Intermittent Fasting? Try hunger-free Intuitive Eating instead!
The new trend of Intermittent Fasting offers the same benefits as Intuitive Eating (eating only when hungry). Unfortunately, with Intermittent Fasting, you suffer hunger pains – but not with Intuitive Eating!
Intermittent Fasting is going for scheduled periods without eating. Various cultures and religious beliefs have practised some form of fasting for centuries. And we all basically “fast” every night when we are sleeping.
There are many ways to follow the increasingly popular practice of Intermittent Fasting. This can include skipping meals, eating every other day, or alternating a certain number of days fasting with a set amount of days eating.
Intermittent Fasting has been linked to weight loss success, lowering diabetes risk, lowers triglyceride levels, reduces inflammation, decreases damage from free radicals (‘waste material’ in the body), promotes human growth hormone (HGH) production, and has been found to lengthen the lifespan of animals.
Generally, the benefits of Intermittent Fasting are similar to the benefits of “eating only when you are hungry” (also called Intuitive Eating). But with Intuitive Eating, you don’t have to suffer hunger pangs because that’s the only time you eat, when you feel hungry. How cool is that?
Intuitive Eating has likely existed since prehistoric times. Early humans went looking for food when they were hungry. Well, it’s a logical assumption, given there were no clocks to indicate breakfast, lunch, etc. They ate to survive. Today, babies are the only humans to eat by intuition or when they’re hungry. They haven’t yet been subjected to social pressures. And they can’t tell time.
Your body has its own built-in 'calorie' counter: Your hunger pangs. Many nutritionists and dietitians recommend eating by intuition rather than the tedium (and inaccuracy) of counting calories. Your hunger signals can be compared to the gas gauge in your car. Your body knows when it needs food (fuel) and when it’s full. Naturally slender people usually eat only when they feel true hunger, and they stop eating when satisfied most of the time. If they do eat when not hungry – or if they overeat – they usually won’t eat again until they feel true hunger. As a result their bodies automatically balance out their caloric needs, and they don’t gain weight.
Intermittent Fasting and Intuitive Eating both offer a low-to-moderate total food intake – a significant factor in maintaining healthy body weight. As mentioned earlier, Intuitive Eating is likely how early humans ate. And I believe it’s the way humans should still be eating. We’re all born with this natural 'calorie' counter: our intuition. And it’s pretty accurate until we screw it up. Over the course of our lives, we can lose this instinct to know when we are hungry and full. This results from making poor food choices – and many other developed habits, such as being forced to clean our plates as children or conditioned to eat only at scheduled mealtimes.
Most of the time, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m satisfied. Occasionally, I do eat when not hungry, but I don’t eat again until I feel true hunger. And occasionally, it may be quite some time before I do eat again. I’ve never gone longer than one day of not eating, but by Intuitive Eating, I seem to be following an unplanned Intermittent Fasting pattern . . .
On most days, I typically eat from three to six meals, spread throughout the day, several hours apart. But there are days I may eat only one or two meals – or perhaps none, especially on the days I’m not very active. Occasionally, I have absolutely no appetite when I awake in the morning (so I skip breakfast), but other days I wake up feeling famished, and breakfast ends up being the biggest meal of my day.
Children naturally do the same thing: They go through periods eating lots of food, alternated with periods of eating practically nothing. Parents freak out. But the kid survives. This erratic eating pattern parallels a child’s growth spurts, or at least, that science has determined to date.
Intuitive Eating has an extra benefit . . .
“Eating Only When Hungry” offers an extra benefit over Intermittent Fasting: You never have to suffer the discomfort of feeling hunger!
Yes, you may first have to learn what true hunger is to you. It may be an uncomfortable, gnawing sensation in the stomach, or headaches, irritability, lightheadedness, or sudden fatigue. Many have a hard time determining true hunger: they’ve been following cultural and social cues most of their lives. And for some, the addictiveness of highly processed foods generates false hunger and cravings.
