Is intermittent fasting okay for women? In this article, I’ll discuss the do’s and don’ts of fasting for women and why it’s so different for us than it is for men!
If you’ve been a frequent visitor to this blog, then you know I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting for a few years now. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve really dug into the research about intermittent fasting for women.
The problem is, there isn’t much information out there about fasting for women. 99% of the fasting studies have been done on men – and, as you know, we are VERY different than men!
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) simply means that you choose to fast during a certain time period each day, and you also choose to eat your calories within a certain time period each day. The most popular time period is 16:8, so for 16 hours, I don’t eat anything, then for 8 hours, I eat my regular amount of calories.
By fasting, we are asking our body to switch from using glucose as fuel to using fat as fuel! That’s why IF has been touted as a great weight loss tactic. There is even evidence to suggest that it helps us gain energy, protect against disease, improve insulin resistance, fight the effects of aging, and more.
(You can read more about the pro’s of intermittent fasting HERE!)
There are a few different methods of IF, so it’s more a matter of individual preference as to how someone incorporates it into their life.
Some examples include:
- Fasting 1 – 3 days per week for 24 hours. The other 6 – 4 days have a normal food intake.
- Fasting on alternating days where you eat very little (500-600 calories) and the other days have a normal food intake.
- Scheduling a daily fast of 12-18 hours. This can be done by skipping breakfast or just condensing all 3 meals into a small window of time.
Intermittent Fasting and Women
There is a lot of discussion about intermittent fasting and how it affects women.
So, what’s the deal?
There is no doubt in my mind that women’s hormones are much more sensitive than men’s hormones. Each month, women’s hormones perform a delicate balancing act, and when something like IF gets introduced, it can throw these hormones out of balance and cause women to experience many side effects.
For example, when a woman’s body perceives she is starving herself, her body will ramp up the production of ghrelin, our hunger hormone. We will feel extremely hungry because our body is producing more ghrelin, telling us to EAT!
The reason women’s bodies are more sensitive to hunger is because our #1 goal as a woman is to carry a child. When our body is getting signals that we aren’t eating enough, hormone production can change in order to try and get us to eat so that we can support a baby, even when we are not trying to get pregnant.
Many women will try to ignore these hunger cues, causing the signals to get even louder. Or, worse, we ignore the cues, then fail and binge later, then follow that up with under-eating and starvation again. And guess what? That vicious cycle can throw your hormones out of whack and even halt ovulation.
Unfortunately, there are very few human studies looking at the differences between intermittent fasting for men and women, but the animal studies confirm our suspicion: Intermittent fasting can sometimes throw off a woman’s hormonal balance, cause fertility problems and exacerbate eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
I can speak from experience. When I first started IF, I did lose my period for a few months. I was eating from 12pm to 8pm, then fasting from 8pm to 12pm the next day. Initially, I lost about 10 pounds. In the process, my period get very irregular and it took a few months for it to balance out.
But there is good news…
Women can practice fasting, there are just some guidelines we need to consider FIRST!
If you are new to IF, it can be very hard on your body if you jump right into it like I did. Going from eating around the clock to eating within an 8 hour window is a total shock for your body and hormones.
The best practice for women is to ease into fasting.
Here are a few different ways you can do this:
- Start with a 12 hour fast. If you eat dinner at 6pm, don’t eat again until 6am the next day. Then the next week, increase this to a 13 hour fast, the week after that a 14 hour fast, etc.
- Only fast on 2 – 3 NON consecutive days of the week (ex. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)
- After 2 – 3 weeks, add in one more day of fasting.
- Drink lots of water, tea, coffee (without sweeteners) during your fast. Bulletproof coffee or Rocket Fuel Latte’s are also a good idea for women.
CHECK YOUR HORMONES
Because of the stress that intermittent fasting can put on our body as women, our hormones can easily become out of balance. It’s not only our hunger hormones (ghrelin, leptin, and insulin) that can be affected, our sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) and thyroid/adrenal hormones (cortisol, DHEA, etc) can also be affected.
I would suggest getting your hormones tested BEFORE you even begin fasting. It’s important to know what state your hormones are in prior to trying IF.
I had my hormones tested via a saliva test before I tried fasting. Because my hormones were in pretty good balance and I wasn’t dealing with adrenal fatigue or thyroid issues, I figured IF was okay for me.
If you are dealing with a hormonal imbalance of any kind, I would recommend getting that sorted out before you even attempt IF.
It’s also important to get in touch with your hunger signals on a hormonal level (leptin/grehlin). No matter where you’re at in your health journey, it’s essential to know how to deal with the stress that comes with hunger.
EAT THE FAT!
