What Are Intermittent Fasting Benefits?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Intermittent Fasting

Will Intermittent Fasting Make You Leaner & Healthier?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

intermittent fasting benefits eating habitsIntermittent fasting is all the rage. If you believe the hype, intermittent fasting will make you leaner and healthier. Some of its proponents claim you don’t even need to give up your favorite foods. You don’t need to give up your Big Macs for fruits and vegetables. You don’t need to restrict what you eat. You just need to restrict when you eat.

If you read the blogs about intermittent fasting, you will come across all sorts of metabolic mumbo-jumbo about ketone bodies, adiponectin, leptin, IGF-1, and blood glucose levels. It sounds so convincing. Don’t get sucked in by these pseudo-scientific explanations. At this point they are mostly speculation.

What are intermittent fasting benefits?

Instead, ask “What is the evidence that intermittent fasting works?” More importantly, ask “What is the evidence it works in human?” Most of the studies have been done in animal model systems. Claims based on animal models may not apply to humans.

This week I will discuss a review on caloric restriction and various forms of fasting that recently appeared in Science, one of the most highly respected scientific journals (Di Francesco et al, Science, 362: 770-775, 2018 ).

This article was a comprehensive review of three closely-related dietary approaches:

  • Caloric restriction in which daily caloric intake is restricted by 15-40%.
  • Time-restricted fasting which limits daily intake of food to a 4-12 hour period.
  • Intermittent fasting in which there is a day or more of fasting or decreased food intake between periods of unrestricted eating.

Note:

  • What the review calls time-restricted fasting is referred to in the mass media as intermittent fasting. What the review calls intermittent fasting is referred to in the mass media as alternate day fasting. To avoid confusion, I will use the mass media definitions.
  • I will focus on what the mass media refers to as intermittent fasting and just briefly summarize the other two approaches.

 

Will Caloric Restriction Allow You To Live Longer?

 

intermittent fasting benefits restrict caloric intakeThe concept of caloric restriction has been around for a long time and is the best studied of the dietary approaches covered in this review. In brief:

  • Caloric restriction has been studied in animal model systems ranging from mice to primates. In every animal model studied, caloric restriction reduced the incidence of age-related degenerative diseases and increased either life span or health span or both.
  • In both animal model systems and humans, caloric restriction lowers cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, improves blood sugar control, reduces inflammation, and reduces oxidative damage.
  • Populations that eat a healthy diet and practice voluntary caloric restriction appear to enjoy remarkable longevity.
  • The effects of caloric restriction appear to operate via the sirtuin anti-aging pathway. Most of the other effects are downstream of this pathway.
  • The effects of caloric restriction (including activation of the sirtuin pathway) are mimicked by resveratrol and related polyphenols.

In short:

  • Caloric restriction and some naturally occurring compounds such as resveratrol are clearly effective in animal model systems and are likely to be effective in humans.
  • However, we live too long to allow definitive studies of the effect of caloric restriction on human life span and health span.
  • This dietary approach has never gained popularity because very few people want to starve themselves just so they can live a longer, healthier life.

 

Intermittent Fasting Benefits:  Leaner & Healthier?

 

intermittent fasting benefits leanerThere are many variations to intermittent fasting. As the review stated, intermittent fasting can mean that food consumption is restricted to anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. However, the most popular version of intermittent fasting at present restricts food consumption to 8 hours followed by a 16-hour period of fasting. Here is what you need to know about intermittent fasting:

  • Once again, most of the studies have been done in rodents. Those studies appear to show that intermittent fasting results in weight loss, improved blood sugar control, lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reduced inflammation even when caloric intake remains unchanged. These findings have generated the claims you see in the media. However, you need to remember that what works in rodents does not necessarily work in humans.
  • Unlike caloric restriction, the benefits of intermittent fasting are dependent on circadian rhythm. [Note: If you are unfamiliar with the concept of circadian rhythm, it is a master control that is genetically hardwired into almost every organism on the planet, including humans. In general, circadian rhythm is synchronized with the light-dark cycle.] The effect of circadian rhythm that is relevant to this discussion is that metabolic rate and many of the enzymes involved in food metabolism in humans are more active during the day than at night. Not surprising, animal studies suggest that intermittent fasting is most effective when the feed-fast cycle is synchronized with their circadian rhythm.
  • The timing of the feeding portion of the intermittent fasting cycle also appears to be important for humans. According to the review by Di Francesco et al, the few clinical studies that have been performed on humans show:
  • Limiting food intake to the middle of the day decreased glucose levels, cholesterol & triglyceride levels, and inflammation.
  • Eating a larger breakfast and smaller dinner improved metabolic markers better than when participants ate a smaller breakfast and larger dinner.
  • Type 2 diabetics attained better blood sugar control when most of their calories were consumed in the first half of the day. In contrast, restricting their calories to late afternoon or evening resulted in either no blood sugar improvement or a worsening of blood sugar controls.
  • Finally, subjects lost more weight on a reduced calorie diet when most of the food was consumed in the morning rather than in the evening.
  • If you read the very popular “Obesity Code” book by Dr. Fung you will discover he is recommending a diet that consists of fruits & vegetables, fiber-rich foods, healthy protein & healthy fats, and avoids sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. He also recommends avoiding snacking. That is exactly the kind of diet I recommend in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”  If the average American adopted that diet and did nothing else, they would be leaner and healthier. So much for the claim that you can eat all your favorite junk foods and become leaner and healthier by intermittent fasting.
  • Finally, most of the human clinical studies have carefully controlled caloric intake. From these studies it is apparent that many of the metabolic benefits of intermittent fasting come from synchronizing your food intake with your circadian rhythm. However, in those studies that focused on time of eating and did not control calories, food intake was reduced by intermittent fasting. This is the unacknowledged benefit of intermittent fasting. When you restrict the time period for eating and restrict snacking you generally end up eating less. Thus, the weight loss associated with intermittent fasting may be caused by reduced caloric intake rather than fasting.

