In January 2019, Martine Etienne-Mesubi had had enough. She was 42 years old, and she weighed 225 pounds. She couldn’t play outdoors with Zoe, her 6-year-old daughter, without stopping to catch her breath. “When we went to the park I’d say, ‘Hold on Zoe, let’s take a break, let’s wait for mom, let’s sit down.' I hated that,” she says.
Her second daughter, Ava, had been born a few months earlier, and Etienne-Mesubi ate whatever she wanted when she was pregnant and nursing. “At 10 at night I would pull out a bowl of cereal or make toast, then go to bed right after. My eating habits were down the drain,” she says. By the end of 2018 Ava stopped nursing, so the “eating for two” excuse wasn’t cutting it anymore. Plus, Etienne-Mesubi was concerned about developing diabetes and hypertension, which run in her family.
“I was in that diet mentality. I thought, ‘I can’t have this, I can’t have that, I don’t want to gain weight.’ Looking back, it was really not a good place for me with food. I was obsessive about everything I was eating and all the exercise I was doing,” she says.
She didn’t see a path forward for weight loss. “In my mind there was no way to do it except the way I did after my first daughter, and I was not feeling that energy,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m older, we have two kids now, and I’m tired. There’s no way I’m running anywhere or doing any HIIT exercises’,” she says.
On Instagram she came across people who were losing weight with intermittent fasting and tracking their progress with the LIFE Fasting Tracker app. “I didn’t know what that meant. I thought people were just not eating. How do you not have breakfast or lunch? I couldn’t grasp the concept,” she says.
With a Ph.D. in epidemiology, Etienne-Mesubi put her research skills to work learning about intermittent fasting: “I needed some science. I wanted to know what evidence existed to show this was a legit way to lose weight.”
She discovered people had been fasting intermittently for years who said they were losing weight, feeling better, and reversing diabetes and hypertension. “I was blown away by all the information I was finding, and a lot of it is based in science,” she says.
Still, she was apprehensive. “I love to eat, I love food, and I love to cook. My favorite store is Costco because they’re always giving you something to taste. I didn’t know if I could manage not eating for however long,” she says. “But I decided to start the new year fresh, and this was how I was going to do it.”
She learned that hunger often comes in waves, and if she drank some water or tea, or read to get her mind off the hunger, the wave would pass. “The minute I shifted my mind onto something else I wasn’t hungry, and before I knew it, I was at my eating window,” she says.
She had no trouble skipping breakfast, and sometimes wasn’t hungry at noon, so she would push the start of her eating window to 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. and finish eating by 6 p.m.
She also fasted for 48 to 72 hours every week for about two months. “I’m not a medical doctor. I do have a Ph.D. in epidemiology, but I wouldn’t recommend anybody do that without speaking to your doctor and doing your own research,” she says.
By April 2019 she had lost 30 pounds and her eating window had shrunk to two or three hours a day. She decided to challenge herself with one meal a day (OMAD). She figured if it didn’t work for her, she could revert to her regular intermittent fasting schedule.
She planned her daily meal for dinnertime so she and her family could all eat together, and she didn’t restrict what she ate. “I’m Haitian and my husband is Nigerian, and we eat everything. I wasn’t going to restrict my traditional foods,” she says.
Over the holidays, Etienne-Mesubi continued with intermittent fasting but gave herself an expanded eating window of six or eight hours. “We were celebrating, and I have no regret and no guilt for extending my window,” she says. “Even though I allowed myself extended time to eat, I didn’t go crazy. I still enjoyed myself and my time with my family and kids. It was so freeing to know if I want to eat longer I can, and if I don’t feel like eating anymore I’m going to stop,” she says.
After seven years staying home to care for her daughters, Etienne-Mesubi returned to work last November as a public health epidemiologist working in global health. She was apprehensive about rejoining the workforce and says her weight-loss success helped give her the confidence to do it. “I thought, ‘Martie, you lost all this weight, you can definitely go back to work — you got this,” she says.
Etienne-Mesubi shares her journey on her blog, podcast and Instagram. “Anybody can do this. This is something you have control over,” she says.
“I feel amazing. I feel fantastic. I have newfound confidence,” she says. “I’m saying ‘yes’ to so many things. I’m excited about life and my future with my family. I’m a better mom and a better wife.”
One meal a day (OMAD): She’ll start with some nuts or guacamole and chips, and then have a traditional meal like Haitian rice and beans with oxtail and cabbage, or a big baby arugula salad with a bunch of things thrown in — nuts, beets, broccoli, braised turkey necks, quinoa and chickpeas. Some days they might have avocado toast with eggs and cheese, or fish tacos. Salad is a mainstay.
“I have one satiating meal in one sitting. Whatever that may be, I have that meal with my family and then I’m done for the day. That’s why it’s important for the meal to consist of healthy and filling components,” she says. “Once I have eaten my meal, I’m fully satisfied and won’t eat until the next day. It takes time for your body to get used to eating this way but once you get into the rhythm of it, it becomes a daily habit.”
And if Zoe asks for pizza or wants to bake cookies, Etienne-Mesubi is on board with that.
They always have dessert, which could be ice cream or cookies, or yogurt, granola or fruit. “I’m a big sweet eater, but I still try to get my daughter to choose fruits over ice cream or cookies,” she says.
Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a nutrition and weight-loss expert with a virtual nutrition counseling practice based in New York City, says it’s important that Etienne-Mesubi realized that what worked for her in the past wasn’t sustainable for her current lifestyle.
“At some point, it’s difficult to maintain that level of exercise and rigidity over your food choices, which is why so many people throw in the towel. But you can eat better, find movement experiences that work for you, and get to a healthier weight without going to those extremes,” Cassetty says.
She says that much of the research on intermittent fasting comes from animal research, which is interesting, but not conclusive. “Based on the evidence we have, there seems to be some benefit to intermittent fasting, but the rules can be tough to follow,” she says.
Intermittent fasting might not be a great choice if you:
Get get distracted and irritable by hunger
Have had a turbulent relationship with food or your body or your weight, since this type of restriction may be triggering
She says many people might struggle with just one meal a day: “Studies on intermittent fasters have high drop-out rates, suggesting how hard it is to ignore hunger and eat within limited windows.”
Cassetty also is concerned that people who eat just one meal a day may not be meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements. Etienne-Mesubi says she chooses nutrient-dense meals with leafy greens, eggs, nuts, grains, and loads of veggies and takes a daily multivitamin supplement to ward off any deficiencies.
“But there are some lessons we can learn from intermittent fasting,” Cassetty says. “For example, night-time eating is linked with an unfavorable metabolic shift that ups your risk of diabetes and other challenging, chronic conditions, so it’s a good idea for everyone to think about ways to curtail nighttime nibbling. A 12-hour fast is appropriate for most people, and can help create some structure in the evening, when people are prone to snacking.”