Intermittent fasting: Research says timing meals improves cholesterol, promotes weight loss

New research shows that intermittent fasting can help prevent cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol and promote weight loss.

But what is intermittent fasting, and how does it work? Here's what you need to know:

What is it?

Intermittent fasting is simple: It means limiting times for eating. For example, a person who does intermittent fasting will only eat between noon and 8 p.m., and the remaining 16 hours of their day would be dedicated to fasting.

Eating patterns range from person to person: Some people fast for one day and eat normally the next while others may pick two days of the week for fasting and eat normally the remaining five days.

Some experts recommend fasting at least two hours before going to bed, but don't worry about breakfast: Eat during a window that feels right for your body.

People who choose intermittent fasting don't need to necessarily change their diets. Of course, avoiding processed foods will help those interested in weight loss.

Why does it work?

In most diets that involve eating three meals a day, the body will break down sugar-based (glucose) reserves for energy. Yet when the body is low on glucose during fasting, it will instead break down fats, and this slower alternative path to energy is associated with an improved sugar regulation, stress resistance, and a reduction in inflammation.

"You store food energy when you're eating and you burn food energy when you're fasting and it should be a normal cycle. You don't have to keep shoving a muffin in your mouth every two hours to stay alive. Your body is able to handle it," Dr. Jason Fung, founder of the Intensive Dietary Management (IDM) Coaching Program, told Good Morning America.
What are the benefits?

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that intermittent fasting can reduce the risk factors associated with obesity and diabetes. It also promotes the loss of fat, particularly belly fat.

What are the risks?

For most people, intermittent fasting is safe and effective. Yet the diet can be challenging for some people, especially those with Type 1 diabetes and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

People with a history of eating disorders, children, and those who are malnourished should not do intermittent fasting.

ABC News contributed to this report.
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