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

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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