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Experiences with the 5:2 Diet

Dr Michael Moseley, the BBC medical documentary presenter, invented a diet called 5:2 (there are inevitably also 4:3 and 6:1 versions), but the idea is to only eat a very limited number of calories for 2 days every week (600 for men, 500 for women - ha!). By doing this we can emulate how our bodies were designed to deal with the feast and famine existences of our hunter gatherer ancestors. On the remaining 5 days of the week, we eat normally. So there's nothing complicated about it, and while you're fasting you know tomorrow you can eat and drink whatever you like - unlike every other diet (that never ever work out).

5:2 makes good sense. Homo Sapiens have been around for at least 200,000 years (lets say 10,000 evolutionary generations). Our primate ancestors for a million or two more (say 100,000 generations). Waitrose and Sainsburys, on the other hand, have only been around for 2 or 3 generations. Our lifestyles, and nutrition in particular, are no longer dictated by survival requirements (at least in the developed world), but by indulgence. So the organic functions of our bodies that evolved over many generations to help us survive famines are now redundant. And that causes us problems - the most obvious being obesity and all the contingent issues that being over-weight can lead to. There are bits of our bodies we've simply allowed to stop working because what they're meant to produce to keep our bodies functioning correctly, we've replaced within the food we eat.

Our bodies, and especially the organs responsible for the production of hormones and other biochemicals we need to function properly, have grown really lazy. Within our rich variety of food are many of the nutrients that we used to manufacture internally. So we no longer use biological processes and behaviours to deal with short-term deficits - laying down fat being the most obvious. By stressing the body to kick-start the production of the things our ancestors had to produce internally rather than source externally, our natural processes, and therefore what we call health, can be restored. Our bodies start to function again in the way they were designed.

A by-product of this is of course weight loss. But not only have I reduced my weight from 95 kg (15 stone = 210 lbs) to 87 kg (13st 10lb = 192 lbs), my blood pressure is back to what it was 30 years ago - 125/70, down from recent averages of around 140/90. I've also come off statins since my cholesterol levels have returned to normal ranges, and all my other blood measurements are now well below average for a man in his late 50s.

Do I feel better? Not sure I can truthfully say yes. It's good not to see that wobbly spare tyre (although wobbling hasn't stopped completely), but what I had hoped would be a chiseled hunk lurking beneath the layers of blubber, turned out to be more of a scrawny wretch. Younger men would hit the weights to sculpt the pecs and abs. Such activity for me seems only to increase the scrawniness. I'm definitely weaker as result of this diet. How do Sly and Arnie stay ripped? Must be drugs. Seriously though, it seems that one of the main issues with fasting diets is that the first thing your body uses for the fuel it's not getting by mouth, is to burn your muscle - fat is only used as a last resort. From an evolutionary point of view, this would seem counter-productive perhaps. Preserving strength to fight off other hungry beasties would seem like a more sensible survival plan instead of depleting your defences and offering a sacrificial fatty sack. But maybe lying very still and not smelling of tasty muscle is more effective. Who knows. But losing muscle is a big gromble about this diet.

So what else have I learned by being on the 5:2 for the past 6 months or so.

