How To Eat Right: Part II: Intermittent Fasting
I often find myself battling with the lure and temptation of junk food in supermarkets. I had less junk food as a child than I do now as an adult because as a child, my parents were frugal and never bought us anything more than real food. We had cooked meals for lunch and dinner. The only processed food I have is bread and a chocolate malt drink called Milo. Not only was I not introduced to junk food at home, we couldn’t afford it and I wasn’t given spare cash to spend. Now as an adult and financially independent, I could buy whatever I desired. I could walk into a supermarket and buy any processed food that the store is stocked in abundance with. Now that I live in a foreign country away from my family, Asian supermarkets hold a great appeal that wasn’t there when I was living in Asia. Any sight of a familiar snack I had as a child would evoke memories of my family and create a warm, tingling feeling in my heart. I would reach out for the snack on the supermarket shelf not because I desired that snack, but because I was feeling nostalgic and merely wanting to relive a piece of my past. When I walk into an American supermarket, the situation isn’t any better. I am introduced to more processed food than I ever knew existed. The packagings are always attractive, like bursts of colorful candies in a candy store. The snacks would call out to me from the shelves. After a while, I’d think to myself, why not? Surely a snack or two can’t harm me. Life is for the living - why not try something new?
The problem is that eating certain food makes it hard to regulate calories because eating them makes me crave for more. Food with refined sugar and flour (think bread, pastry, biscuits) or food loaded with fats and salt (think chips, fries) are usually the culprit. If I ate a piece of pastry for example, the exterior crisp and interior soft texture plus those added sugar that makes them taste so good makes me want more, so I’ll have more than a piece - I might have two, and when I do, this increases my caloric intake for the day. Refined sugar also acts as a sort of dopamine in that it makes us feel “good” or happy when we eat them, so whenever we feel down or want a quick fix, we turn to food that provides us with that pleasure. Whatever that makes us feel good, we go back to it over and over, creating an addictive chain. So what would start out as an innocent treat would snowball into an insatiable craving. I sure have fell victim to addictive eating many times throughout my life. An example was when I was 26 and working in a law firm - I’d walk past a shop that sells deep fried food for breakfast and I would have one sardine puff and one potato puff every weekday for six months. Imagine that… eating the same food for breakfast over and over every single day for 180 consecutive days in a year! Another occasion was when I was 34 and living in California - I would have toasted gluten-free waffle with banana and nutella every morning. My latest insuppressible craving was when I would crave French crepe with banana and nutella every day for four consecutive weeks. You would have noticed a similar thread here - I seem to like banana and nutella a lot!
Recently I was craving for chips. On a few occasions I have managed to resist and walked away from the store. On a few other occasions, I couldn’t resist. In my mind, I wanted to do all the right things: choosing whole food, walking away and eating half the portion. In practice, I did the exact opposite: I chose to give in to the lure of processed food, walked into the store, picked up a bag of chips, and ate it all.
Now imagine if chips were not available in supermarkets. There would be one less temptation and the world would be a better place for it.
We make food choices based on what’s available to us. When you walk into a restaurant serving only chicken, you couldn’t order beef even if you wanted to. I do believe that if modern society is devoid of the food choices we have today in stores, cafes and restaurants, we would be eating much healthier. Imagine if stores are stocked with only organic produce and whole foods - no processed food, no chips, candies, biscuits, bread, pastries, convenient food, or soda drinks. Imagine if Starbucks are stocked with only coffee, tea, fresh fruits and unsalted nuts. Imagine if restaurants serve only organic produce and whole foods.
Unfortunately that is not the case today.
Mindfulness is important in all areas of life, especially in areas where we want to see improvement in. Seeing we can’t control the presence of junk and processed food from our grocery stores and supermarket, we have to control our own desires.
We can practice mindfulness when we ask ourselves one crucial question: Would I regret x if I were to die tomorrow? If the answer was no, then I know that is not important to me. If the answer was yes, then I know that is important to me.
I often remind myself on the non importance of food this way: If I were to lie on my death bed today, would I regret not eating that doughnut? Definitely not. In fact, food would be the furthest thing from my mind. The only thing in my mind would be the people I love and closest to me. At the end of the day it’s all about people; it never is about food or other material things.
I’m an emotional being given a lot to my senses. Food to me is more than functional. It is a full experience where I visualize and feel each affair in a most elaborate manner. I believe I’m not alone in the way I interact with food. For many of us, food is an obsession or addiction. It’s not your fault, really. Often, the root cause of our food obsession can be traced back to our upbringing. If you were brought up in a home where macaroni and cheese and fast food were the norm, you would probably struggle with the same foods in your later years. Bread, rice and noodles are a staple in a typical Asian diet and that’s what I grew up eating. Now as an adult, I know that processed and refined wheat in bread, rice and noodles are the cause of weight gain especially as metabolism rates slow down, but oh, how I struggle to stay away from those hot toasted bread and freshly baked pastries which I love!
