Some basic principles
Before we talk about timing your meals, let’s review a few important principles we’ve covered so far:
- Weight loss is hard in the modern day, and you must take it seriously
- What you think of as eating like a “normal” person is probably skewed, given 70% of adults—and over 30% of children—are overweight or obese
- Obesity is a hormonal disease involving insulin resistant and leptin resistance and understanding this is critically important to achieving lasting weight loss
We spoke last time about how insulin is what tells our bodies to store extra food as fat. Insulin resistance is the result of increased levels and ongoing exposure to those high levels. Refined carbs and processed food have contributed to high our insulin levels spike during meals, but snacking has made it so that those levels continue, the body just doesn’t get a break.
Traditionally—pre-obesity epidemic—most cultures had 2-3 meals a day. Our culture in the US was around “3 squares” a day. Some cultures have just breakfast and a large evening meal somewhere between lunch and dinner. But what was universal was that people stopped eating in between meals.
In the 1950s, for various reasons, snacking was promoted in the US as a healthier way to eat. Over the last 60 years, we’ve heard it all: you must eat a big breakfast, you have to eat 5-6 times a day, you should have multiple snacks spaced out in the day, etc. Unfortunately, there’s pretty much no strong evidence to show any of that advice to be true. In 2010, Yale University published a big study quantifying just how many more calories kids are getting with snacks over a period that saw childhood obesity triple. That’s only one of many.
How to reverse insulin resistance
There are two things a person has to do to decrease their insulin resistance and begin the path to sustainable weight loss:
- Decrease total levels of carb to bring down insulin levels
- Give the body a break from insulin exposure by not eating all the time
That is the first huge modification you must make: to give your body a break from insulin levels and stop eating all the time.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t simple. After years of insulin resistance, the hormones related to eating—insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and others—aren’t functioning properly. When a person who’s been only burning carbs for energy for a long time, when their body runs out of carbs and starts to deplete the stores in the liver, it’s supposed to start burning fat stores. That’s what everyone with extra fat stores wants, to start burning them for fuel. During the transition from where you are now to becoming fat adapted—easily transitioning to fat stores for energy—people get hungry and crave glucose. Getting through this transition is difficult but necessary and doable. Support is key to keeping your motivation up, review our first post for podcasts and books to help keep you motivated to push through. I promise, there are much easier times ahead when you no longer feel the hunger and cravings that seem to control your life now.
First: stop snacking
Though a small first step, it’s extremely difficult to transition to consciously only eating at mealtime. It’s likely you’ll only realize how much you eat in between meals now that you try to avoid it. Over 90% of Americans snack daily. Over 20% have at least three snacks a day. Unlike other countries with fruits and vegetables in the top 3 snacks, we Americans prefer chips, chocolate, and cheese. These numbers are likely going to increase as data shows that growth (and expected growth) in American spending on snacks like chips and meat snacks far outpaces spending on actual groceries.
Make sure you have support either through a weight loss coach or by regularly listening to a podcast or being in a supportive weight loss group.
If you’re still struggling, increase the amount of natural fats you have at mealtime. They play a huge role in creating a feeling of satiety that lasts until your next meal.
Second: learn about intermittent fasting
Contrary to common thoughts on skipping meals, your body does not go into “starvation” mode when your meal is late. It may feel that way because your body is so used to constant access to glucose—the easiest way to get energy, but that is not what is going on.
Fasting is avoiding caloric intake for a specific amount of predetermined time, followed by planned eating (or “feasting”). It’s an extended period when your body gets a break from insulin exposure and is allowed to – slowly—decrease its insulin resistance and start burning fat for fuel. This is why breakfast is called breakfast. It’s the meal that is supposed to break our overnight fast, when people stopped eating around 6 or 7 and didn’t eat again until 6 or 7, a 12 hour fast. Fasting is also an ancient tradition in most religions, whether for 24 hours, or 12-20 hours of fasting daily over the month, or some other variation, nearly all cultures have an understanding of fasting as a spiritual practice to help “purify” the body.
Once you’ve developed insulin resistance, it takes time to decrease that resistance and get to a place where a 12 hour overnight fast (and no snacking) is all you need to maintain a normal weight.
Intermittent fasting comes in a variety of forms. Probably the most commonly practiced one is called 16:8. This means you fast for 16 hours and feast for 8. Often, as this becomes easy to do, people extend it to the 20:4, or only a 4-hour eating window.
During the “fast” you can have unlimited water, plain coffee or tea, and bone broth. You can have up to 2Tbspn of heavy whipping cream (not milk or half & half) in that time frame as well.
What does this look like?
Take Jane. She’s never been big on breakfast, so she decides to make her 8-hour eating window from noon to 8 pm. After dinner, she makes sure that at 8 pm there is no more eating. When she leaves for work in the morning, she has her regular coffee with some cream and starts her workday. She then has a normal lunch and dinner with her family.
Susan, on the other hand, is starving when she wakes up in the morning. Her 8-hour eating window is from 7 am to 3 pm. She has a good breakfast and lunch, making sure to include natural fats to help fight carb cravings later in the day. At dinner time, she may have a bowl of bone broth or just a cup of tea.
Intermittent fasting is flexible and works best if done at least five days of the week. Fasting is much easier if you’ve markedly decreased your carb intake, as the cravings and hunger will dissipate faster.
Once adjusted to 16 hours of intermittent fasting, shortening the eating window to 4 hours is not difficult and if you hit a plateau—or want to lose weight faster—you can consider longer fasts. Longer fasts really should be done after talking with your physician.
Who shouldn’t fast?
- Anyone underweight
- People with an eating disorder or personal history of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Children and teenagers
There are excellent resources to learn more about intermittent fasting online and in books. Dr. Fung’s book The Complete Guide to Fasting is probably the best place to start.
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