What Should I Think About Studies That Say Intermittent Fasting Does Not Work?

IF Insider No. 25

In this issue, we answer a question that keeps popping up everywhere: “What should I think about studies that say intermittent fasting does not work?”

And of course, we’re bringing you news on what we’re currently reading or watching. For our premium subscribers, in this issue’s Research Spotlight we are going to take a deeper look at the latest study that says intermittent fasting actually makes abdominal fat harder to lose!

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What Should I Think About Studies That Say Intermittent Fasting Does Not Work?

In our last IF Insider (IF Insider No. 24) we looked at the question: “Should I vary my fasting hours to keep my body from getting stuck?”  In each and every issue we cover one specific intermittent fasting topic as well as highlight what we are reading, watching, and studying. 

So let’s address today’s question:

It seems like every week or so, another study comes out that says intermittent fasting does not work. I get confused when I see these. Should I stop fasting? Or just forge ahead and not pay any attention to them? Help!

This is a great question! Because here at the IF Insider we follow the science, we are totally interested in what scientific research has to say about intermittent fasting. Having said that, we are also extremely interested in looking at studies with a critical eye, and not just accepting something at face value we saw on the internet.

Just because something is presented as a “scientific study” does not mean you should just blindly accept the results. So, how do you go about evaluating whether a study is valid or not?

At the IF Insider, we look at each study individually, and then, after putting them through our checklist, only then do we determine if we should pay any attention to it or not. Here’s how we think about things when something comes across our desks:

One - What is the source of the information?

When someone posts something on social media about the latest study that says intermittent fasting doesn’t work, we look at where they got their information. Almost always, the information is not the original scientific study but is a story on the web about the study with someone’s interpretation of the results.

Many times, the writer of that story is not a scientist, and in many cases will use a sensational headline such as “Study Proves Intermittent Fasting Does Not Work!” simply to try and get more clicks and eyeballs on their blog or webpage.

Two - What does the original study say?

Most people, when confronted with the scientific language presented in an original study, will just roll their eyes and click away, leaving the interpretation of these things to others. While we don’t expect you to be able to critically analyze every component of a study, there are things you can do to increase your assurance that the findings are legitimate.

Here are a few things to check:

First of all, you want to make sure the study has actually been published in a journal and is not just on some site as a “pre-publication” preview. If it’s been published in a reputable journal, then the article will have to have been reviewed by several scientists with expertise in the field, to see if it stands up to scrutiny in terms of its design and so forth.

Look at the Abstract (which is at the beginning of the paper, and is a condensation of the question and findings) to see what question is actually being investigated.

Then go down to the Methods section and see who (or what!) the subjects were. Is this a study done on animals (mice? nematode worms etc?) or were the subjects actually human beings?

Many preliminary studies test a hypothesis first on animal models before the inquiry is done on humans. Mice and rat models are very important, as their physiology can mimic humans in many ways, but rodents are not people.

Also, in human studies, look at the number of subjects involved in the study. Studies whose subjects were made up of a dozen undergraduate biology students do not generalize to the population as well as one that involves hundreds of subjects.

Also, these small subject size studies are likely to be skewed in other ways. Perhaps only men were the subjects, or they were all in their twenties. You get the idea.

Then look at the Results and Discussion section. What were the actual findings? Sometimes what writers on the internet report as the findings differ from what the original paper says the results were.

Examine the Limitations section. In most papers, there will be a Limitations section or sometimes this is incorporated into the Discussion section, where the authors will frankly discuss the limitations of their study, such as small sample size, or even the actual study design.

Look at the study design. Was a control group used? Does the study collect actual data themselves or rely on participants’ recall, as in a food diary? People’s recollection of what they actually ate and the correct amounts are notoriously inaccurate.

Here is perhaps the most important thing to remember: people are not laboratory animals, so humans are notoriously hard to study when it comes to fasting and food. You really can’t lock them up in a lab and dole out what they can eat and when they can eat it. Also, unlike mice, which have been bred to be virtually identical, there is tremendous genetic variation among human beings, which may affect the results.

Also, look for any potential conflicts of interest. Is this study being sponsored by a person or company that would potentially get a financial or other payoffs if the results came out one way or the other?

Finally, if you don’t know what to make of a study, wait for others whose medical and/or scientific opinions you trust, to comment on the study.

Why It Matters

This is one case in which “fake news” in terms of misinterpretations of study results can be really harmful, especially if you are basing your personal health decisions on that information.

“The human brain has not evolved to perceive reality, it has evolved to create an illusion of reality. That's why an exciting lie gains more attention than a boring truth.”

~ Abhijit Naskar, globally recognized neuroscientist and best-selling author of The Art of Neuroscience In Everything.

What We Are Reading 📚

With each issue, we bring you a short blurb on what we are currently reading or watching, including books, articles, podcasts, videos, movies, and research papers of value. 

Denise - For a while now, I’ve been fascinated by the Blue Zones studies and lifestyle. In the Fast Factor Circle, our theme this month is focused on the Blue Zones and the 9 factors that contribute to longevity. That’s why I’m reading longevity expert Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest.

Buettner shares stories of the centenarians around the world he and his team have studied for years. Among them, he reveals many shared characteristics that appear to lead to long and healthy lives.

“It's not coincidence that the way they eat, interact with each other, shed stress, heal themselves, avoid disease, and view their world yield them more good years of life.” 

Ellen - I am always surprised when I re-read a book that I haven’t picked up in a very long time, as the book invariably seems to speak to me in a whole new way.

I just finished (again!) psychologist and author Gay Hendrick’s 2009 classic, The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear And Take Life To The Next Level. Dr. Hendrick’s idea is that the majority of us have a pre-programmed happiness and feel-good set point of sorts. When we reach a certain level of success or happiness in our careers or relationships or our finances, we will unconsciously do something to sabotage our results and return us to our prior state, where even if we are miserable, we are familiar with it.

I especially find valuable his way of looking at your early life to find out which one (or more) of the four reasons, cemented in childhood, is at the bottom of why you continuously sabotage your happiness. Well worth reading, again!

IF Insider Recommended Reading

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