When I came across new research involving time-restricted eating, a weight loss approach that involves eating for fewer hours per day as opposed to eating less, I was intrigued by findings. They suggest you can make your body burn more fat and shed pounds without reducing the amount of food you eat. Like magic?!
So when I put on a little weight over the holidays and my pants began to feel snug, I was tempted to try time-restricted eating — even though I had some reservations. The most effective way to do "intermittent fasting" involves squeezing all your meals into a six- to eight-hour time period, ideally early in the morning, and fasting the rest of the day and night. Unless you sleep most of the rest of the day, this means you have to fast for the bulk of your waking hours, and I really like to eat. I didn't see how this plan could be carried out IRL without the kind of misery that dooms every other diet.
So I spoke to Courtney Peterson, PhD, an assistant nutrition science professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has led many of the latest studies on time-restricted eating, and she spoke to my concerns.
"Restricting your eating between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. [like subjects in my latest study] is difficult," she admitted. "But no one dropped out because it was too extreme. The biggest challenge people encountered was eating so much food in such a short period of time. People felt so stuffed!"
Stuffed? On a diet? I found this hard to believe. But it was Peterson's confidence in time-restricted eating, which she personally practices at least five days a week, every week, that convinced me to give the approach a shot.
With science on my side, I committed to limiting my food intake to eight hours a day, fasting for the other 16. While Peterson told me it's ideal to limit eating hours to the morning, when the digestive system's circadian clock is optimized to plow through food, it seemed way easier for me to eat breakfast slightly later and shift dinner slightly earlier to contain my meals within an eight-hour period.
Peterson promised I'd never feel famished late at night if I ate enough during my eating hours. If I did get hungry, she said, I could always fill up on anything without calories — except diet soda. I could have water, gum, or coffee or tea without milk or sugar.
Because I was still worried about failing, I reached out to registered dietitian Keri Glassman for an ideal eating plan. She tweaked my regular diet to have fewer processed carbs like bread, more healthy fats like nuts, seeds, and avocado than I typically eat, and — to my dismay— no dessert.
With a diet full of healthy fats and ample protein, I knew I wouldn't starve. (To make sure of it, I stuck to eating the foods outlined below for a few days before adjusting my meal times for my experiment.)
My Time-Restricted Eating Results
Mornings sucked the most.
If you regularly skip breakfast, this time-restricted eating thing probably sounds like no big deal. But for me, pushing breakfast back by a few hours meant changing my whole morning routine, beginning with my coffee. I typically drink coffee with a splash of almond milk the second I wake up, but because almond milk contains calories, and consuming even a few liquid calories would count as "breaking the fast," I had to drink my morning coffee black.
Normally I'd prepare a pre-workout snack, but on my first morning of intermittent fasting, I actually had to stop and think: Am I that hungry? Often, the answer was, "No, but I am thirsty!" I started drinking a tall glass of water in addition to my coffee.
To my surprise, working out on an empty stomach didn't leave me feeling lethargic, as I'd always feared, although hunger pangs did kick in on my way home from the gym to get ready for work.
Knowing my eight-hour diet and working hours would overlap, and that leaving my office to scavenge for three meals and two snacks each day would seriously impact my productivity, I meal-prepped and packed a week's worth of food on the Sunday before launching my experiment. Yes, it took forever and meant hauling a laughable amount of food between my kitchen and office fridge every day. So it's a good thing meal prepping isn't actually required for intermittent fasting. (You also don't have to follow a set meal plan or eat the same exact things every day, as I did.)
Commuting to work with a full bag of food while my stomach growled in anticipation of my first meal felt particularly silly. As someone who believes in intuitive eating, or listening to your body's signals and eating when you're hungry, I generally see no reason to endure hunger when food is readily available. Testing my willpower by starving on purpose felt misguided and, frankly, sort of disordered.
I ate nonstop at work.
Amidst all my anxiety about suffering terrible hanger, there were some days when I got to work and got so wrapped up in tasks that I forgot to eat my breakfast until noon, inadvertently extending my overnight fast and shifting back my eating hours. Then, with so much food to consume in one day (the menu above only seems light — it's actually quite filling), I felt like I was eating constantly to keep up with my plan and finish my food before the end of my workday.
It's no wonder I was rarely hungry for the dinners I'd packed, although I still tried to eat most of them to avoid stomach grumbling later on. There was one night during my first week of time-restricted eating when my office had mostly emptied out, and I found myself sticking around after I'd completed all my work just to finish eating my brown-bagged dinner all alone. That was all it took to realize how much I missed sharing dinners with my husband and dining out with friends — things I skipped during my experiment both because I work late and because no one I know wants to eat dinner at 5:30 p.m.
I slept like a baby.
When I got home from work on nights after my eating hours had ended with no cooking to do or dinner dishes to wash, I was able to get into bed early — a good thing since I never end up getting enough sleep during the week. I slept better than ever, probably since my body could focus on the important business of dreaming without the burden of digesting my last bites.
I struggled less on the weekends.
On weekends, I deviated from my diet plan but stuck with the time-restricted eating schedule, squeezing my meals into an eight-hour period. Because I wasn't waking up at the crack of dawn for pre-work workouts, I slept later, naturally shifting my daily eating hours back to accommodate for later dinners. Reducing my eating hours was actually much easier for me on weekends.
I lost weight — but still gave up.
By the end of my time-restricted eating experiment — I lasted for two full weeks, then gave up mostly because I missed almond milk in my 7 a.m. coffee and had no time to meal prep — I was zipping into jeans that had felt markedly tighter the last time I tried them on. I'd lost 3 or 4 pounds in total, or about as much weight as I'd put on during holiday season. And it was mostly body fat that disappeared, at least according to my smart scale.
I could attribute the weight loss to sticking to my diet plan pretty precisely on weekdays, and I'd all but stopped drinking alcohol, but I can't help but give time-restricted eating most of the credit.
While I felt great about my results and proud of my resolve, I just can't rationalize suffering through the morning hanger I felt while practicing time-restricted eating, which got only vaguely easier as the week wore on. I definitely didn't like eating dinner early at my desk, which did no wonders for my social life, quality of life, or marriage (my husband hated eating dinner alone too).
That said, if I ever feel like my weight is going up and I don't want to buy more forgiving jeans, it's nice to know there's a filling weight loss plan that is technically manageable, albeit unpleasant, and effective for me.
In the meantime, I'll be eating breakfast upon waking only if I'm actually hungry; roughly sticking to the meals Glassman suggested, since I'm the kind of person who thrives on an eating game plan; and eating a bit less when I do eat dinner late, since it seems improve my sleep.