What I Learned from Intermittent Fasting for 60 Days

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

It Has Nothing to Do With Physical Health

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t an article about the physical health benefits of intermittent fasting. This is an article about what the experiment taught me about mindset, habits, discipline, and the secret to making changes in your life.

I like to perform little experiments on myself, specifically to get myself out of my comfort zone. The older I get, and the larger my comfort zone becomes, the more important I believe this practice is.

Given the recent cultural interest in intermittent fasting, I chose this as an experiment. However, my purpose wasn’t to try a new fad diet, nor do I think this is a silver bullet to longevity, weight loss, mental focus, or any of the myriad supposed benefits.

I chose it because I knew it would be hard for me. Eating breakfast is a habit that I’ve had for my entire life of over 50 years. Doing hard things gets us out of our comfort zone, and this was about getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing those benefits.

The Data and Details — What I Did

Several styles of intermittent fasting are in vogue right now, but I chose the “time-restricted eating” style, specifically the 16:8 method. With this method, you restrict your calories to an 8-hour window and fast for 16.

I didn’t ease into it or use some plan to help me get there. I dove right in on day 1.

I did not attempt to achieve ketogenesis, nor did I change what I was eating. All I did was restrict my hours of caloric intake to roughly 12–8 pm. I ate my first meal of the day after my mid-day workout.

I kept score, which is a powerful mind hack that I’ve used before and that you should use for whatever you are trying to achieve. Keeping score helps you accurately assess the progress you’ve made (or haven’t made). We often underestimate how far we’ve come and continue to focus on the ground yet to travel. Keeping score brings progress to the forefront of our awareness. I kept a tally on my whiteboard, like scratching off days in prison or stranded on an uninhabited island.

Here is my scoreboard after 60 days:

The red slash days were when I went off plan and had breakfast — on purpose. But I did that as a conscious choice because my wife and I were having breakfast together. I did NOT break down and eat breakfast because I was hungry or couldn’t take it anymore. I chose to have breakfast on those days, regardless of my state of hunger in the moment. I chose to have breakfast 9 of the 60 days. That’s 15%. Yes, a bit high.

The slashes with the asterisks (*) above them indicate the especially difficult days. Those days I almost quit, and I had to talk myself out of it. And I did. Each and every one of them. Keeping score helped me make the right choice.

Fun Fact: On the very last day of this experiment, I started to prep for a colonoscopy. All clear, thank you very much.

My Breakfast Habit Cycle

I’m 52, and I’ve always eaten breakfast in the morning. Nature? Nurture? Regardless, I’m a breakfast guy. That’s why this was an intriguing experiment for me.

Charles Duhigg describes the three steps of the habit cycle as follows:

From Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit

In my case, the cue is hunger originating from the time of day, although other factors such as my environment and morning routine are probably contributors. The routine is eating breakfast, and the reward is hunger satisfied.

Duhigg describes the method for breaking a habit or forming a new one as interrupting the cycle in one or more of the three steps. Since I can’t control time, nor could I effectively make myself feel full, my strategy focused on replacing the routine of eating with something else.

Could I find a practice that stifled the hunger or at least distracted me?

Why 60 Days?

I chose 60 days for a couple of reasons:

  1. I knew it would be hard for me.
  2. Sixty seemed a reasonable length to evaluate whether or not I had adjusted to this habit. Recent research seems to debunk the old “21-days to a new you” habit BS. The data is all over the map and is dependent upon context, mindset, and who you are. I chose 60.

What Didn’t Happen

I didn’t lose any weight. I didn’t feel more focused. I didn’t live longer than I would have otherwise (as far as I know). But neither did I suffer any low blood sugar attacks or feel weak, sluggish, or agitated.

I never got past the hunger pangs during the morning. Even at the end, I still felt the hunger cue.

What I Noticed

I focused on changing my routine, rather than trying to convince myself I wasn’t hungry. Part of the plan was drinking tea when I felt hungry, and I already knew from past experience that keeping myself mentally or physically busy would help me temporarily forget my hunger.

But yes, it took discipline. Getting into a flow state helped, or meetings, as did exercising, but sometimes it was freakin hard. On those days, I just had to decide that I would stick to the plan and push ahead with work.

I experienced the hunger pangs each day. Was that because I chose to break the cycle a few days? A fair question and I don’t know the answer.

(side note — banish the words and concepts of “cheating” and “rewards” from your mind. Acknowledge that you are making a decision, keep it above board, and be OK with the consequences. The cheat/reward mindset keeps you stuck in the yo-yo loop forever.)

Even though my hunger didn’t subside, I did notice that the discipline of staying on track got easier the farther I got into it. The hard day in the last week was much easier than the hard day in the beginning, and I didn’t need to convince myself nearly as often. I attribute that to knowing what to expect and keeping score.

I exercise at lunchtime five or six days a week. I continued during the experiment, so my first time eating for the day was after my workout. I was worried that I might feel lethargic or have a low-blood sugar episode. But I felt perfectly fine and energetic for these workouts (strength, running, cycling). In fact, the training helped squelch the hunger feeling.

I probably ate more for lunch than usual, although I didn’t keep track.

What I Learned

Experiments outside of your comfort zone are the perfect learning tool. Here is what I learned from this experiment.

I Can Do It, So Can You

I don’t mean “I can do intermittent fasting, and so can you.” Who cares about that?

I mean, “I can change a habit that has been ingrained in my routine for 50+ years.”

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure.

Making Changes Takes Will and A Plan

I made the decision to commit, then created a plan. My plan when the hunger hit was to grab some tea and get busy doing something. Then, at 11 or 12, do the workout. Eating didn’t happen until the workout was complete.

Somedays, I couldn’t shake the hunger, so I leaned on my scorekeeping to remind myself of how far I’d come. The workout always, without fail, helped me forget about the hunger pangs.

Making Changes Starts With Mindset But Happens With Action

Mindset is the genesis of all change, but no change happens without taking the appropriate actions. So many times, I’ve failed to launch or complete, not because I needed more information, but because I failed to take appropriate action.

Gaining knowledge is a comfort zone activity. You have no exposure to emotional danger by taking in new information. The change happens, i.e., the learning, when you take that step out onto the high wire and start putting one foot in front of the other.

In this experiment, I learned to live with the hunger pangs and what types of activities, mental and physical, helped alleviate them.

Changing Habits is About Repetitions, Not Length of Time

The most powerful realization for me was that I could manage the hunger mentally even when I couldn’t suppress it physically. This surprised me.

My confidence grew over the sixty days because of the number of times I did it. The physical feeling of discomfort slowly moved into my mental comfort zone with repetition. My brain was able to say, “OK, been there, done that before. I know what to expect.”

What’s Next and Will I Continue?

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call intermittent fasting a new habit of mine, I now know I am fully capable of not eating till mid-day. And that includes exercise and whatever other activities are scheduled for that morning.

Although I didn’t feel any specific benefits, I’ve found that I like not eating breakfast as a general rule because I like the control. I also like eating breakfast intentionally for social and relationship benefits.

But the main thing I learned from this experiment was once again, getting out of my comfort zone pays dividends.

So far, it’s never failed.

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John Macdonald

John Macdonald

Obsesrver, Life-Curious, Beginner — Writing to try to figure out the stuff in my head