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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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November 21 2018

Intermittent Fasting (and Feasting) At the Holidays: 6 Ways to Do It

By Mark Sisson
21 Comments

The holiday season is notorious for unwanted weight gain. Although the average weight gain isn’t all that high—1 to 2 pounds—the real danger is that people rarely lose the weight they gain during the holiday season. So, if you go through ten holiday seasons, you’re looking at a very realistic and permanent gain of 20 pounds.

But it’s not just the weight you gain. Even if you manage to avoid gaining any weight, the onslaught of sugary foods you’re not used to consuming will play havoc with your blood sugar and insulin levels, leave you bloated and fatigued, and generally make what should be a joyous time a sluggish, low-energy one.

Imagine having your full measure of energy over the full holiday season. Imagine putting on a Santa suit and clambering around on the roof and shimmying down the chimney, giving your kids a real show. (Not recommending this literally of course.) Imagine enjoying the winter weather, rather than holing up indoors with a box of cookies waiting for it to pass.

One thing I like to do in suboptimal food conditions is use it as an opportunity to fast. If I’m traveling and my choices are airplane food or McDonald’s, I simply don’t eat. If I’m at a hotel where the idea of a complimentary breakfast bar consists of bagels, orange juice, and those tiny boxes of cereal, I don’t eat. Quite honestly, the holiday season is one big block of suboptimal food conditions.

Sure, it’s delicious. Sure, some of it is even nutritious, if we’re talking roasts and gravies and veggies and large crispy birds. But the quantity of food we consume and the frequency at which we consume it—combined with the prevalence of delicious treats and the “emotional” context—makes for an impossible situation. It really is the perfect scenario to pack on some mass—or the perfect opportunity to employ an intermittent fast.

How should you do it? Are there any tips, tricks, or strategies particular to the holidays that make fasting easier and more effective?

Skip Breakfast

Breakfast around the holidays can get quite ridiculous. How many of you have done this or know someone who has done this: having pumpkin pie/a half tin of Danish butter cookies/big bowl of mashed potatoes for breakfast? Even if no one is digging into the leftovers (although a turkey leg is a nice way to begin the day), you’ll see the likes of pastries, quiches (heavy on the crust), bagel spreads, pancakes, and waffles, etc.

So, just skip it, particularly when treats abound and beckon. You’ll avoid the problem entirely, give your digestive system a rest, keep the fat-burning going, and make any subsequent feasting later in the day more rewarding and less damaging. Have some coffee and cream instead. Heck, you could even whip the cream if you want to feel like you’re having a “treat” with everyone else.

Don’t Snack

Snacking kills during the holidays. While in more normal times I recommend against constant or absentminded snacking, at least then it usually just means a handful of nuts, a few pieces of jerky, a cup of broth. During the holidays, snacking means candy, cookies, and pie. There are mountains of junk almost everywhere you go and dozens of evangelists scurrying around foisting it on you. I don’t see it because I move in a curated culinary environment at my places of residence and work, but back before I went Primal, I can remember the ubiquity of treats during the holidays. If you’re the snacking type, you’ll likely make some bad choices.

Simply “not snacking” doesn’t sound like much of a fast, but going those 4-5 hours between meals can allow you to slip into a mild “fasted” state multiple times per day.

Don’t Nibble As You Cook

Whoever’s in charge of cooking the myriad holiday feasts and meals needs to understand how to handle themselves behind the stove. Quality control is one thing. Checking how things taste is understandable and necessary. But that’s not what gets you into trouble. What gets you into trouble is the constant nibbling and gnawing and chomping throughout the cooking process.

Spoonful of gravy here. Handful of mashed potatoes there. Oh, how’d that turkey skin turn out? Gonna have to try that. Oh, I wonder how it tastes dipped in the gravy. Boy, that dark meat sure is looking nice. Hmm, does the breast look a little dry to you? I’m going to try it. Now with some gravy and cranberry sauce—yeah, that does the trick.

By the time dinner is served you’re 800 calories deep, and you’re not even very excited about eating more (but you still do). Imagine if you’d fasted during the 4-5 hours you were preparing dinner. Not only would dinner be more satisfying and taste better, you wouldn’t have spent 4-5 hours in “fed mode.” Rally others to do the sampling. It’s never too hard to find takers.

Make Fasting a Tradition

Our success as a civilization rests upon our traditions. Heck, the Primal Blueprint is about respecting the oldest human traditions around, the “informal” and natural ones established by hundreds of thousands of years of hominid evolution. And yes, specific traditions can become outdated or run counter to currently accepted modes of thought and behavior, but the idea of tradition—a foundational behavior whose utility and importance has been tested through time—remains essential.

