The holiday season is officially upon us, which means there will likely be lots of opportunities for celebrating with big feasts and holiday treats, combined with social pressure to enjoy them. This time of year, it’s hard not to eat too much, especially too many carbs, which then makes us feel crappy later and derails our health progress.
So how do we get through the holiday season without compromising the progress we’ve made so far?
In my guide, What To Do When Sugar Is Everywhere, I share tips & tricks for how to:
- avoid overeating sweet and carby treats even when they’re all around you
- quiet carb cravings that are starting to get the better of you, and
- get back on track when you’ve gone off-roading in carb-land
And another, more advanced, strategy is to utilize intermittent fasting (IF) so you can fully enjoy the holiday season without gaining weight or compromising your health.
One of the most powerful aspects of IF is that the fasting times help balance out the feasting times, cutting down on the damage done by overindulging. Alternating periods of feasting with periods of fasting (ie. IF) is what our bodies are naturally made to do, and is a time-honored tradition throughout human history. IF is a very effective tool for improving overall health, as well as for getting through the holidays healthfully. This is because the time you spend fasting:
- reduces your overall calorie intake
- gives your digestion a much-needed break, and frees up energy for healing, and
- helps you burn off extra fuel so it doesn’t get stored as stubborn long-term body fat gain.
IF is a great choice during the holidays if you already have some experience with it, and has many health benefits beyond weight loss/maintenance. (If you haven’t done IF much before, however, the holidays are not an ideal time to try to begin!)
There are a lot of different ways to do IF, but they all basically boil down to
- Changing the length of your eating and fasting windows, and
- Changing the time of day of your eating and fasting windows.
To reap the benefits of intermittent fasting, you can have an eating window of anywhere from 1 to 10 hours per day, and thus a corresponding fasting window of 14 to 23 hours per day, and you can also choose when you have your eating window during the day, either first thing, midday, or later in the day.
Here are some examples for you of various fasting/eating schedules:
But how can you know which IF schedule is right for you?
Some important factors that affect which schedule will work best for you are your gender, your current level of stress, how much sleep you are getting and how good your sleep quality is, how active you are, and what your social schedule is like.
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
Because of fundamental differences in their hormones and body composition, men and women will typically find success with different fasting schedules from each other.
Most men, for example, will find that they can easily do a longer fast fairly often with good results, making a 22:2 or 23:1 schedule (one meal a day, aka OMAD) a very doable and advantageous choice for many men. If this proves too difficult to do on a daily basis, then alternating OMAD with 2MAD (two meals a day, with a 4 to 8 hour eating window on the 2MAD days) is typically an ideal choice.
For women, however, a shorter fasting window on most days tends to me more successful and doable. This is in large part due to women’s hormones, and also due to the fact that most women are not able to eat as much in one sitting as men. So an ideal IF schedule for most women is no more than 19 hours of fasting per day (= 5 hour eating window) on average – meaning, if you do OMAD one day (22:2), then do 2MAD the next (16:8). Also, note that it is not recommended for women to have a shorter than 5 hour eating window for more than 1 day in a row, for the same reasons as above.
Higher levels of stress – such as we often experience during the holiday season, for one reason or another – tend to increase hunger and appetite, cause more blood sugar fluctuations, and set off more unhealthy food cravings. Therefore, higher stress makes longer fasting windows more difficult to achieve.
Fasting is a stressor – it’s a healthy stressor, aka “hormetic stress”, but it’s a stressor nonetheless. And when we pile too many stressors onto our bodies, even a positive hermetic stressor like fasting can turn into a negative.
So any time your stress level is elevated, keep your IF schedule at 16:8 or longer, and don’t push yourself to fast longer, as this will often lead to overwhelming hunger and cravings which can easily derail you into eating too much food and too many carbs.
During these higher stress times, know that even a 14:10 fasting schedule confers great health benefits, and you can always push for a more advanced IF schedule later, when your stress level has diminished.
Sleep Quantity and Quality
Like elevated stress, not enough sleep or not great quality sleep will increase appetite and cravings, so this is another instance where pushing for a longer IF schedule can often cause derailment. If you aren’t getting an average of 8+ hours of solid, deep sleep on a regular basis, then stick with a fasting window of 16 hours or less until your sleep gets sorted out.
If you are exercising regularly – good for you! 😊 This is one of the most beneficial things you can do to improve and maintain your health. And pairing exercise with fasting is even better – the benefits of both are compounded when combined!
Light exercise such as walking, even just 10-15 minutes, lowers stress and helps reduce hunger and cravings, and thus makes IF easier, allowing you to extend your fasting time by an additional hour or two, easily and naturally.
More intense exercise such as weight-training, sprints, or Tabata, however, can have mixed results. In general, most people feel less hungry for an hour or two after a workout, but some feel more hungry immediately afterwards, especially women. If this happens to you, keep your IF schedule the same, but be sure to have some high-protein food on-hand to consume immediately after your workouts.
Changing what time of day you eat to fit with when you are likely to be socializing over food is another great strategy for successful intermittent fasting during the holidays. If your family loves to have big breakfasts during the holiday season, for instance, then shift your eating window to start in the morning and close your eating window by mid-afternoon so you can fully enjoy those festive holiday breakfasts with your loved ones. If, however, evening feasting is more likely in your world, then do the opposite – skip breakfast, and wait to start your eating window until the afternoon.
Another way to use your IF schedule to respond to your social and feasting schedule is to precede and/or follow feasting days with longer fasting days. So for instance, if you know that Christmas Day will be a big day of eating, then on Christmas eve, have a longer fast – say 20:4, or even 23:1 (OMAD) – and then do the same again the day after Christmas. This type of pattern will go a long way towards helping your body burn off the indulgences of any feasting day, and leave you looking and feeling lighter and more energized.
Alternating between feasting and fasting is what our bodies are naturally designed to do, and is ideal for optimizing health and well-being.
And for those with some experience with it already, intermittent fasting is a powerful and effective tool for getting through the holidays looking and feeling great. You can customize your intermittent fasting schedule to your individual needs with 2 basic strategies – by changing the number of hours per day that you eat, and by changing the time of day that you eat. You will want to adjust each of those parameters based on various factors, including:
- Stress level
- Sleep quality and quantity
- Activity level
- Social schedule
Once you have found an IF schedule that works for you, stick with it through the holiday season, and beyond!