You’ve likely heard about intermittent fasting, one of the hottest trends among people trying to lose weight and get healthy. The term refers to narrowing your eating window to a certain number of hours a day. But is intermittent fasting a good choice for seniors? A growing body of research on people in their 60s and beyond suggests the approach feels easier and works as well or better than traditional diets.
Intermittent fasting can also help prevent and even reverse health conditions that become increasingly common as we age — including arthritis pain, diabetes, high cholesterol and more. Debby Rose, 71, says she is proof the strategy works wonders. Read on for her amazing story and to learn how intermittent fasting for seniors is helping to change lives.
Debbie’s moment of reckoning with her weight
“You’re not a candidate for knee replacement. At your size, your body couldn’t handle the recovery,” said the Debby’s doctor, as he made notes in her chart. “If you don’t lose weight, you’ll end up in a wheelchair 24/7.” He paused, giving the Washington state grandmother time to absorb what he’d said. Debby felt stunned — she hadn’t realized her health had gotten so bad. “Debby, you can do this. I know you can,” the doctor added in a gentler voice. “Find a plan you think you can stick with, and we’ll talk about it.”
As her husband, Lewis, drove them home after the appointment, Debby tried to stay positive. “I’ve dealt with worse than this and made it through,” she told him. And was that ever true: Decades before, after weight-loss surgery that was supposed to change her life, a mystery condition caused her to slowly go deaf. Once full deafness set in, she was terrified of a world she could no longer hear. Debby rarely left home and snacked constantly to soothe her nerves. Little by little, she had ended up with 298 pounds on her 5-foot frame. She was in constant pain and needed a walker to get around.
“I did get my miracle,” Debby remembered. Devices called cochlear implants had finally restored her hearing. She was ready to rejoin the world. “I want to make up for lost time,” she said. “But I just want to do it without a walker or wheelchair.”
How Debbie discovered intermittent fasting for seniors
Not long after, Debby sat in her recliner watching Today With Hoda & Jenna. The hosts were getting ready to weigh-in on national TV. “We’re starting intermittent fasting,” Hoda said. Debby had heard the term recently from her daughter Tammy, who had said it might help her. (To watch the episode that inspired Debbie, click here.)
“There are no rules because it’s not a diet,” explained guest expert Natalie Azar, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s about when you eat, not what you eat.” Dr. Azar explained that you moved your meals — whether they were healthy or not — to the same 8-hour period each day. Then you drink only plain water, coffee or tea the rest of the time. That was all it took to trigger changes that could help burn fat and also fight countless diseases.
Debbie’s first step: Skip breakfast
With her doctor’s blessing, Debby did research and decided to use guidelines from the book Fast. Feast. Repeat. Author Gin Stephens had shed 80 pounds and was helping many women over age 50 lose weight too. The book suggested Debby eat less often and make healthier choices, but there was nothing special to buy.
The next day, Debby had no issue trading breakfast for black coffee. At 11 am, she made a veggie-cheese omelet with bacon. Later, she served a healthy chicken dinner. Debby finished by 6 pm and was full until bed. As the week went along, Debby’s old urge to snack did nag at her. But the scale kept her going: She was losing a pound every day.
“I can still eat everything I love!”
After the first 30 days, Debby was in a groove. Her hunger was in check, and her new habit of sipping coffee and eating two meals felt doable. To make sure she could keep at it for the long term, Stephens suggested including favorite foods in her sittings even if they weren’t so nutritious. So Debby cautiously adopted an “80/20” rule — that meant making 80% of what she ate healthy and 20% whatever sounded good. She might have buttery garlic bread with a spaghetti squash dish. Or she’d order a Jimmy John’s sandwich wrapped in lettuce, adding a treat on the side.
The scale kept going down. “I can eat high-carb foods like pasta and cookies without gaining,” she said to Tammy. “I can still eat everything I love!” She’d already traded her walker for a cane. Soon, the cane was gone too — and she was under 200 pounds for the first time since youth. She celebrated at Olive Garden.
Debbie today: 121 pounds slimmer at age 71
Debby is now down 121 pounds and still losing. “I’m strict about not eating after 7 pm, but other than that, I mostly listen to my body. I eat when I’m hungry. There’s no list of what I can or can’t have,” she shares. The approach lets her enjoy family meals and restaurant meals. “After failing at every diet, I love not dieting. I was no good at diets. But I’m good at this!”
At age 71, Debby is off blood-pressure medications and no longer needs a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. Doctors even solved her hearing-loss mystery. “I had a scan, and they found a genetic abnormality they couldn’t see before because the area was filled with fat. I guess even inside my head is thinner now.” The best part, she adds: “I feel fearless and free!”
The best way to get started with intermittent fasting
Debby and Stephens are both fans of a type of intermittent fasting called “time-restricted eating,” which simply means that you only consume calories during a certain window of time each day. Many women use an eight-hour window, allowing them to eat from, say, 11 am until 7 pm each day. For the remaining 16 hours a day, they only consume water, club soda and/or unsweetened coffee and tea. “You start off skipping breakfast on day one, and boom—you’re doing it!” says Stephens. Click through to see how pairing fasting with carb cycling, a strategy called metabolic confusion, can speed weight loss.)
Does intermittent fasting work better than counting calories?
Eating less often is a way to reduce calorie intake that typically feels less restrictive than an old-fashioned low-calorie diet, say experts like Krista Varady, Ph.D., a University of Illinois Chicago nutrition professor and one of the world’s top intermittent fasting researchers.
But there are also potential advantages beyond reduced calorie intake. Studies show that longer breaks between dinner and breakfast can trigger biochemical changes in our bodies that are one of the best ways to improve blood sugar and levels of the fat-storage hormone insulin. “Get insulin down and weight goes down automatically,” notes fasting authority Jason Fung, MD, author of international bestseller The Obesity Code.
Dr. Fung adds that the tactic also helps trigger a special cellular repair process that makes every part of us function better, often helping reverse age-related wear and tear on our systems. In some studies, folks in their 60s who got most of their calories in two meals saw signifcant improvements in hunger, cravings and blood sugar. They also slimmed down faster than a group getting the exact same calories in six sittings. (Click through to learn why intermittent fasting is also one of the 7 best natural menopause treatments that work.)
Is intermittent fasting safe for seniors?
“Yes, intermittent fasting is safe for seniors. It’s an entirely natural process during which we simply use the calories we have stored in our body as energy,” says Dr. Fung. “The most important thing to remember is that fasting is simply the period of time you do not eat, which includes sleeping. So if you stop eating at 7 pm and don’t eat again until 9 am, that’s a 14-hour period of fasting.” He suggests finding the schedule that works best for you. He also recommends that during your eating window, you choose healthy foods like lean protein, veggies, good fats and fruit whenever possible.
As always, it’s wise to check with your doctor before trying any new dietary strategy — particularly if you have health issues and especially if you have been prescribed medication that must be taken with food, advises Dr. Fung.
What are the benefits of intermittent fasting for seniors?
Weight loss is just one of the benefits that seniors can get from intermittent fasting. Research shows that fasting may improve many conditions more common as we get older, including high blood sugar, high cholesterol, poor heart health, slow metabolism and even forgetfulness. Other studies indicate that intermittent fasting reduces inflammation throughout the body lowering the risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and some types of cancer. And finally, there’s evidence from the University of Florida Institute on Aging that shows this eating style can slow the aging process and even help people reach a healthier weight without losing muscle — and muscle is key to maintaining strength, stamina and independence as years go by.