Intermittent fasting is a popular trend. Many Hollywood celebrities swear by it for losing weight, but a new study suggests the benefits may go beyond weight loss. They can improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as lower blood pressure in people with metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed in people who have three or more of the following five risk factors: high fasting blood glucose, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL) and excess abdominal fat. People with metabolic syndrome have a greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other more severe health problems.
“As a preventive cardiologist, I try to work with my patients and encourage them to make lifestyle changes, but it is very hard to get them to make lasting and meaningful changes,” Pam Taub, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and one of the study's authors, said in a statement. “When someone has been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, this is a critical window for intervention. Once people become diabetic or are on multiple medications such as insulin, it's very hard to reverse the disease process.”
Time-restricted eating (TRE), as intermittent fasting is also known, can help do this. TRE is a pattern of eating in which a person alternates between eating and not eating — fasting. We already do that when we sleep, but extending the time devoted to fasting greatly expands fasting's benefits, a study finds.
Nineteen overweight people with metabolic syndrome took part in the study. Instead of following a more common pattern of eating over the course of 14 hours a day, for example, from 7 am to 9 pm, they ate as much as they wanted and whenever they wanted for ten hours a day. Then they fasted for 14 hours.
The TRE plan was easier than counting calories or starting an exercise program, participants said, and many continued TRE at least part time for as long as a year after the study ended.
Participants logged the times they ate and slept using an app called myCircadianClock (mCC). Activity monitors measured their patterns of sleeping and waking, while a glucose monitor tracked their blood sugar levels around the clock.
Almost all of the people in the University of California, San Diego Department of Medicine study were obese and taking at least one medication, such as a drug to lower cholesterol or blood pressure. After 12 weeks, they had lost an average of three percent of their body weight with a similar reduction in their body mass index (BMI) and a three percent decrease in abdominal fat. Lower cholesterol and blood pressure were observed in many people, as well as improved fasting glucose levels.
Weight loss wasn't the only benefit. People who restricted their eating also reported having more energy. Many were able to reduce or stop the medications they were taking. The TRE plan was easier than counting calories or starting an exercise program, participants said, and over two-thirds of people who participated in the study continued TRE at least part time for as long as a year after the study ended.
“When someone has been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, this is a critical window for intervention.”
Typically, lifestyle changes like more exercise and an improved diet with less carbohydrates and more fruits and vegetables are suggested as the way to manage metabolic syndrome, but compliance tends to be low. TRE may be an easier option for many patients, though more research is needed to study how the altered eating pattern affects the body's circadian rhythms.
People who have been unsuccessful at traditional methods of weight loss and controlling diabetes and high blood pressure may want to try fasting for a longer period of time each day. Before altering your eating pattern, however, check with your physician. Medications may need to be adjusted, especially if you experience significant weight loss. TRE may not be a cure-all, but it can help.