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Time-restricted eating can help with weight loss, researchers say

Time-restricted feeding, or TRF, is an increasingly studied diet that researchers believe may be a tool for weight-loss, diabetes prevention and even longevity.

You are when you eat.

A growing number of researchers say limiting the hours during the day when you eat, focusing more on the timing of meals instead of calories, can help dieters burn more fat, improve their health and lose weight.

Lorna Shelton, 58, was not very lively this time last year. The Centralia, Washington native weighed nearly 250 pounds and had trouble walking.

"I had to have both knees replaced, I was walking with a cane," said Shelton.

A traditional approach to losing weight, including substituting fast food for cooked meals and moderate intensity exercise, helped her to lose weight — but not enough.

"After I had gotten 40 pounds off, the next ten pounds seemed to take forever, I needed to do something different," said Shelton.

Related: Intermittent fasting: Is restrictive eating right for you?

Shelton gave up regular dieting when she heard about the success of time-restricted feeding, or TRF — eating between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm, for example. Researchers from the University of Alabama were finding that eating throughout the day stalled weight loss.

Image: Before and after photos of Lorna Shelton
Before and after photo of Lorna Shelton, 58, who weighed nearly 250 pounds. She lost over 50 pounds in one year with time restricted feeding.Courtesy Lorna Shelton

“What we've learned in the last 10 to 15 years is not only what you eat, but when you eat seems to matter,” said Courtney Peterson, Ph. D, assistant professor of nutrition medicine and scientist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC).“It doesn't seem like the number of meals per day that you eat affects weight loss or your health in general, so unlike what you see on magazine covers, if you eat lots of small meals throughout the day it's not going to rev up your metabolism."

Time-restricted feeding is not a plan of recommended foods to consume, but a system of limiting meals to a set time throughout the day.

Meals take 3 to 5 hours to digest, so by shifting eating patterns earlier food is metabolized by bedtime, leaving stored fat to burn.

Related: How One Man Lost 50 Pounds Using the 5:2 Intermittent Fasting Diet

“Not only are you burning fat while you sleep but in fact that's when we find the fat burning is the highest," said Peterson.

The time constraints of TRF — a program similar to intermittent fasting — vary from 8-hour to 12-hour eating windows. The window starts when a dieter firsts ingest something that isn’t toothpaste and ends with the last bite or sip of beverage that isn’t water at the end of the day.

According to the University of Alabama research, following a time-restricted eating plan can help reduce blood pressure, ward off diabetes and has been linked to increased longevity.

"Whether you call it intermittent fasting, or time-restricted feeding, part of this strategy is to connect your mind and body."

“Whether you call it intermittent fasting, or time-restricted feeding, part of this strategy is to connect your mind and body, to focus on true biological hunger to drive eating, rather than eating from boredom, stress, or just for fun," said NBC News health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom.

For Lorna, following the program has been life changing. She dropped more than 50 pounds in the last year, for a total of 100 pounds lost. "I feel like I've just added years to my life," says Shelton.