Only 24 hours after Satchidananda Panda, a biologist at the Salk Institute, published a paper in the journal Cell Metabolism on Dec. 5, a dozen of my Facebook friends were suddenly on a time-restricted diet.
These are people who — based on some of the links I’ve seen them post in 2019 — don’t perceive the slightest difference between actual science and pseudoscience claiming to be actual science and then requiring you to purchase $1,200 in premade shakes, DVDs and books. They’re nice people, but breakthroughs on the mesa don’t usually figure prominently in their consciousness.
But Panda and his colleagues — including researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine — hit upon a discovery with seismic relevance to everyday life. They found that limiting daily eating to just over 10 consecutive hours a day, followed by 14 hours of fasting, improved the health of people with metabolic syndrome (science-speak for fat people like me).
Over 12 weeks, their 19 study subjects reduced their belly fat, blood pressure and cholesterol. They enjoyed more stable blood sugar and insulin levels and, most miraculously, lowered their body weight by 3 percent with no correlation to physical activity.
Can we let that sink in a second? Science has figured out a way to let you eat all the junk you normally eat and lose weight without someone yelling “pedal faster!” at you.
Since I have an eight-year-old daughter at home who I would enjoy living to see graduate high school, I swiped right on this concept immediately.
I’ve tried diets before. Most helped me shed 10 pounds for as long as I paid attention to following them. Then life would happen and I’d gain 15 pounds.
My stupidest diet, among many close contenders for the title, was one of my own invention. Because so many of my friends were burning fat with Dr. Atkins in the ’90s, and because I don’t eat meat, Dr. Levitan invented Vegetarian Atkins. For four months, I ingested little other than Swiss cheese, eggs and Diet Sprite.
Other than my mind entering a partial fugue state and my esophagus developing acid reflux intense enough to require a brief hospital stay, that went perfectly.
I started at 172 pounds which, for a man of five-feet-six, is fat. (If it’s not, then why, when I stand with an umbrella, do I resemble the letter “Q”?)
OK, fine, so I’m five-feet-five. Whatever.
For the first 24 hours, I ate my normal weekday diet, including a poached egg and Beyond Sausage link on a wheat bagel for breakfast, frozen Trader Joe’s Tikka Marsala for lunch, and pasta and sauce for dinner. When hunger hit around 4 p.m., I opened a bag of Lay’s Baked Potato Chips and paired it with a ginger kombucha tea from the corner Shell station.
The only difference between this and most other days was that I didn’t start eating until 9 a.m. and I stopped cold at 7 p.m.
The next morning, I weighed 170 pounds. What a horrible coincidence, I thought, to develop a life-threatening illness at the same time I’m trying a new diet.
That’s glycogen, Panda told me. (One of the great things about being a journalist is that well-known, smart and busy people will talk to you when you just ask them to.)
“Glycogen stores a lot of water,” he explained. “The second thing is that, since you get to eat for less number of hours, you may reduce some food intake from calories.”
Another day, another two fewer pounds. That’s 1.3 ounces per hour. At this rate, only 82.5 days remain until I disappear!
I began looking more at the clock than at calories. If what I eat doesn’t matter, then I don’t need to sweat it. As long as I stick to my normal diet and don’t, say, go nuts and eat a slice of delicious cheesy pizza at Mr. Moto’s, I’m golden.
Damn, why did I have to phrase it like that?
The morning after my first slice of pizza in more than a year, one pound surged back. I now weighed 169 of them.
OK, so things that are too good to be true have limits to how good.
Goodbye forever, delicious cheesy pizza. You claimed to love me, but you lied.
My weight loss continued, but in smaller increments. This morning’s scale reading was 166.
I was now burning fat instead of glycogen.
“At night, when you’re going through 14 hours of fasting, there’s a long period of time without insulin that allows the body to burn fat,” Panda explained, adding that if insulin is present, the body can store fat, but not burn it.
So the weight loss comes from not eating right before bed.
“Specifically, late-night snacks and alcohol intake,” Panda confirmed.
This explains the ineffectiveness of my previous diet of 30 years: Making sure the cornflakes have no sugar added and the milk is skim before consuming two bowls every day at 10 p.m.
The good news is I shed another pound in the past three days. The bad news is, for the first time, I got really hungry last night, and consuming water only made my stomach angrier at every unsubstantial gulp.
But I’ve learned to eat more for dinner to take the edge off nighttime munchies, and I’m usually asleep by 11 on weeknights anyway. So that’s only one or two hours of willpower required per day for me. (I’m never hungry as soon as I wake up.)
And the results are undeniable.
“You look way less gross,” my daughter complimented me.
I also felt great. slept better, and kept my acid reflux completely in check. My G.I. specialists have warned me for years not to eat at night due to my reflux. My mother has, too. (Come to think of it, she also warned me not to become a journalist.)
After two weeks, gravity pulled down on me with only 163 pounds of force.
Speaking of mothers, here’s something they all may have been wrong about — the importance of eating a hearty breakfast. File this amazing advice along with the coffee that stunted your growth and your face staying stuck that way forever.
Although skipping a bagel as soon as you wake up isn’t as important as eliminating late-night potato chips is to losing weight on this diet, Panda said his study’s subjects waited an average of two hours between awakening and eating — and that this wait also showed major benefits.
Although your brain wakes up as soon as your eyes open, your pancreas doesn’t for a couple of hours, he said.
The nighttime hormone melatonin, which some people take to reset circadian rhythms and ease jet lag, puts the pancreas to sleep along with the brain. Therefore, Panda explained, the average person only has enough insulin to soak up about 2 grams of sugar straight out of bed.
“When the pancreas is still asleep, the blood sugar level spikes up, which leads to metabolic syndrome and diabetes,” he said.
Gee, thanks for almost giving me diabetes, ma! (You were right about journalism, though.)
There are no guarantees, Panda told me, but if I stay on this time-restricted diet until I die of something hopefully other than a heart attack, I may very well enjoy a future where nobody sitting next to me on an airplane switches seats for more room.
“Some people have been doing it since 2012,” he said. “They have lost weight and maintained it.”
I just need to never think about delicious cheesy pizza again.