While intermittent fasting for weight loss has become more common in the last few years, there are still a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty details. What should I do when I’m fasting? What shouldn’t I do when I’m fasting?
One big question a lot of people ask is “What can I eat while I’m fasting?”
The real answer?
That’s what fasting means, after all. It’s a period of time without any food. If you’re eating food, then by definition you are not fasting.
But of course, there’s nuance to that. Does drinking count as eating during a fasting period? What if it’s clear liquid? What about chewing gum? Here’s some basic guidance on what you should and shouldn’t be consuming while practicing fasting for weight loss.
How fasting helps with weight loss
When you eat, your body instantly goes to work. Your blood sugar goes up, which tells your body to release insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin, in turn, tells your body to turn that sugar into energy or store it as muscle or fat. This is helpful if you need to gain weight or muscle mass, but not useful if you are trying to lose weight. When you fast for a period of time, you interrupt this process. No elevation of blood sugar means no release of insulin, which leaves your body in a state of burning fat instead of building it.
What to consume while fasting
Still, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consume anything at all while fasting. As people who participate in strict religious fasts will tell you, not eating isn’t difficult. It’s dehydration that leads to most of the sluggishness and foggy thinking. For this reason, if you’re fasting for health or weight loss, it’s best to stay hydrated. The two best things you can drink while fasting are water and herbal tea.
Water can include
- Ordinary tap water
- Filtered or bottled water
- Fizzy or mineral water (but check the label for hidden sodium and sugar)
- Hot, room temperature, or ice water, depending on your preference.
Some popular herbal teas include:
- Mint tea (spearmint, peppermint, or a mix)
- Ginger tea (check for sugar content, as some are sweetened)
- Rooibos or “red tea”
- Chamomile tea (good for relaxing at the end of the day)
Both water and herbal tea help your body stay hydrated without interrupting your body’s fat burning processes. Plus they can be cozy, comforting, or refreshing, helping fulfill some of those psychological needs we often try to fill with food throughout the day.
What to avoid while fasting
When people hear about drinking herbal tea, they instantly think about sweeteners. What about tea with honey? Tea with sugar? How about an Arnold Palmer?
But just because tea with honey looks the same doesn’t mean it’s equivalent to plain herbal tea once it’s in your body. Sweetened tea is just pure simple sugars, without any fiber or fat to slow down its absorption. The result is the same as though you were to eat a handful of M&Ms: a quick spike in blood sugar, a corresponding release of insulin, and an end to the effectiveness of your fasting period. Honey does have some helpful properties, but not while fasting.
Interestingly enough, recent studies have shown that zero-calorie sweeteners can also trigger the release of insulin. This means it’s also important to avoid sucralose, stevia, and artificial sweeteners while fasting. If you’re really attached to your sweetened drinks, drink them during meals, not your fasting period.
Caffeine, found in coffee, black tea, and green tea, can also be problematic while fasting. This comes as a surprise to many people. After all, if you’re avoiding food and sugar, why not get a chemical boost to help you perk up?
Caffeine will perk you up, but the effect is temporary. Caffeine blocks the receptors for adenosine, the chemical in your body that makes you feel sleepy. But the chemicals don’t go away just because caffeine is causing your body to ignore them. This means when the caffeine has worn off, you typically crash, and hard. People with a caffeine addiction know this feeling well. Combine that with a fast, and the resulting come-down can leave you unable to function.
Even folks who typically drink coffee with their breakfast can experience side effects from drinking it on an empty stomach, including physical jitters, mood swings, indigestion, and heartburn. (Sorry to say, decaf coffee isn’t good for your stomach either.) Add to that the fact that many people find coffee and caffeinated tea to be bitter and unpalatable without cream, sweetener, or another additive. So if you’re asking yourself, “how do I drink coffee while on a fast?” The simple answer is it’s best just to leave it alone while fasting.
This should be pretty obvious, but calories can be sneaky. Bottled waters marketed towards athletes often contain calories, as do clear broths that many people consider to be water’s close cousin. Chewing gum contains calories (yes, just the juice from chewing it, not even the gum itself), and bottled and packaged teas often do as well.
Vitamins and other supplements typically have some calories too; if you’re fasting, leave these off until your scheduled meal. Cough drops and other medications also come with added calories. If you’re sick enough to need medicine, you should probably put off fasting until you have recovered.
This doesn’t mean that medicines and supplements have no place in your life if you participate in intermittent fasting. It’s best, though, if you can arrange to take them with meals. Of course, if your physician has you on a strict schedule with your medicine, follow your doctor’s guidelines. Staying on top of an illness is more important than any fasting routine.
Intermittent fasting can be a fantastic weight-loss tool.
With a little preparation, planning, and common sense, intermittent fasting can take weight loss out of the arena of “maybe someday” and into reality. For more information about intermittent fasting, grab a free copy of the Intermittent Fasting Cheat Sheet. Stop working against your body and start working with it to lose weight and become the healthy person you were always meant to be.
Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.