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Health & Wellness

Ask Get Old: Should I Try Fasting to Lose Weight?

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Question: I’ve been reading a lot about fasting as a great way to lose weight. Should I give it a try?

There have been some stories recently about what’s called intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight. As you may have read, fasting diets can take several forms.

Many experts warn against being too quick to make fasting the next diet you try, especially if you’re 65 and older.

Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., R.D., a senior dietitian at Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center is among the experts urging caution. “Much of the research that shows intermittent fasting can be beneficial for longevity and disease prevention has been done on animals or on small groups of younger participants,” she says. “Also, I think that unless you’re in a controlled study there’s too much room for error.  It’s easy to go overboard and restrict your calories so much that you’re not getting the nutrients you need.”

Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who teaches at the University of North Florida, says fasting can be especially unsafe for seniors. “Many people have medical conditions like diabetes where they need to be careful about going a long time without eating because blood sugars may drop dangerously low. Plus, some medications need to be taken with food and others may cause nausea, alter blood sugar or blood pressure or not absorb properly if they’re taken on an empty stomach.”

Both Hughes and Wright point out that fasting can easily backfire. “What we’ve seen in a lot of research,” Wright says, “Is that when people go for long periods of time without eating, they consume much more when they do eat. So, when it comes to weight loss, fasting can be like shooting yourself in the foot. And, you really have to question whether starving your brain of energy is really an appropriate way to try and lose weight.” Hunnes agrees. “Seniors can get weak and sick pretty quickly if they’re not getting enough nutrients,” she says.

That said, may be some benefits to fasting for about 12 hours a day, which would mean finishing your last meal by 7 or 8 p.m. and then not eating again until breakfast. This eliminates the kind of mindless snacking on chips or cookies that many people do while they’re watching TV after dinner. “These are foods that don’t have much nutritional value, but do have a lot of calories,” Wright says. What’s more, avoiding late-night eating and giving yourself three or four hours between your last bite and bedtime may be a very effective way to prevent symptoms of acid reflux like heartburn and indigestion.   

There’s another reason skipping snacking is a far better weight-management strategy than skipping meals. “Sharing meals with other people is a great source of pleasure and social support,” says Dunnes. “We can easily get isolated when we eliminate opportunities to come together with other people around a table.”

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