Intuitive Fasting – the viral health trend that apparently goes by your gut
Intuitive Fasting - here's everything you need to know by Dr Will Cole, Gwyneth Paltrow's dietician & wellness guru
According to NHS Digital, 63 per cent of adults in England are now overweight or obese, while three per cent fall into the morbidly obese category. Even the queen of green, Gwyneth Paltrow, gained 14 pounds during lockdown. So, really, what chance did the rest of us have?
Evidence is starting to emerge that a doctor-devised gentle fasting plan can help you lose the pounds and benefit from the associated side-effects: an energy boost, clear skin, sharper thinking, and even the possibility of tackling specific health issues from lowering cholesterol to reducing diabetes. However, diet discussions trending on TikTok is revealing all sides of the argument for this 'restrictive eating' regimen. So, the debate is out.
So, what is a gentle fasting plan exactly and how does it differ from intermittent? The main difference is: ‘Intermittent fasting,’ means going without food for specific set periods, dictated by the plan. Generally, the most common timing is the 16:8, which means 16-hours worth of fasting and eight hours where you can consume meals.
Whereas ‘intuitive fasting’ is essentially the combination of intermittent fasting and intuitive eating and you find the timings that work for you and your lifestyle – a kind of flexible fast that lets you check in with your body and move the goalposts accordingly.
Jason Fung, the author of The Obesity Code, puts the argument quite simply for any kind of fasting: 'Eat six times a day. Eat lots of snacks. Eat, eat, eat – even to lose weight! It sounds pretty stupid because it is pretty stupid. So, here's my best single tip for weight loss. It's so simple and obvious that even a five-year-old could have come up with it. Don't eat all the time!'
The Hollywood elite is already on the fasting bandwagon. Think Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry, along with Silicon Valley tech-preneurs like Twitter's co-founder Jack Dorsey.
Gwyneth Paltrow is on board and she's lost her lockdown weight already (go figure) and is embracing it for her post-Covid 'anti-inflammatory' recovery plan. Her Goop super-brand published the Intuitive Fasting tome, in 2021, and she's friends with the author - so was a glamorous guinea pig and eager test subject no doubt.
In 2023, she suffered a backlash on her eating regime - she defends it on her socials, saying: “This is a person I’ve been working with for over two years, now, to deal with some chronic stuff,” the wellness-preneur explained, as she noted that she’s been experiencing long Covid symptoms. “The way it manifests for me is very high levels of inflammation over time, so I’ve been working with Dr Cole to really focus on foods that aren’t inflammatory.”
She adds, "[Intuitive Fasting] is a plan that combines intuitive eating with intermittent fasting and Ketotarian foods. It's designed to optimise our wellbeing and set us up to feel our best for all the other weeks to come. This is not a book of dogma. It will not punish you or restrict you. If there's anything difficult in these pages, it is Will's request that we be willing to listen to ourselves, to our bodies, to our intuition."
But what about the generations of us who have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? In fact, snacks, plus three solid meals with the first eaten like a king, is most people's mantra. What if your intuition is telling you to chow down on chocolate and chips instead of kale and cucumber?
Dr Will Cole, author of Intuitive Fasting, says, 'Many of us have never paused to ask ourselves questions like: Do I eat because my brain tells me to – or because my body is truly hungry?
'For many of us in the developed world, our lifestyles have are designed for convenience. Many of us fluctuate between being sort of hungry, sort of satisfied after eating, and always craving sugar, carbs and caffeine.
'These are some not-so-subtle signs that your metabolism has become inflexible, which means it's lost some of its ability to maintain consistent energy levels regardless of the type of food you're eating.'
The USP of intermittent fasting is, in part, taking more charge of your health.
Roman philosopher Seneca came up with a pretty good mantra many moons ago: 'as long as you live, keep learning how to live,' and this book gives you the simple tools and knowledge to help you do just that.
Dr Cole says, 'This will ease you into fasting with grace and lightness.'
