Intermittent fasting—the fancy term for going up to 14 or 16 hours without eating anything—is all the rage these days.
Dietitians and their celebrity clients are touting it as the latest and greatest weight-loss tool.
And there’s been some promising evidence that the approach may even lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, one of the most serious chronic illnesses in the world.
Researchers who have linked intermittent fasting to improved sensitivity to insulin also recently discovered it might lower pancreatic fat in rats. And that may reduce the odds of developing diabetes.
In a small study of humans with pre-diabetes, participants who ate from the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. saw significant improvements in their insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.
But don’t approach intermittent fasting without some measure of caution.
Kristi Veltkamp, MS, RD, outpatient dietitian at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, said it makes sense to take intermittent fasting with a healthy sprinkling of skepticism, especially when it comes to its relationship to diabetes prevention.
“Some people do lose weight when they try this style of eating,” she said. “And the No. 1 way we know to prevent diabetes is by losing weight.”
Even shedding as little as 5 to 10% of your body weight can reduce the risk of diabetes by 58%.
“So this type of eating may be helpful because people are losing weight,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean intermittent fasting gets the credit. From that perspective, any weight-loss method can be said to lower diabetes risk.”
The strict timing of meals can have a significant downside for some people.
“Often, they get so hungry that they overeat during their eight-hour window, sometimes making poor food choices,” Veltkamp said.
For others, it’s just not convenient, especially if they are trying to eat meals as a family.
Most people consume the last meal of the day in the evening, not by 3 p.m.
“By all means, experiment,” she said. “For example, often people are surprised to discover that they feel better eating breakfast later in the day.”
But until more conclusive data emerges, pay close attention to the guidelines already proven to prevent diabetes.
5 proven ways to keep diabetes at bay:
1. Eat the Mediterranean way
If you haven’t already experimented with a Mediterranean diet, now’s the time. Eating meals with plenty of fish, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil has been linked to an 83% lower chance of developing diabetes.
2. Nix the nighttime snacks
Even if you never try intermittent fasting, those evening snacks—often scarfed down in front of the TV—can sabotage any healthy diet. Once you’ve left the dinner table, try to stop eating for the evening.
3. Pay attention to protein
Veltkamp recommends including some protein in every meal and snack. This includes dairy, nuts or cheese. “It keeps people full longer and helps with cravings,” she said.
4. Quit bashing carbs
While processed foods, soft drinks and white sugar cause rapid ups and downs in glucose levels, Veltkamp worries that too many people vilify all carbohydrates.
Whole grains and fruits are a healthy part of every diet, she said.
“Sugar isn’t all bad,” Veltkamp said. “I’ve yet to have to tell a patient that they’re eating too many apples.”
5. Strive for flexibility
Finally, when you’re looking for a lifetime approach to healthy eating, it’s smart to be gentle with yourself.
While all-or-nothing diets may be the craze—from the Keto plan to Whole 30—she advocates a much more forgiving approach, with an 80/20 rule.
Strive for solid, sensible meals 80% of the time, then relax with the remaining 20% of meals.