I’ve tried intermittent fasting on a low fat diet and on a high fat diet, and I can tell you that it’s much easier practicing IF on a high fat diet! When I was eating a low fat, high carb diet, I was hungry all the time. Even though I was only eating during an 8-hour window, I was still eating 5 meals a day! But once I switched to a low carb, high fat diet, I only eat 2 – 3 meals in that same 8 hour window!
When our bodies are constantly dealing with the highs and lows of glucose from carbohydrates, there will be a dip in blood sugar a few hours after your last meal which brings on feelings of hunger. When no glucose is provided by way of a meal, cortisol (our stress hormone) will come to the rescue. So, now you’re hungry, you’re still fasting for another 5 hours, and your body senses a stressful event. Not good!
With a reduction in carbohydrates and inclusion of a large amount of healthy fat, your blood sugar will become extremely stable. That dip in blood sugar doesn’t happen and the stressor isn’t there because your body no longer relies on only glucose for energy. Your body has learned to run on fat – both dietary and stored body fat – instead of just waiting for the next meal. Now, not only are you not having feelings of hunger, but you’re eliminating the stressful event! WIN – WIN!
The healthy fats I recommend are:
- coconut oil
- MCT oil
- grass-fed meats
- pastured eggs
- grass-fed butter and/or ghee
- grass-fed, organic dairy
- nut butters
DON’T SLASH CALORIES
One of the main reasons that intermittent fasting is problematic for women is because not only do we try to stop eating for many hours, but we also try to slash calories on top of that! No wonder this puts us into a state of stress.
During your eating window, don’t be afraid to EAT! I still eat around 2,000+ calories in the 8 hours! I can do that by consuming healthy, calorie-dense, nutrient-dense, whole foods that also contain a lot of fat. I personally prefer to eat more in a shorter time period than to try and starve myself by slashing calories too low throughout my day.
This is what I love the most about intermittent fasting. I personally feel it is a better, safer way to try and lose fat without breaking your metabolism.
DON’T FOCUS ON WEIGHT LOSS
So many women want to try intermittent fasting to try and lose weight. I’m not saying you can’t lose weight and burn more fat with IF, but I am saying that women shouldn’t try intermittent fasting solely for that purpose.
Take myself for example. When I first started intermittent fasting, it wasn’t to try and get a lean, ripped body. I had done the research on IF and came to the conclusion that this was more of a therapeutic way of eating. IF has been shown to increase energy and improve brain health. It’s great for our immune system and can help us live longer. I don’t know about you, but those things are much more important to me than a number on the scale.
SLOW DOWN EXERCISE
Just like fasting can be a stressor on women’s bodies, so can exercise! Too much exercise can also be to blame for the hormonal domino effect we’ve been talking about.
For the first 2 weeks of IF, I suggest toning down your workouts until you know how IF is going to affect you. Start with walking and light yoga. Once you have been practicing IF for a couple of weeks, you’ll probably find that you can ease your way back into your regular workout routine. I bet you’ll even find you have more energy to workout than you ever had before!
I’ve scaled back my workouts quite a bit in the past year. I used to workout over an hour each day. But I was finding the stress of my workouts combined with the stress of IF wasn’t working for me. So I scaled back my workouts to just 30 – 45 minutes a day. My workouts no longer include long-duration cardio sessions. Instead, I do HIIT’s, heavy weight lifting, and flexibility training.
Remember, the end goal is to keep the stress level in our body at an all time low, thereby keeping our hormones in balance. Working out too intensely while our body is shifting energy sources will likely cause more stress.
STOP IF IT DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT
It’s important to note that intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone.
I’ve had clients who excel at fasting and others who’ve tried it and hated it. This just goes to show that we are all individuals and we need to do what’s right for OUR body.
It’s important to listen to our body. Some of the symptoms that fasting may not be right for you are:
- your menstrual cycle stops or becomes irregular
- you have problems falling asleep or staying asleep
- your hair falls out
- you start to develop dry skin or acne
- you’re noticing you don’t recover from workouts as easily
- your injuries are slow to heal
- you get every illness/bug going around
- your tolerance to stress decreases
- your moods start swinging
- your heart starts going pitter-patter in a weird way
- your interest in romance fizzles (and your lady parts stop appreciating it when it happens)
- your digestion slows down noticeably
- you always seem to feel cold
I’m curious to know, have you tried intermittent fasting? What was your experience with it as a woman?
Want to work with me? Consider joining on of my upcoming Drop a Dress Size groups! In my group, you’ll learn how to eat the right foods to balance hormones, the easiest and most effective way to start a low carb way of eating, support for trying intermittent fasting, and more!