Intermittent fasting is surging in popularity. But does it work, and is it safe?

Wellness
Woman sitting before an empty plate

The keto diet is all about drastically reducing carbohydrates. The paleo diet seeks to return to a way of eating exercised by early humans. The Zone Diet prescribes specific portions of proteins, low-glycemic carbohydrates and fat.
With so many diets out there, it’s easy to feel confused or overwhelmed. While losing weight often emphasizes what you eat, there is some evidence that shows concentrating on when you eat may also help you shed pounds.
A recent study conducted by the University of Illinois looked at a diet dubbed the “16:8” in which 23 obese men and women were directed to eat only between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. without restriction on what they could eat. During the other 16 hours of the day, they consumed only calorie-free beverages like water, tea, coffee and diet soda.

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According to the study, which was published in the journal “Nutrition and Healthy Aging,” the participants consumed an average of about 350 calories less than a control group that didn’t change its eating habits. The fasting participants ended up losing about 3 percent more weight than the control group and lowered their blood pressure
Alternate-day fasting in which participants limit their intake to 500 calories one day and then eat whatever they like the next day also has been studied. According to a report in “JAMA Internal Medicine,” participants in the so-called “Every Other Day Diet” demonstrated a 6 percent weight loss over a year.

Not so fast

While those results may sound promising at first, Alyssa Schroeder, a registered dietitian at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital in Murrells Inlet, cautions there is plenty to consider before embracing any new eating plan, especially fasting.
She has recently seen more questions from clients about the effectiveness of fasting. For anyone considering it, Schroeder says she develops an individualized plan based on the client’s lifestyle, fitness routine and medical and eating history. She does not recommend alternate-day fasting.
“There is limited research on alternate fasting and you could be missing out on key nutrients and minerals by not eating for a full day,” she says.
If a person chooses to fast in a method similar to the 16:8 plan, she says it’s still essential to eat healthy foods during the eight hours you are consuming food.
“If a person wants to do intermittent fasting this way, it is important to make sure you are still consuming nutrient-dense foods and meeting your caloric needs,” she says.
Fasting also doesn’t mean you can overload during the times when you are eating, she cautions.
“To lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit and/or make sure you’re exercising more,” she says. “Intermittent fasting is based on consuming your daily caloric intake in a fixed amount of time, but it won’t be effective if you consume more than your caloric needs during that period.”

Schroeder says it’s important to consult with a qualified medical provider or dietitian before starting any new diet to help ensure it’s appropriate and safe for you. She does not recommend fasting for anyone who is pregnant, has diabetes or has experienced an eating disorder.
And for the rest of us? Instead of focusing on a short-term diet plan, she says it’s best to focus on establishing a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
“Some research studies have shown that intermittent fasting can lead to weight loss, but there is limited research showing the long-term maintenance effects of intermittent fasting,” she says.
The best way to shed pounds while staying healthy is to work with a dietitian to create a plan specific to your needs, she says.
“If you’re interested in modifying your diet, consider a consult with a dietitian. It’s our job to help create individualized plans that will work for you,” she says.
Any time you are considering a change in your diet, Schroeder says it’s important to ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Does the diet sound too good to be true?
  • Is the diet sustainable – can I follow it the rest of my life?
  • Does it eliminate important food groups?
  • Is it customized to my lifestyle, medical and eating history?

If you can’t answer affirmatively to all of those questions, she says, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

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