If you lived in a time when you had to hunt wooly mammoths or scavenge nuts and berries to survive, you ate only when you were skilled, fit and lucky enough to find food. Today, most people eat several meals plus snacks in between, filling most of their waking hours in a “fed” rather than “fasting” state.
Time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting is one eating method that follows our ancestors’ way of eating—and also has the potential to improve your health. But is time-restricted eating safe for seniors?
What is time-restricted eating?
With time-restricted eating, you typically eat during an eight-hour window (11 a.m. to 7 p.m., for example) and fast the remaining 16 hours (except for drinking water and non-caloric beverages). Intermittent fasting can also occur in a 5:2 fashion: two non-consecutive days a week you eat only 500 to 600 calories, the other five days your eating has no restrictions.
For a caregiver, routine mealtimes add structure to the day and can decrease agitation and restlessness in a loved one with dementia. Likewise, time-restricted eating may make your life easier by improving your loved one’s health, cognition and sleep if he or she can safely fast. Even if your loved one can’t safely fast for 16 hours, try limiting food for three hours before bedtime; your loved one will reap the benefits of a better night’s sleep.
[As a caregiver] time-restricted eating may make your life easier by improving your loved one’s health, cognition and sleep if he or she can safely fast.
How time-restricted eating works
When you eat, your digestive tract breaks down food into usable forms—sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates, amino acids from protein, and fatty acids from fats. Nutrients are used for energy or repairs, with excess nutrients stored in your muscles, liver and fat cells.
Your body taps into the fuel stored in your muscles, liver and eventually fat cells while you’re fasting. In the fasting state, after your glucose is depleted, you use ketones (chemicals made in your liver) derived from fat.
During a 16-hour fast, your body becomes mildly stressed—but in a good way. It does general housekeeping such as repairing genetic material, scavenging harmful free radicals, and tamping down inflammation. It also adapts to mild stress and becomes more resilient in the process.
Benefits of time-restricted eating
By spending time in both the fed and fasted state, your body can allot time to growth and repairs as well as housekeeping and building resilience.
“Research suggests that intermittent fasting is effective in reducing inflammation, an underlying cause of many chronic diseases,” said Megan Wong, a registered dietitian specializing in nutrition for older adults and chronic disease management.
Diseases associated with inflammation include Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, osteoporosis and arthritis. Alzheimer’s often improves with reduced inflammation as well as higher levels of ketones during fasting. Ketones are linked to improved thinking and memory in those with cognitive decline, and can even help stabilize insulin levels, which could be beneficial for those with diabetes.
“In people who are at risk of diabetes but don’t yet have diabetes, intermittent fasting may reduce this risk by lowering blood sugar and regulating insulin levels,” Wong said.
Intermittent fasting also decreases risks associated with cardiovascular disease by lowering:
· Blood pressure
· Resting heart rate
· Total cholesterol
· Bad cholesterol (LDL)
Intermittent fasting also can increase good cholesterol (HDL), help with weight management and promote fat loss.
Benefits for cancer survivors
Unlike many intermittent fasting studies that look at benefits in younger people, a recent study looked at breast cancer survivors over 60 who had received a chemotherapy drug known to be toxic to the heart. After eight weeks of intermittent fasting five days a week (weekend eating was unrestricted), the participants’ cardiovascular risk fell by an average of 15%.
Intermittent fasting may slow the growth of cancer cells by limiting their fuel, may make cancer cells more susceptible to chemotherapy, and may make normal cells more resistant to cancer.
Is time-restricted eating safe for seniors?
Older people should discuss intermittent fasting with their health care provider. Wong points out that time-restricted eating may not be appropriate for:
- Anyone who has or has had an eating disorder
- People with diabetes (as fasting may lead to dangerously low blood sugars)
- Underweight older adults with poor appetites
- Anyone who can’t meet their nutritional or caloric needs during an eating window
- Someone who needs to take medications with food
For seniors in whom fasting is safe, Wong recommends the daily 16:8 approach:
“This approach focuses on a time restriction rather than severely restricting caloric intake on certain days,” she said.
Severely restricting caloric intake can be dangerous for older adults with chronic diseases, especially diabetes. You may need to start more gradually, allowing 10 to 12 hours for eating instead of just eight hours.
“To get the most benefits out of time-restricted eating, continue to eat a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, plant-based protein, whole grains and healthy fats,” Wong said, adding that you still drink plenty of water and zero-calorie drinks during the fast.
Precautions with fasting
Early on, irritability and difficulty concentrating often accompany fasting, but these symptoms typically improve after about a month.
Seek help if you notice anxiety, restlessness, headache, nausea, confusion, weakness or unresponsiveness in your loved one. Low blood sugar and low levels of blood electrolytes (sodium, potassium or calcium, for example) can be life-threatening.