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Sleep dieting can help you snooze your way to weight loss

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Two new studies show how making this one tiny tweak can have big results for your health

Conventional workout wisdom says that eating right after your workout is as essential to building healthy muscles as weaves are to a Real Housewives reunion. But a new study shows that skipping the post-workout snack and hitting the sheets instead can help you get fitter, faster.

Telling someone to not eat after a workout is hard for two reasons. First, you've just put your body through something tough, and you want to give it the resources to repair itself. And second, you've just burned a ton of calories, and you're starving! Who hasn't found themselves laser focused on the Food Network while sweating away on the treadmill? But according to two new studies, adding a carefully timed fast along with getting enough sleep may be your golden ticket out of the weight loss doldrums and into fat-burning heaven.

"Sleep low" is the message of the first study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, meaning athletes skipped eating post-workout and went to bed with low glycogen stores. Fasting after a workout sounds kinda crazy at first, but the results were impressive: Compared to the traditional "refuel" method, the fasted athletes not only lost more body fat, but they also significantly improved their aerobic endurance and running speed.

More: How to burn more fat at every workout

Both groups of athletes were eating the same number of calories and carbs while doing exactly the same workouts, but just tweaking the timing of their workouts and meals made a huge difference in their results.

This jibes with recent research by Dr. Jason Fung, a Toronto-based nephrologist and author of The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. He found in working with his obese patients that those who went to bed with an empty stomach lost more weight and fat. And even though the word "fasting" may sound terrifying, he said his approach is relatively painless. All he asks is that his patients go 12 hours without eating anything — so if you eat dinner at 6 p.m., then skip the snacks before bed, and have a hearty breakfast at 6 a.m.

It sounds too simple to work, but the key to losing weight is getting your hormones in line, Fung wrote in an essay. "Stubborn, diet-resistant weight gain isn't about eating too much or exercising too little; it's not about excess calories or saturated fat. It is, in fact, a complex hormonal issue." He blames our modern ills on insulin resistance and says the only way to break that insulin-resistance cycle is to allow your insulin levels to drop very low.

More: Why you can blame hormones for the dreaded belly bloat

And that is exactly what happens when we get a good seven to eight hours of sleep per night says, Dr. Peter LePort, medical director of the MemorialCare Center for Obesity. "Sleep greatly impacts hormones. It resets your insulin levels and also reduces stress hormones," he explains.

LePort adds that adding a 12-hour fast, whether you do it after a workout or just after dinner, is a great, safe idea for people looking to lose weight or just increase their insulin sensitivity. "This is something that's easy to understand, is motivating and can help people lose weight with minimal suffering," he says.

Worried about the safety of skipping meals? Don't be, LePort says — 12 hours is a relatively short time for the body to go without food, so unless you have a medical condition that precludes fasting, this is fine for the majority of people. And, he adds, it's a myth that your body will start breaking down your muscle to feed itself, thereby undoing your workouts. While that can and does happen in cases of severe, long-term starvation, your body will turn to its fat stores first.

Ultimately this is just one more trick to add to your diet arsenal. Do you have to try fasting just because it's super trendy right now? Of course not! But if you're looking to drop a few extra pounds or burn fat, making this minor tweak might be worth a try.

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