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Intermittent fasting: No advantage over conventional weight loss diets

No. 64 | 26/11/2018 | by Koh

Intermittent fasting helps lose weight and promotes health. However, it is not superior to conventional calorie restriction diets, scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and Heidelberg University Hospital have found out in a study called HELENA – the largest investigation on intermittent fasting to date. The scientists conclude that there are many paths leading to a healthier weight. Everybody must find a diet plan that fits them best and then just do it!

Both interval fasting and a conventional diet reduce the harmful visceral fat (right, marked blue). Subcutaneous fat (left, marked pink) is considered less risky for health.
© Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg/DKFZ

Feasting eight hours and then fasting the following 16 hours? Or is it even better to fast two whole days a week and then enjoy eating without regrets for the rest of the week? Intermittent fasting, also known as 16:8 diet or 5:2 diet, is trendy. Numerous popular self-help books on this topic promise weight loss without yo-yo effect as well as sustained changes in metabolism and resulting health benefits. The German Nutrition Society (DGE), on the other hand, warns that intermittent fasting is not suitable for long-term weight regulation. In addition, according to DGE, there is not enough scientific evidence on the long-term effects of this dieting method.

"There are in fact only a few smaller studies on intermittent fasting so far, but they have come up with strikingly positive effects for metabolic health," says DKFZ's Ruth Schübel. "This made us curious and we intended to find out whether these effects can also be proven in a larger patient group and over a prolonged period."

In collaboration with a team of DKFZ researchers and scientists from Heidelberg University Hospital, Schübel examined 150 overweight and obese study participants over one year as part of the HELENA study. At the start of the study, they were randomly classified in three groups: One third followed a conventional calorie restriction diet that reduced daily calorie intake by 20 percent. The second group kept to a 5:2 dietary plan that also saved 20 percent of calorie intake over the whole week. The control group followed no specific diet plan but was advised, like all other participants, to eat a well-balanced diet as recommended by DGE. Following the actual dieting phase, the investigators documented the participants' weight and health status for another 38 weeks.

The result may be as surprising as it is sobering for all followers of intermittent fasting. The HELENA researchers found that improvements in health status were the same with both dietary methods. "In participants of both group, body weight and, along with it, visceral fat, or unhealthy belly fat, were lost and extra fat in the liver reduced," Schübel reported.

The changes in body weight distribution in the study participants were exactly determined using special MRT imaging executed by Johanna Nattenmüller at Heidelberg University Hospital. The good news is: a small dieting success is already a big gain for health. Those who reduce their body weight by only five percent, lose about 20 percent of dangerous visceral fat and more than a third of fat in the liver – no matter which dietary method they have used.

The investigators also did not find any difference between the two dieting methods in any other metabolic values that were analyzed or biomarkers and gene activities under investigation.

Although the HELENA study does not confirm the euphoric expectations placed in intermittent fasting, it also shows that this method is not less beneficial than conventional weight loss diets. "In addition, for some people it seems to be easier to be very disciplined on two days instead of counting calories and limiting food every day," explained Tilman Kühn, leading scientist of the trial. "But in order to keep the new body weight, people must also permanently switch to a balanced diet following DGE recommendations", he added. According to Kühn, the study results show that it is not primarily the dietary method that matters but that it is more important to decide on a method and then follow through with it. "The same evidence is also suggested in a current study comparing low-carb and low-fat diets, that is, reducing carbohydrates versus reducing fat intake while otherwise having a balanced diet," said Kühn. In this study, participants also achieved comparable results with both methods.

The scientists' credo is therefore: "Just do it!" Body and health will benefit from weight loss in any case, as long as it is achieved by a reliable dieting method and on the basis of a well-balanced diet.

Ruth Schübel, Johanna Nattenmüller, Disorn Sookthai, Tobias Nonnenmacher, Mirja E. Graf, Lena Riedl, Christopher L. Schlett, Oyunbileg von Stackelberg, Theron Johnson, Diana Nabers, Romy Kirsten, Mario Kratz, Hans-Ulrich Kauczor, Cornelia M. Ulrich, Rudolf Kaaks, and Tilman Kühn: Effects of intermittent and continuous calorie restriction on body weight and metabolism over one year: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2018, DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy196

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.

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