Restriction is still restriction, whether it’s time or calories, so time-restricted eating is not the magic bullet it may seem to be.

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ON NUTRITION |

In our increasingly fast-paced consumerist society, we want what we want, and we want it right now. This desire for immediate gratification helps explain the allure of finding a magic bullet for health or weight loss. (“You mean I just have to do this one little thing and X will happen effortlessly? Sign me up!”) Trouble is, true magic bullets are as mythical as unicorns, which is to say that they don’t exist. One pretender that’s been hitting headlines hard recently is time-restricted feeding.

Just like it sounds, time-restricted feeding restricts your day’s eating to a limited time window. This idea has some merit for keeping your internal circadian clocks in sync, as eating at night can discombobulate us. However, it’s also been taken to absurd lengths. One recent headline suggested counting time instead of calories, with the article claiming that you could eat whatever you want as long as you stick to a 12-hour eating window. The alleged benefits? Weight loss, diabetes prevention, lower blood pressure — and a longer life. That’s a really big unicorn! Let’s break down those claims:

First, this particular article was based on a study published in 2015 that enrolled only eight people and used questionable research methods. Second, other studies on time-restricted feeding disagree on how long the eating window should be. Third, eat whatever you want? That’s a huge gray area, which could be interpreted as a varied diet with lots of different foods — or nothing but frozen pizza.

I do agree with the “don’t count calories” part, for two reasons. One, it’s impossible to know your body’s exact calorie needs, which are determined by genetics, gender, age, body size, activity level, gut microbiota and previous weight-loss attempts. An excellent reason not to live or die by calorie-counting apps. Two, counting calories takes up mental energy that you could use to develop a healthier, balanced, more mindful relationship with food. Like paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, or exploring what needs you’re really trying to “feed” when you aren’t hungry but you reach for food anyway.

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Much of the research on time-restricted feeding has been done in lab rodents, but we aren’t rodents. Human studies have been small and short-term. Many of these studies talk about time-restricted feeding as an antidote for overeating, but if you get up in the morning, eat breakfast around 7 or 8 a.m., eat dinner by 7 to 8 p.m., then go to bed at a reasonable hour, you’re naturally eating in a 12-hour window. If you do find yourself eating well into the evening, rather than clamp on a new set of restrictive eating rules, embrace mindfulness as an antidote and start exploring what causes you to eat so late.

• Are you mindlessly snacking out of habit — perhaps while watching TV?
• Are you undernourished during the day? Skipping — or scrimping on — daytime meals can leave you so hungry by dinnertime that you find it hard to stop eating.
• Are you delaying bedtime to the point that you end up getting hungry again?

For many people, feeding yourself well — physically and mentally — gets put on the back burner (pun intended). Aim to establish a regular meal and sleep schedule so that you stay nourished and rested. Still tempted to count calories? Spend that time preparing a meal, or going for a walk, learning a new language, or reading a book. Much more nourishing uses of your time — and much more fulfilling than restriction.