June 13, 2024

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Intermittent fasting linked to risk of cardiovascular death

5 min read

Intermittent fasting, a diet pattern that involves alternating between periods of fasting and eating, can lower blood pressure and help some people lose weight, past research has indicated.

But an analysis presented Monday at the American Heart Association’s scientific sessions in Chicago challenges the notion that intermittent fasting is good for heart health. Instead, researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in China found that people who restricted food consumption to less than eight hours per day had a 91% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease over a median period of eight years, relative to people who ate across 12 to 16 hours.

It’s some of the first research investigating the association between time-restricted eating (a type of intermittent fasting) and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

The analysis — which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal — is based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected between 2003 and 2018. The researchers analyzed responses from around 20,000 adults who recorded what they ate for at least two days, then looked at who had died from cardiovascular disease after a median follow-up period of eight years.

However, Victor Wenze Zhong, a co-author of the analysis, said it’s too early to make specific recommendations about intermittent fasting based on his research alone.

“Practicing intermittent fasting for a short period such as 3 months may likely lead to benefits on reducing weight and improving cardiometabolic health,” Zhong said via email. But he added that people “should be extremely cautious” about intermittent fasting for longer periods of time, such as years.

Intermittent fasting regimens vary widely. A common schedule is to restrict eating to a period of six to eight hours per day, which can lead people to consume fewer calories, though some eat the same amount in a shorter time. Another popular schedule is the “5:2 diet,” which involves eating 500 to 600 calories on two nonconsecutive days of the week but eating normally for the other five.

A fixed rhythm for meals helps against unwanted kilos on the scales.
A fixed rhythm for meals helps against unwanted kilos on the scales. Christin Klose / Picture-Alliance / Dpa / AP Images

Zhong said it’s not clear why his research found an association between time-restricted eating and a risk of death from cardiovascular disease. He offered an observation, though: People who limited their eating to fewer than eight hours per day had less lean muscle mass than those who ate for 12 to 16 hours. Low lean muscle mass has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular death.

Cardiovascular and nutrition experts who were not involved in the analysis offered several theories about what might explain the results.

Dr. Benjamin Horne, a research professor at Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City, said fasting can increase stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, since the body doesn’t know when to expect food next and goes into survival mode. That added stress may raise the short-term risk of heart problems among vulnerable groups, he said, particularly elderly people or those with chronic health conditions.

Horne’s research has shown that fasting twice a week for four weeks, then once a week for 22 weeks may increase a person’s risk of dying after one year but decrease their 10-year risk of chronic disease.

“In the long term, what it does is reduces those risk factors for heart disease and reduces the risk factors for diabetes and so forth — but in the short term, while you’re actually doing it, your body is in a state where it’s at a higher risk of having problems,” he said.

Even so, Horne added, the analysis “doesn’t change my perspective that there are definite benefits from fasting, but it’s a cautionary tale that we need to be aware that there are definite, potentially major, adverse effects.” 

Intermittent fasting gained popularity about a decade ago, when the 5:2 diet was touted as a weight loss strategy in the U.K. In the years to follow, several celebrities espoused the benefits of an eight-hour eating window for weight loss, while some Silicon Valley tech workers believed that extreme periods of fasting boosted productivity. Some studies have also suggested that intermittent fasting might help extend people’s lifespans by warding off disease.

However, a lot of early research on intermittent fasting involved animals. In the last seven years or so, various clinical trials have investigated potential benefits for humans, including for heart health.

“The purpose of intermittent fasting is to cut calories, lose weight,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, emeritus professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University and a member of the American Heart Association nutrition committee. “It’s really how intermittent fasting is implemented that’s going to explain a lot of the benefits or adverse associations.”

Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, said the timing of when people eat may influence the effects they see. 

“I haven’t met a single person or patient that has been practicing intermittent fasting by skipping dinner,” he said, noting that people more often skip breakfast, a schedule associated with an increased risk of heart disease and death.

The new research comes with limitations: It relies on people’s memories of what they consumed over a 24-hour period and doesn’t consider the nutritional quality of the food they ate or how many calories they consumed during an eating window.

So some experts found the analysis too narrow.

“It’s a retrospective study looking at two days’ worth of data, and drawing some very big conclusions from a very limited snapshot into a person’s lifestyle habits,” said Dr. Pam Taub, a cardiologist at UC San Diego Health.

Taub said her patients have seen “incredible benefits” from fasting regimens.

“I would continue doing it,” she said. “For people that do intermittent fasting, their individual results speak for themselves. Most people that do intermittent fasting, the reason they continue it is they see a decrease in their weight. They see a decrease in blood pressure. They see an improvement in their LDL cholesterol.” 

Kris-Etherton, however, urged caution: “Maybe consider a pause in intermittent fasting until we have more information or until the results of the study can be better explained,” she said.


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