What Does This Mean For You? Here are the take-home lessons from this review:

  • intermittent fasting benefits healthierMost of the studies on intermittent fasting have been done with animals, not with humans.
  • Both animal and human studies suggest that the benefits of intermittent fasting result from synchronizing your food intake with your circadian rhythm. The old adage of “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” may be true for most of us. [Note: Circadian rhythms vary slightly from person to person. Some people will do better by their fast at mid-day rather than at breakfast. However, they will probably still benefit by eating a bigger meal mid-day and a smaller meal in the evening.]
  • Although there is no conscious effort to control calories, intermittent fasting appears to result in an inadvertent reduction in food intake by restricting the time allowed for eating and by eliminating late night snacking. This reduction in caloric intake is likely responsible for much of the weight loss associated with intermittent fasting.
  • In summary, intermittent fasting appears to work, but it is not clear whether you need to follow a rigid schedule of eating and fasting. The available clinical studies suggest that if you eat a healthy, primarily plant-based diet, eat most of your calories early in the day, don’t snack between meals, and don’t eat anything after dinner, you will obtain most, if not all, of the benefits attributed to intermittent fasting.

If you define intermittent fasting that way, the professor has been doing intermittent fasting for years. He just didn’t know that was what he was doing.

 

Does Alternate Day Fasting Make You Healthier?

 

intermittent fasting benefits alternate dayFasting regimens promoted for weight loss typically involve one or several days in which no or few calories are consumed followed by a period of unrestricted eating.

At present, the two most popular regimens are the alternate day fast and the alternate day modified fast. The alternate day fast involves a 24-hour water fast followed by a normal feeding period of 24-hours. The alternate day modified fast reduces caloric intake to 25% of normal on fasting days. Here is a brief summary of what we know about alternate day fasting:

  • Once again, most of the studies have been done in animals.
  • Since neither animals nor humans generally consume double their normal caloric intake during the 24-hour feeding period, alternate day fasting results in an overall reduction in caloric intake. Not surprisingly, the benefits of alternate day fasting in animal studies are similar to the benefits observed with caloric restriction.
  • Short-term human clinical trials suggest that alternate day fasting results in weight loss. The weight loss causes an improvement in blood sugar control, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol & triglyceride levels. Based on these studies, alternative day fasting is likely to be an effective strategy for short-term weight loss and has some short-term health benefits.
  • However, there are no long-term studies on the effectiveness of this approach. It is highly unlikely that most people would be able to follow this regimented a diet plan long term. Thus, it is also unlikely that the weight loss and health benefits can be maintained long term.
  • Finally, fasting is not for everyone. It is generally not recommended for people who are hypoglycemic, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with eating disorders.

 

The Bottom Line

 

In this article I discussed a recent review of intermittent fasting and other approaches that involved fasting or long-term caloric restriction. Here are the take-home lessons on intermittent fasting:

  • Most of the studies on intermittent fasting have been done with animals, not with humans. Many of the claims you hear about on the benefits of intermittent fasting are based on the animal studies. They may not apply to humans.
  • Both animal and human studies suggest that the benefits of intermittent fasting result from synchronizing your food intake with your circadian rhythm. The old adage of “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” may be true for most of us. [Note: Circadian rhythms vary slightly from person to person. Some people will do better by breaking their fast at mid-day rather than at breakfast. However, they will probably still benefit by eating a bigger meal mid-day and a smaller meal in the evening.]
  • Although there is no conscious effort to reduce calories, intermittent fasting appears to result in an inadvertent reduction in food intake by restricting the time allowed for eating and by eliminating late night snacking. This reduction in caloric intake is likely responsible for much of the weight loss associated with intermittent fasting.
  • In summary, intermittent fasting appears to be beneficial, but it is not clear whether you need to follow a rigid schedule of eating and fasting. The available clinical studies suggest that if you eat a healthy, primarily plant-based diet, eat most of your calories early in the day, don’t snack between meals, and don’t eat anything after dinner, you will obtain most, if not all, of the benefits attributed to intermittent fasting. If you define intermittent fasting that way, the professor has been doing intermittent fasting for years. He just didn’t know that was what he was doing.

For more details on intermittent fasting and for a discussion of long-term caloric restriction and alternate day fasting read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.

 

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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