So, if you're struggling with fatigue, blood sugar problems, hormone imbalances, metabolic and autoimmune problems, and have skin rashes, hives, weight gain, excess mucus, brain fog, or digestive issues – and you're fed up with being told what to eat, and when, by the big food conglomerates, you could do worse than leaf through this.
There’s a helpful plan, delicious plant and animal recipes and straightforward advice on how to take control of your eating. The key takeaway to this nutritional movement is certainly listening more to our bodies and Intuitive Fasting is certainly food for thought.
Culture Whisper talks to Dr Will Cole, Functional Medicine expert and author of Intuitive Fasting, on the myths and methodologies of the plan
Culture Whisper: 'Where do you think we went wrong with our approach to food and eating?'
Dr Will Cole: 'Our world has gone under a rapid change over a relatively short period of time. Compared with the totality of human existence, the food we eat (and how often we eat!), the water we drink, the depleted soil, and the polluted environment are relatively new introductions.
'This can be shocking to our bodies and our genes since around 99 percent of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago.
'A big piece of this puzzle is fasting — our bodies are designed to go through periods of natural food deprivation, and there are certain mechanisms in the body that are activated when we've been without food for eight to 10 hours.
'If we're eating three meals a day plus snacks, we miss out on the opportunity to activate these healthy mechanisms and it starts to hurt our health.'
CW: 'Is fasting just for people with a high BMI? Or can anyone follow this plan?'
WC: 'This is a plan fit for anyone wanting to get in touch with their instinctive eating patterns, become healthier, and more mindful about how and when they eat.
'The goal is not to simply lose weight, but to reset hunger, calm inflammation, increase energy, improve gut health, lower inflammation, balance hormones and blood sugar, support longevity and find metabolic flexibility. As I say in the book, weight loss is often a side effect of intermittent fasting, but it's not the only goal or the reason why it's healthy for us.'
CW: 'People are experiencing more health issues – is diet really to blame?'
WC:' Eighty per cent of your immune system resides in your gut and the microbiome's influence on your health is pretty major. The more research that comes out, the more we learn about how changes in the microbiome can be linked to all types of health issues, from depression to diabetes to Alzheimer's to lupus.
'Many people are surprised by the link between the gut and mental health, but the gut is often referred to as the "second brain" and is actually where most serotonin is produced. That's a long way of saying that yes, the gut plays a major role in the epidemic of chronic disease and our gut health is largely impacted by our diet.'
CW: 'In a nutshell, what's the USP of this plan?'
WC: 'In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, when I first meet my patients online, they are often struggling with issues like fatigue, blood sugar problems, hormone imbalances, metabolic issues, and inflammation.
'They wonder why they can't function in the afternoon without a sugar-filled latte or why they are still hungry after a meal. It can feel like their whole lives revolve around trying to avoid hunger, insatiable cravings, blood sugar crashes, and dips in energy.
'That said, if you've never fasted before, it can seem intimidating and overly extreme. This book aims to give people an introduction to intermittent fasting that is approachable and encourages them to listen to their body and only stretch as far as they feel comfortable. In the book, you follow a 4-Week Flexible Fasting Plan that will walk you through various fasting windows designed to stretch and strengthen your metabolism so you can feel good all day long and say goodbye to those nagging cravings. And just like a yoga class, you will gain resilience and rootedness in your body. It's not about punishment, restriction or dieting.
'It's about celebrating food, getting in touch with your body, and correcting underlying health imbalances so that you are no longer controlled by your eating schedule and cravings.'
CW: 'What if you're too busy to fast?'
WC: 'If you're busy, intermittent fasting is one of the most convenient ways to improve your health because it majorly simplifies your daily routine. That's because it usually cuts out one meal.
'As someone who runs their own business, I love the simplicity of waking up and heading out of the house with just a cup of coffee or an Earl Grey tea and only worrying about prepping, cooking, and cleaning so many times each day.
