Fasting and Your Heart
People have often turned to fasting—not eating, or limiting food, for a period of time—to lose weight. Now research shows that eating less at certain times of the day or week may not only help you shed pounds but may also improve your heart’s health.
The data have to do with eating patterns where people alternate between periods of eating and fasting, called intermittent fasting. Some eat less food every other day; others eat less on two days of the week, called the 5:2 method. Studies show that these eating patterns are as effective at helping people lose weight as cutting back on food every day. But because you are allowed to eat normally on the “off” days, these plans may be easier to follow.
Just losing weight can improve the health of your heart and blood vessels. But research shows that intermittent fasting helps the heart in other ways. In one study, people who ate 25% of calories needed for energy every other day lost about 12 pounds over 8 weeks. But their total cholesterol also dropped by 21%, their “bad” LDL cholesterol fell by 25%, and their triglycerides, a harmful type of fat in the blood, went down 32%. Systolic blood pressure decreased from 124 mm Hg. to 116 mm Hg.
Combining this type of plan with exercise may be even more effective. If you have a medical condition, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. A 2018 study found that eating less every other day triggered weight loss, lowered waist size, and reduced body fat in a group of people. But those who followed the eating plan and also exercised got even better results. They reduced their insulin and glucose, which can protect against diabetes–a heart disease risk factor–and lowered their triglycerides.
Practicing intermittent fasting for more than a few weeks could lead to even more heart benefits. In a large study of people in 2008, those who ate little food for one day a week over a period of years had much less heart disease and lower rates of diabetes.
If intermittent fasting sounds too hard, think about trying a modified version that restricts eating within certain hours of the day. In a study of overweight men with pre-diabetes, one group ate only between 7 A.M. and 3 A.M. and the other spread out eating between 7 A.M. and 7 P.M. After 8 weeks, men who ate just during the 8-hour time period had lower insulin levels, better insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure than those who ate throughout a 12-hour period of the day.
Would intermittent fasting work for you? Follow these steps:
- First and foremost, discuss with your doctor whether fasting eating patterns make sense for you. Don’t try it if you have a history of eating disorders, for instance.
- Be sure to eat a heart-healthy diet to get the best results. That includes vegetables and fruits, beans, seeds, nuts, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats like olive oil.
- Stay active throughout the day. But if you have a very active day planned, don’t fast on that day as you’ll need the calories.
- Start slowly with reducing food on fasting days so your body doesn’t get stressed by the change.
Finally make sure you are comfortable on the plan. If you feel too hungry on fasting days, stop the plan. Fasting may not be the best way for you to improve your health and your heart.