Intermittent fasting, where you fast for a certain number of hours and time your meals accordingly, can be challenging, but new research shows it might have benefits regarding appetite suppression and weight loss. According to preliminary research published in the journal Obesity, eating earlier in the day and fasting later in the day and evening might help people control their appetites better and therefore lose weight.
Researchers looked at 11 men and women and studied them over a period of four days with two types of eating strategies based on meal timing. The control group had a schedule with three meals over the course of a 12-hour eating period with breakfast at 8 a.m. and dinner at 8 p.m. This meant the fasting period for this group was 12 hours long. The experimental group had a different meal schedule with three meals over a six-hour period with breakfast at 8 a.m. and dinner at 2 p.m, making the fasting period 18 hours per day. The amount of food eaten by participants in each group was the same.
After four days, the researchers measured people's metabolism to see how many calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein were burned during the four-day period. They also looked at appetite levels every three hours and at hunger hormones in the morning and at night.
Although the 18-hour schedule didn't significantly affect how many calories participants burned, it did lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreased appetite. It also increased fat-burning.
"This research is really interesting, but the study was small—only 11 people. Not eating after 2 p.m. probably isn't an easy or realistic thing for most people to do. Bumping up your dinner a little earlier, might be easier to do," says Lisa Valente, M.S., RD, digital nutrition editor at EatingWell.
And Maggie Michalczyk, M.S., RD, agrees: "This is a super-interesting study and while I don't think intermittent fasting is right for everyone, I can see how coordinating meals with circadian rhythms, or your body's internal clock, can have a huge effect on hunger and satiety."
It's also thought-provoking if you look at it from the perspective of why most diets don't work in the first place. "Diets force you to go against what your body might be wanting to eat, or they encourage you to not eat certain foods," says Michalczyk. While you may lose weight at first following a restrictive diet, you're likely to gain that weight back and then some. "This perspective that looks at timing starts to prove the point that when we work with our internal clocks and rhythms, the body's natural systems can change (e.g., curbing appetite) versus deprivation in some way, shape or form," she says. Restrictive diets that leave you feeling deprived are consistently shown to be ineffective in the long run.
Since eating dinner at 2 p.m. is tough, and really not feasible for most people, you can start by eating dinner just a bit earlier than usual so your body has more time to burn off calories and go into a fasting state. You can also bump up the nutrition to help satiate your belly and suppress appetite naturally.
"My favorite tip for helping reduce hunger is to focus on the quality of foods you eat. We know that fiber, fat and protein are really satisfying, so choose meals and snacks that contain those nutrients. Think whole-grain toast with nut butter, an apple with cheese, or Greek yogurt and granola," says Valente.
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Or you can try fasting but perhaps go for 14 or 16 hours instead of a full 18 to see if you get the same results. And if you do try fasting, Michalczyk recommends doing your homework and working with a dietitian who can help you do it safely. "Again it's not for everyone and depends on your current state of health. Plus, it takes planning to execute properly," she says. Yet, if you're struggling to feel satisfied after meals during the day and want to get in touch with your body's natural rhythms, try it out in a way that is practical and feasible, with a fasting period that works for you.
And you can also always rely on eating more of the healthy foods that will fill you up while helping you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Go for fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes for the fiber, lean protein (both from meat and plant-based sources), and healthy fats (like nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado and salmon).