It sounds to good to be true. Eat whatever you like, within reason, five days a week. Drastically restrict your calories to just a quarter of your recommended daily intake for the remaining two non consecutive days a week. Feasting and fasting has captured the imagination of many, myself included, but does this eating plan actually work? Since embarking on the 5-2 diet mid March this year, following it to the letter for a good five months before gradually losing my way and falling well and truly off the wagon in the last few weeks I’m about to jump back on again. Here’s why.
First things first. There are a myriad of potential health benefits. When I first came across Michael Mosley’s excellent documentary Eat Fast, Live Longer I was fascinated by the prospect that reducing calorie intake could be so beneficial to my health. The fasting regime claims to be able to reduce the risk factors associated with ageing by helping reduce cholesterol, improve blood sugar and lower IGF-1 levels, a hormone associated with increased cancer risk. In doing so it offers the flow on effect of offering protection from several chronic, life threatening disorders such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, blood pressure, thyroid, acidity, anaemia, liver and kidney problems. These were the compelling reasons which initially spurred me into action onto the 5-2 diet.
Whilst I was following the 5-2 diet I felt fantastic, particularly so on the days immediately following a fast day. There is no doubt about it, embarking on the 5-2 diet encourages healthier and mindful eating. Whichever way you look at it five hundred calories a day is not a lot to play with. Getting through a 5-2 day requires a disciplined, common sense approach. They say a picture paints a thousand words. In my case a quick browse through the image carousel of my 5-2 diet posts reveals the secret to success . Plates of vibrantly coloured food. Bursting with flavour. Prepared from scratch with a wide variety of whole ingredients. Plenty of fresh foods and vegetables and lean protein, a small amount of high quality carbohydrate and minimum sugar and fat. An approach which focuses on the basic principles of healthy eating albeit with the over riding condition that daily energy intake be drastically restricted on two days out of every seven to a mere 500 calories for women and a barely more generous 600 calories for men.
Daunting? Definitely. Achievable? Yes. With a good dose of dogged determination. Taking a break from the 5-2 diet has only reinforced in my mind how effective this eating plan can be. A consequence of eating mindfully over an extended period of time was the added benefit of a gradual but sustainable weight loss of about a kilo a month. Not dramatic but finally; for a consummate, self confessed foodie, here was a diet I could happily follow without a sense of too much sacrifice and self deprivation.
Falling off the figurative 5-2 wagon has meant the dreaded kilo creep has returned, but more tellingly my energy levels are waning. On the 5-2 diet I always felt fantastic, particularly so after a fast day. To be honest at the moment I feel a little drab and listless. Too many indulgences have finally caught up with me. School holidays come to an end this week and I’m jumping back on the 5-2 wagon with a vengeance. And a cautionary note to myself. Next time school holidays roll by, as they will with unrelenting regularity, keep the momentum going by switching to a 6-1 plan and fasting just one day a week.
My personal challenge when I first embarked on the diet was to create interesting plates of food that I would want to eat for under 500 calories a day. Those posts are well documented in this blog and have been brought together onto a dedicated page The 5-2 Challenge. Eat, Fast and Live Longer. Summarised below are the rules I have followed and lessons I have found useful since first embarking on the diet all those months ago. I’m hoping these succinct reminders will stand me in good stead this time too.
Fasting Doesn’t Always Lead To Weight Loss
Fasting has been an accepted spiritual practice across many cultures since ancient times. It doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss, but often does. It seems that if you skip a meal or refrain from eating for an entire day, you may tend to eat a little more at the next meal, but interestingly even if you allow yourself to eat as much as you want next day, the theory is you won’t quite make up for the calories missed.
Here is how the maths works. Assuming 2,000 calories are consumed by the average female on a normal day and just 500 calories (one quarter of the daily intake) on fast days, total calorie consumption will be 14,000 calories in a normal week versus 11,000 calories in a 5-2 fast day week. That’s a 3,000 calorie deficit. Requiring the consumption of an additional 1,500 calories on each of the days following a fast day to eliminate the benefit.
Of course it is also worth mentioning, as is the case with all diets, over the longer term as your body adjusts to a new pattern of eating, any residual weight loss will begin to taper and stabilise.
Recognise Cravings and Hunger Pangs Subside Over Time
Eating less just two days a week seemed to help reset my appetite thermostat. Over time my cravings subsided and I found it much, much easier to stick with my restricted 500 calorie eating plan. Hunger pangs became far more manageable and before too long I began to recognise they did not intensify with time but rather ebbed and flowed in waves throughout the day. This realisation was crucial to helping me keep my cravings at bay. Climbing the wall with hunger? Try this simple trick. Drink a glass of water.
Take Each Fast Just One Day At a Time
The beauty of the 5-2 diet is that you are fasting for just one day at a time. A salient point to remember is that no matter how strong your hunger pangs may be, tomorrow will always be a feast day when you can succumb to whatever cravings you please. It really is mind over matter. Invariably on my feast days I don’t wake up hungry craving food. I feel fabulous and often will not have anything to eat and drink until mid morning.
The Pattern of Calorie Consumption On A Fast Day Doesn’t Matter
There is only one basic rule. Eat just 500 calories on a fast day if you are female, 600 if you are male. It is worth noting that these are average guidelines calculated on the basis of the average TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) or amount of calories a body burns in a 24 hour period calculated across an average population. To estimate a TDEE specific to your individual needs access one of the many calculators on line.
You can consume your 500 fast day calories how and when you want; in one meal or spread throughout the day. It’s definitely left to the individual, a personal choice based entirely on lifestyle considerations. Starting out on the 5-2 diet I preferred to eat two mini meals a day. Over time, as I adjusted to the diet, my preference changed to one small meal of 100 -150 calories at midday followed by a more substantial family meal in the evening. For the record each fast day lasted about 36 hours, commencing from my last meal the night before (usually no later than 8pm) through to my first meal on the day following the fast day (usually no earlier than 8am).
Keep Well Hydrated
Drink plenty of water and copious amounts of herbal teas to keep your system flushed and hunger at bay. Good hydration is also essential to avoid headaches while fasting.
This is extremely important on fast days when you are restricted to a mere 500 calories. On fast days whole food choices are best. I try to avoid pre packaged ready meals. Eating processed food generally will not fill you up as much as a meal prepared from scratch using fresh, whole ingredients which contain more nutrients and vitamins, less additives and have the added benefit of keeping you feeling fuller for longer. The diet works best for me if I know well in advance what I’m going to be eating on my fast days. I like to stock up the pantry and fridge with healthy, low calorie food choices. Plenty of fruit and vegetables, and lean protein. Where possible I try to prepare meals in advance to avoid grazing as I cook. To succeed on the 5-2 diet portion control is essential as is knowing the calorie count of the contents of your plate.
Eat Your Meals Sitting Down At A Table From A Plate
A common sense approach. Meals eaten on the run tend to be forgettable and it is easier to misjudge actual calories consumed. With so little calories on offer on a fast day an attractively presented plate of food savoured at leisure goes a long way in tricking the mind that you are full.
If you are looking for 5-2 recipes by the plateful to inspire you, here are my recipe ideas arranged by calorie count. Once you have decided how many meals, large or small. you wish to consume on a fast day, click on the appropriate category and scroll through the images. Remember you are allowed just 500 calories on any given fast day. Bon Appetit!