Intermittent fasting - or restricting eating and drinking for varying periods of time - has been a practice for generations in many regions of the world. The practice has its roots in religion, but the health benefits reach beyond any spiritual origins. In recent years, however, the practice has gained popularity among those looking to lose a few pounds, boost heart health and live longer.

Intermittent fasting dictates less of what you eat and more of when you eat. Eating a healthy diet, loaded with produce, lean protein and 100 percent whole grains, is always important. Some intermittent fasting plans involve restricting calories to about 500 a day for a couple of "on" days each week. Other plans restrict all eating for a 24-hour period once or twice a week. Others still limit the eating window to eight hours a day, meaning a person would fast for about 16 hours a day.

The reason behind the potential success of intermittent fasting is unclear, and more research is needed to determine the root of the practice's benefits. One theory points to the benefits of mild stress that fasting puts on the body. As with stress caused by vigorous exercise, fasting-induced stress may force the body to adapt to changes, thus making it grow stronger. Given time to recover (during the periods of eating between fasts) may help your body resist diseases.

Gain years and more

Weight loss: One of the benefits of intermittent fasting is weight loss and weight management. This is important for people living with excess pounds. A healthy weight is important to living a healthy life, and can decrease the risk of conditions like high cholesterol and diabetes. How does intermittent fasting lower the number on the scale? Studies suggest that cutting your caloric intake by between 20 and 40 percent can promote weight loss. One study of overweight adults found that restricting calories on alternate days reduced body weight by 8 percent over and eight-week period.

Heart health: Obesity, a condition plaguing one in every three adults in the United States, is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. The connection between a healthy heart and intermittent fasting is still unclear, but at least one study suggests those who followed a fasting regimen had a healthier heart than those who didn't. Fasting appears to reduce LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, inflammation and insulin resistance, all of which can contribute to heart disease. Another theory? Shedding extra pounds can reduce your risk of heart disease and heart disease-related risks. If fasting boosts weight loss, it could up your heart health, too.

Live longer: Many animal studies suggest that caloric restriction can lengthen your life and improve health later in life. How it works isn't clear, but fasting seems to fight the effects of aging at the cellular level - reducing damage to DNA, boosting stem-cell production and even protecting brain cells. More research is needed to determine the effect of fasting and calorie restrictions on human lifespan, but studies suggest fasting reduces risks of heart disease in overweight individuals - the leading cause of men and women in the United States.

Consult your healthcare provider

Before you change your eating habits, it's always a good idea to consult your healthcare provider. Intermittent fasting isn't for everyone, so ask your doctor if it's the right eating plan for you.


Disclaimer

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.

Take the Heart Checkup