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In the News: Intermittent Fasting and Health Risks

If you are a fan of Intermittent Fasting (IF), you may have been surprised by recent headlines, like those below, detailing the potential risks of the practice.

These all sound conclusive and terrifying, right? If you’ve been following us on TikTok, or have seen our recent post on ultra-processed foods, you know that we love to break down research and get to the bottom of attention grabbing headlines, so let’s do just that!

Breaking Down The New Study

These headlines are branching off of preliminary research that was recently presented at the American Heart Association’s scientific sessions. The AHA holds scientific sessions to bring awareness to new research, as well as inspire and promote further investigation. This particular preliminary study, has yet to be published or peer-reviewed (common at these types of conferences). This is important to keep in mind when trying to apply research to your own lifestyle and habits, as preliminary studies do not yet hold scientific consensus. 

When we look at the actual study, there are a few additional things to keep in mind. First and most importantly, this is one study, and we do not even have the full picture yet. When the study is peer-reviewed and published, we will have a better idea of the implications. Second, the study is based on the diet information from a survey from 2 days of an eating record. We do not know what factors were controlled for, or the specific reasons people might report skipping meals.  Many confounding factors can cause a person to skip a meal, several of which may increase risk of cardiovascular events on their own (think of smoking, simulant drug use, or even poverty).

Practicing Intermittent Fasting Safely

How you practice IF is also a key piece to it’s potential benefit. IF is described as “… limiting the hours for eating to a specific number of hours each day, which may range from a 4- to 12-hour time window in 24 hours.” One of the most common patterns is 16:8, in which individuals eat all of their foods in an 8-hour window, and fast for the remaining 16. Often times, people look at this practice as an ‘easy way’ to eat ‘whatever they want’ as long as it is within their eating window. It is still of vital importance to balance your meals to the best of your ability, regardless of the time that you eat!

As a dietitian, I also encourage my clients to listen to their internal hunger cues. If you are straining yourself to fast until your eating window, IF may not be for you. It’s important to listen to those biological cues, as well as ensure that you are getting enough food throughout the day. For these reasons, you should always speak with your doctor and a nutrition professional if you are considering a new dietary pattern. 

With all of that said, IF has been shown to be beneficial for health (again, if practiced safely!). A number of randomized control trials and meta-analyses on Intermittent Fasting have shown benefits from blood sugar management, protection from heart failure, and increased longevity. (All four of these examples are published and peer reviewed – 1234).

Take Home Message

So, yes, this new study has certainly dominated the news cycle. However, at this time, it is not paradigm shifting. The research will need to be published and then further replicated in order to indicate the need for change of practice. If that happens, we can have a very different conversation! For now, there is no need to be alarmed by the headlines. 

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