'I'd go as far as to say that Intuitive Fasting is perfectly designed for someone with a crazy schedule. It's one of the only lifestyle practices that gives you time back in your day instead of taking it away.'
CW: 'Is there scientific evidence on the benefits of fasting?'
WC: 'This book is about the metabolism and how intermittent fasting can benefit human health. In terms of science, there are hundreds of studies on the benefits of fasting in humans, and there are over 60 peer-reviewed studies cited throughout the book.
'There's a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine called Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease by Rafael de Cabo, PhD, and Mark P Mattson, Ph.D, it gives a review of some of the research on fasting for metabolic improvements, longevity, and disease prevention.'
CW: 'Fasting generally makes people "hangry" – how do you overcome this?'
WC: 'First, this is not abnormal. When you first start to fast, symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and crankiness can appear due to sugar withdrawal, especially if you rely on carbs and hits of sugar for energy throughout the day.
'When you begin lowering your sugar and carb intake, the sugar-eating bacteria in your gut start to die off. Without their source of food, they react by causing uncomfortable symptoms like crankiness and fatigue in an effort to get you to feed them.
'This seems hard to believe, but it's been well-researched (there's an article in Scientific American about this concept — that our gut bacteria tell us what to eat).
'If you're struggling with these symptoms, I recommend a few things like increasing your protein intake and healthy fats, hydrating and decreasing your fasting window to allow your body time to adjust slowly. This is a "sugar-detoxing period" that has to run its course, and once it's over, you'll feel better than you did before.'
CW: 'Is there an average amount of time needed for the body to adjust to fasting?'
WC: 'No, it depends on your starting point. This book is all about listening to your body and adjusting the plan based on your body's reactions to each week. I say many times throughout the book that if you struggled to get through one week, try it again! It's not a race and there are no successes or failures.
'The goal is to reach metabolic flexibility — however long it takes you to get there. If you're looking for a time frame, I designed the plan in the book to be four weeks, and most people will likely feel like fasting comes more naturally to them by that point.'
CW: 'How long until the "I feel sharper, more energetic" phase kicks in?'
WC: 'Again, it depends on the person. Sometimes it happens after just a few days of trying the plan out. For other people, they might struggle through all four weeks and not feel that kick in until the second round of the plan!
'Especially if you have underlying issues like blood sugar imbalance or gut issues, there's an adjustment period before you get to the "I feel amazing" period. Trust that it will happen!
'If you haven't accessed that place after doing the plan twice, I'd try working with a dietician or functional medicine expert to see if there might be something else at play.'
CW: 'Fasting is said to put stress on the body – surely we don't need more of that?'
WC: 'The concept of "good" and "bad" stress is a new one for many people!
'Bad stress is the kind of stress many of us are already familiar with – caused by long workdays, toxic relationships, and financial issues or health issues.
'"Good" stress (also called hormesis in scientific circles) is entirely different and can be very beneficial. It includes exercises, a cold shower, or a new challenge like learning an instrument or a new language.
'This type of stress challenges our cells in the short-term in order for them to become more resilient in the long term. For example, doing regular HIIT workouts increases your cells' ability to ramp up energy production.
'Fasting is often categorised as another type of "good stress" because it trains your body to be more metabolically flexible.'
CW: 'Any tips for people nervous about the plan?'
WC: 'Do it with a friend! After a year of social distancing and isolation, doing the plan with someone (even if it's virtually) can be a fun new thing to bond over something new and get your mind off the world outside.
'And even in non-pandemic times, one of the hardest parts of making healthy lifestyle changes is often the social element. If all your friends are meeting over cocktails or foods you're currently avoiding, it can be tough.
'By doing the plan with a friend, you can get that social interaction and even meet for healthier activities like a walk in nature or a coffee!
(Disclaimer: As with all diets you should consult a healthcare professional before undertaking any kind of restrictive eating schedule.)
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