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My Hot Take on New Intermittent Fasting Findings

Intermittent fasting has gained widespread attention in recent years as an effective approach for various health issues such as weight management. Many people, myself included, have incorporated intermittent fasting into their lifestyles as previous research revealed numerous health benefits, like more efficient fat metabolism, reduced cellular inflammation, and increased insulin sensitivity. However, a recent study presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention│Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Scientific Sessions 2024 has raised concerns about the potential long-term effects of intermittent fasting. As someone who has implemented an intermittent fasting protocol for years and works closely with my clients on their health journeys (many of which incorporate intermittent fasting), I feel it is important to break down this disruptive study and further analyze its strengths and weaknesses for a more comprehensive understanding.

My Thoughts on Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting boils down to dedicating certain times of the day to eating and the rest of the time to fasting. Intermittent fasting comes in different forms, but probably the most popular one (and the kind I’ve been practicing and loving for years) is time-restricted eating. With this form, intermittent fasters limit their eating window to a specific number of hours each day. I particularly enjoy 16/8 intermittent fasting, which entails eating all meals within 8 hours and fasting for 16. I typically stop eating before 8 p.m., meaning I don’t eat my first meal until noon the next day.

I love intermittent fasting this way because it consistently leaves me feeling my best. I’m more energized, my metabolism feels more stable, I have clearer cognition, I’m more creative, and my overall digestion runs smoother. These effects make sense because intermittent fasting allows our bodies to focus on cellular repair processes during fasting periods, reducing inflammation and improving blood sugar and insulin control, among other benefits. Additionally, giving the digestive system a break from constantly processing food can redirect its energy towards maintenance and rejuvenation for better overall health.

However, when I initially read a summary of results from the recent study conducted by researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, I was shocked, as were many of my colleagues in the health and wellness world. It discussed potential risks associated with time-restricted eating, particularly concerning cardiovascular health. In case you missed it, let’s take a look.

Study Breakdown

The study analyzed data from over 20,000 U.S. adults with an average age of 49. Their demographics were relatively well-balanced, with half of the participants self-identifying as men and half as women of various races and ethnicities. These adults participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) between 2003 and 2018. They were followed for a median of 8 years, and during this observation period, their dietary patterns and health outcomes were monitored.

The findings revealed that individuals who followed a time-restricted eating plan with an eating window of fewer than eight hours per day had a 91% higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease compared to those with longer eating windows. Among those with existing cardiovascular disease, an eating window between 8 and 10 hours was associated with a 66% higher risk of death from heart disease or stroke.

Contrary to expectations, time-restricted eating did not reduce the overall risk of death from any cause. Also, an eating duration of more than 16 hours per day was associated with a lower risk of cancer mortality among individuals with cancer, which conflicts with what many in the health industry believe to be true.

Study Limitations

When I first read the summary of this study, I was taken aback. There is ample existing evidence supporting the benefits of intermittent fasting, from reduced body weight to increased insulin sensitivity, just to name a couple. Was it possible that everything I had learned about intermittent fasting over the years was incorrect? After reading through the study in its entirety, I realized there wasn’t as much cause for concern as I initially thought.

First, the study hasn’t been formally peer-reviewed or even published yet—it’s just a poster of an abstract at this point. And when you dig into the details, there are some major red flags. The data the researchers used came from NHANES surveys, which collect self-reported dietary recalls, a system that is unreliable due to human error. But also, get this: They only took two days’ worth of samples for each participant. Yup, you read that right. So, if someone skipped breakfast for a couple of days and those were the days picked for the study, they were labeled intermittent fasters and used to draw conclusions. Not to mention, diet quality was not part of the study. This is significant for many reasons. For example, one can consume a diet primarily comprised of ultra-processed foods while still adhering to intermittent fasting. So, it’s possible that the foods eaten contributed to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease more than eating within a specific time window. 

Additionally, the researchers didn’t consider confounding factors. Confounding factors can distort the relationship between variables in research. In this case, the researchers did not include factors such as smoking status or physical activity. Further, the study is observational, meaning the researchers noted existing conditions and health habits without intervening. Its observational nature means we can’t prove that intermittent fasting increases the risk of heart disease, only that they may be linked in some way.

Final Thoughts

After identifying the study’s limitations, I am far from ready to denounce the efficacy of intermittent fasting for many individuals and will continue practicing it myself. With that being said, while intermittent fasting has been proven to be promising in certain contexts, it is essential to weigh the risks and benefits carefully to make informed decisions about your personal dietary choices.

I’m still an avid intermittent faster, and I have clients who experience incredible, life-changing success with intermittent fasting. But, just as with most health advice, you need to listen to your body and work closely with a practitioner before deciding whether something is right for you. Everybody is different, so I wouldn’t say intermittent fasting will work for you just because it continues to work for me. It’s important to remember that each person is unique, so I deeply value an individualized approach to helping you along your health journey.

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The thing about nutrition research is that it is constantly evolving. So, what we currently think we know about a nutrition topic could change as new evidence emerges. With this in mind, staying current with advances in evidence-based research is important. However, taking the time to read every piece of the literature without jumping to conclusions after reading a study summary is equally important – a lesson I apparently needed to be reminded of myself. I know not everyone has the time or energy to follow the massive amounts of new health information we hear about daily, never mind reading the nitty-gritty of the research on such topics. That’s why I’m here to help. Book a one-on-one session with me for help sifting through some of the nutrition chatter or to better understand if intermittent fasting is right for you!

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