You're watching the clock: Just an hour left... 20 minutes... five minutes. Finally, you fling open the fridge to survey your options, tempted to eat everything, everywhere, all at once. “The last thing you want to do when breaking a fast is reach for junk,” says Dana White, MS, RD, ATC, a sports dietitian and associate clinical faculty at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “You want to make those meals and snacks as nutrient dense as possible. If you break your fast with a pastry, you’re getting a bunch of sugar but no fiber or protein. Instead, aim for a balance of healthy carbs, protein, healthy fat, and fiber.” An easy way to avoid a junk food binge following a fast is with a little bit of fasting prep.
Eating balanced snacks and meals does three important things: First, it controls blood sugar fluctuations; Second, it helps you stay fuller longer; Thirst, it provides nutrients that work for your body. The latter is key since, as White points out, we don't have long-term research assessing possible nutrient deficiencies as a result of long-term fasting. Translation: If you’re cutting out healthy food, you may be missing out on vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and good-for-you plant compounds, such as antioxidants.
While you could just eat what you want during your feeding window, if you’re going through the effort of fasting — presumably to lose weight or improve your overall health — why thwart your progress by noshing on junk? Instead, set yourself up for success, just like you would if you were following a regular diet, by stocking up on healthy options. Keep the following on your shopping list for flavor, satiety, and health perks.
Fasting Snack #1 — Nuts and Seeds
If you’re stuck on a desert island and can only bring a small bag, leave the bulky avocados at home and opt for nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts — it’s hard to
go wrong with these densely packed energy bombs. They’re full of healthy fat and high-quality protein as well as fiber and antioxidants. Nuts and seeds are also good for heart and metabolic health, help reduce your risk of cancer, and thwart inflammation. And despite their energy (calorie) density, noshing on nuts won’t automatically add pounds. One Mediterranean Diet-related study, published in the journal Obesity, found that people who ate nuts two or more times a week were less likely to gain weight than those who rarely noshed on them.
Alternate day and 5:2 fasters take note, nuts are easy to snack on: A small handful is usually adequate. And don’t forget about seeds. They’re ideal for topping your yogurt, tossing into smoothies or soups, or dressing up salads. Chia, flax (grind them up), hemp (aka hemp hearts), and sesame seeds should be your go-tos.
Fasting Snack #2 — Berries
We hate to be fruit snobs — especially when almost all fruits are nutritious and replete with plant-based compounds, vitamins, and minerals — but berries are like the nuts of the fruit world: They’re compact packages densely packed with fiber and antioxidants. They help fight cancer, in addition to boosting heart, brain, and metabolic health. (Popping a handful of berries is like taking a blood pressure/high cholesterol pill all in one.) Plus, the fiber is filling (and good for your gut bugs). Sweet, tart, juicy, and delicious, berries’ benefits come with a lower calorie count, too, which makes them great for 5:2 fasting days when you can have a small amount of food and you want to make it count.
Fill your smoothie or plate with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries in particular. Go ahead and throw in cherries: Although technically they’re not a berry, these ruby red fruits are brimming with heart-healthy polyphenols.
Fasting Snack #3 — Cruciferous Veggies
Kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, arugula, cauliflower, collard greens — you just can’t beat the nutritional goodness in cruciferous veggies. They’re tops for helping reduce bladder and colon cancer risk; they help reduce inflammation and strengthen the immune system; plus, they’re rich in vitamins. Besides disease-fighting antioxidants, cruciferous veggies are also rich in another super-nutrient: fiber. According to a study done
by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, eating 30 grams of fiber a day — even if you don’t make any other dietary changes — can make it easier to lose weight and improve insulin sensitivity.
“There’s no such thing as a bad fruit or vegetable,” says White. “I encourage people to eat seasonally. That’s where you get into the ‘super’ status of foods. They’re at their peak, nutrient- and flavor-wise, when they’re in season.”
