Health Take-Away: Narrowing `eating window' can aid weight loss

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The average American, even those who already are on some sort of reduced-calorie diet, consumes their meals and snacks over a 15-hour period during the day — pretty much their entire waking hours. A growing body of evidence suggests that narrowing that window of consumption to 12, 10 or eight hours not only can help you safely lose weight, but can significantly improve your metabolism and overall heath.

This time-focused approach to dieting and daily nutrition is often called intermittent fasting, a conscious plan of cycling between periods of eating and fasting over a defined period of time. The concept covers a wide range of options and practices. On the far end of the spectrum, some people, hopefully in consultation with their doctor or nutrition professional, actually fast for entire days at a time, essentially looking to routinely and fully cleanse their systems. That's a long intermission, and it's not advisable for everyone.

For the everyday person simply looking to better control their food intake, lose some extra pounds, and stay happy and healthy in the process, an easier, more realistic approach is to narrow their daytime eating window. Even tightening that window from 15 down to 12 hours — say, breakfast at 7 a.m., last bite of the night by 7 p.m. - can make a big difference. Those who want to narrow the window to 10 hours can follow an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. eating time frame. For those who want to do all their eating within an eight-hour window, leaving 16 hours for fasting, a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time frame would be one option.

The potential benefits of narrowing your eating hours include weight loss, reduction of belly fat, lowered blood insulin and sugar levels, possible reversal of type 2 diabetes, improved heart health, better brain function and increased energy. Participants in a recent study of those following a fasting-to-eating ratio of 16:8 hours consumed 350 fewer calories per day, lost three percent of their body weight and reduced their systolic blood pressure by six points.

We all have different work hours, family activities and other time commitments. Whatever you need to do to self-comply to those 12, 10 or eight-hour eating windows is entirely up to you. Also, you don't need to force yourself to follow this time frame every single day. Even if you do it five out of seven days a week, giving yourself more flexibility on weekends perhaps, you will see and feel a difference.

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The beauty of this time-minded approached to daily nutrition is that it helps you reduce your calorie intake without consciously counting calories. It makes you do the things you need to do without realizing you're doing them. In that way, it becomes more of a natural shift in lifestyle and nutrition and less of a calorie-obsessed, strict diet mentality.

With that said, an intermittent fasting plan should not be an excuse to eat whatever "bad" foods you desire within your eating window. Whether it's breakfast, lunch, dinner or in between, it's still important to eat mindfully. Let fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables dominate your plate, complemented with plant-based proteins, sustainably raised animal-based protein and fat sources, along with nutrient-rich starches, such as sweet potato, quinoa or beans. Stay away from processed foods and high-sugar items.

Another quick word on timing: the evidence strongly suggests that consuming a bigger breakfast rich in proteins is a far more effective way to shed pounds than the more common practice of a light breakfast and a big dinner. Simply put, your metabolism is naturally more effective at burning calories in the morning.

The careful combination of what you eat and when you eat it is the right recipe for good nutrition and weight management.

Jennifer Ward, R.D., is a wellness dietitian with Berkshire Health Systems.


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