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Intermittent Fasting and Insulin Resistance: Benefits beyond Weight Loss

While intermittent fasting is a common weight loss tool, its benefits also expand to treating insulin resistance in patients with diabetes, pre-diabetes and other conditions.

Intermittent fasting – also referred to as time-restricted eating – is an eating plan that involves alternating periods of fasting and eating. The most well-known type of intermittent fasting follows a 16:8 schedule, with a 16-hour fast and an eight-hour window for eating. Other types of intermittent fasting schedules include fasting periods of 24-36 hours at a time, if recommended by your doctor.

The primary physical benefit of intermittent fasting is improvement of metabolic health by lowering insulin resistance. While its effect on insulin levels can promote weight loss – what many people strive for – it can have many other powerful benefits for the body.

Victoria Della Rocca, RD, nutrition director of the Weight and Metabolic Health Program, and Janine Kyrillos, MD, director of Comprehensive Weight Management, consult with patients who struggle with insulin resistance and work with them to decide if intermittent fasting is the right choice for their lifestyle.

Intermittent Fasting and Insulin Resistance

Intermittent fasting has been proven to initiate the repair of important cells in the body and balance hormone levels, which facilitates fat burning. On a broader scale, intermittent fasting also has a significant effect on metabolic health and the body’s insulin levels. Why is this?

“Insulin is the main driver of fat storage. If you are constantly eating, you are triggering insulin production all day long,” says Dr. Kyrillos. “When people have too much insulin, their cells start to resist the insulin and, in response, the body has to make more. We try to find strategies to decrease the amount of insulin the body makes, so we can improve insulin resistance.”

Fasting for at least 16 hours gives the body a chance to rest and allows blood levels of insulin to drop significantly. Not only does this help burn fat, it can also lower your risk of disease, particularly diabetes and pre-diabetes.

A Range of Metabolic Benefits

Insulin resistance can cause blood sugar levels to rise above a healthy range, putting you at risk for diabetes. “That’s where we see intermittent fasting having a benefit beyond weight loss. When fasting decreases insulin levels, it can be very helpful to people with diabetes and pre-diabetes, and people who struggle with their blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” says Della Rocca.

Della Rocca and Dr. Kyrillos agree that they see a correlation between improved insulin control and other metabolic responses in the body, such as decreased inflammation, pain, gut health and overall health, even without significant weight loss.

This also includes people with strong responses to insulin and hormone irregularity, like those with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Intermittent fasting can help people with PCOS control their insulin levels, balance their hormones and therefore improve their health and the symptoms of their disease.

Intermittent Fasting vs. Caloric Restriction

Recent studies have compared caloric restriction to intermittent fasting in order to measure changes in body weight and metabolic response; findings suggested no major difference in results.

However, science and clinical experience show that the quality of food is much more important than the quantity, says Dr. Kyrillos. “A bagel or cereal may be lower calorie than an omelet, but they will have a much different effect on hunger, satiety, insulin and blood sugar levels. When you lower calories without addressing the type of food, it’s very difficult to sustain and can eventually lower metabolism and increase hunger levels.”

A balanced, nutritional diet makes the biggest impact on your health. “No matter what, we always focus on nourishing the body first,” adds Della Rocca. “We intentionally co-create a strategy with patients to continually explore and figure out what the body needs and when it needs it.”

If you’re interested in what intermittent fasting can do for your health, consult your doctor or your dietitian to determine how to make healthy, sustainable changes to your eating plan.

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