Does intermittent fasting actually work?

Research has found intermittent fasting results in weight loss, but is it any better than traditional calorie counting? Photo: Getty Images
Research has found intermittent fasting results in weight loss, but is it any better than traditional calorie counting? Photo: Getty Images
Could late breakfasts and very early dinners be the secret to weight loss? Heath Moore trials intermittent fasting in an effort to drop a few kilos.

The promise

Intermittent fasting is a weight loss method that claims to work by limiting the timeframe in which you consume your daily meals. 16:8, also known as the Leangains protocol, is one of many variations.

It encourages delaying breakfast and creating an ''eating window'' of eight hours. So you could, for example, find yourself not buttering your toast until 11am, having lunch and dinner done and dusted by 7pm and fasting for the next 16 hours.

Intermittent fasting also claims to help lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and protect against heart disease and diabetes.

The history

Intermittent fasting first found fame in 2012 when a programme called Eat, Fast, and Live Longer aired in the United kingdom on BBC Two. It was presented by Dr Michael Mosley, who went on to publish a string of books about the benefits of intermittent fasting, beginning with The Fast Diet, 5:2.

His methods sparked much global interest, research and more books, including Fast 800, which recommends a low-carb Mediterranean diet and a limit of 800 calories two days a week.

The science

Research has found intermittent fasting does result in weight loss. According to a small study on the 16:8 diet, by the University of Illinois, limiting eating to an eight-hour window did result in weight loss and lower blood pressure for a group of obese adults.

Late last year the largest study to date on intermittent fasting was conducted by scientists from the German Cancer Research Centre and Heidelberg University Hospital. It was named ''Helena'' and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A group of 150 overweight and obese participants were monitored for a year as they followed one of three weight-loss methods.

One-third of the group took on a conventional calorie restriction diet, a second group adhered to intermittent fasting under the 5:2 guidelines and a control group was advised to eat a well-balanced diet, recommended by the German Nutrition Society.

The results showed that in each group, the amount of visceral or unhealthy belly fat loss was the same, leading the researchers to conclude intermittent fasting ''may be equivalent but not superior'' to calorie-counting. However, lead scientist Tilman Kuhn noted for some participants intermittent fasting seemed to be easier than counting calories.

The reality

I wanted to find a way to lose weight without trying to ''diet'' as such and the concept of the 16:8 fasting method was really simple and easy to follow.

My usual ''eating'' hours were 10am-6pm, which I found easy to stick to. All it really meant was a late breakfast, early dinner and cutting out snacks afterwards.

I found ditching those unnecessary snacks probably the biggest success. It really made me notice how often I was eating out of boredom.

I stuck with the fasting for three weeks and lost 3kg. Before breakfast was the hardest period. I wanted food, but a bottle of water got rid of the hunger and made it achievable to reach 10am without stress.

The great thing about this method was that during the non-fasting period, I wasn't restricting myself to what or how much I consumed. I still treated myself to a fast food meal once a week and ate a lot compared to other diets.

The three-week experience was an eye-opener in terms of being achievable. My diet was average at best, but I still lost 3kg. Success!

I fell off the wagon because I decided to try it just weeks before Christmas. When Christmas and New Year hit, my fasting plan went out the window. The silly season meant lots of booze, late-night eating and peer pressure.

January is also riddled with birthdays in my family, which made it difficult to stick to the 16-hour fasting period. I didn't want to be ''that guy'' at the family barbecue who just drinks water the whole time. While you can be flexible with the times you eat, as long as you stick to the 16:8 ratio, it's not so easy when you face peer pressure and an endless line-up of delicious snacks.

The verdict

I really enjoyed my three-week trial and think it could work for a lot of people. But I'd advise pursuing it during a quieter time of year.

Don't punish yourself at birthdays and celebrations and force yourself to miss out - your happiness will suffer! But if you have a three-month period where there's not a lot going on, I'd say dive right in.


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