A Beginner’s Guide to Intuitive Fasting

What Is the Intuitive Fasting Diet?

Intermittent fasting is a dietary pattern that cycles between normal eating and fasting. If you’re seeking more health benefits, or pound-shedding potential, from an eating plan — and you also want to develop inner serenity and a sense of being grounded — you might be attracted to intuitive fasting.

Based on promising research from animal and some human studies, intermittent fasting has gained popularity in recent years for weight loss and potential health improvements. According to Will Cole, author of “Intuitive Fasting: The Flexible Four-Week Intermittent Fasting Plan to Recharge Your Metabolism and Renew Your Health,” this approach may offer even more.

The four-week plan uses a variety of intermittent fasting protocols designed to “recharge your metabolism, renew your cells and rebalance your hormones,” says Cole, who is a functional medicine practitioner. His plan combines elements of intermittent fasting with “metaphysical meals” that fit mindfulness practices into fasting periods — so you make fasting a meditation.

As this is a relatively new plan, with the book published in 2021, research that specifically supports intuitive fasting is lacking. However, its two major components — intermittent fasting and mindfulness/meditation — are individually backed by evidence, Cole says. “There’s a lot of research looking at intermittent fasting,” he says. “And there’s a lot of research looking at mindfulness practices. So, I wanted people to really lean into both.”

No foods are strictly forbidden. Instead, “I just want to educate people on what’s going to make their fast easier,” Cole says. “So focus on nutrient-dense foods first.”

Nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fat. They’re also relatively low in calories, which can be a plus for weight loss. Nutrient-dense foods are also key in several U.S. News Best Diets including Volumetrics, Nutritarian and Noom.

“When somebody gets their blood sugar stabilized and they’re eating nutrient-dense food and they’re satiated, then the fast is a lot more effortless because they are fueled during their eating window,” Cole says.

As it relates to eating, ‘intuitive’ means being able to look inward and respect your body’s hunger and fullness signals to guide your choices in terms of when and what to eat. With intuitive fasting, Cole says, followers become more intuitive in their eating and fasting choices.

“Metabolic flexibility” is the body’s ability to adapt whatever fuel is available — the ability to use both sugars in your blood and stored fat for food, Cole says. Introducing the body to various types of fasting helps people regain that flexibility, he says. Intuitive fasting involves a four-week plan in which you explore different fasting windows. By doing so, he says, you’ll strengthen your metabolism, feel good all day, reduce cravings and blood sugar crashes, and gain resilience and intuition in your body.

[Read: Calorie Reduction vs Fasting.]

How Does Intuitive Fasting Work?

Here’s a glimpse at the four-week plan that’s further fleshed out in the “Intuitive Fasting” book:

Week 1 (12/12 Body Reset Fast). With a long 12-hour feeding window, this fast is least disruptive to a usual daily routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have your last meal in the early evening, for instance at 6 p.m., and then you don’t eat again until 6 a.m. the next day. (You choose your exact window times.) Body reset includes tight carb restrictions.

Week 2 (14- to 18-Hour Metabolic Recharge Fast). Your fasting window is extended to 14 to 18 hours. This phase is intended to promote more fat-burning.” The aim is to improve metabolic markers such as better blood sugar balance, lower levels of leptin — a hormone linked to hunger and appetite — and reduced inflammation.

Week 3 (20- to 22-Hour Cellular Renewal Fast). You complete these longest fasts, which basically allow one meal a day, every other day. Claimed benefits include supporting cellular repair among other longevity pathways.

Week 4 (12/12 Rebalance Fast). Returning to the 12-hour fasting window from Week 1, you now increase nutritious carbohydrates such as fruit, sweet potatoes and rice.

During standard mealtimes, you can fill the gap with “metaphysical meals” while fasting. These are simply mindful practices such as:

— A 10-minute meditation or prayer.

— A neighborhood walk.

Forest bathing or other nature immersion.

— Journaling.

