When we talk about a diet most of us think, instinctively, about weight loss. But shouldn’t we be thinking about diet, the whole of what we eat, in terms of what we gain rather than what we lose, or what we actually eat rather than what we don’t?
Some people eat a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet; kosher, halal, healthy, paleo, whatever, for many reasons aside from what they lose. They gain so much; vitality, energy, a sense of devotion to a way of being or set of beliefs.
Of course that does require that one fasts mindfully. In Malaysia I was always amused by the way that my Malay friends obsessed about food throughout Ramadan. They rose before dawn to eat a huge breakfast and then as soon as the sun set they rushed to the special pasar Ramadan, Ramadan markets, which offered a hundred tasty morsels for buka puasa, the meal with which Malay Muslims break their fast. I somehow doubted my friends ate any less during Ramadan, they simply starved during daylight hours and stuffed themselves at night.
Anyway, I digress. When I heard about the 5:2 diet the main attraction was not weight loss. More appealing was the idea of doing without for a couple of days a week – the quasi-spiritual dimension – and the health benefits claimed for reducing your calorie intake two (non-consecutive) days per week; lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholestrol and lower IGF-1.
IGF-1 is a growth hormone and, according to the Horizon programme that started the current caze for the 5:2 diet, a small group from Ecuador who were the focus of a study because they lack IGF-1 also have no incidence of cancer or coronary heart disease. Of course they’re also very small, but once we’ve grown to our full height, the logic seems to go, lower LGF-1 becomes a boon rather than a problem.
The 5:2 diet is based on a field of research that is evolving. I cannot remember seeing anything in the Horizon programme that amounted to a study of the cancer rates of people according to their IGF-1 levels, nor that lowering IGF-1 levels through a two days per week fast has any impact on cancer rates.
Further study also seems to be needed into the long term impact of fasting in general and the 5:2 approach in particular on its impact on blood pressure, blood sugar levels etc.
A spokesperson for the research programme also pointed out that the weight loss is based on their ‘findings’ that people tend not to overeat on their non fasting days. They may eat 110%, she suggested, but not enough to make up the 1500-1800 calories not ingested if you eat fewer than 5-600 calories on your fasting days.
That assertion seemed a little flakey to me. Moreover it certainly doesn’t amount to a ‘fast two days a week, eat whatever you like the other five’ that it was billed as in some newspapers.
As a diet it’s perfectly pitched at a society where food has become cheap, ubiquitous and, in many cases, incredibly unhealthy. All these have contributed to an epidemic of obesity in the West, especially in the UK and the US, and in the UK that’s adding some £20Bn (my estimate based on declared costs of treating obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease) to the NHS’s costs each year. It may even have a bearing on cancer and that is a further expense.
The idea that you can be disciplined two days a week and pig out the other five is appealling but surely nonsensical.
You can’t fast every Tuesday and then eat a family sized supermarket tiramisu each Wednesday, a huge cake on the Thursday and go crazy in McDonalds of a Friday and expect to live well. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that you can alternate between feast and famine.
I started the 5:2 regime a couple of months ago. I have to say that I did lose weight fairly quickly over the first four weeks. I’m 5’10” / 5’11” and my ideal BMI, according to the charts, would be around 70kg.
When I started I was just under 78kg, definitely more than I wanted to weigh; not hugely fat but I did have a round stomach. After about a month I was down to about 74kg and by six weeks in I’d lost another kilo so my weight was hovering either side of the 73kg mark.
Recently a series of meetings in London and Luca’s being ill has derailed things slightly and I missed one of my two fasting days last week and my weight rose slightly. It takes a degree of organisation . Moreover yoyu do need to maintain a degree of discipline on non fasting days and aim to eat well, if not particularly frugally.
I tend to bake one sourdough loaf per week. I eat most of it myself in two to three days. When I’m fasting I occasionally go to bed and dream about waking up and having sourdough toast and my marmalade. So there is a real danger that you could end up eating significantly more on non-fasting days than the extra 10% the researchers say they observed.
So, if you’re planning to use the 5:2 diet mainly for weight loss there are a few things to bear in mind.
Firstly this needs to be a long term lifestyle rethink. It’s not a ‘go on a quick diet and then splurge once you have reached your ideal weight’ programme, it needs to be about a fundamental change in the way you approach food.
To that end it’s really important that you are very mindful about making sure you eat well on your fastings days – not only is it important nutritionally but if you eat well and avoid undue hunger then you’re less likely to find this approach unsustainable.
That can be quite hard. Even if you are clever about making your five or six hundred calories fill you up as much as possible you can still feel pretty damned hungery – as I do now – and hunger can affect your moods and your ability to get things done.
Hoiwever if I haven’t managed to put you off, in the coming weeks I’ll be posting a few ideas about things you can eat to make fasting days as little of a chore as possible.