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Intermittent fasting boosts weight loss and brain power, say researchers

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Eat what you want five days a week, then reduce calories the other two days. If that sounds like a weight loss plan you could follow, researchers have good news for you: Preliminary studies show that this pattern benefits your waistline just as much as drastically reducing calories every day, reported the Wall Street Journal on December 2.

Researchers have determined that after the initial mental adjustment, the intermittent fasting approach also is easier to follow. In addition to weight loss, health benefits include improved mental functioning and maintenance of muscle when compared to standard restricted calorie diets, according to the government's National Institute on Aging.

When they compared people who ate 1,200 calories to 1,500 calories daily to those who ate normally most days of the week and then ate 500 to 600 calories two days a week, researchers found that those who used the intermittent fasting approach lost as much as or more than those who consistently reduced their calories.

The studies have been based on the plan described in books such as "The 5:2 Diet: Feast for 5 Days, Fast for 2 Days to Lose Weight and Revitalize Your Health" and "The FastDiet: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting" (click for details).

Mark Mattson, chief of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, told the Wall Street Journal that he feels fasting actually strengthens the brain. His studies show that alternating eating and fasting protects animals from cognitive impairment and even reverses symptoms.

In addition, in contrast to the typical loss of muscle mass and development of fat, those who use intermittent fasting maintain muscle while losing fat. The key is sticking with the plan long enough to adjust to the change.

"We think that once the people get adjusted to the diet—it's a big change to a diet—it is easy to adhere to," Dr. Mattson says. "If you know that tomorrow you can eat normally, you can make it through today."

Another key: Don't overdo it on the "normal eating" days, says says Krista Varady, an assistant professor in kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In her studies on intermittent calorie restriction, she found that most people did not binge when they weren't fasting. They eat only about 110 percent on non-fasting days, which doesn't compensate for the amount they restricted the day before.

Dr. Varady discovered that people became so accustomed to calorie restriction that they can't eat as much, making it a win-win first for weight loss and then for weight maintenance.

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