During times of crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak, citizens often rely on first responders to ensure their daily living remains largely unaffected. However, behind the scenes, people serving in high-stress occupations (i.e. soldiers, police officers, nurses, firefighters, etc.) are often plagued with lack of sleep, shift work, poor eating habits and lack of access to nutrient dense foods, psychological stress (i.e. post-traumatic stress disorder), and minimal time for exercise. Over time, chronic exposure to these stressors can result in depression, weight gain, and the eventual development of heart disease. In fact, more firefighters die from heart disease related events than from actually fighting fires, and both police personnel and military soldiers have recently been documented as being too overweight to adequately perform their jobs. Given the abnormal work cycles of these high-stress occupations, an intervention flexible enough to accommodate the most hectic schedules, could prove to have life-saving implications.
Time-restricted eating is a nutrition intervention which alternates between a period of fasting (12 – 16 hours) followed by a period of eating (8 – 12 hours). Unlike other diets, which focus on the caloric content of a meal or which foods you should eat, time-restricted eating focuses exclusively on when you eat by compressing and standardizing the feeding window each day. In turn, people following this type of eating pattern naturally enter a state of caloric deficit.
A common counterpoint from critics is, “why not just reduce daily caloric intake?” Although people who extend their fasting window are likely to consume fewer calories, the consumption of ultra-processed foods is likely itself the key driver to weight gain and obesity. These ultra-processed foods can serve as trigger foods, which can lead to overeating and overall poor adherence to following a diet pattern simply focused on reducing caloric content. Moreover, ultra-processed foods are generally the foods available to nurses working nightshifts, firefighters returning to their department after a call, police officers patrolling neighborhoods, or military soldiers during field-exercises. Thus, time-restricted eating removes the added stress of what to eat, and serves as a practical intervention conducive to the schedules of many people.
If you are not yet convinced of the practicality of implementing time-restricted eating into your daily routine, reading about the health benefits of time-restricted eating might influence you to give it a try. Time-restricted eating has been shown to lower circulating insulin, blood pressure, body fat and overall body weight, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
Can someone following time-restricted eating still obtain health benefits, regardless of whether or not they lose weight? What about regardless of whether they restrict their caloric content during the eating window? Here’s the good news. One recent study which split college-aged males into two time-restricted eating groups showed that simply confining those calories to a specified eating window resulted in improvements to body composition, blood pressure, cholesterol, and anti-inflammatory markers. Further, a separate study demonstrated that overweight men following time-restricted eating improved their blood pressure profile and insulin levels regardless of weight loss at the end of the study. Bottom line: change how you eat, and you could prevent the need for blood pressure medications down the road.
So, if you are interested in implementing time-restricted eating, where do you begin? Simple: choose an eating window (8 – 12 hours) that fits into your daily routine and one that you can consistently maintain day-to-day. Consistency is the key. When the feeding window has closed, maintain your fast until the next feeding window becomes available. For example, if you are following a 16/8 (hours fasting/hours feeding) cycle, and have your first meal at 8:00 a.m., your feeding window would end at 4:00 p.m. You would then fast, having only non-caloric beverages until 8:00 a.m. the next morning.
Two common questions are: Can I drink coffee and tea during my fast, and 2) Does it matter the duration of my fasting window? Regarding the first question, research is not conclusive about caffeine, antioxidants, polyphenols, and other compounds found in these beverages and how it interacts with the fasting phase. Regardless, until evidence is found that these ingredients significantly impact the fasting window, feel free to consume these, making sure to forgo any sweeteners. As for the fasting duration, there does seem to be a dose-response relationship, meaning the further the fasting window is extended, the greater the health benefits obtained on average. With this said, do keep in mind that there is a point of diminishing return—not to mention the longer the fasting window is extended, the less likely someone will be able to adhere to this type of eating.
Overall, time-restricted eating is a strategy meant to alleviate some of the stresses of everyday life by providing a practical alternative to traditional dieting techniques. Customize the fasting/feeding windows to fit your lifestyle, and in doing so, potentially extend your own life.
Featured Image Credit: Intermittent fasting via Wikimedia Commons