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Main Line-Area Experts Weigh in on the Nuances of Intermittent Fasting

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Main Line dieticians explain the effects of intermittent fasting, a fad diet that restricts eating and fasting to certain hours of the day.

As surely as “the COVID-19” has displaced “the freshman 15” as a catchphrase for weight gain, intermittent fasting is having its day as the latest method for peeling off pounds. IF adherents see it as nothing short of miraculous—touting its effectiveness in rejuvenating cells, cleansing and rebooting the metabolism, and increasing energy. “It was most effective when I was weight training before work while I fasted,” says Kevin Litwinko, a 54-year-old former college wide receiver from Chester Springs who was looking to combat his “dad bod.” “Skipping breakfast was hard at first, but I got used to it. I didn’t feel super hungry once I got used to it. I definitely felt more energetic.”

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A recent study of obese women in the Journal of Translational Medicine showed an average weight loss of almost nine pounds after three months on a 16-hour fasting protocol without a change in diet. Perhaps more importantly, the women also had a reduction in biomarkers connected to diseases like diabetes. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that just two days of modified IF each week can improve cardiometabolic disease risk factors.

Professional opinions on IF vary widely from one discipline to another. “We don’t recommend it as a strategy for our patients,” says Exton’s Melinda Allen, a registered dietician at Chester County Veterans Affairs.

IF is easily customizable, which can make it difficult to define. Allen knows patients who practice full-day fasts twice a week—and VA eating plans allow for up to 14 hours between the last meal of the day and breakfast. Basic practices involve splitting the day into eating and fasting windows. The latter could be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, with the eating window typically varying from eight to 12 hours. Litwinko is on a 12/12 schedule, with no snacking after dinner. For others, it might be 8/16.

Glen Mills resident Tim Pierce started on a one-meal-a-day fasting plan to balance out his sugar levels. So far, he’s lost 80 pounds, moving to a 16/8 fasting plan (eating lunch and dinner) as he neared his goal weight. “I started to see the change in my body, so I just kept it up,” he says. “At first, it was hard to not feel hungry. Then, after a while, I just didn’t get that hungry—and when I did, I’d just drink a lot of water to fill me up.”

Intermittent fasting can be difficult to define. Basic practices involve splitting the day into eating and fasting windows. The latter could be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, with the eating window typically varying from eight to 12 hours.

What some call an eating plan, others consider a lifestyle. A certified integrated health coach, Nicole Gable has been practicing a 16/8 version of IF for decades. “I feel my best when I’m eating between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and fasting between 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 a.m.,” she says.

By combining “whole foods, meditation, movement and creative outlets,” Gable contends that she’s learned what her body needs—and when her body needs it—as she’s managed those four areas. “You’re more in touch with the biological rhythms of the body and internal clock by making these choices,” she says.

IF isn’t for everyone. For diabetics, skipping meals and severely limiting calories can be dangerous. And those on blood pressure or heart disease medication may experience electrolyte abnormalities if they fast. On a purely symptomatic level, skipping meals can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. And feeling starved could lead to binging and an increase in body fat, even if you consistently fast for 12-16 hours a day.

Ultimately, even the most effusive IF proponents agree that it’s a just another tool and not a quick fix in itself. “If it’s the next fad diet someone is looking for, 16 hours of fasting will not compensate for eight hours of stress and eating processed junk food,” says Gable.

Related: A Main Line Dietician Offers Tips to Improve Your Eating Habits