Over the past few years, intermittent fasting has gained a great deal of attention for its potential role in weight loss, but recent research suggests that the strategy may have more benefits than just chipping away at your middle – it may even extend your lifespan.
In a review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, examined a number of intermittent fasting programs and concluded that two in particular are effective: either limiting your eating to a 6-8 hour window per day, or a technique called 5:2 fasting that involves eating normally for five days and then two days per week Eat only one medium-sized meal.
“We’re at a transition point where we can soon consider adding information about intermittent fasting to our medical school curriculum, as well as standard recommendations about healthy eating and exercise,” he notes.
Why would something as simple as skipping meals for large chunks of time help you live longer? The answer lies in the breadth of benefits already found in animal and human studies.
For example, fasting has been shown to improve blood pressure and resting heart rate, making it beneficial for cardiovascular health. Some studies have also shown that it may be effective for weight loss, which can help prevent obesity and diabetes – both of which have been linked to shorter lifespans.
A 2018 study done on mice showed that when animals ate only one meal a day, and therefore fasted longer, they not only lived longer, but also showed a much lower risk of age-related liver disease and metabolic disorders.
In his review, Mattson said that studies have shown that fasting improves blood sugar regulation, reduces inflammation, and increases stress resistance. In terms of longevity, these can have significant effects.
As with any strategy that involves changing the way you eat, individual results will vary, especially if you make some initial mistakes such as overeating during your “food window,” making unhealthy food choices, being sedentary, and making drastic changes.
Also, keep in mind that you may need to play around with variations of intermittent fasting to find what works best for you. While Mattson says that a 6-8 hour time limit window or a 5:2 approach seems to work best, neither may be the best for you, and that’s okay. You can still use different strategies for intermittent fasting.
For example, you might be able to expand your eating window to 10 hours, or you could play around with the number of fasting days, according to Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist who practices intermittent fasting herself and advises patients on strategies.
She notes that the 5:2 plan can be adapted to 7:1 or 1:1, based on how someone wants to implement intermittent fasting into their daily life.
“When you start, think of this as a long-term strategy and try different schedules rather than thinking you need to stick to a particular schedule because it works for a friend or family member,” says Petre.
Intermittent fasting doesn’t involve specific foods, but rather a strict schedule about when you eat, says Dr. Jason Fung, author of “The Complete Guide to Fasting.” In other words, if you’ve been a little too reliant on junk food lately, this is a great opportunity to overhaul your diet.
“One of the main advantages of intermittent fasting is that it can be part of any eating plan you follow, such as low-carb, ketogenic, paleo or something else,” he says.” It can also be a great start to changing your eating habits to include healthy foods, if you haven’t already done so.
The easiest way to try intermittent fasting is to make the most common changes first, which he suggests is an eight-hour block, followed by a fasting time that includes sleep. For example, “fast” at 9 a.m. – that’s where the name breakfast comes from, after all – eat dinner at 5 p.m., and then don’t eat again until the next morning.
Not only does this confer the benefits Mattson mentions, but it also gives you an extra edge in terms of digestion and sleep quality, as going to bed on a fairly empty stomach has been shown to be better for both.
Mr. Fung suggests trying it for a week or so to give your body time to adjust. After that, you’ll know better if you have to adjust your blocks of time to some degree, or if you’d prefer to switch to a different variation, such as a 5:2 eating plan or a similar switch fasting schedule.
Giving yourself at least a few days at a time – preferably longer – to switch strategies is important because it allows you to see improvements in non-food areas, such as more energy, deeper sleep, and mood. Just as you track food, record the effects of intermittent fasting on a daily basis to determine how well you’re adjusting.
It’s also possible that intermittent fasting isn’t your groove, which is fine. But it’s most likely that by trying this diet, you’ll be more aware of not only when you’re eating, but what you’re eating.
“Even if you decide not to do this type of strategy, you may be able to create more awareness around your food,” says Von.” And that’s always a good thing.”