Nowadays, the word “fasting” probably doesn’t conjure the notion of a healthy diet or weight loss plan. In fact, various studies have shown that sustaining from food for extended periods of time is actually detrimental to your health, metabolism, and overall attempt to lose weight and stay healthy. It’s widely accepted that maintaining a balanced diet — preferably eating six small meals per day — is much more effective and safe than not eating anything at all to lose weight.

However, a new study out of the Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center in Utah has arrived at a different conclusion about fasting: It might help people who struggle with diabetes. The researchers found that fasting helped prediabetic people reduce their levels of cholesterol, especially if they fasted over an extended period of time — and at 10 to 12 hours at a time. During this time, the body begins to remove LDL cholesterol (also known as the bad cholesterol) from fat cells to be used as energy.

“Fasting has the potential to become an important diabetes intervention,” Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “Though we’ve studied fasting and its health benefits for years, we didn’t know why fasting could provide the health benefits we observed related to the risk of diabetes.”

Horne studied prediabetic people, meaning the individuals had abnormally high glucose levels in their blood, but not enough to be considered diabetic. These people also struggled with obesity, high triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood, low “good” cholesterol or HDL, and high blood pressure. They found that over the course of six weeks of fasting, cholesterol levels were reduced by 12 percent and the patients also lost weight.

"When we studied the effects of fasting in apparently healthy people, cholesterol levels increased during the one-time 24-hour fast," Horne said in the press release. "The changes that were most interesting or unexpected were all related to metabolic health and diabetes risk. Together with our prior studies that showed decades of routine fasting was associated with a lower risk of diabetes and coronary artery disease, this led us to think that fasting is most impactful for reducing the risk of diabetes and related metabolic problems."

But Horne is the first to say that simply fasting nonstop is not the answer to the problem. The length of time of the fast, as well as the frequency over the course of several months, all play very important roles in weight loss and cholesterol reduction. “Although fasting may protect against diabetes, it’s important to keep in mind that these results were not instantaneous in the studies that we performed. It takes time,” Horne said in the press release. “How long and how often people should fast for health benefits are additional questions we’re just beginning to examine.” Before more research is done on the topic, be sure to talk to your doctor or healthcare professional before taking on any extreme fasting diets, as it could also be more harmful than helpful if not carried out in the proper way.

Source: Horne B, et al. At The 74th American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions. 2014.