Fasting for Just 3 Days Per Week Can Lead to a Lower Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Updated: Apr. 01, 2024

Researchers found fasting and calorie restriction generally improved cardiovascular metrics, but following this particular schedule could yield major results—and be easy to maintain.

Intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating have been studied extensively in recent years. Alternate-day fasts and eating during certain windows have been linked to a variety of health benefits, including weight loss, lowered blood pressure, and even improved mood. But could these benefits extend to the cardiovascular system and help protect against heart attacks and stroke?

A new study, published by researchers from the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology in January 2024, conducted a meta-analysis of studies on fasting to examine its effects on cardiovascular risks. The aim was to determine if different forms of fasting could help reduce the rates of heart attack, stroke, and other heart-related diseases without medication. The researchers included all methods of reducing calorie intake, encompassing various forms of intermittent fasting, protein restriction, calorie restriction, and other forms of energy restriction. The forms of intermittent fasting included time-restricted eating, fasting on alternate days, or a combination, while being sure to maintain adequate levels of nutrition. All studies examined were recent, with published dates between 2019 and 2023.

Overall, the studies demonstrated that any form of calorie restriction, including fasting, while maintaining adequate nutrition levels, appeared to improve cardiovascular metrics, including blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol levels, and body weight or BMI. “The findings suggest that fasting is beneficial in lowering the cardiovascular risk of a population,” said the researchers. “The result is pronounced when fasting regimens are combined with a regular exercise routine,” they added.

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The results were consistent across all types of fasting and calorie restriction, but the researchers acknowledged that a particular type of fasting might be easier for some people to maintain. The 12-hour fast from approximately 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on alternate days, for a total of three days per week, appeared to maintain heart-healthy benefits while also being attainable. “Compared to other types of IF (intermittent fasting), this method seems safe, successful, and feasible to incorporate into regular life without causing additional financial or physical strain,” the authors concluded.

This alternate-day style of fasting lowered body weight and BMI more than the 16/8 fast, or a fasting period where participants refrain from eating for sixteen hours and eat during an 8-hour window every day. The alternate-day fast also lowered triglyceride levels as much as continuous calorie restriction and was superior to lowering insulin resistance in patients diagnosed with hypertriglyceridemia. The only metric that improved more with the calorie-restricted diet was the HDL cholesterol reading, but that did not concern the researchers. “Since there was no drop in the ratio of HDL compared to the total cholesterol (TC/HDL-C), it is doubtful that this decrease is harmful,” they said.

Overall, intermittent fasting and calorie restriction plans improved many variables that affect cardiovascular health, “suggesting improvement in long-term cardiovascular risk.” The researchers concluded that lifestyle changes such as fasting should be preferred over medication for managing cardiovascular risk. “No pharmaceutical medication has such a dramatic influence on such a wide spectrum of cardiometabolic risk variables,” they concluded. They call for larger clinical studies, especially concerning any other potential health risks of fasting, to further assess when it can be recommended as a tool against cardiovascular disease.