Eat Healthy Fats
F-A-T is not a bad word! Healthy fat is very good for you, especially when you use it to replace saturated fat in your diet, according to an American Heart Association report. Poly and monounsaturated fats, which are found in vegetable, olive, peanut, and canola oils; avocados; nuts; seeds, and some fish, have been linked with a lower risk of disease, including heart disease. They can actually reduce cholesterol in the blood. On the other hand, saturated fats, found in red meat and other animal products (think: cheese, ice cream, full-fat dairy and butter) have been linked with an increased risk of disease. Government guidelines recommend getting 20% to 35% of your calories from fat.
Consume Legumes for Protein
Protein? Check. Folate? Check. Potassium? Check. Fiber? Enthusiastic check. Beans, dried peas, lentils, and soybeans — known as legumes — contain all sorts of vitamins and minerals, including gut-friendly fiber and resistant starch. A large 2017 study, published in The Lancet, looked at fruit, vegetable, and legume intake in 18 different countries and found that eating legumes was inversely related with a lower risk of dying early.
These diverse-looking veggies — yes, they’re vegetables — are high in prebiotic fiber, especially compounds called GOS or galactooligosaccharides, which help support the immune system and provide food for Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bugs in the large intestine. They’re also great sources of plant-based protein if you’re cutting back on animal sources.
Whole Grains are Good Grains
A 2019 study in the journal Gut found that eating a diet rich in whole grains led to more weight loss and less inflammation compared to eating refined grains. Rye is especially beneficial, according to the study, possibly because it contains more fiber. (Of note, the whole grain diet didn’t alter the gut microbiome or insulin sensitivity.) All the more reason to include rye in your more limited diet: It’s nutrient dense and filling and can help promote weight loss. Also include whole wheat bread, barley, bulgur, oatmeal, and brown rice on the menu.
Try Plant-Based Tempeh as a Meat Alternative
“When people adopt any of the IF protocols, it becomes more of a subtraction game — you’re cutting things out of your diet,” says White. “But if you reduce your protein intake too low, you won’t be able to spare that lean body mass. You could end up losing muscle instead of fat.” That’s a big no-no, since muscle tissue requires more calories to function than fat tissue does. Lose muscle and you’re sacrificing your metabolism.
If you’re lifting weights, you definitely want to make sure you’re consuming adequate protein as it will supply the building blocks for muscle growth. Lean, good quality poultry and beef are fine, but if you’re looking for a plant-based alternative to meat that has a little heft to it, organic tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans, is a fantastic option. It’s perfect for chili, tacos, stir frying with veggies, and soups. Some people even grill it.
“Plants are one of your No. 1 fighters of inflammation, which is a driver of so many chronic health conditions these days,” says Katie Takayasu, MD, MBA, an integrative medicine physician and author of Plants First: A Physician’s Guide to Wellness Through a Plant-Forward Diet. Plus, a 2020 study published in Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that the isoflavones — plant polyphenols — in soy may help fight obesity and regulate blood sugar.
Kimchi for Flavor
This spicy, crunchy, tangy combo of fermented cabbage or radish — both cruciferous veggies — garlic, ginger, and other spices hits many flavor notes, plus it contains healthy gut bugs as well as both soluble and insoluble fiber. It makes a kicky snack or a versatile pairing for everything from rice and veggies to eggs.
Seafood for Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Downing a couple servings of seafood each week helps ensure you get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, compounds that have anti-inflammatory benefits. Fish high in omega-3s (and low in mercury) include wild salmon, sardines, mussels, rainbow trout, oysters, anchovies, and Atlantic mackerel, according to the Environmental Working Group. Canned light and albacore tuna, halibut, lobster, mahi-mahi, and sea bass contain higher levels of mercury while swordfish, marlin, orange roughy, and bluefin and bigeye tuna are extra high on the mercury scale. Eat these in moderation.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Complete Guide to Intermittent Fasting For Beginners.