  1. Starving makes you grumpy. Now Grombler already started off pretty grumpy, so we're testing new extremes here. It also gives me mild headaches in the evenings. It is possible within the 600 kcals per day a man is allowed, to reduce the pangs by nibbling on bulky low calorie stuff like celery or reconstituted wood they call crispbreads, but it's not without its discomforts as the day progresses.
  2. Not going mad on non-fast days. Because it's an effort to achieve a full day of fasting, when you're unleashed back into the fridge and supermarket, you're less likely to gorge because you don't want to undo all the achievements thus far. You watch your weight religiously - if only because you can usually be assured of a pleasing result on the scales (no-one wants to look at bad news). So you do feel guilty and annoyed with yourself when you have that extra beer or bag or sausage - and that's not a bad thing.
  3. Your friends lie about how good you look. Having watched friends loose weight myself, I know what your own friends are really saying is 'my god you look ill'. Depending how fat you were to start with will dictate how much extra skin ends up flapping around. Hairy blokes don't tend to have stretch marks or jowls, but moobs do not disappear. Chaps, what were actually a pert pair, now droop. Not sure which is worse. And gym weights only work on muscles that still exist. At my age I've got to invest many times more anaerobic effort to achieve the same muscle gain as a 20-year-old. I simply can't be bothered. Droop away, I say.
  4. Immortality it's not. Having reduced all my blood measurements, I now worry less (not that I did much anyway) about keeling over from heart failure, diabetes, cancer or some other nasty around the corner. So I went out and bought a motorbike to even up the mortality stakes (don't tell my mother!).
  5. Not eating great food when you want to is very boring. I adore good restaurants. I love experimenting with food and drink, especially with friends and family. I live in a part of England with novel eating experiences absolutely everywhere (it's one of the brilliant joys of living in a country that welcomes - at least we used to - other cultures to live here and sell us their cuisines). So having to say 'I can't go out tonight because it's a fasting day' not only makes you less likely to be invited again, you know you would enjoy it better than miserably chewing a celery stalk - no matter how much good its meant to be doing you.
  6. You're surprisingly not hungry the next morning. After a day fasting, you generally go to bed early to avoid the temptation of sneakily raiding the fridge or nibbling just one (followed by another) peanut. But curiously you don't wake up the following morning wanting to chew the pillow. In fact you feel somewhat self-righteous and might even contemplate doing 'a double' - two fasting days on the trot. No doubt caveman Grombler would have experienced many doubles or more. But I suspect he got to the point where even his organs screamed 'I wasn't designed for this much stress you lazy sod, go out and kill something before I pack up altogether'. I've not had the guts to try a double because I know I'll end up feinting or eating a leg off the dog.
  7. Your clothes don't fit. And the old ones that do again are either full of moth-holes or out of fashion (not a big deal for a Grombler, to be fair). You also don't have the nerve to throw out the clothes that until recently you still wore - some of which were even more over-sized than your previous bulk required, in order to disguise your unflattering curves. Now they make you look like your mother did your shopping in the sure knowledge that 'you'll grow into it'. But you don't throw them out because you're not 100% certain you can or will keep all this up. It takes discipline - for the rest of your life... although the idea is to reach a target weight and then maintain it with a 6:1 diet, but...
  8. Weight surges back after only a day of indulgence. It never ceases to amaze me how fast you can put on weight. I can add 3 or 4 pounds easily in a single day. A few pints of beer, bags of nuts or a plate of chips and wham, I turn into blimpman overnight. I very much doubt a 6:1 will work for me, but when I do reach 85 kg, I'll try it.
  9. To begin with fasting days were a novelty. My wife is on the same diet, so we have experimented together on deciding what we can and can't eat. She'd knock up veggie omelettes or salads so we'd get a bit of bulk into us to fool our stomachs into believing Waitrose hadn't gone bust. But after a while, you get to know what you're in for... and it's kinda boring. However, there is a gleam of light in this tunnel of misery. Waitrose (no, I'm not paid by them) have come up with low calorie ready-meals. 250/300/350 kcal packages of decent nosh like lasagna, fish pie, noodles and veg etc. I suspect we'll soon also get bored with these, but at least it beats celery.
  10. You miss out on two good dumps a week. I don't know about you, but I look forward to that leisurely read on the throne during the relaxing and oddly pleasurable morning constitutional - which used to be regular as clockwork minutes after I wake up (and thankfully not, yet maybe, before!). Now there's not a lot of point trying... unless you've downed serious amounts of low calorie veg to pack out the calories, which overnight developed into unbelievable amounts of gas which at some point needs to be safely liberated. But how unsatisfying if its unaccompanied...
So in summary, 5:2 works. It works really well, bar some of the above, and I'm grateful to Mike Moseley for coming up with something so incredibly simple if not (forgive me Doc) obvious. So now that I'm going to be around a lot longer, motorbike apart, I will live to bore even more people about this diet.

Just do it!

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