If you lived in a time when you had to hunt woolly mammoths or forage for nuts and berries to survive, you only ate when you had the ability, the shape, and the luck to find food. Today, most people eat several meals plus snacks in between, spending most of their waking hours in a “fed” rather than “fasted” state.
Eating with time restriction or intermittent fasting it is a method of eating that follows the way of eating of our ancestors 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 over an eight-hour window (for example, 11 am to 7 pm) 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 nonconsecutive days a week you eat just 500 to 600 calories, the other five days your eating is unrestricted.
For a caregiver, routine meals add structure to the day and can decrease agitation and restlessness in a loved one with dementia. Likewise, time-restricted eating can 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 bed; your loved one will reap the benefits of a better night’s sleep.
[As a caregiver] time-restricted eating can 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 food down into usable forms: sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates, amino acids from proteins, and fatty acids from fats. Nutrients are used for energy or repair, and excess nutrients are stored in the muscles, liver, and fat cells.
Your body taps into fuel stored in your muscles, liver, and eventually fat cells while fasting. Fasting, after glucose is depleted, it uses ketones (chemicals produced in the liver) derived from fat.
During a 16-hour fast, your body is slightly stressed, but in a good way. She performs general housekeeping tasks, such as repairing genetic material, scavenging harmful free radicals, and controlling 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 states, your body can allocate time for growth and repairs, as well as maintenance 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 who specializes 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 ketone levels during fasting. ketones are bound to improve thinking and memory in people with cognitive impairment, and may even help stabilize insulin levels, which could be beneficial for people with diabetes.
“In people who are at risk of diabetes but don’t yet have it, intermittent fasting can reduce this risk by lowering blood sugar and regulating insulin levels,” Wong said.
Intermittent fasting also lowers the risks associated with cardiovascular disease by reducing:
· Blood pressure
Resting heart rate
· Total cholesterol
Bad cholesterol (LDL)
Intermittent fasting can also increase good cholesterol (HDL), help with weight management and promote fat loss.
Benefits for cancer survivors
Unlike many intermittent fasting studies looking at benefits in younger people, one recent study examined breast cancer survivors over the age of 60 who had received a chemotherapy drug known to be toxic to the heart. After eight weeks of intermittent fasting five days a week (with no weekend eating restrictions), participants’ cardiovascular risk was reduced by an average of 15%.
Intermittent fasting can slow the growth of cancer cells by limiting their fuel, can make cancer cells more susceptible to chemotherapy, and can make normal cells more resistant to cancer.
Is time-restricted eating safe for seniors?
Seniors should discuss intermittent fasting with their health care provider. Wong points out that time-restricted feeding may not be appropriate for:
- Anyone who has or has had an eating disorder.
- People with diabetes (as fasting can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels)
- Older adults with low weight and poor appetite
- Anyone who is unable to meet their nutritional or caloric needs during a feeding window.
- Someone who needs to take medication with food
For older people for whom fasting is safe, Wong recommends the 16:8 daily approach:
“This approach focuses on a time restriction rather than severely restricting calorie intake on certain days,” he said.
Severely restricting caloric intake can be dangerous for older adults with chronic illnesses, especially diabetes. You may need to start more gradually, allowing 10 to 12 hours to eat instead of just eight hours.
“To reap the full benefits 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 he continues to drink plenty of water and non-calorie drinks during the fast.
Precautions with fasting
At first, irritability and difficulty concentrating often accompany fasting, but these symptoms usually improve after a month or so.
Seek help if you notice anxiety, restlessness, headache, nausea, confusion, weakness, or unresponsiveness in your loved one. Low blood sugar levels and low blood electrolyte levels (sodium, potassium, or calcium, for example) can be life-threatening.