What the Latest Fasting Research Actually Shows

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What the Latest Fasting Research Actually Shows

Despite misleading headlines, a new study finds that time-restricted eating is effective for weight loss.


Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Here’s a secret every journalist wants you to know: we almost never write our own headlines.

That chore usually falls to our editors, and what they write doesn’t always sit well with us. I can recall at least two occasions when I threatened to pull my byline off a story because I thought the headline was trash.

To be fair, headline writing is a delicate art. In a crowded media marketplace, striking the right balance between informing and enticing readers can be tricky. Everyone claims to hate clickbait headlines, but research shows they tend to work.

I bring all this up because a recent piece in the New York Times — a publication I respect and occasionally write for — sported a headline that blatantly misrepresented new research findings on time-restricted eating. The headline read: “Scientists Find No Benefit to Time-Restricted Eating.”

Time-restricted eating is a common approach to intermittent fasting, which has recently become popular among people trying to lose weight or improve their overall health. It involves squeezing all your day’s calories into a compressed “feeding window” of between four and 10 hours. (For example, you might eat only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., or only between noon and 8 p.m.)

The elevator pitch for time-restricted eating — one that a lot of research supports — is that our bodies aren’t made to eat all day long.

A lot of prior work has shown that time-restricted eating promotes weight loss and is associated with metabolic improvements, including healthier blood sugar levels.

The subject of the Times article was a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that compared time-restricted eating to a conventional calorie-cutting diet. The study determined that both approaches led to significant weight loss. After 12 months, people in the time-restricted eating group lost an average of 8 kg (about 18 pounds) while people in the calorie-restriction group lost an average of 6.3 kg (about 14 pounds).

“The headline of that New York Times article made it seem like the fasting group didn’t get any benefit, but what the study actually showed was that [time-restricted eating] wasn’t significantly more effective than a usual weight-loss diet,” says Benjamin Horne, PhD, director of Cardiovascular and Genetic Epidemiology at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah.

Horne has published work, including a 2020 paper in JAMA, on the risks and benefits of intermittent fasting among people with diabetes. He says that time-restricted eating (with proper medical oversight) may help people with Type 2 diabetes lose weight and improve their blood sugar levels, perhaps more so than they would on conventional diets. More work has found that time-restricted eating can reduce a person’s risks for cardiometabolic diseases or even mental health problems.

The elevator pitch for time-restricted eating — one that a lot of research supports — is that our bodies aren’t made to eat all day long, and beneficial things seem to happen inside us when we take extended breaks from food.

Horne practices intermittent fasting himself, and he says greater adherence to these diets may be another selling point. “Few people — less than 5% — can sustain caloric restriction for more than a year, so we need something new that people can maintain for much longer periods,” he says.

There’s some evidence that people find time-restricted eating easier to stick with than conventional dieting. Simplicity may play a role there. Most time-restricted eating programs do not put a cap on your daily caloric intake. As long as you’re inside your window, you can eat what you want. Research has found that people tend to naturally eat less, lose weight, and get healthier on these regimens.

Nearly all the research we have shows that these plans are safe, healthy, and effective for weight loss.

Returning to the new study, the New England Journal of Medicine simultaneously published an editorial that argued time-restricted eating may yet prove to be more effective for weight loss than conventional calorie-cutting plans.

The authors of that editorial pointed out that, in the new study, the people in the time-restricted eating group had a baseline feeding window of 10 hours and 23 minutes. During the study period, they tightened that window to eight hours. In other words, they lost 18 pounds in a year by compressing their daily eating time by just two hours and change. If someone eats throughout the day — a practice that may be more typical in the U.S. than in China, where the new study was conducted — time-restricted eating could produce much greater weight-loss benefits, they argued.

More work is needed to iron out time-restricted eating’s precise effects and best practices. Some research has found that early-in-the-day feeding windows — for example, eating breakfast and lunch but skipping dinner — may be the healthiest approach because it better aligns with the body’s circadian clocks and digestive cycles. It’s also unclear if time-restricted eating is superior to other intermittent fasting approaches. “I would say there is not one plan that stands out as best option,” Horne says.

However, if you’re on a time-restricted eating diet — or if you’re thinking about starting one— you can ignore those misleading headlines. Nearly all the research we have shows that these plans are safe, healthy, and effective for weight loss.

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