Overall, the cyclical approach of the four-week plan is meant to provide gentle, flexible fasting windows, along with a high-fat, low-carb nutrition plan, to help center yourself and make peace with food and your body. According to Cole, people who might do particularly well with intuitive fasting include those who are:

— Struggling with fatigue.

— Struggling with weight-loss resistance.

— Struggling with an autoimmune problem.

— Struggling with brain fog (which can tie into fatigue).

“Those are the people who are going to benefit the most, because they’re struggling with some sort of inflammatory problem or metabolic issues, and those people do really well with the book,” Cole says.

[SEE: Best Mediterranean Diet Food List.]

Intuitive Fasting Overview

Intuitive fasting is:

— Budget-friendly.

— Planet-friendly.

— Can be adapted for vegans or vegetarians.

— Can be adapted for a gluten-free diet.

— Can be adapted for halal or kosher diets.

— Low-carb.

— High-fat.

What Are the Benefits of Intuitive Fasting?

Intuitive fasting pros

— Diverse foods and flavors.

— Filling (during feeding windows) — it’s rich in high-fiber foods.

— A clearly defined plan with recipes.

Intuitive fasting cons

— You’ll likely get hungry when fasting.

— Unsafe for some people.

— Little research to back it up specifically.

— Could fall short nutritionally when fasting.

Can I Lose Weight on Intuitive Fasting?

You’ll probably lose weight on intuitive fasting. During fasting periods you’ll consume significantly fewer calories than you normally would. In addition, you may have better weight maintenance if intuitive fasting helps improve metabolism and reduce weight-loss resistance as intended, though there has been no evidence to support a beneficial effect of fasting on improving the metabolic rate.

Short-term weight loss

You’re likely to lose weight in the first week of the plan, primarily due to loss of water weight. During any fasting period, you’ll probably consume significantly fewer calories than otherwise.

— A meta-analysis found that alternate-day fasting is an effective dietary method similar to very-low-calorie dieting for people with obesity.

— A systematic review of intermittent fasting studies, with most studies lasting 12 to 13 weeks, found that participants lost 7 to 11 pounds over a 10-week period, with a maximum weight loss of 35 pounds over a 20-week period. However, intermittent fasting results were comparable to continuous calorie restriction and did not attenuate the metabolic slowdown associated with regular dieting.

Long-term weight loss

You could maintain weight loss by sticking to intuitive fasting over time. In another systematic review of various intermittent fasting regimens for people with overweight or obesity, some studies lasting up to one year, participants lost about 15 pounds on average.

[See: Ways to Shift Your Mindset for Better Weight Loss.]

Health Benefits of Intuitive Fasting

To date, research focused on intuitive fasting specifically is lacking. However, research supports some health benefits from both intermittent fasting and from mindfulness, two of the plan’s key components:

Heart disease

— People with obesity on calorie-restricted diets who alternated days of fasting with either high- or low-fat diets reduced heart disease risk factors in a study that also showed weight loss. However, there was no control group comparing the benefits of these alternate-day fasting protocols against a standard calorie-restricted diet.

— Intermittent fasting diets reduced total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in people with Metabolic Syndrome, according to a March 2022 study.

— Meditation may support heart health by changing how your heart responds to stress and by lowering high blood pressure, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.

Diabetes

— Intermittent fasting diets can significantly improve insulin sensitivity, the March 2022 study also found.

— Meditation had a “remarkable” improvement on blood sugar control for patients with Type 2 diabetes in a study that also found improved emotional well-being.

Brain health

A September 2021 review found “no clear evidence” of a positive short-term effect of intermittent fasting on cognition in healthy people. However, it may have benefits for children with epilepsy and people with multiple sclerosis in terms of symptoms and disease progression, with most findings based on research in animal models, the review noted.

Inflammation

Caloric restriction, including fasting, may help reduce inflammation by decreasing blood levels of monocytes, or cells that cause inflammation in the body, according to a small August 2019 study that involved 12 healthy volunteers.

