Intermittent fasting has been quite trendy over the last few years. The internet is saturated with articles and videos. You can get apps that help you time your fasts, read books about how to do it and find recipes for the meals to fit in your day. There are loads of support groups on social media and even full length films about fasting!
I became a bit obsessed with this topic, and practised intermittent fasting for two and a half years. I have definitely learned a lot on the way, and now I want to share my story about why I stopped intermittent fasting, because there is less information available on the negative side effects of this, mainly because people don’t always do it for long. If you are thinking of following a fasting protocol, I hope my experience can help you make an informed choice.
Why did I start intermittent fasting
I first came across the idea after watching a BBC documentary by Michael Mosely, titled ‘Eat, Fast and Live Longer‘. The evidence was compelling; improved brain health, and lower chances of other degenerative diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. I could be healthier, younger and slimmer just by skipping some meals!
I also read books by Dr Jason Fung and Dr Christa Varady, which were jammed full of studies showing the benefits of having lower calorie days.
I watched every video I could find on YouTube, I needed to know everything I could.
After having three babies, I felt like I had a Buddha belly which wouldn’t budge, so intermittent fasting sounded like a wonderful solution. Skipping meals meant I would be able to eat what I liked in between and not count calories. I was already a ‘healthy’ eater, I didn’t eat much junk food and filled up on lots of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, yet I still couldn’t get rid of my mum-tum.
Once my third child was 18 months old, I stopped breastfeeding and started fasting. I tried Michael Mosely’s 5:2 diet, but I found this hard to stick with because the daily calorie limit was too low, so decided to follow the ‘Eat, Stop, Eat‘ method popularised by Brad Pilon, where I religiously fasted for 24 hours straight, twice a week. After the fast I could eat whatever I wanted and however much I wanted, so it seemed ideal.
What happened to my weight when I fasted?
At only 5 foot tall I weighed around 56kg (approx 123lb), which was not massively overweight, but being small meant I could really see it. Plus, my jeans didn’t fit anymore. I didn’t have a target weight in mind, but knew I just needed to fit back into my pre-pregnancy clothing.
I lost a lot of weight for my size and build. In around 5 months I was about 8kg lighter. It was amazing, I suddenly looked a lot better and my clothes actually got too big for me. It was exciting when I had to start wearing a belt and didn’t have to worry about rolls of fat appearing when I sat down.
Of course, I had to tell everyone about it! My husband joined me and also lost a lot of weight, which he was delighted with as it meant he was much lighter on his bike, which helped him with his cycle races. The friends who tried it with me also shrank before my eyes.
So why did I stop intermittent fasting?
I stopped intermittent fasting after experimenting with it for two and half years, mostly doing 24 hour fasts twice a week, but also doing 16-18 hour fasts in between. It really had become a lifestyle for me and I was strict with it, because I didn’t want to go back to looking chubby.
Sometimes it was hard, like when I took my kids out for a treat meal. I would be drinking my bottle of water while I watched them enjoy pizza or burgers, but that wasn’t the reason why I stopped intermittent fasting. I didn’t lose motivation at all.
I stopped because I started encountering health problems, and I didn’t expect this to happen at all, especially as I felt really well at the beginning.
Health problems from fasting
Over time, little things began happening. My skin didn’t look so good: a few lines appeared so I started taking collagen and drinking bone broth to see if it would help (it didn’t). My skin regularly broke out in spots and nothing I tried would clear it.
Regular headaches were common, but I knew this was a ‘normal’ side effect of fasting and put up with them. I used to have headaches once or twice a week which left me feeling debilitated.
My teeth began to ache too. Not actual toothache from a particular tooth, but it felt like my whole jaw was throbbing and uncomfortably tight. My gums began to recede and my dentist said I was probably brushing too hard. This was a worry, as she also told me they would never grow back. This freaked me out and I bought softer brushes and stopped using my electric brush in case it was too harsh for me.
My digestion also got really bad. I’ve always had good digestion, but now, everything I ate, no matter how bland or light, would put me in pain. I would get bloated, have severe stomach aches and sometimes food would go right through me.
I started seeing a homeopath for my digestion and gums and continued to take vitamins. I also started making fermented foods like Kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut. They did help in some ways (Kombucha really helped me with my allergies – see my article about it here), but my guts still weren’t happy. I took digestive enzymes and herbal teas too.
My hair started to fall out more and a lot of it turned white. Maybe that would have happened anyway since I was nearly 40, but certainly during those years while I fasted, I noticed more and more new white hairs.
