and more mental clarity.

What did we do (aside from the yoga, talks, beach walks, etc that is)?? Intermittent Fasting my friends.. called “IF” by those in the know. If you run around in cutting edge health or performance-oriented circles, you have probably heard of this, but what the heck is it? Intermittent Fasting is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It focuses on the when of eating rather than the what.

IF got a lot of buzz from a book called The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung. In his Book, Fung provided lots of evidence-based research on what makes us fat, and alternatively, how to keep lean, fit and svelte. Fung offered the usual advice doctors, nutritionists and health coaches give (eat more fruits and veggies, fiber, healthy protein, and fats, and avoid sugar, refined grains, processed foods, and stop snacking for gods sake..) but he also recommended looking at the timing of eating, rather than the actual substance of eating…a crazy important but understudied topic that yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners have been hip to for the past, say, 5,000 years or so and modern diet and health researchers have gotten curious about. While old school yogis (or even present day ones) may choose to fast for an entire 24 hour cycle one or two days a week, modern nutritionists, health coaches and doctors may recommend daily fasts where we increase the time between eating dinner and breakfast the following day.

We did 16 hour fasts on my last retreat. 16 hours of fasting and 8 of eating. 16/8 is a common fasting and eating pattern for IF practitioners. Sound crazy hard? It’s not. No one on the retreat even noticed until I pointed it out at the end. We had breakfast at 10, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6pm with no snacks, a big lunch and a smaller dinner. That’s 8 hours of eating and 16 hours of fasting. When you consider that you are sleeping for 8 hours and digesting food after dinner, winding down and getting ready for bed for much of the evening, 16 hours between dinner and breakfast is actually not that hard to do.

How and why does it work?

The food we eat is broken down by enzymes in our gut and eventually ends up as molecules in our bloodstream. Food that is broken down that we immediately need is used is for energy. If our cells don’t use it all, we store it in our fat cells as, well, fat. But sugar can only enter our cells with insulin. Insulin brings sugar into the fat cells and keeps it there. Just hangin’ out.

Between meals, as long as we don’t snack, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy. Sooo fasting allows us to release stored sugar from our fat cells AND makes our insulin levels go down. That’s a good thing. We lose weight if we let our insulin levels go down. When we practice intermittent fasting, we allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat.

IF is also a great way to give our digestive system a little much-needed R and R. From the Ayurvedic perspective, intermittent fasting allows the digestive system (and other major organs in the body) a rest during the late evening and early morning times so it can concentrate on cleansing and healing the organs. The body ‘cleans house’ at night from 10pm to 6 am, so avoiding eating at or around these times allows you to support the bodies own cleaning and detoxing processes. The stomach cleanses between 10 pm-12 am, the heart between 12-2am, liver and gallbladder 2-4 am and the colon, kidneys and bladder between 4-6 am. Intermittent fasting also resets your agni (digestive fire) resulting in better digestion and elimination.

On a purely practical level, I feel amazing when I practice IF (which is about 5 days a week). I have more energy, less fat and more muscle. It also just feels like my body is operating more efficiently. I am eating when my body needs the most energy and can most readily digest. As a lifelong snacker, I LOVE the feeling of being actually HUNGRY rather than just a little peckish or bored - pulsating between empty and full is an amazing feeling. Want to experiment with IF? You can join a course or retreat and do it in a group (LOADS easier) and/or follow these tips:

  1. Try the 16/8 method. I find 10 - 6pm really doable. If you have a physically demanding morning or just wake up early really hungry, you can try 8 - 4pm.

  2. Start your day with water. LOTS of it. You can then follow it with tea or coffee but hydrate first so when you eat, you are feeding your hunger not your thirst.

  3. Be creative about your nights and come up with some cool things to do with the extra time you have when you aren’t creating and consuming elaborate late dinners. :)

  4. Eat good fats! Especially at lunch time. I love good oils like olive or coconut oils, avocados and seeds/nuts. Also a few bits of dark chocolate.

  5. Try roping a partner or friend in to give it a whirl.

  6. Have an experimental attitude. If you think you are commiting to this for life and will never be able to enjoy a romantic dinner or late night pizza or brownies ever again for the rest of your life, chances are, this won’t look that attractive. Experiment with 1 or 2 days a week and be forgiving and compassionate if something goes wrong.

Let me know how you feel after a few weeks experimenting. I expect great things… :)

Kari Zabel