For people trying to lose weight, intermittent fasting and adopting a flexitarian diet may be just what the doctor ordered.
A flexitarian diet is largely plant-based but allows for some flexibility for an occasional serving of meat or not-so-healthy processed foods.
Intermittent fasting sets limits on when eating is allowed and when the user should go without food, aka fasting. One of the most popular intermittent fasting plans calls for an eight-hour eating window and a 16-hour fast period that runs overnight and includes time spent sleeping.
In this episode of San Diego Health, host Susan Taylor and guest Jennifer Chronis, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside, discuss in-depth the benefits of intermittent fasting and following a flexitarian diet long-term, which extend far beyond weight loss.
Dr. Chronis also explains how your doctor can help craft a plan that benefits you as an individual and fits your lifestyle and health goals.
The flexitarian diet is pretty much just what it sounds like. The marriage of being flexible and also vegetarian-focused. What that means is focusing on whole-plant foods for the majority of your diet.
Allowable foods or foods that we want to encourage include lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, such as avocado and olive oil, and whole grains.
Foods that you want to avoid or limit in a good amount would be processed foods, such as packaged chips, crackers, candy. Limit meats, specifically red meat and poultry, and also dairy products, such as cheese and milk.
Sugar falls more into that processed foods category. If it’s sugar contained in sodas or sugar-sweetened beverages, you definitely want to avoid that. Anything that comes in a box or bag that has added sugars is going to be something that you want to avoid.
As long as you’re getting the majority of your nutrition from the whole foods and plant-based sources, then it’s okay to deviate once in a while.
The health benefits of following this mostly plant-based food diet include decreasing your risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and even some cancers.
Intermittent fasting is an eating plan where you go for a prolonged period without eating or fasting for about 16 hours. This period can be overnight, so part of it can be when you’re sleeping. Then you have an eight-hour period during the day during which you eat all your meals.
The eight-hour eating window is recommended to be whatever fits your lifestyle the best. If you are hungry the first thing in the morning, then you can go ahead and have your eight-hour window start then.
But if you still want to have more of a social dinner time and eat later in the day that’s fine too. The main advice is to avoid eating later in the evening because that is when the calories are not being metabolized as well.
I typically will counsel patients to end their eight hour-fast at 8 pm. Again, it’s because you really want to avoid that late nighttime snacking.
It's fine to drink those during your fasting period. You just want to avoid additives, such as a lot of sugar or milk in the drinks, because that would break the fast.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to help with insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood glucose levels. I may recommend someone with a mild case of type 2 diabetes that they can do intermittent fasting as long as they’re not on insulin or any medications that would cause them to have hypoglycemia or low blood sugars. It’s definitely not a safe plan for anyone who has type 1 diabetes.
I recommend that both of these eating patterns be part of a lifestyle change, to be done all the time, rather than just once in a while. You’ll get so many more health benefits if it’s a lifestyle and long-term change.
The flexitarian diet, because it’s inherently flexible, can be more broadly applied to most people. People who should avoid this are certain people with diabetes, the elderly, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people who are immunocompromised or on certain medications that may put them at risk for malnourishment.
Specifically with the intermittent fasting diet because of the way that it works from shifting your metabolism from glucose to more of a ketosis or burning fatty acids in the body, you get a lot of metabolic benefits. This includes better insulin sensitivity or lower blood sugars, improving your blood pressure, decreasing inflammation in the body. There’s even evidence that going into that fasting period can help clear out toxins. It can decrease your risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, some cancers, and even improve your mood, boost your cognition, and decrease your risk of dementia or other degenerative diseases.
These eating plans can be applied to many different people. It’s very important to contact your doctor and have them help you develop an eating plan that incorporates some of these ideas and fits your lifestyle and your health goals.
Lightly edited for clarity
Watch the San Diego Health video with host Susan Taylor and Dr. Chronis discussing how the flexitarian diet and intermittent fasting diet work and their benefits.