Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy For Women Over 50? Your Research-Backed Answer
Women over 50 often experience unwanted changes in blood sugar, body fat, and blood lipid levels that intermittent fasting (IF) might be able to help with. However, some women may be hesitant to try intermittent fasting and wonder if it's safe and appropriate for their age group.
In this article, we'll explore the potential benefits of IF for women over 50 and chat with experts about how women can decide which fasting method—if any—is right for them.
The research on fasting during menopause
After you go through menopause, your ovaries produce very little of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. The natural decline in hormone production that occurs during this time can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms including hot flashes, weight gain, high blood lipid levels, mood swings, vaginal dryness, sleep problems, and irritability.
Certain lifestyle and dietary changes, like intermittent fasting (IF) may be effective for women who are perimenopausal, menopausal, and postmenopausal. Unfortunately, although there's plenty of research on the potential benefits of IF for premenopausal women, research investigating its effects in older women is limited2.
Also, IF may compromise the health of some older adults and may lead to changes in certain hormones, which we'll cover later in the article.
Potential benefits of fasting for women over 50
Research on the effects of IF on women over 50 is currently limited. That said, there's plenty of evidence that IF is effective for reducing blood pressure levels5, markers of inflammation6, and levels of visceral fat7 in general. Hopefully, future research will reveal more information so we can better understand how IF affects women over 50, specifically.
In the meantime, here's what we know so far (and the research to keep an eye on moving forward):
It could help regulate blood sugar.
Studies also show that IF is effective in improving glucose tolerance, or how well the body utilizes blood sugar. A small 202010 study published in GeroScience that included 24 men and women between the ages of 55 and 79 found that following a 16:8 fasting program for six weeks led to moderate improvements in glucose tolerance compared to normal eating patterns.
It could improve heart disease risk factors.
As women age, blood lipids tend to increase, which can increase heart disease risk. "If you're struggling with your lipids and particularly your triglyceride levels, then fasting may be the tool that can assist you in reducing that number into optimal ranges," board-certified OB/GYN and functional medicine specialist Kyrin Dunston, M.D., FACOG, tells mindbodygreen.
Although there's limited evidence in older women specifically, IF seems to be as effective11 for reducing blood lipid levels as continuous calorie restriction. However, in the 2021 study4 in premenopausal and postmenopausal women, the IF program didn't have any effect on the women's blood lipid levels. Clearly, more research is needed to find out whether IF is more effective than regular calorie restriction for improving blood lipid levels in older women.
It could promote healthy weight loss.
IF has been shown to promote weight loss in many populations, including older women.
Additionally, in a 2022 study published in Obesity, researchers found that postmenopausal women who followed eight weeks of an IF program that included a four- to six-hour feeding window experienced weight loss of 3% to 4% of their baseline weight, compared with the control group.
It could improve insulin sensitivity.
During menopause, shifts in body fat and hormonal changes contribute to the development of insulin resistance, a condition where cells don't respond well to insulin, a hormone that helps shuttle blood sugar into cells.
"IF improves insulin sensitivity, which can be helpful for women around menopause as insulin resistance is common and can interfere with healthy energy management in the body," Dunston says. In the 2021 study4 mentioned above, the researchers found that the eight-week IF program led to similar reductions in insulin levels and insulin resistance in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women.
It may improve hormonal health via HGH.
Another way IF may benefit older women is by naturally boosting something called human growth hormone (HGH), a hormone that plays important roles in metabolism, body composition, and insulin regulation.
Research to watch
Best types of fasting for women 50+
There are many different types of intermittent fasting that range from fasting for 12 hours to multiple days at a time.
"The nice thing about intermittent fasting is that it's flexible," board-certified physician Taz Bhatia, M.D., previously told mindbodygreen. "Many people start with shorter fasts and gradually increase their fast length."
Most of the studies mentioned above used IF programs that involved fasting windows of 16 to 20 hours and eating windows of four to eight hours.
With this in mind, here are a few IF methods that may be most beneficial for women over 50:
- 16:8: This is one of the most popular types of time-restricted feeding (TRF), a form of IF that involves eating as much or as often as you like within a defined 15period of time. The 16:8 method involves fasting for 16 hours and consuming all of your calories within an 8-hour window each day. The 16/8 method has been shown to promote weight loss12 in women over 50.
- Modified alternate-day fasting (ADF): Modified ADF is a spin on ADF, a type of fasting that involves eating regularly one day and then completely abstaining from calories the following day. Modified ADF allows you to eat a very small amount of calories—typically under 500—during your fasting days. A 2020 study3 published in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases that included 75 people, some of whom were postmenopausal women, found that a 12-week modified ADF protocol led to a 14.3-pound weight loss in the postmenopausal group and also decreased LDL cholesterol levels, insulin, and blood pressure levels.
- The 5:2 diet: The 5:2 diet is considered a type of periodic fasting (PF). People following the 5:2 diet eat normally five days per week and then follow a modified fast for two consecutive or nonconsecutive days. During fasting days, energy intake is typically kept to around 600 calories. Following the 5:2 diet can help reduce overall calorie intake and help women over 50 reach and maintain a healthy body weight 16without following an overly restrictive diet or more extreme fasting method.
Even though the IF methods listed above may be effective for women over 50, it's important to have a conversation with a trusted health care provider before trying out IF.
