Here, functional medicine practitioner Dr Will Cole explains how fasting can help you better understand what your body really needs long-term.
When was the last time you felt hungry? I’m not talking about the last time you experienced a blood-sugar crash, a craving or the feeling that you “should” eat before a big day at work or a long event.
I mean those moments when you felt that your stomach was empty and you could hear it growling and gurgling, letting you know that it’s time for a meal.
For many of us in the developed world, it’s probably been a while. After all, our lifestyles are designed for convenience and ease – in a way that never leaves us far from a drive-through or a vending machine.
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Instead of going from full to hungry and back to full again, many of us fluctuate between being sort of hungry, sort of satisfied after eating, and always kind of craving sugar, carbs and caffeine. Many of us also feel shaky, cranky or nauseous if we go longer than a few hours without a snack or meal, leaving us with work bags and glove compartments full of granola bars and other healthy – or more often not-so-healthy – snacks to help us avoid these uncomfortable symptoms.
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 really, truly hungry? Do I have breakfast because I was told to or because I actually wake up hungry? Do I feel more tuned in to my body’s natural hunger signals or to the food rules I’ve been following since I was a kid?
The problem is, there’s a lot of dieting dogma and food confusion out there. What’s ultimately the best food medicine for you may not be for the next person. We’re all beautifully and wonderfully unique.
Because of this, I believe using your meals as medicine should be guided by intuition, a deep knowing of what your body really needs to fuel and nourish itself. But it’s hard to eat intuitively when you’re in a state of imbalance.
There’s little clarity there. Is it intuition or a craving? Is it intuition or hormone imbalance? Emotional eating isn’t intuitive eating. Stress eating isn’t intuitive eating. So what’s the key to accessing intuitive eating?
The answer is regaining metabolic flexibility (the body’s ability to adapt and use whatever fuel is available to it), which we will do by reintroducing our bodies to times of fasting.
If you’ve eaten recently, that fuel is glucose (the sugar that’s in your blood). If it’s been a while since your last meal (or all your blood glucose has been used up), that fuel is stored fat.
If you’ve ever entered the “fat- burning” stage of a workout, it means you’ve used up all your glucose and your body is now burning fat for fuel. But once you achieve metabolic flexibility by sticking to the fasting plan and eating the right foods, fasting will become effortless and intuitive.
You’ll be able to trust your body to function at optimal capacity – which means no weakness, nausea or crankiness – whether you’ve eaten six minutes ago, six hours ago, or 16 hours ago.
In the end, this [approach] isn’t really about fasting for 18 hours a day or eating a perfect low-carb diet. It’s about balancing your body so that you can listen to it, knowing that it won’t lead you astray.
That means if you don’t feel like fasting one day, you simply… don’t. Once you’ve established metabolic flexibility, you can trust your body to skip that day and pick it up the next.
Eating only when you’re truly hungry seems painfully simple, but getting to a place where your body tells you what to eat – instead of what your cravings, emotions or society’s arbitrary food rules are telling you – is the real goal.
This is an edited extract from Intuitive Fasting by Dr Will Cole (Hachette, $32.99), out now.