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Nutrition and diet expert Krista Varady (middle) takes a hands-on approach with students in lab research that focuses on alternate-day dieting.

Nutrition expert suggests every-other-day fasting as a way to lose weight

by Eddy Rivera
June 09, 2010

Instead of going through every day feeling hungry while on a diet, nutrition expert Krista Varady suggests alternate day fasting.

When people need to lose weight, they usually restrict calories as part of a daily diet. It is simply the practice of eating about 20 to 30 percent less food. But people often can't stick to diets for the lengthy periods of time needed to get results.

"The problem with those diets is that people go to sleep at the end of every day just feeling really hungry because they're really deprived," said Varady, an assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "People get really miserable and they can't really do it for more than eight weeks."

She is researching the method of fasting on alternate days instead.

The concept of alternate-day fasting isn't new, according to Varady.

"My post-doc supervisor [at Berkeley], he wasn't the original one to come up with it," she said. "This diet has been around for about 20 years from what I can tell. But we started doing research. The main goal that we always wanted to see was whether or not this was a better diet than daily calorie restriction."

In a day and age where there are thousands of diets that are available to people every day, some more popular than others, Varady has been hard at work trying to research a new way to diet and lose weight.

Born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, She moved to the United States in 2006 with a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship to study at Berkeley. There, she began her quest to learn more about alternate-day fasting and she has become one of the leading researchers in the field.

Varady, 30, began to study calorie restriction for chronic disease prevention.

"[The experience] was really fun," Varady said. "A lot of rich hippies there. I was there for two years at Berkeley, and that's when I really got into the field that I'm in now."

Alternate-day fasting is a simple, yet strange, concept.

In essence, the process involves very intense calorie restriction days. The dieter eats a big lunch, which consists of a main dish such as lasagna, fruit or vegetable and dessert. The next day, then, the person can eat whatever they want.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

"The benefits of the [diet] is pretty obvious," Varady said. "You're only having to diet every other day. People can maybe stick to it a little bit better because even though they're undergoing a really heavy calorie restriction day, they can always look forward to the next day where they can eat anything."

Varady and three of her colleagues ran a 10-week study on the diet in 2009. It involved a few dozen people  and it showed that they lost between 10 to 30 pounds. According to Varady, there was a 10 percent dropout rate of people who couldn't stick with the diet.

"We weren't sure if anyone could adhere to [the diet] because it seems a little extreme," said Varady. "You can only have lunch one day." But she found that mental attitude and a busy schedule on the day of fasting greatly bolstered the chances of success.

Fast-forward to today and Varady continues her research at UIC, where she works with a very small group of students and volunteers in labs and continues to learn more about alternate-day fasting.

Varady's students speak highly of her, especially with her hands-on approach when she's teaching.

"It's only my first year but so far, Krista has been really great and she's a good mentor," said Monica Klempel, a Ph.D. candidate. "Some of my past lab experiences haven't been as hands-on as it is here, so I feel like I learn more in the lab than I do in the classroom."

Cynthia Kroeger, a summer research volunteer applauds both Varady and her research.

"It's awesome," said Kroeger. "I have a lot of questions and I'll usually get them answered [by Krista]. I get to learn a lot and there's just a lot of good opportunities here."

So what's next for Varady?

"We're analyzing hormones released from fat cells," she said. "These unfavorable hormones have been shown to increase as someone gains weight, and may play a role in mediating diabetes and heart disease risk. We want to see if the weight loss intervention make these hormone levels go down."