Health Risks of Intuitive Fasting

Lightheadedness, constipation, dizziness, muscle cramps and headaches can result from fasting, particularly in the beginning before your body has become accustomed to it.

Who should not try this diet?

Intuitive/intermittent fasting is not for everyone. People who should not do fasting protocols include:

— Women who are pregnant.

— People with a history of eating disorders or who may be at risk for developing them, such as teenage or college age people.

— Those who are underweight.

— Children, as they are still growing and developing.

— People with Type 1 diabetes or insulin-dependent Type 2 diabetes.

Anyone with other medical conditions, such as gout, liver, kidney or heart disease, should talk to their doctors in advance, as should anyone taking prescription medicines.

Food List for Intuitive Fasting

Foods to Eat

These are filling, nutritious foods for feeding windows:

— Vegetables like leafy greens.

— Fruits like berries and pineapple.

— Wild-caught fish, organic beef and grass-fed chicken.

— Shrimp and scallops.

— Sweet potatoes and other starchy tubers.

— Avocados, olives and extra-virgin olive oil for healthy fat.

Foods to Avoid or Limit

No foods are strictly forbidden, but these may affect fasting results:

— Sugar or artificial sweeteners.

— Pasta.

— Alcohol.

— Dairy products.

— Gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye and barley.

— Unhealthy fats like red meat.

By choosing foods accordingly, you can make the diet vegetarian or vegan. The “Intuitive Fasting” book includes vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and omnivore recipes, Cole notes, and all can be made halal or kosher. The plan encourages gluten-free foods.

How to Get Started on Intuitive Fasting

Your best bet is to read through “Intuitive Fasting” to understand the concept behind the plan and refer to weekly fasting details. You should also speak with your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian if you have any health concerns or questions before starting.

Shopping list for the Intuitive Fasting Diet

Pantry basic and staples for intuitive fasting include:

— Leafy green produce like kale and spinach.

— Low-carb veggies like zucchini and asparagus.

— Berries.

— Sweet potatoes.

— Avocado and olives.

— Olive oil.

— Nuts and seeds.

— Tea or coffee.

— Himalayan pink sea salt (for electrolytes).

— Broth.

Eating out

You can eat out fairly easily during feeding windows. You’re encouraged to stick with clean, nutrient-dense foods.

Recipes and Meal Ideas for Intuitive Fasting

Sample menu for the Intuitive Fasting Diet

This is an example of an 18-hour Intuitive Fasting day (available on drwill.com). An eating window of 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. is suggested, with your first meal at lunch.

Breakfast (fluid)

Tea, black coffee and plenty of water to stay hydrated while fasting. Earl Grey tea with bergamot may enhance fasting benefits, according to Cole. Avoid ingredients like milk and sugar.

Lunch/first meal (noon)

Kale Caesar salad with eggs. A nutrient-dense salad with dark leafy greens, cage-free eggs and a dressing made of healthy fats.

Snack (2:30 p.m.)

Coconut-lime smoothie with a side of macadamia nuts. Smoothies and nuts provide good sources of healthy fats for midday fuel.

Dinner/second meal (5:30 p.m.)

Buttery sea scallops on garlic snow peas with fresh mint salad. Scallops are a good source of omega fats and protein, and they provide lasting energy to help keep you satiated.

Support and Resources for Intuitive Fasting

— “Intuitive Fasting: The Flexible Four-Week Intermittent Fasting Plan to Recharge Your Metabolism and Renew Your Health,” by Will Cole, with a foreword by Gwyneth Paltrow. (Published in February 2021 by Goop Press.) It includes in-depth plan details, recipes, meal plans and daily eating schedules.

— Will Cole’s website for functional medicine at drwill.com.

Intermittent fasting profile in U.S. News Best Diets for a comparison diet example.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Intuitive Fasting originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 08/01/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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