Science keeps backing up the hype behind intermittent fasting

A small but revealing study suggests that IF could help reduce inflammation in our bodies.

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Even among the diet-weary and body positive, intermittent fasting appears to be quite beloved. People credit this not-quite-a-diet approach to eating for everything from six-pack abs to high energy.​ Even though fasting seems a bit extreme, science cautiously backs up the claims that celebrities and influencers make about IF — it really does seem to boost your metabolism in ways that can help you reach your weight loss goals. And now, a new study suggests that intermittent fasting may also have anti-inflammatory benefits.

The findings of the study were presented on Saturday at the American Heart Association conference that ran online. The research, conducted by scientists at Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, followed 67 participants for six months, all of whom had at least one metabolic syndrome feature — such as obesity or high blood pressure — or unmedicated type 2 diabetes, EurekAlert reported. It’s important to note that the study was tiny but still noteworthy since people have leaned heavily into IF the past decade (even though fasting has been a part of many cultures for literally centuries).

In case you aren’t sure exactly what intermittent fasting is, that might be because there’s no consensus on how to “do it right.” There are, however, a few ways that are the most popular. The rational is that this type of fasting may activate a metabolic switch that causes cells to begin using fat, rather than sugar, as energy. Some people drink nothing but water for 1-2 days per week and some people simply refrain from eating for a specified number of hours — usually 14 to 16 — each day. So, a chill example would be: Start eating at noon and stop at 8pm. Basically, the jury is still out on what the best methodology is, but generally speaking IF means going for some pre-planned period of each day or week on water alone.

Here’s how intermittent fasting worked in the study: 36 individuals involved in the study were put on an intermittent fasting schedule of drinking water only two days a week for four weeks. Then, those same participants had water-only diets once a week for 22 weeks. Fasts were never done two days in a row. 31 participants acted as a control group and made no changes to their diet or lifestyle, EurekAlert reported.

At the end of the study, researchers found that participants in the intermittent fasting group had lower rates of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome features, EurekAlert reported. They also had higher rates of galectin-3, a protein associated with anti-inflammatory properties. Basically, intermittent fasting seemed to both reduce inflammation and also create similar effects as SGLT-2 inhibitors, a class of drugs used to lower glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

This research isn’t just relevant to people who already have diabetes or other metabolic syndromes, though. Inflammation, as we have been seeing in the news for years, is correlated with many health conditions. “Inflammation is associated with higher risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease,” Benjamin Horne, principal investigator of the study and director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, told EurekAlert. “We’re encouraged to see evidence that intermittent fasting is prompting the body to fight inflammation and lowering those risks.” Lower inflammation is great, since high inflammation has been linked to everything from autoimmune disorders to asthma.

This is all more evidence that intermittent fasting isn’t just a gimmicky diet, it has evidence-based benefits and it isn’t that hard to follow. “This isn’t a drastic form of fasting,” Horne told EurekAlert. “The best routine is one that patients can stick to over the long term, and this study shows that even occasional fasting can have positive health effects.”