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People who have obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure or high cholesterol are often advised to eat less and move more, but new research suggests there is another simple tool to fight off these diseases: restricting your eating time to a daily 10-hour window.
Studies done in mice and fruit flies suggest that limiting when animals eat to a daily window of 10 hours can prevent, or even reverse, metabolic diseases that affect millions in the U.S.
Results from flies and mice led researchers to test the idea of time-restricted eating in healthy people. Studies lasting more than a year showed that Time Restricted Eating (TRE) was safe among healthy individuals. Next, researchers tested TRE in people who had metabolic syndrome. They were curious to see if this approach could help the millions of patients who suffer from early signs of diabetes, high blood pressure and unhealthy blood cholesterol.
It's not easy to count calories or figure out how much fat, carbohydrates and protein are in every meal. That's why using TRE provides a new strategy for fighting obesity and metabolic diseases that affect millions of people worldwide. Several studies had suggested that TRE is a lifestyle choice that healthy people can adopt and that can reduce their risk for future metabolic diseases.
However, TRE is rarely tested on people who are already diagnosed with metabolic diseases. The vast majority of people with metabolic diseases are often on medication, and it was not clear whether it was safe for these people to go through daily fasting of more than 12 hours – as many experiments require – or whether TRE would offer any benefits in addition to those from their medications.
The researchers recruited patients from UC San Diego clinics who met at least three out of five criteria for metabolic syndrome: obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high level of bad cholesterol and low level of good cholesterol. The participants used a research app called myCircadianClock to log every calorie they consumed for two weeks. This helped us to find people who were more likely to spread their eating out over the span of 14 hours or more and who might benefit from 10-hour TRE. Physical activity and sleep were monitored using a wristwatch.
Nineteen participants qualified for the study. Most of them had already tried standard lifestyle interventions of reducing calories and doing more physical activity. As part of this study, the only change they had to follow was to self-select a window of 10 hours that best suited their work-family life to eat and drink all of their calories, say from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Drinking water and taking medications outside this window were allowed. For the next 12 weeks they used the myCircadianClock app, and for the last two weeks of the study they also had the continuous glucose monitor and activity monitor.
After 12 weeks, the volunteer participants returned to the clinic for a thorough medical examination and blood tests, and their final results were compared with those from their initial visit. The results, which were published in Cell Metabolism, were pleasantly surprising. Most of the participants lost a modest amount of body weight, particularly fat from their abdominal region. Those who had high blood glucose levels when fasting also reduced these blood sugar levels. Similarly, most participants further reduced their blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. All of these benefits happened without any change in physical activity.
Reducing the time window of eating also had several inadvertent benefits. On average, participants reduced their daily caloric intake by a modest 8%. Similar benefits of TRE on blood pressure and blood glucose control were also found among healthy adults who did not change caloric intake.
Nearly two-thirds of participants also reported restful sleep at night and less hunger at bedtime – similar to what was reported in other TRE studies on relatively healthier cohorts. While restricting all eating to just a six-hour window was hard for participants and caused several adverse effects, they reported they could easily adapt to eating within a 10-hour span. Although it was not necessary after completion of the study, nearly 70% of the participants continued with the TRE for at least a year. As their health improved, many of them reported having reduced their medication or stopped some medication.
Despite the success of this study, time-restricted eating is not currently a standard recommendation from doctors to their patients who have metabolic syndrome. This study was a small feasibility study; more rigorous randomized control trials and multiple location trials are necessary next steps. Toward that goal, the researchers have started a larger study on metabolic syndrome patients.
Note: Although they did not see any participants go through dangerously low levels of glucose during overnight fasting, it is important that time-restricted eating be practiced under medical supervision. As TRE can improve metabolic regulation, it is also necessary that a healthcare provider pays close attention to the health of the person and adjusts medications accordingly.
It appears that time-restricted eating may be a simple, yet powerful approach to treating people with metabolic diseases.
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