Intermittent fasting: study links eating tendency to eating disorders

Intermittent fasting: study links eating tendency to eating disorders

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A new study shows that intermittent fasting is linked to a higher prevalence of eating disorders, especially in young women. Cameron Whitman/Stocksy
  • Intermittent fasting includes fasting for specific times, ranging from fasting at certain times of the day to certain days of the week.
  • Evidence is mixed on the health benefits of intermittent fasting.
  • New research from a diverse study found that intermittent fasting is associated with a higher prevalence of eating disorders and psychopathology, especially in young women.
  • Some people can practice intermittent fasting if they keep certain safety tips in mind.

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular eating trend among health and fitness enthusiasts, which involves not eating for scheduled time intervals.

Although intermittent fasting may offer some health benefits, researchers are still struggling to understand the full impact of this dietary pattern.

A recent study published in Eating behaviors examined the practice of intermittent fasting among adolescents and young adults in Canada.

Researchers have found an association between intermittent fasting and the behaviors and psychopathology of eating disorders and other dangerous behaviors in some members of this age group.

The results indicate that more research is needed on the potential risks of intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting can take many different forms.

A typical example of SI is fasting for 2 non-consecutive days in the week.

Another method would be to eat only at certain times of the day. For example, the 16/8 method involves fasting for 16 hours and eating for only an 8-hour window.

Blanca Garcia, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Los Angeles-based nutrition specialist with the Measurement Instruments Database for the Social Sciences (MIDSS), not involved in the study, noted the potential benefits of eating in certain deadlines for Medical News Today:

“With proper guidance from a registered dietitian, a client can be guided in choosing well-balanced foods using the 16:8 method; I like this method because it basically involves eating three meals in a workday. A chronic dieter may skip meals or avoid many good foods.

Some evidence suggests that intermittent fasting may aid weight loss and provide some health benefits.

Intermittent fasting can help improve insulin sensitivity and heart health. It may also help prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

However, there is potential drawbacks to intermittent fasting.

For example, intermittent fasting can increase the risk of low blood sugar and cause muscle wasting if someone doesn’t get enough protein.

For some people and groups such as young children and the elderly, fasting can be dangerous and should be avoided.

Additionally, many aspects of the possible downsides of intermittent fasting remain unresearched.

For the current study, researchers looked at the relationship between intermittent fasting and eating disorders in adolescents and young adults.

This study collected data from the Canadian Adolescent Health Behavior Study.

The researchers included 2,762 adolescents and young adults in their analysis, including women, men, and transgender or gender-nonconforming people recruited through social media.

Researchers have found intermittent fasting to be very popular in this age group.

Study author Kyle T. Ganson, Ph.D., MSW, assistant professor and Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, Canada, explained to DTM:

“IF [Intermittent fasting] was very common among the sample, including 48% female, 38% male, and 52% transgender/gender non-conforming participants, and participants fasted for, on average, 100 days over the past 12 months.

The researchers used an eating disorder review questionnaire to examine behaviors and psychopathology. They wanted to see how these attitudes and patterns were similar to those of people with eating disorders.

The questionnaire focused on participants’ dietary constraints and concerns about weight, shape and diet. They also looked at behaviors linked to eating disorders, such as binge eating, compulsive exercise and laxative use.

“Among all groups (men, women, and transgender people), any engagement in intermittent fasting (IF) in the past 12 months was associated with higher attitudes and behaviors toward eating disorders,” said explained Ganson.

“Furthermore, in women, in particular, FI was associated with all behaviors related to eating disorders, including binge eating, vomiting, laxative use, and compulsive exercise, whereas in men, FI was associated with compulsive exercise.”

The results indicate the need for further research into the potentially harmful effects of intermittent fasting, especially in young people.

Although the new research provides some insight into some potential dangers of intermittent fasting, it had several limitations.

First, the study cannot determine whether intermittent fasting causes disordered eating or the reverse.

Additionally, data collection methods relied heavily on participant self-reporting, which can lead to potential errors. And although the sample is diverse, there is always a risk of selection bias depending on the methods used.

There was also the potential for participants to interpret survey questions differently, increasing the risk of response bias. Finally, the questions may not have captured all cognitions and behaviors related to eating disorders.

All these limitations point to the need for further research in this area.

Despite these challenges, health professionals can still glean insights. Ganson noted some clinical implications of the research:

“Data from this study indicate that IS may be problematic and associated with serious and harmful attitudes and behaviors related to eating disorders. Healthcare professionals should be aware of these potentially correlated behaviors, as well as understand the contemporary food trends like FI that are commonly discussed among young people, especially on social media, so more comprehensive assessments need to be conducted with young people regarding food practices and appropriate guidance [given] when it’s necessary.”

People in certain groups should not practice intermittent fasting, such as immunocompromised people or people with certain hormonal imbalances.

The results of this study indicate the potential dangers of intermittent fasting in young adults and adolescents.

Still, Some People Can Practice Intermittent Fasting Safely by understanding the facts and gathering in-depth information from professionals. It is also important to understand that everyone has different needs and risks.

If you’d like to try intermittent fasting, Garcia recommended the following tips for staying healthy:

  • Meet with a registered dietitian who can teach you about healthy food choices.
  • Choose a method that gives you daily nourishment.
  • Avoid gorging yourself on high-calorie foods and fast foods, but instead incorporate what you like in small doses daily. (for example, if you like cookies, 1 or 2 cookies a day is OK).

Anastasia Gialouris, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Brooklyn, New York, author, and registered dietitian who was not involved in the study, offered some safety considerations to keep in mind:

“Those who choose to try intermittent fasting should always aim to eat adequate balanced meals during their limited eating window, full of whole and minimally processed foods, to ensure they are getting enough nutrients into their bodies. Second, hunger and lack of energy being two of the main side effects of intermittent fasting, it is essential to listen to your body. If you fast and reach a point of extreme weakness [or] dizziness, so please eat something, even if it’s just a small nutritious snack to get by.

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