So yes, like many of you, I have always had a roller coaster relationship with food. What’s more, I had gastritis as a child and my mom ensured that 1) I never skipped my breakfast, and 2) I would eat till I was full at every meal. As a result, she had a cute and chubby daughter. I didn’t like how older kids and adults would pinch my cheeks and squeal, “You’re so cute!” At the first instance of freedom at age 20, I took matters into my own hands: I took control of what I ate, how much I ate and when I ate. And that essentially meant I ate less, and when I did, I noticed my weight went down. That kept me happy for several years in my twenties.
A strange thing however happened when I hit my thirties. I would be eating the same food or portion as I did when I was younger but my weight kept creeping up. It would baffle me - where did I go wrong in the equation? Research would show that a slowdown of metabolism past the age of thirty and the increased presence of highly processed food are the culprits.
Past Diets - Tried and Failed
So I turned to the only solution I knew: dieting.
I tried the gluten free diet, which meant no wheat products, but I compensated by eating a lot of rice and potatoes and that made me put on more weight.
I tried the high carb low fat diet - I certainly ate a lot of carbs, which was what I was used to and love, and of course, never saw the weight go down.
I tried the low carb high fat diet - I compensated by eating a lot of nuts (which is addictive) and avocados (which is super high in fat) and put on more weight.
Thankfully, my most successful strategy has been to try and fail and try again.
Several years and many a diets later, I decided not to practice dieting, but to practice intermittent fasting instead.
What is the difference between a diet and a fast? Dieting means you restrict a certain type or category of food for the purpose of losing weight. Fasting means you refrain from eating for a specific window of time for the purpose of cultivating self control and food management.
This is how I practice intermittent fasting:
2 meals a day
Have two instead of three or five meals a day. Have breakfast and lunch and skip dinner, or skip breakfast and have lunch and dinner. The science behind it is to have a block of fasting in between the last meal of yesterday and the first meal of today. Essentially I will be fasting between 12-16 hours, and eat within a 8-12 hour window. For example, if my last meal yesterday was lunch at 2pm, then between 2pm yesterday to breakfast today at 6am I would have fasted 16 hours. Or, if my last meal yesterday was dinner at 8pm, then between 8pm yesterday to breakfast today at 8am I would have fasted 12 hours.
This two meals a day fast can also be categorized as the 12:12 or 16:8 fast.
The time from your last meal at night until your first meal the next day makes up your “fasting” interval. And the time from your first meal of the day until your last meal makes up your “feeding” interval. For example, if you eat dinner by 8pm and breakfast at 8am the next day, you're fasting for 12 hours and feeding for 12 hours.
Similar to the 12:12 fast, except you’re pushing the “fasting” block to 16 hours and shortening the “feeding” block to 8 hours. For example, if you eat dinner by 8pm and lunch at 12pm the next day, you're fasting for 16 hours and feeding for 8 hours.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. It took me over three weeks before I felt that I was in control of when and how I eat.
Why practice intermittent fasting?
In brief, here are the benefits of intermittent fasting:
Cultivate discipline and self control
Break the bondage of food
Cultivate the habit of choosing only right food because you’re only eating twice a day and what you choose to eat is very important because it has to be nutritious
Allow for ketosis (fat adaptation during the 12-16-hour fasting period) where we "teach" our bodies to burn fat for fuel
Reduce caloric intake.
Above and beyond weight control, I want a change in my inner system. I want to build new pathways to my brain, or simply put, I want to send new signals to and build new core memories in my brain. For nearly two decades I have been bombarded with and indoctrinated by the allure of processed food (remember my love for fried and crispy food including chips, bread, biscuits, pastries?)
By practicing intermittent fasting, I am training myself to choose whole foods more often, walk away from temptation and eat reasonable portions.
If you’re tired of being a slave to and having little control over food, I invite you to give intermittent fasting a go to reset your inner system like I did.
After the initial phase of 14-21 days of intermittent fasting on a regular basis, you would have greater self control and make wiser food choices. You would eat reasonably and not be pressured to finish the full portion served. You would eat in moderation because you know that anything in excess would result in guilt and weight gain.
If intermittent fasting is a tough pill to swallow, just 1) eat fewer calories than you burn, and 2) eat a diet lower in processed foods. Practicing these two steps could offer most of the same benefits as intermittent fasting. Better still, add in a regular exercise program and you’ll be off to a healthy and wholesome life.