PINEHURST, N.C. -- If you’ve been looking for a way to manage your weight, you may have wondered what all the hype is about intermittent fasting—and whether it actually works.
Intermittent fasting focuses more on when you eat (or don’t eat) rather than what you eat. Unlike other diets that count calories or eliminate certain food groups, this eating method allows you to eat what you want (within reason) but restricts when you can eat.
You’ll only eat during specific times of the day or week if you decide to do intermittent fasting. There are many different eating schedules you can follow. Some of the more popular approaches involve:
- Eating only during a 6- to 8-hour period each day
- Eating regularly 5 days a week but only eating one meal on the other 2 days (the 5:2 diet)
- Alternating days of regular eating with days where you eat less than 600 calories (referred to as modified alternate-day fasting)
The two biggest questions about this type of eating plan are related to whether it works and if it’s a healthy way to eat. Michelle Cole, RDN, CDCES, the program manager of FirstHealth’s Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center, said intermittent fasting can be a great tool for weight loss but may not work for everyone.
“The most important thing to keep in mind with any diet is that fat loss, ultimately, requires a caloric deficit. Intermittent fasting can lead to a caloric deficit for people who may tend to snack in the evenings, for example,” she said. Cole has some answers to these common questions about intermittent fasting.
Does intermittent fasting work?
Intermittent fasting does have its benefits, but it’s not for everyone. The theory behind why it may help you lose weight is that after a period of time without food, the body uses up its stores of glucose and starts burning fat stores for energy. Also, since you don’t eat for long stretches of time, you may eat less overall. But the question remains as to how effective this eating strategy is for producing sustainable weight loss.
The method may work as long as you don’t overdo what you eat when you can eat. But a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that intermittent fasting may be no more effective than traditional calorie counting.
If you want to see long-term weight-loss results and health benefits, it’s still best to focus on eating healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, no matter when you eat them.
Fasting for 12 hours overnight, from dinner to breakfast, may also provide some benefits and it’s easy to do since much of the time is spent sleeping. It helps restrict nighttime eating, so it may aid in weight loss. It also gives your body a chance to focus on cellular repair, helps reduce insulin resistance and may improve mental clarity.
Is intermittent fasting healthy?
Research has indicated there may be health benefits connected to intermittent fasting, although some studies were done on animals only and more research is needed. A review of various studies indicated that intermittent fasting may improve factors related to obesity and heart health, such as body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, bad cholesterol and fasting blood sugar. However, benefits may only be short-term and appear to level off by about 6 months, either because the body adapts or people can’t stick to the eating plan.
“Some people may find it hard to maintain any diet or new eating program for longer than four to six months, so adapting the basics of eating healthy and staying physically active is the ultimate goal,” Cole said.
Although intermittent fasting may provide weight loss and other health benefits, there are certain people who should not follow this eating method, including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people with diabetes and those with a history of eating disorders. It’s also not appropriate for people under age 18.
Even if you don’t fall into one of these groups, it’s best to talk with your doctor before trying this or any diet because it may be dangerous if you have certain health conditions or take specific medications.
“Creating a plan that is best for you is best, especially when it is something you can stick with in the long-term,” Cole said. “For some, that may be intermittent fasting. But there are plenty of other ways to achieve a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of balance.”
FirstHealth’s Diabetes & Nutrition Education Center offers counseling for individuals with specific medical needs as well as those who wish to maintain optimal health. To schedule an appointment or learn more, call (910) 715-1925.