Intermittent fasting isn’t the weight-loss miracle you’ve been led to believe – here’s what the science says

Intermittent fasting schedule clock with fruits, and salmon in callout bubbles
Intermittent fasting comes in many forms, including alternate-day fasting and the 5:2 diet. Alyssa Powell/Insider
  • Intermittent fasting can help with weight loss, but research results are mixed.
  • How much weight you can lose from intermittent fasting depends on your schedule and lifestyle.
  • Teenagers, pregnant people, and those with eating disorders should not try intermittent fasting.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Intermittent fasting may be a popular weight-loss strategy, but it’s not a particularly new phenomenon.

In addition to religious and spiritual reasons, many cultures throughout history have used fasting as a tool to improve health. For example, ancient Greek athletes would fast to prepare their bodies for the Olympic games.

But what is intermittent fasting, exactly? And can restricting food intake to certain hours of the day or specific days of the week really help you shed some pounds? Here’s what you should know about intermittent fasting and weight loss.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting involves following a schedule that switches between periods of eating and periods of fasting. It’s an eating strategy that doesn’t put limits on what you eat, but rather when you eat.

As a weight-loss method, intermittent fasting is known to improve metabolic health and lower insulin levels, which helps the body burn more daily calories.

Related Article Module: How to follow an intermittent fasting schedule with 6 different methodsThere are many approaches to intermittent fasting, all of which revolve alternating periods of eating and fasting. You may choose to eat during certain hours of the day or certain days of the week, as long as the schedule is consistent.

Some common types of intermittent fasting include:

  • 16/8 fasting: Also known as time-restricted fasting, this popular strategy involves eating only during an eight-hour period, such as 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and fasting for the rest of the day.
  • Alternate-day fasting: As the name implies, this style of fasting is when you fast or severely restrict your caloric intake every other day.
  • 5:2 diet: With this method, you eat normally five days a week and choose two, nonconsecutive days where you eat only 500 to 600 calories.

Intermittent fasting for weight loss

Research is limited on how well intermittent fasting works for weight loss. Some studies have indicated that it can help people lose weight in just a matter of weeks, while others found no weight-loss benefit at all.

It may also depend on the type of intermittent fasting schedule that you choose. Here’s what research says about three of the most popular intermittent fasting methods:

  • 16/8 intermittent fasting. A 2020 study of 116 adults found no significant difference in weight loss between a group that limited all calorie intake to between 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day and a control group that was allowed three meals per day, plus snacks. Notably, the 12-week study found fasting could lead to loss of muscle mass.
  • Alternate-day fasting. A 2017 study that compared an alternate-day fasting plan with a typical calorie restriction diet found no significant difference in weight loss between participants. The study involved 100 obese participants, and there was a significant dropout rate – only 69% of the subjects stayed until the end.
  • 5:2 intermittent fasting. A 2013 study found that, from a sample of 115 overweight women, those who tried a 5:2 intermittent fasting diet for 3 months lost more fat and experienced a greater reduction of insulin resistance than women who followed a standard calorie-restricted diet for the same time period.

Research around intermittent fasting has its limitations, from participant size to length of studies. Effectiveness is also largely dependent on whether you can actually stick to the plan.

According to registered dietitian Natalie Allen, a clinical assistant professor at Missouri State University, most people choose some version of the 16/8 method, because it’s easier to follow than some other versions.

Ultimately, when deciding if intermittent fasting is right for your weight loss goals, it’s crucial to keep your lifestyle and eating habits in mind.

“Some people can struggle with not eating for prolonged periods,” says Heilbronn.

Intermittent fasting isn’t safe for everyone

According to Heilbronn, intermittent fasting is not for everyone.

“People who take medication that can cause hypoglycemia (i.e. low insulin levels) shouldn’t do this diet without talking with their doctors,” she says.

You should also avoid intermittent fasting if:

  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You’re not fully grown (teenagers)
  • You have a history of eating disorders

Insider’s takeaway

Intermittent fasting can be a safe and effective weight loss strategy, with the caveat being that the long-term benefits are less clear. To start, you may want to try a simple form of the 16/8 plan, which limits the hours of the day when you eat.

It’s important to note that beyond weight loss, intermittent fasting has other potential health benefits. Researchers behind a 2019 review surveyed 70 published studies and found intermittent fasting of all types can help slow aging and reduce the risk of some diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

But when it comes to weight loss, your own tolerance for hunger pangs may guide you in deciding if the eating plan is right for you. If you believe intermittent fasting may be unrealistic for your lifestyle, you may want to check out less restrictive eating plans like the Mediterranean diet.

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