Even my eye started to twitch! My left eyelid would tremble throughout the day and make my vision jiggle. I was so scared that I was developing some sort of permanent nerve damage and it would stress me out if it happened while I was talking to someone. I could actually see my eye pulsing in the mirror so I knew other people would be able to see it too.
The worst side effect was the anxiety I felt. I was having palpitations now and then and on one New Year’s day I actually ended up in the emergency department in hospital as the paramedics thought the ECG they did on my heart was giving off strange readings. Thankfully I wasn’t having a heart attack, but this didn’t help with the mounting fear over my health I was having every day.
I had some panic attacks too. I had never had them before, but my mind was racing all the time, and it didn’t matter how much I meditated or relaxed. I felt like I was losing control of everything.
Even through all of this was happening, I never blamed fasting for my health concerns. I was convinced it was making me healthier. I was in autophagy mode a lot of the time, which meant I was clearing out all the old rubbish cells! Surely my low blood sugar was preventing me from getting diabetes (which runs in my family)? My HbA1c level, which is a predictor for diabetes, was very good. I was slim: therefore healthy!
When the penny dropped
Eventually I went to see an acupuncturist and doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine because my skin was breaking out so badly I was afraid to leave the house.
The treatment didn’t actually help my skin, but something the practitioner said resonated with me. She told me that I needed to have three moderate sized meals a day, because eating all my food in one meal was too much strain on my digestion. She said I should stop intermittent fasting.
I still didn’t believe her, but I kept mulling it over.
A month or two later I was still in a lot of distress over my body, which felt like it was shutting down. In despair I decided to meditate on my health, in particular, my digestion.
During the meditation I saw all the good bacteria in my body dying of starvation.
That was crazy! I had never thought of that as an issue before, but it made so much sense: if they were being killed off, my digestion would be affected, and the rest of my body would suffer as I wouldn’t be taking in as many nutrients! Eureka! So now I knew why I had to stop intermittent fasting. I had no other answers available; the internet did not give me reasons to stop fasting, but this time I decided to trust my instincts.
What I did
I realise now that I was on the verge on an eating disorder. I became afraid of eating at certain times, ignored my body’s signals and then stuffed myself when I was ‘allowed’ to eat. I lived by the clock, and if I gave in ten minutes early, I would feel bad about it.
Stopping intermittent fasting was hard. It was so useful for keeping my weight down. When I stopped, inevitably the weight slowly crept back on, but I still felt so guilty about what I ate and how much I ate that I kept on wanting to fast again. It was like an addiction and I didn’t know how to stop.
I found a book about intuitive eating and tried to follow my body’s cues. This helped my digestion to normalise at last and finally, all the symptoms, including the gut pain, the twitching, toothache, headaches and palpitations disappeared. Along with the symptoms, the paranoia I developed about my health abated too.
I’m ashamed to think that I risked my health for so long and was so blind to effect that intermittent fasting had on me. I guess this is what eating disorders, compulsions and obsessions are like, and I never thought I would fall victim to something like this. I wish I had listened to my body, which was screaming out in pain. Instead, I believed everything I had read, and was so immersed in the fasting community that I was brainwashed.
I still believe there is a place for the occasional fast, and it’s okay for a short amount of time, but is not safe to do in the long run. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but missing out a minimum of 4 meals a week, caused so many problems for me, I really think I had malnutrition during that time, despite following a healthy diet and taking supplements.
If you want to try intermittent fasting, the bottom line is that YES, it does help with weight loss. I think it is probably an excellent way to lose a lot of weight and fast, especially if someone is obese and has a lot of dangerous health conditions related to their size. However, it is not a sustainable way of life. It is so boring to say, but there is no quick fix to sustained weight loss…apart from regular exercise and eating sensibly every day. Basically, a healthy lifestyle is key. Intermittent fasting for me, is in now in the realm of ‘fad diet’.
As for my weight, it went right back up to where it was before I started fasting, but since the UK’s covid Lockdown in 2020, I have lost that weight, but in a much healthier way, by eating more protein, doing resistance training and HIIT exercises. I’ve learned that I can’t eat three large meals a day, so I have a small breakfast and lunch followed by a substantial dinner. I now feel fit, strong and healthy, and most importantly, I feel much happier with myself.
How about you?
If you have tried this way of eating, let me know your thoughts. How long did you do it for? Did you have any side effects? It would be great to hear about how it affected you. The above is my story and my experience of why I stopped intermittent fasting, however, it may work very well for you; I wanted to write this article to balance out the information currently available.