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In this nation’s ongoing battle of the bulge, everyone’s on a mission to find the perfect program for quick and permanent weight loss. Of course, by now, everyone should know that there are no shortcuts. You simply cannot lose weight safely or maintain it in the long term without watching your diet and engaging in regular exercise.
But…what if certain changes and shifts to the whole diet/exercise model could produce better weight loss results—and reduce heart disease factors to boot? Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago attempted to find out.
Specifically, this team of researchers wanted to learn what effect alternate day fasting—combined with exercise—had on body weight, body composition and coronary heart disease (CHD) risk factors.
What Is Alternate Day Fasting?
You’ve heard it time and again—to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you take in. As such, most people diet (meaning they restrict their caloric intake), then exercise most days of the week to burn even more calories. This formula works, and if you stick to it, you will lose weight.
But there’s a problem. As most dieters know all too well, there is just so long you can maintain a daily low-calorie diet. Eventually—usually after a month or two, if that long—almost everybody gives up because they’re cranky, lack energy and are just plain hungry.
This is where alternate day fasting can help.
Alternate day fasting involves consuming 25 percent of your energy needs on day one (the fasting day), then eating normally on day two. You would fast again on day three, and on day four eat normally and so on.
In practical terms, on a fast day, you would skip breakfast and dinner and eat a large, nutritious lunch between noon and 2:00 (400-500 calories for women; 500-600 calories for men). The next day, you can eat three normal meals and snacks.
Common sense would lead one to believe that, on normal feed days, dieters would overindulge because they’re hungry from eating so little the day before. But researchers have found that, by and large, this is not true.1 As a result, alternate day fasting results in faster long-term weight loss without excess hunger, crankiness or lack of energy.
Greater Weight Loss…and More
In this 12-week study, 83 participants were divided into four groups:
Alternate day fasting (ADF)
ADF combined with exercise (“combination”)
Only the ADF and combination groups participated in the dietary intervention, which consisted of eating 25 percent of their baseline energy needs on fasting days, and consuming food as desired on alternating non-fasting days. The control and exercise groups maintained their regular eating habits.
Only the exercise and combination groups participated in the exercise intervention, which entailed moderate intensity exercise using stationary bikes or elliptical machines three times per week for the duration of the study. The control and ADF groups were asked to maintain their regular activity habits, but to refrain from joining any exercise classes during the study.
Researchers collected fasting blood samples from all participants at baseline and at 12 weeks to measure cholesterol and glucose levels. Participants also underwent weekly weigh-ins, fat mass assessments and waist circumference measurements.
Sixteen people in each of the four groups completed the study.
Participants in all three intervention groups lost weight and achieved lower body mass indexes (BMIs), but the combination group saw greater results than the ADF and exercise groups alone.
Only the ADF and combination groups experienced decreases in fat mass and waist circumference, with greater fat mass decreases in the combination group.
Blood test results showed that LDL cholesterol decreased and HDL cholesterol increased in the combination group only. Plus, fasting glucose was lower in the ADF and combination groups compared to controls.
The researchers stated, “This study is the first to show that the combination of ADF and exercise produces superior changes in body weight, body composition and lipid indicators of CHD [cardiovascular heart disease] risk, when compared to ADF or exercise alone. More specifically…the combination group lost more weight (6 kg), and experienced greater decreases in fat mass (5 kg), when compared to individual interventions after 12 weeks.” Moreover, the combination group had a 12 percent decrease in LDL and 18 percent increase in HDL from baseline.2
Is Alternate Day Fasting For You?
This study confirms that diet and exercise is still (and always will be) the best way to lose weight. But if you find daily calorie restriction too hard to stick to, ADF is an excellent option, not only for losing weight, but also for lowering the risk of heart problems.
As for exercise, be sure to include aerobic exercise most days of the week, and add strength training to your regimen at least two or three days a week. The more muscle you have, the more fat you’ll burn, even at rest.
And, as always, it’s a good idea to discuss your diet and exercise plans with your doctor before getting started.
University of Illinois at Chicago. www.ahs.uic.edu/news/title,10771,en.html.
Bhutani S, et al. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb 14. doi: 10.1002/oby.20353. [Epub ahead of print.]
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