That's because fasting can be stressful on the body and may not be appropriate for certain women. Fasting can affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol, she explains. (Fasting is a type of stressor in itself, after all.) "Many women at these stages of life have accumulated significant cortisol difficulties that remain undiagnosed," says Dunston, who recommends undergoing a complete hormonal assessment by a qualified medical professional prior to starting an IF regimen.
Tips and sample meal plan
If you aren't sure how to plan your food intake while following an IF eating pattern, this sample one-day 16:8 meal plan can help get you started:
- 8 a.m.: Black coffee or unsweetened herbal tea
- 11 a.m.: Two pasture-raised eggs sauteed with spinach and cheddar cheese served with berries and sliced avocado
- 2 p.m.: A quinoa bowl with roasted broccoli, grilled chicken, pine nuts, chickpeas, and a tahini dressing
- 3:30 p.m.: A handful of mixed nuts and an apple
- 6 p.m.: Baked salmon served with roasted sweet potatoes and asparagus
- 7 p.m.-11 a.m.: Fast
Fasting or not, it's important for women over 50 to focus on the overall quality of their diet. Dunston notes that fasting is most beneficial when paired with a diet rich in lean proteins, vegetables, legumes, and fruits, and low in ultra-processed foods
See here for more tips on the best foods to break a fast.
Side effects & risks
Intermittent fasting has been linked to downsides that may compromise the health of some older women.
First, fasting has been shown to affect women's hormone levels, sometimes in a negative way. The 2022 study published in Obesity found that postmenopausal women who followed eight weeks of an IF program that included a four- to six-hour fasting window experienced significant drops in the steroid hormone DHEA of around 14%.
DHEA is the primary precursor of estrogen in postmenopausal women, so the researchers were concerned that a decrease in DHEA may lead to side effects like sexual dysfunction, skin issues, and vaginal dryness. Even though the DHEA values remained within the normal range during the study and weren't associated with negative side effects, the researchers called for more research in this area in order to understand how IF affects hormone levels in postmenopausal women.
Another downside of IF for women over 50 is that it may worsen hot flashes. Older research suggests that hot flash symptoms worsen when blood sugar is low18. A 2009 study19 published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing also found that menopausal women experienced more hot flashes as the time between their meals increased.
Another 2021 study20 published in the British Journal of Nutrition that included 3,273 men and women aged 64 years or older found that prolonged nightly fasting of 12 or more hours seemed to worsen balance and lower extremity function and made it more difficult for participants to get up from a chair. This association was strongest in older adults with low levels of physical activity.
It's also important to understand that IF isn't appropriate for certain women, including those with eating disorders or people with certain medical conditions. If you're not sure if IF is the right choice for you, get advice from your health care provider.
Avoiding muscle loss/sarcopenia
As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass. If you're undereating and underexercising, it can speed up your rate of muscle loss, causing a loss of strength. If IF is used inappropriately or if you're not giving your body enough calories and protein, it could lead to increased muscle loss. Following a low-protein, insufficient-calorie diet could also harm bone health by decreasing bone density21.
In order to avoid muscle loss and keep their bones healthy, women over 50 should follow a higher-protein diet and incorporate resistance training into their routines. Experts suggest22 that older adults should consume between 0.54 and 0.68 gram of protein per pound per day, which is much higher than the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA)23.
Incorporating strength-training exercises into your day is also important for preventing muscle loss and keeping your bones strong and resistant to fracture. If you don't have the strength or energy for resistance training while doing IF, it's a sign you should stop fasting.
What is the best type of intermittent fasting for women over 50?
There's no one "best" type of fasting for women over 50, but methods like 16:8 and modified ADF seem to be effective for promoting weight loss and improving other aspects of health like blood lipid levels and insulin resistance in early research.
Can menopausal women lose weight with intermittent fasting?
Yes, research shows that certain methods of IF, like 16:8 and modified ADF, could promote fat loss. However, it's still unclear if fasting is more effective for weight loss in women over 50 compared to just eating fewer calories.
How many hours should a woman over 50 do intermittent fasting?
Most fasting studies that have included women over 50 used time-restricted eating patterns that involve going 16 to 20 hours without food. Dunston recommends starting on the lower end of that spectrum.
"It might be easier to start with a method where one only goes without food and nutritive liquids for a portion of a day, like eight hours. That's usually much easier to accomplish and also reap the health benefits of fasting," she says.
Women over 50 can experience symptoms related to aging and menopause like weight gain and increased blood lipid levels. Although research on IF methods in this population is limited, some evidence suggests that IF patterns like 16:8 and modified ADF may improve certain aspects of health in older women, including body weight, insulin resistance, and LDL cholesterol. Just be sure to talk to your health care provider first, as IF isn't a safe or appropriate choice for everyone. And remember: Fasting is most effective when paired with an otherwise nutritious eating pattern.
Jillian Kubala, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian based in Westhampton, NY. She holds a master's degree in nutrition from Stony Brook University School of Medicine as well as an undergraduate degree in nutrition science.
In addition to her private practice where she uses a unique and personalized approach to help her clients achieve optimal wellness, she works as a freelance writer and editor and has written hundreds of articles on nutrition and wellness for top digital health publishers.
Jillian and her husband have a backyard farm where they grow their own food and keep chickens. She runs a small cut flower business specializing in organically grown dahlias.