It’s 10:42 a.m. and I’m sitting in my SUV outside of Chipotle, resisting the temptation to eat the Goldfish crackers stuck to the car seat in the back. Chipotle opens at 10:45, apparently. What the hell kind of place opens at 10:45? What sort of bullshit time is that? I’m ravenous, and have very little patience. Some people call that hangry. I’m more like ragenous.
I skipped breakfast, as I’ve done every morning for the last month or so, and I’m planning on grabbing that burrito and driving it back to my office where at precisely 11 a.m., I’ll rip into it. Yes, I’m that millennial who’s intermittent fasting. And it’s not going very well.
If you’re not hip to this trend, here’s the basic breakdown: Intermittent fasting is a process in which you refrain from eating for a designated amount of time, either per day or per week. It’s as simple as that, though there are a lot of ways to do it. There’s the 16:8 fast, which is what the cool kids and I are all doing: 16 hours of fasting followed by eight hours of allowing yourself to indulge in the human need of eating. A typical schedule would be to break your fast at 11 a.m. or noon and eat all of your meals by 7 or 8 p.m. — whichever is eight hours later — then cease to eat again. (Sleeping counts as fasting, thank god.) People also sometimes do this on an 18:6 or 20:4 schedule, or they may go a whole different route where they eat freely five days a week then fast for two, or some other such weekly routine.
I barely have time to scarf a protein bar most mornings. I felt certain I could just, like, not eat that, and I’d barely notice.
As is my way, I took what seemed to be the most easy-breezy route. I could make it to 11 each morning without eating, right? I barely have time to scarf a protein bar most mornings. I felt certain I could just, like, not eat that, and I’d barely notice.
But why do this in the first place? That’s a fully legitimate question I’m not sure I have a fully legitimate answer to, but what it came down to for me was a rather basic thing: I’m a working mom who has very little time or energy to prioritize my own well-being, and all the antidotes to that are things that seem to take time and energy.
I want to make those “quick and easy, protein-packed breakfasts” you see videos of in your newsfeed, but they are never quicker and easier than frozen waffles. Meal planning dinners for a family of three is difficult enough without also doing it for just myself. I want to do that make-ahead lunch thing where I poach salmon and roast vegetables and cook brown rice on Sunday afternoon and put it all together in five separate glass containers and those become my incredibly healthy desk lunches. However, usually on Sunday afternoons I’m busy trying to cobble together the few hours I have with my husband and son every week to make some of those happy memories everyone’s always talking about. I’m usually out of brown rice anyway.
Yes, I make vegetables for my kid. I’m not a monster. But he’s a preschooler and loves what preschoolers love: mac and cheese, dino nuggets, and the like. His dad and I end up eating that stuff sometimes, too. That’s the thing — we often prioritize our babies at the expense of ourselves. I’m no better about this than anyone else.
So intermittent fasting seemed like something I could do that would be incredibly easy and also maybe even a little bit good for me, and wouldn’t encroach on anyone else in my family. It would force me to be disciplined. Yes! I’d be regimented about this schedule, which would make me regimented about what I ate, too. I was sure of it. And that sense of structure would bleed into the rest of my life. I’d be a healthy-eating, highly scheduled super mom sleeping eight hours a night and I’d probably take up running or something! Skipping breakfast was going to change my life.
Eh, I never took up running. But when it came to eating, I knew discipline around food would be really good for me mostly because I’ve never had it. Since childhood I’ve been a glutton, and that’s never really changed. In some ways it’s wonderful — I truly enjoy food. Deeply. As many of us do. But give me an inch and I’ll take a footlong. In elementary school, my favorite after-school snack was two plain Hershey bars with a thick layer of Jif peanut butter spread on each one, lined up next to each other, and delivered to my mouth in quick succession. That was if I wasn’t eating an entire Wendy’s Big Bacon Classic. I held the record in my family for most pierogies eaten in one sitting (10) and I even managed to squeeze in the side of applesauce.
To this day, it’s a struggle to keep my stomach from being bigger than my eyes. Yes, I’ll have that last piece of pizza everyone else is too bashful to take. And maybe we should get a couple of extra rolls of sushi, since we’re sharing, just in case. Yes, I eat salads. I eat the fuck out of salads. But even those are huge, fully loaded with all the colors of the rainbow, and a giant spoonful of blue cheese crumbles. I’m not a little biter, either. Nothing gives me truer joy than wrapping my mouth around a piled-up forkful of basically anything when I’m really hungry.
Which is why that Chipotle burrito was gonna taste so damn good.
However, even though I wasn’t doing this fasting thing for weight-loss reasons, over the month or so I did it, I gained six pounds. And while I’m not maniacal about the scale, I wasn’t thrilled about that.
The thing was, intermittent fasting — this regimented eating schedule I was certain would infuse my life with so much discipline — ended up having the opposite effect. It became a form of one-woman S&M in which I was both the S and the M, and during the eating window, there was more lawlessness than ever before.
First I, the sadist, would withhold all food — one of the truest joys I know. At 7 p.m. I’d type into my intermittent fasting app (oh yeah, those exist) that I’d begun my fast. Just 16 hours to go, and I’d be sleeping for some of that. All good. But upon waking, the countdown was the only thing on my mind. By the last hour, I was ready to bite my coworkers’ heads off and eat them for brunch.
Then it was eating time. Finally. And after what felt like an eternity of deprivation (it really wasn’t, I know, but tell that to someone who hasn’t eaten in 16 hours), the only foods that would do were ones that felt like the true indulgence I deserved: pad see ew and some crab rangoons. Pizza with a side of more pizza. Chipotle with extra guac.
And oh, the first bite. The first, glorious bite. But really, even better were those few seconds before it, when I knew it was coming: rapture. The masochist in me ate up that moment, literally. And the next and the next. Satiation was elusive, and my office was stocked with free snacks. “Is a single-serve bag of chips so terrible?” I’d ask myself pretty much daily. “I’ve just spent so much time not eating! I’ve earned them!” It was like I had to cram in every opportunity to taste sweet pleasure before the eating window shut tight again. So I did. Then 7 p.m. hit and I’d made nothing but overpermissive eating choices all day long. And then the guilt set in. Nothing about this felt good.
So I quit.
And a couple of weeks after I quit, when my jeans didn’t seem quite as tight, I stepped on the scale and I realized I’d lost a few pounds already.
Despite what my every word up to this point would have you believe, I’m certain intermittent fasting is working for some people, and well. It’s incredibly popular right now, and there are (at least probably) some health benefits, and I’m sure others have benefited from a controlled eating schedule more than I managed to. But for me, discipline did not beget discipline. It begot eight hours of anarchy. I guess I just can’t handle any meal that comes with a side of stopwatch.
Ali Trachta is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. She’s a former editor both at LA Weekly and NEXTpittsburgh, and has also written for The New York Times, LA Magazine, and others. Find her on Twitter @alitrachta.