This CNN story looks at studies investigating the potential life-extending benefits of periodically fasting, and of consuming a special diet that makes the body think it’s fasting. It glosses over important details like who was studied and how, and instead claims that the diet has the potential to “help you live longer.” That’s an unhelpful, clickbait-y approach to the science that we wish more news outlets would avoid. Extensive passages devoted to medical jargon only serve to confuse the reader, as well.
Who doesn’t want to live longer? Lose excess weight? Reduce their risk of heart disease? The claims made in this piece are appealing to many of us–and therefore likely to garner a lot of clicks–but they’re also poorly supported by the actual research. That’s dangerous: Readers of this story could very easily make false conclusions about the benefits of fasting, and assume it’s risk-free.
Fasting to improve your health sounds like a great way to spend less money on food, and it’s tempting to assume this diet would be cheap to follow. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: The story indicates study participants were fed a custom-designed meal program that would have to be replicated in the general population to achieve the same benefits. This will presumably cost money–but we’re not given any idea of how much that might cost.
This story is painfully lacking in quantified benefits. How many people were in the study? And what kind of people were they? (Overweight or healthy weight? Male or female?) Were they compared against a control group? How much actual weight did participants lose? What specific aging risk factors were researchers measuring and how much did those improve? Similar information is missing for the mice portion of the study.
We were also dismayed at the extent of medical jargon included in the piece, since uselessly granular details about cellular pathways, cell regeneration and “hormone-like growth factors” don’t provide important details about if this research is actually meaningful and worth reading about. What it does instead is fluff up the piece by making it sound smarter than it actually us.
This story should have explained to readers at least a few known potential harms of fasting–which are very real, especially for people with certain health conditions, including common ones like diabetes. All we get is a quote that hints it might be dangerous to fast for more than five days:
“Five days is safe: going on for longer is difficult to do outside of a clinic,” says Longo.
But fasting for 5 days would clearly be harmful for many people.
The human portion of this study was a pilot trial looking at specific changes in a handful of biomarkers associated with aging, but the story fails to make that clear. What it does instead is jump to the dramatic conclusion (and click-baiting headline) that fasting “could help you live longer.”
Aging isn’t a disease–it’s a universal fact of life that happens to all of us. While none of us can avoid aging, we can make changes to age in a more healthful way. This story did seem to stick to that premise, and avoided statements that made aging sound like a disease.
Whoo boy. We’re giving this a satisfactory rating since the story does let us know there is a potential conflict of interest–one of the researchers plans to sell nutrition products promoting this type of dieting. However, we wish this fact would have raised more red flags for CNN, and led to a more critical analysis of the piece.
A second source quoted in the story — nutritionist Miguel Toribio-Mateas — espouses some unorthodox views on his website, including that one can “grow younger from inside by providing the necessary building blocks that enable cellular processes to keep us looking and feeling our best as we age.”
While we question the source’s expertise, we think the story meets the standard for a Satisfactory rating. But readers should be wary of the guidance being provided, which doesn’t seem to be based on particularly strong evidence.
This story makes no mention of other ways to achieve similar benefits. How does this dieting approach compare, for example, to regular exercise as a means to age healthier?
The story makes it clear that fasting participants were given a specific type of meal that isn’t available to the general public.
The story makes a reference to something called the “5-2” fasting diet but is short on details. If one reads closely enough, it seems that the new diet plan is supposed to achieve the effects of fasting diets without actually fasting. We’ll give the benefit of the doubt on this one, especially since the story acknowledges a history of similar research, for example when it says, “The idea of caloric control improving your health, and therefore your lifespan, is nothing new, but researchers are now hoping to accurately determine the type of diet that could make you live longer.”
The story includes quotes from a source not involved in the study, so it appears the story went beyond relying solely on a news release.