Intermittent fasting is said to protect against heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. It’s even touted to increase longevity. In fact, we’ve written about it here in regards to helping increase lifespan.
But the findings of a large new study suggest that intermittent fasting is not the Fountain Of Youth after all. In fact, the opposite may be true. Let’s take a closer look at the research and what it means for you…
First of all, what is intermittent fasting?
There are numerous forms of intermittent fasting (IF), the simplest of which is time restricted eating where you consume only one or two meals a day. Another method is to eat within an eight-hour window and fast for 16 hours. This is seen as protective against a wide range of diseases.
Human studies show different forms of IF can decrease weight, lower high blood pressure, and reduce unhealthy blood fats, such as cholesterol. There’s also some evidence it can improve blood sugar profiles in diabetics and enhance heart health. Laboratory research indicates it may also help with other serious diseases and lengthen life.
Whether for these reasons or others, a whopping 40 percent of Americans skip meals, with one in four choosing to skip breakfast.
Since few human studies have investigated the effect of missing meals on health and no group has ever investigated the link between skipping lunch or dinner and mortality, a group of U.S. researchers thought they would delve deeper into this subject.
How Missing Meals Affects Your Longevity
The research team analyzed data for 24,011 Americans over the age of 40 who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999 to 2014. During the study period there were 4,175 deaths.
The results showed that compared to those eating three meals a day, eating just one meal a day is linked to a 30 percent increased likelihood of dying from any cause and an 83 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease.
For example, participants who skip breakfast have a 40 percent increased likelihood of dying from heart disease compared to those who do eat breakfast. Compared to those who eat lunch or dinner, those who skip lunch have a 12 percent increased risk of death and those who abstain from dinner have a 16 percent increased risk.
Spread Meals Wide Apart
Even those eating three meals a day are not entirely off the hook as eating two adjacent meals less than 4½ hours apart is linked to a 17 percent higher all-cause death risk compared to those who eat their meals 4.6 to 5½ hours apart. This is the first study to demonstrate this.
First author Yangbo Sun, from the University of Tennessee, explained, saying, “At a time when intermittent fasting is widely touted as a solution for weight loss, metabolic health, and disease prevention, our study is important for the large segment of American adults who eat fewer than three meals each day. Our research revealed that individuals eating only one meal a day are more likely to die than those who had more daily meals.
“Based on these findings, we recommend eating at least two to three meals spread throughout the day.”
The study was large, and the researchers considered a variety of dietary, lifestyle, health and socioeconomic factors relating to the participants. The results were also consistent with the findings of the only previous study on eating frequency and mortality which found a decreasing trend in mortality with increasing eating frequency. In other words, more frequent meals lowered the risk of death. Another study found that skipping breakfast was associated with higher cardiovascular disease mortality, or death from heart disease.
The study seems convincing enough but how reliable is it?
Research not as Robust as it Appears
As the researchers wrote in their paper, published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in August 2022, “The association of skipping lunch with mortality disappeared with the adjustment for some lifestyle factors, which indicated that these lifestyle factors, such as diet quality, might have important roles in the influence of skipping meals on mortality.”
One critic commented that when everyone who had cancer or heart disease at the start of the study is removed from the analysis, almost nothing is statistically significant anymore.
Dr. Sun said their study couldn’t check the interval between the last foods eaten and bedtime and whether this is linked to mortality, a finding that could also be highly relevant to any conclusions they can draw. She also thought the quality and duration of sleep could be an important factor in assessing meal patterns and mortality, but their study couldn’t account for this.
Senior author Wei Bao from the University of Iowa emphasized that, “Our findings are based on observations drawn from public data and do not imply causality.”
I tend to agree with the critics here, still there are so few studies in this field that the current study is welcome. However, let’s not rely on the results as the last word on intermittent fasting.
The fact of the matter is, calorie restriction, fasting, and to a lesser extent, intermittent fasting has been linked with a healthier body and a longer lifespan in a number of scientific studies. I think there’s value in intermittent fasting especially the kind that takes into account not eating over a ten- to twelve-hour period between dinner and breakfast. However, when it comes to diet, I believe the key isn’t so much about not eating, it’s about what you are eating. For example, avoid heavily processed, sugar-laden foods and focus on nutrient rich food choices such as vegetables, fruits, lean meats, healthy fats, and oils. In my opinion, that’s more important for helping you live a healthier, longer life than any kind of fast.