If you don’t have any traditions of your own, if they’ve been lost or ground down to pathetic shadows of their former selves, what do you do? You make your own. Fasting is a good choice, and it’s one that many other populations and cultures have performed. Pick a time frame—maybe a single 24-hour fast every Saturday, or “fast before each big holiday feast,” or “skip breakfast the week before each major holiday”—and suggest to everyone that the entire family get on board.

Do Leangains Style Fasted Training

Skip breakfast. Train around midday, lifting hard and heavy. After training, break the fast. Eat your last meal by 7 or 8 P.M. Aim for a 16-hour fasting period and an 8-hour eating window. Fast every day, train every 2-3 days. There’s even a book if you want more details.

This intensive method of fasting and training allows you a little more leeway with the food choices when you do eat. Much of what you eat will go toward repairing and rebuilding what you’ve broken down during training, and the everyday fasted periods will help you minimize fat gain. It can be quite intense, and people may have disparate responses to the rigidity of the schedule. If hard boundaries work well for you, if you like establishing rules and then sticking to them, this is the holiday fasting method for you. If you’re more fluid and balk at hard lines, you may have trouble. Women may have more success using 12-14 fasting windows.

Pair Your Dietary Transgressions With Fasts.

Are you the type to really go all out during Thanksgiving—dropping the Primal guidelines and just going for it? Mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, that weird sweet potato dish with marshmallows on top, pumpkin pie, the works? A one- or two-day fast right before or after the meal can mitigate the damage of the meal.

Even if there’s not much of a physiological benefit other than reducing your calorie intake to balance the overindulgence, the psychological boost we get from not eating will stave off the potential guilt of abandoning the Primal guidelines. I don’t support guilting or shaming ourselves because of what we eat, but I know it does happen. This can be a powerful antidote.

Whatever You Choose, Stick To a Schedule.

Once you figure out which fasting plan seems to work for your holiday situation, stick with it. Skip meals if you like, but try to eat at roughly the same time each day. This conditions your body to expect food (and get hungry at the right time, not before), and it improves the metabolic response to eating.

This applies whether you’re fasting in the morning or at night. In one recent study, the authors actually tested the effect of breaking your eating habits by separating overweight women into habitual breakfast skippers and habitual breakfast eaters and then having them either skip breakfast or eat breakfast.

Habitual breakfast eaters who skipped breakfast experienced way more hunger at lunch, had worse blood lipids, and higher insulin levels. They had worse blood lipids and their insulin skyrocketed. Habitual breakfast skippers who skipped breakfast experienced none of these deleterious effects.

Meanwhile, habitual breakfast eaters who ate breakfast were more satiated at lunch. They had better blood lipids and normal insulin levels. Habitual breakfast skippers who ate breakfast were still hungry at lunch. Eating breakfast didn’t inhibit their regular lunch-time appetites.

Regular eating schedules also improve insulin sensitivity, increase energy expenditure, improve fasting lipids, and result in the best metabolic effects.

Fasting isn’t a magic bullet. IF won’t fix all your metabolic issues and counteract every cookie, cake, and slice of pie you eat during the holidays. But it is a strong bulwark against the worst of the holiday excesses.

Are you going to fast this holiday season? Have you used IF in the past? What do you do to get through the holiday season without unwanted weight gain?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

References:

Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(12):861-7.

Thomas EA, Higgins J, Bessesen DH, Mcnair B, Cornier MA. Usual breakfast eating habits affect response to breakfast skipping in overweight women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2015;23(4):750-9.

Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(1):16-24.

Pot GK, Almoosawi S, Stephen AM. Meal irregularity and cardiometabolic consequences: results from observational and intervention studies. Proc Nutr Soc. 2016;75(4):475-486.

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21 thoughts on “Intermittent Fasting (and Feasting) At the Holidays: 6 Ways to Do It”

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  1. Thanks Mark! I always slip up around the holiday season, as no one in my family or extended family would ever consider a primal style diet! Fasting and squeezing in some extra sprint sessions and extra kettlebell trainings may do the trick!

    Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

  2. That’s great, but how about ideas for shutting down the primal instinct to eat food? Other than avoiding food situations, steel will, and thinking about the consequences, do you have suggestions for resisting all of the delicious homemade dishes around here, particularly for women?

    1. Nothing beats honoring the struggle of our ancestors but our primal instincts are there for good reason… try gulping down a shot or 2 of apple cider vinegar. Works over here!

    2. Willpower is a skill and often the real answer to beat-around-the-bush questions like this. There’s no secret answer. Just try harder.

