Is intermittent fasting really dangerous? How to know if time-restricted eating is for you

Intermittent fasting is making big waves in the wellness world again, but not with big news.

The American Heart Association released the results of a study this week that found that people who restricted their eating to less than 8 hours a day had a 91% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who did not. people who stretch their mealtimes.

The results of the survey, which included information from more than 20,000 US adults (414 in the 8-hour eating window group), were presented at the Epidemiology and Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health conference in Chicago. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

There are different types of intermittent fasting; time-restricted eating, which was the focus of the latest study, is one of them. People can restrict their eating windows from 12 hours to 6 or less, but an 8-hour eating window is common. Intermittent fasting has gained popularity as a potential way to lose weight, lower cholesterol, and reduce other heart disease risk factors. That’s one reason the headlines in the recent study were so discordant; previous research had suggested an opposite link with heart health, but with short-term results.

But the experts we spoke to urged us not to take the results of this study as the norm; the study’s lead author also emphasized in the AHA publication that the association found in this study does not mean that intermittent fasting caused cardiovascular death.

For one thing, the latest research doesn’t take into account the reasons why people restricted their eating window in the first place, or other things that might influence their health. These kinds of health “confounding” factors make studies of diets, or well-being in general, complicated, according to Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver.

“People rarely do harmful or even helpful things in isolation,” Freeman said.

People may go longer periods of time without food for a number of reasons, such as an erratic work schedule where they may have to fit all their food in during a shorter window, may have disordered eating patterns, may have a challenge mental health that affects your sleep-wake cycle, and many more scenarios that would cause someone to report shorter eating periods, but also introduce other factors known to negatively affect cardiovascular health.

Sometimes people fast for spiritual reasons. Coincidentally, the latest research on time-restricted eating falls as people around the world are observing Ramadan, a holy month of fasting in the Muslim faith.

So we can say that the latest research is a catalyst for another conversation about how to find a nutrition plan that works for you and your life, how to tune into your hunger signals and how to practice the best diet for to heart health.

A piece of avocado toast with raw salmon, plus a latte

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What we used to know about intermittent fasting

Previous research on intermittent fasting has linked it to weight loss, insulin sensitivity (the body’s ability to use glucose more efficiently), and more metabolic factors that reflect how our bodies use energy and how our health can be affected. It has also been linked to changes in gene expression and longevity.

Weighing the latest research with more positive results on intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, Freeman said the diet is an “interesting thing that needs very deep research.”

“With intermittent fasting, it gives people the opportunity to reduce the calories they would otherwise consume without really realizing it,” he said. But, he added, “there’s not a lot of hard data that says it’s the most surprising thing.”

What’s more, restricting our time to eat isn’t even a new concept when you consider that earlier humans we evolved from went longer without eating, before food was “readily available literally everywhere,” he said Freeman.

Krista Scott-Dixon, health coach and chief product officer at Simple, a nutrition and diet app, emphasized that intermittent fasting is “an option, not the only way” to reach your health or weight loss goals .

“It’s not magic,” Scott-Dixon said. But for some people, he said, experimenting with restricting eating times even a little can help “reset hunger and satiety cues,” as well as help people trust their own bodies.

It can also help people align their circadian rhythms, he said, and is generally a “lighter” approach to dieting, which can feel restrictive, stressful and downright ineffective for many people.

Intermittent fasting also doesn’t mean starving yourself and only eating in a 6-hour window. Time-restricted eating starts with a 12-hour window, which would be possible for many people and would only require slight adjustments. You’re in charge of those 12 hours, so you can take care of them when you’re naturally hungrier, and “fast” just a little more when you’re not.

There is no set way to do intermittent fasting or time-limited eating. Daily restricted eating of an 8-hour window with 16-hour fasting is a popular way, but not the only one. You can experiment with a 12-hour eating window and a 12-hour fasting window, for example. Another method of fasting is to eat “normally” for five days a week and then more restrictively for two (these two days should not be consecutive).

How to safely experiment with intermittent fasting (and who should avoid it)

Intentionally going periods of time without eating is not safe for everyone. People with diabetes, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, the elderly, children and teenagers, people who take certain medications, and people with a history of eating disorders or eating disorders are just some of the groups that should avoid intermittent fasting or time-restricted diets. There is also some research that has linked intermittent fasting to disordered eating and compulsive behavior.

You should always discuss planned changes to your daily diet with a health care provider who knows your complete health history.

If you’re interested in taking some time out of your eating window or dipping your toe into intermittent fasting, an easy way to start might be to satisfy your natural hunger. Personally, I’m more hungry later in the day and at night – I never miss dinner and I like late night snacks. On the other hand, I’m not usually hungry in the morning, so I naturally wait a bit most days to eat. (I drink water and coffee during this time.)

So, following my own natural hunger cues if I were to restrict my eating window, it would probably make more sense for me to take a little more time outside my eating window earlier, rather than during at night, when I’m always up and hungry If you like breakfast and are hungrier earlier in the day, you’ll probably benefit from doing the opposite. (When we are hungrier could be influenced by different things, but one of them is the natural difference from person to person in sleep chronotypes, or the sleep-wake cycle.) But, as always, talk to a doctor, dietitian . or nutritionist about the best window for you.

It’s also important to note that intermittent fasting does not negate the crucial benefits of nutrient-dense foods. If you only eat foods that don’t have much nutritional value in your eating window and don’t continue to prioritize colorful and filling foods, you’ll miss out on the known heart-healthy benefits.

Read more: How to Intermittent Fasting Safely

Two bowls of chili with bread on the side

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What you eat matters: finding the ‘best’ diet for heart health

Contrary to what some people think about time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting, what you choose to eat is does it matters, even if you choose to stick to a restricted schedule or do it less often. While the health benefits of intermittent fasting may need more research, prioritizing nutrient-dense foods most of the time is a surefire way to improve your health.

“I recommend that people follow the evidence,” Freeman said. Evidence has continued to accumulate for health benefits around some of the same food themes, no matter the region or trend it’s named after: a predominantly plant-based diet low in added sugars, preservatives, salt and fats

How you create your heart-healthy plate is up to you, but popular diets to follow that allow delicious healthy fats, colorful foods, and “less healthy” things in moderation include the Mediterranean diet and the Atlantic diet.

Ultimately, the best diet will be the one that feels best to you and the one you can continue to eat, Scott-Dixon said.

“If you can only do this diet for a week, it’s not good for you,” Scott-Dixon said.

“It’s really about a pattern of behaviors,” he added of improving health. “I think it’s a key piece to understand.”

Contrary to popular belief, dieting shouldn’t feel like a chore or stress. After all, food is meant to be enjoyed and your nutrition plan should make you feel good.

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