How to Hack Your Diet (and Live Forever)

The math behind weight loss is easy to understand, but it’s really, really hard to implement.

Consume fewer calories than you eat and you lose weight. Simple, but it sucks.

Hunger is a physiological sensation that makes you feel like you’re dying. That survival instinct can really cripple weight loss goals. You feel like you have to search out food at any cost.

Plus, if you restrict the amount of calories you eat day in and day out at every meal, you’re telling your body there’s a food shortage, and it begins conserving energy as fat to survive a famine. Great! Your survival mechanism is working properly. Not good for weight loss, though.

Carrying extra weight increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Scientists have long been trying to figure out how to help people lose weight sustainably, and they have come up with a way to hack weight loss ― intermittent fasting.

Narrowing the food window

Intermittent fasting means that instead of restricting calories every day and at every meal, you restrict the amount of time you eat, either on a daily basis, or a weekly basis.

For example, instead of eating three meals and a few snacks in a 12 hour window ― between, say, 8am and 8pm ―  you eat only within an eight hour window.

For some people, it means cutting out a meal a day. Other people might prefer significantly cutting their calories on certain days and eating as much as they want the rest of the time.

Conducting research at the University of California, Dr. Krista Varady found that on regular days, people tended to eat only a little more than usual to offset a fast, so by the end of the week, they wind up with a caloric deficit, The Atlantic reported.

The benefit to this kind of calorie restriction is that it’s easier for a lot of people to stick to ― instead of restricting calories every day, forever, you just restrict calories from time to time. This strategy works because people don’t deprive themselves of satisfying, high-fat foods, according to Varady.

Research looks promising

A number of scientists have conducted research showing the benefits of intermittent fasting, not just in helping overweight people lose weight, but also helping prevent other health problems such as breast cancer, insulin resistance, or Alzheimer’s disease, as Time reported.

Mark Mattson, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine … has published multiple studies and reviews on intermittent fasting. There’s evidence these diets bolster stress resistance and combat inflammation at a cellular level, he says.

“People undergo a metabolic switch in which the liver’s energy stores are depleted, and so the body’s cells start using fat and ketones for energy,” he explains. This switch is a form of mild challenge to the human body that he compares to exercise; just as running or lifting weights stresses the body in beneficial ways, the stress imposed by fasting appears to induce some similarly beneficial adaptations. Whether you’re talking about physical activity or fasting, “these cycles of challenge, recovery, challenge, recovery seem to optimize both function and durability of most cell sites,” he says.

Mattson notes that during our evolution, it was unlikely humans had access to food all the time.

Tufts University nutrition professor Susan Roberts said fasting two days a week can be really difficult for a lot of people, the Los Angeles Times reported. But the strategy can be flexible.

Dr. Monique Tello, contributing editor to the Harvard Medical School’s blog, suggests simplifying the fast by eating the last meal of the day as early as possible, to extend the daily, nighttime fast. That way, people can avoid hunger, too.

Most studies have shown promise on overweight adults, and the science is not clear about the benefits or drawbacks for people at a healthy weight, or children, or the elderly. Tello says people with a history of eating disorders should not do intermittent fasting. And there’s a lot of research that still needs to be done.

It’s a simple strategy, though, and easy to try. For overweight adults ― most people, considering about 70% of Americans are overweight ―  intermittent fasting could be a hack that works.