  3. Thanks for the reminder Mark; great stuff as usual. Before reading this I didn’t have much of a plan. But now I am going to try and fast all day today until the Big Meal tomorrow, which would put me at around 48 hours. I have a hunch that a fast right before a big meal will surely temper the “feasting” mentality for me. Kind of counter-intuitive, but I’m interested in seeing how my mind reacts to it. Will I gorge? Or will I keep it cool? Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck! This is what I’m going to try to do as well. I find that after a very long fast like that I can’t even eat that much. So I may desire to really feast, but I don’t think I’ll be able to.

    2. Good luck Sukho, I find I don’t eat as much after a 48 hour fast so I think you are on the right track.

    3. The magic of the fast comes in the refeed… don’t skimp on it. I just finished a 5-day water only fast. As it relates to how I break my fast, after a successful hunt on the Assault Bike, I blend up some fresh, pasture-raised, grass finished liver with some spicy kimchi juice. Sometimes, I like to dice up some avocados and sprinkle some crunchy sea salt, and spoon the savory dish like a gourmet soup – chilled of course. I usually top it off with some organic, pasture-raised egg yolks.

      Yeah, yeah, I know… there’s a bunch of popular information on the interwebs about eating a salad and /or some clear (calorie-less, taste-less) soup. That doesn’t seem very ancestral to me. I believe in ancestral living… I believe that if our early hominid ancestors were starving, after a successful hunt, they would have consumed the fresh liver, a few bites of heart and as much salty blood as the body could bear. I’m not saying that I’m right… this is just what I believe.

  4. Great post! I incorporate IF on a daily basis but definitely use it with even more purpose around holiday meals. I will start fasting about 5 pm tonight and won’t eat until we have Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow afternoon. I will do a heavy strength training workout a few hours before the meal to really deplete my glycogen stores. I do plan on indulging in some non-Primal dishes (the weird sweet potato/marshmallow dish, some pie, maybe some stuffing) but will follow it up with a 20-24 hour fast which always helps me “reset” and get back on the Primal path.

    1. Sounds almost exactly like what I do! Enjoy it, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Thanks for the tips! A question about fasting in general- when I eat primally at breakfast and lunch (eggs, veggies, salad, ect) I find that I eat a lot at those 2 meals but I’m not hungry in the evening and I either have a snack or skip dinner all together naturally creating a 12-16 hour fast. Is this ok to do on a regular basis for a female in her mid-thirties?

  6. Funny that I just read this right after finishing my pre-24-hour fast meal. For the past two years, I figure out about which time I’ll be eating Thanksgiving Lunch, and I’ll fast 24 hours before that, along with a small workout in the morning.

    Makes me feel a little better about that one bite of mom’s sweet potato casserole that I allow myself!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. I more or less was dying before primal (August success story), and I never want to have hypoglycemic-like symptoms ever again. That has given me a “steel will” like another posted had mentioned. Other folks who just gain weight and feel “ok” may simply not be strong willed enough to resist. I wish everyone luck! I will feast with whatever primal compatible foods are on the table, may very well get to 150g of sweet potatoes in a day, but I will feel fine.

  8. Fantastic read!

    And ‘curated culinary environment’ is a turn of phrase to keep. Excellent.

    1. hat tip to martin!! awesome!!

      leangains was the beginning of my journey then i found primal.

      thanks mark!

  9. Appreciate the comment that women may do better with an IF window if 12 to 14 hours…. works much better for me!
    If I try to go the 16-18 hr IF it starts to stress my thyroid/adrenals and things get wonky… but my body likes the 14 fasting period..
    if the body’s happy… I’m happy!!

    1. Totally feel you on this.

      Very active thin female in her 20’s here, & if I do too long a fast my body retains water, slows to a crawl & I just feel inflamed. IF is certainly great for most people, but sadly doesn’t work for me.

  10. I generally go 12-14 hours daily between dinner and breakfast. For a period of time, about a year, I did 3 days a week where I skipped dinner and lost several inches off my fat prone areas. However, my migraines started up and i had to go back too a regular eating schedule. I am a senior female and have been primal for 10 years now.

  11. Thanks for a motivational post pre-holidays! just so I understand, are you saying that if somebody has been a habitual breakfast theater than they should fast and skip dinner instead of breakfast? I’m trying to decide how to interpret that study. As a previously habitual breakfast eater up until this year, I prefer to eat and early dinner and skip breakfast for 15-16 hrs just because I have kids and a family dinner. But should I be skipping dinner instead?

  12. Just so you know, Martin’s book has nothing to do with intermittent fasting. He has done a complete 180 and now recommends eating whenever you want, eating 60% protein, and meticulously counting calories. So you might want to remove the link from your post. It is misleading and has no relevance.

  13. Hello
    How can one fast if one has to take medication three times a day? I am 78 and on Cumadin and some other meds.
    Thank you, Lilli