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Intermittent fasting made easy: What to know about the 16:8 diet

Leave the calorie counting and deprivation behind with this eating plan.
The diet is very simple: All you have to do is make sure you're only eating during an eight-hour window.
The diet is very simple: All you have to do is make sure you're only eating during an eight-hour window.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

There’s promising new research about a weight-loss plan that doesn’t involve calorie counting, constant hunger or extreme effort.

When obese people structured their schedule so that they fasted for 16 hours a day, but were free to eat whatever they wanted in the other eight hours — known as the 16:8 diet, or time-restricted feeding — they modestly lost weight and lowered their blood pressure after 12 weeks on the regimen, a new early study published in the journal Nutrition and Healthy Aging found.

It’s the first trial to look at the effects of time-restricted feeding on the obese, the researchers said.

The participants ended up eating 350 fewer calories a day compared to a control group just because they couldn’t squeeze in their normal food intake between 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the prescribed eating window in the study, said Krista Varady, co-author and an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has been studying fasting for 12 years.

They ate less overall even though they could eat to their heart’s content during the eating window. But they tended to become full pretty quickly, Varady noted.

“I find one of the benefits of fasting is that it helps people get in touch with their fullness and hunger cues,” she told TODAY.

“With American diets, we’re just eating all the time: snacks, coffees — every two hours, people are consuming things; whereas with fasting, it finally gives your body a break. You start to become in touch with when you’re actually hungry.”

Still, hunger didn’t seem to be an issue for the participants, she noted. The study involved 23 obese men and women who followed a simple regimen. They could eat anything they wanted to, in any amount, between 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. But outside that window, they could only drink water, black tea or coffee, or diet sodas.

After 12 weeks, they lost about 3 percent of their body weight and lowered their systolic blood pressure (the top number) by seven points. Those were modest drops, but promising, Varady said. If people can keep that weight off, it’s a big deal, she added.

Other studies have shown that intermittent fasting diets are effective at lowering weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and body fat. With 40 percent of U.S. adults now obese, experts are looking for weight-loss plans people can easily stick to and this may be one alternative, Varady said.

Most diets involve giving up favorite foods and feeling deprived, but fasting diets may make those cravings go away, noted nutrition expert and TODAY contributor Kristin Kirkpatrick.

Some participants would have preferred a later eating window — more like noon to 8 p.m. — to fit in dinner with their family after work, but experts advised against it. It appears the more you can eat your food earlier in the day, the better, said Courtney Peterson, assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s the author of a small study published last year that found people who finished eating all their meals by early afternoon had smaller fluctuations in hunger and burned slightly more fat than people who ate throughout the day.

People become more insulin-resistant as the day goes on, so the body can’t put away sugar as well in the evening, Varady noted: “We wanted people to eat as early as possible when their bodies can process the food better.”

If you want to try the 16:8 diet:

Check with a doctor before starting any diet.

Be aware it may be easier to stick to than other types of fasting diets, but the weight loss will be smaller. Other options include alternate day fasting, which calls for eating 500 calories or so one day, then eating whatever you’d like the next; and the 5:2 Plan, which involves eating normally five days a week, then consuming fewer than 600 calories two non-consecutive days a week.

To combat hunger during the fasting period, try drinking hot beverages, like herbal tea, because that can sometimes trick your body into feeling full, Varady noted. Sugar-free gum can also help. But again, most people in the study didn’t feel hungry.

Be mindful during your eating window: Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose carbohydrates that are higher in protein and fiber, like bean-based pasta instead of whole-wheat pasta, Kirkpatrick advised.

You can be flexible about your eating window, but it’s better to finish eating earlier in the day. A 10 a.m.-6 p.m. window is probably healthier than noon-8 p.m., Varady noted. When TODAY's Hoda Kotb tried the approach, she chose a 6 a.m.-2 p.m. eating window.

Remember, there's not one diet that's superior to other diets — you just need to find something you can stick with, Varady said.

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