But with the practice of “Eating Only When Hungry,” you never feel deprived or hungry because you allow yourself to eat when your body tells you it needs fuel and nutrients. Intermittent Fasting, however, requires discipline in ignoring your hunger signals. On your 500-calorie day or fasting day, you will no doubt be staring lovingly at your refrigerator!
The cautions and disadvantages . . .
There are no health risks with Intuitive Eating and as long as you follow Intermittent Fasting sensibly, it should be safe as well – although there is some evidence Intermittent Fasting may disrupt hormone balance in females. Those pregnant or nursing, the elderly, and children are advised not to follow Intermittent Fasting because of the increased nutrient needs in these stages of life. Diabetics and others with medical conditions also should avoid fasting or be medically supervised. Very long fasts are not recommended for anyone (particularly if it’s longer than 72 hours), and a return to eating after a fast should be gradual; it should not involve a food binge. Be sensible: Intermittent Fasting shouldn’t be followed as an excuse to later gorge on junk food.
A caution with Intermittent Fasting: Ignoring hunger sensations may contribute to a slower metabolism, making it harder to lose weight. If you regularly ignore hunger cues, the body senses famine. Several mechanisms kick in to slow your metabolic rate to keep you alive. This includes preserving body fat as a long-lasting fuel source and the risk of sacrificing muscle tissue instead. However, if the fasting periods are kept short and less frequent, metabolism may not be disrupted. But you avoid this metabolic slowing by "eating only when hungry" (Intuitive Eating).
Athletes or those who train regularly (especially with intense training) may also have to be cautious when Intermittent Fasting. After all, you need to fuel your physical exertions. But on the other hand, athletic pursuits when you are Intuitive Eating? Not a problem.
A ‘social’ downside . . .
The downside to both Intuitive Eating and Intermittent Fasting is they can be difficult to follow given today’s regimented, timed eating patterns (breakfast/lunch/dinner) and the social fixation on it. Yes, eating and the enjoyment of food is a pleasure. And that can be healthy. However, many are truly obsessed with ‘eating’ and find it difficult to understand or accept those who aren’t as fixated on it.
In our civilized world, a focus on eating is no longer necessary for survival in the wild, so eating has developed an even greater social focus. It has also developed a huge dependency focus: In our high-stress lifestyles, we tend to reach for food as a more ‘accepted’ coping tool than alcohol or drugs . . . but that’s another article topic!
Most of us eat by the clock. Lunch is usually around noon. If you aren’t hungry then or you are fasting, you’ll be looked at strangely by your lunch mates when you order only herbal tea (believe me, I’ve been there). Or you risk insulting your hostess when you say “no thanks” to the muffin from a family recipe handed down by Great Aunt Pearl (sigh, I’ve been there too). You may also, like me, be accused of being orthorexic (obsessed with healthy eating), anorexic, or a fanatic. And if you have a history of dieting, you might be accused of being “on another diet.”
TIP: To avoid offending your host when refusing to eat Great Aunt Pearl’s muffin, ask to take it home to enjoy later.
Focus on whole, unrefined foods MOST of the time
Due to its growing popularity, many versions of Intermittent Fasting will surface. Not long ago, a news report introduced the latest twist for weight loss: Intermittent Fasting while eating all the junk food you want! An obese woman was interviewed after losing almost 150 pounds, impressing all her friends and relatives. And she did it by alternating fasting with eating lots of foods like cakes, cookies and ice cream.
Any diet that restricts food amount – any type of food – will result in weight loss. That’s a given. However, what about overall health? Losing weight and being healthy are not necessarily related. The foods this woman chose to eat do not provide the nutrition needed to build a strong foundation to support good health, especially to maintain a strong immune system to resist and fight disease. It’s great she lost excess weight, but I truly hope she can remain disease-free five to ten years from now. In addition, eating large amounts of highly refined foods – especially refined sugars – can elicit the same chemical reactions in the brain as other addictive substances like alcohol and drugs. How many people desperate to lose weight will blindly follow this diet, only to risk stimulating their hunger even more via food addiction and cravings? Will their weight loss be permanent? Most likely not.
