‘Protein pacing’ unlocks extra benefits from intermittent fasting

Time-restricted eating has shown promise in a variety of ways. Now, a new study out of Arizona State University (ASU) has shown that combining it with a particular pattern of protein intake can positively impact weight loss and the gut’s microbiome.

Among diet trends, intermittent fasting is one of the easier plans to stick to. You basically restrict your calorie intake to a specific window of time. One popular pattern of intermittent fasting, for example, is to eat only for eight hours, say from 1 pm to 9 pm, and fast for the remainder of the time.

The benefits of such an eating pattern have been starting to add up. While a 2022 study showed that there were no weight-loss benefits for intermittent fasters versus those doing a more traditional calorie-counting diet, there are a few other studies that show benefits beyond weight loss.

A study last year showed that intermittent fasting was indeed a more effective weight-loss strategy than calorie restriction for those with type 2 diabetes. Another 2023 mouse study showed that the eating strategy could help prevent sundowning, a circadian rhythm disruption seen in people with Alzheimer’s. And still another study published earlier this year showed that a pattern of intermittent fasting involving eating for five days, then fasting for two, protected against liver inflammation.

Protein pacing turbo-charges intermittent fasting

Now a new, albeit small, ASU study has found that combining intermittent fasting with protein pacing, whereby protein-rich meals are eaten at regular intervals throughout the day, delivers even more benefits than time-restricted eating alone.

The research team conducted their study on 27 females and 14 males who were considered overweight or obese. These participants were divided into two groups: one that practiced intermittent fasting along with protein pacing (IF-P) the other that followed a heart-healthy calorie-restricted diet. Men in the IF-P group ate about 1,700-1,850 calories per day and women consumed between 1,350-1,500 daily calories. Men in the control group ate about 1,500 calories per day and women took in about 1,200. So the caloric intakes were roughly on par.

Additionally, members of the IF-P group also were kept on a protein-pacing style of calorie intake, which the researchers define as “four meals/day consumed evenly spaced every 4 h, consisting of 25–50 g of protein/meal.”

At the end of an eight-week study period, the team found that those in the control group lost 5.4% of their body weight, while those on the IF-P program lost an average of 8.81%. In addition to the overall weight loss edge seen in the IF-P group, previous research by members of the team was borne out again in this study. Namely, the IF-P group lost 33% of visceral fat versus just 14% in the control group. Visceral fat is found deep inside the abdominal wall and its excess buildup has been linked to diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

Intermittent fasting plus protein pacing not only improved the size of the participants' guts, but the microbes living inside them as well
Intermittent fasting plus protein pacing not only improved the size of the participants’ guts, but the microbes living inside them as well

Biodesign Institute/ASU

But this study was about more than just weight loss. The researchers found that those in the IF-P group had a marked reduction in bothersome gastrointestinal symptoms. An analysis of blood and fecal matter revealed that this result likely came from the fact that those in the IF-P group had much improved gut microbiomes – the colony of microbes that live in our intestines.

The researchers saw an increase in bacteria in the Christensenellaceae family specifically, which has previously been tied to reducing our body mass index (BMI). Some of the other microbes that began to thrive after eight weeks of intermittent fasting and protein pacing have been linked specifically to longevity-related metabolic pathways, so the IF-P eating approach may also have implications for life extension.

“Given the gut microbiota’s location and its constant interaction with the GI tract, we have been gaining a deeper understanding of its pivotal role in dietary responses these last several years,” said ASU’s Alex Mohr, lead author of the new study. “While limited in duration and sample size, this comprehensive investigation – which included the analysis of the gut microbiome, cytokines, fecal short-chain fatty acids and blood metabolites – underscores the intricate interplay between diet, host metabolism and microbial communities.”

The study authors say that further research examining the link between protein pacing, intermittent fasting and health is well warranted.

“By identifying shifts in specific microbes, functional pathways and associated metabolites, this line of work holds promise for personalized health strategies as we can better tailor nutritional regimens to enhance gut function and metabolic outcomes,” added Mohr.

The research has been published in the journal, Nature Communications.

Source: Arizona State University

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