A focus on nutrition becomes vital, especially when you are fasting because you must provide everything your body needs to survive when you finally do eat. So if you choose to follow either Intermittent Fasting, or Intuitive Eating (or any diet method), be sensible about it. Focus on eating healthful, whole foods and minimize highly processed foods.
Perfecting the art of Intuitive Eating
It takes a bit of practice, but the technique of Intuitive Eating soon becomes comfortable, even if you have a busy lifestyle. If you work from a home-based office as I do, it will be easier. If you work outside the home, hopefully your office has a refrigerator and/or there are convenient, healthy food choices on hand. Explore making your own lunch or find a healthier-fare restaurant convenient to the office.
You can easily learn to coordinate your social events and dinner invitations when you become familiar with your hunger cues and how much food it takes to satisfy your hunger. For example, let’s say I’m invited to a friend’s home for dinner or have a restaurant reservation at 7 p.m. If I’m not hungry when I get to the restaurant. I’ll help myself to small portions of food – like a small salad – and nibble at it. However, if I do decide to eat a full meal, even though I’m not hungry, I’m not worried. I just won’t eat again until I am hungry. Eventually, my body will balance out the food energy I need and avoid weight gain. FYI: consistently eating when you are not hungry can promote weight gain!
In the same scenario, if I suddenly feel hungry at 5 p.m., long before I leave for the 7 p.m. dinner date, I’ll have a snack to delay my hunger. From experience, I know a small apple and about 8-10 natural hazelnuts can usually satisfy me for up to two hours. Then, by the time I sit down to eat at 7 p.m., I’ll likely be hungry again.
As mentioned earlier, it may be necessary to learn to recognize when you are hungry; or what your unique hunger cues are. But that’s not all you need to know. Intuitive Eating also involves learning to understand when you are sated; to stop eating when you are full! Yes . . . life is full of challenges, isn’t it?
Eat until you are satisfied (long before you have to loosen your belt!). Eat slowly, chew the food well and put your fork down often to ask yourself how satisfied you are. Eat as healthfully as possible to ensure your body receives all the nutrients it needs to sustain life. And if you eat lots of nutrient-depleted, processed foods, you risk having cravings or ‘false hunger’ instead of true hunger. Cravings are just one of many tricks your body uses to entice you to eat, to get the nutrients it really needed. But unfortunately, most of us keep feeding the ‘cravings’ with more nutrient poor-foods. And the cycle continues. Along with an increase in body weight.
TIP: If you truly do not know when you are hungry, perhaps try fasting for an entire day to see what 'signals' your body uses when it needs fuel. Is it a headache, lethargy, irritability, or that empty-stomach feeling? We all have different cues. Listen to your body. Try to find what your signals or cues are. Need more help with recognizing hunger cues or with Intuitive Eating? Consult a Registered Dietitian.
Intuitive Eating is not controlling and complicated. You can become comfortable following this way of eating and not feel like a social outcast or a rebel. In my opinion, I’d say Intermittent Fasting would more likely be seen as controlling and complicated – because you have the added challenge of trying to follow a set and restrictive amount of food/meals per day. If your friends come to town for an unexpected visit and want to take you out for lunch, you’re stuck if it’s a 'fasting' day. But if you are an Intuitive Eater, you could choose to have a light lunch, even if you aren’t hungry. All you have to do is not eat until you are hungry again.
We are all uniquely individual. Intuitive Eating may not work as well for you as it does for me. Whatever eating practice works best for you – go for it. But do it sensibly.
Eve Lees is a Nutrition Coach, a Health Speaker, and a Health Writer for several publications. The former newspaper journalist and editor has also been active in the fitness industry since 1982.
Author’s note: This article is not intended for those with major health challenges, including eating disorders and obesity: Please consult a Registered Dietitian.
Sources and more information:
Intermittent fasting: No advantage over other diets:
Harvard School of Public Health review of Intermittent Fasting:
Summary of several studies done on Intuitive eating:
Several articles on Intermittent Fasting: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/intermittent-fasting/summary
Fasting and hormone changes in females: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/intermittent-fasting-women
Pros and cons of Fasting:
More risks/benefits of Fasting and Intermittent Fasting: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/295914.php