I am the most sober and sceptical of foodies and so far in life have managed to avoid any fad diets: that is to say, diets that may not have been around for long and don’t have proven long-term results. Atkins, Grapefruit and South Beach passed me by while many others fell under their spells. Besides, I have no supermodel aspirations and actually like the look of a little roundness on people. I watch my weight mostly because of the dodgy ankle. But at this point, I don’t feel the need to lose shed any pounds. So what’s with the diet?
Well, blame my housemates, or any number of friends who have put themselves on the famous 5:2 fasting diet. For those of you who haven’t yet encountered this phenomenon, the diet involves picking two non-consecutive days each week and eating no more than 500 calories (600 for men) on those days. The supposed key benefits are (a) weight loss, (b) a lowering of the GFI-1 count, which reduces the risk of cancer and other chronic, inflammatory-type occurrences, and (c) a general greater mindfulness about what one is consuming. As I’m not especially concerned about (a), it’s (b) and (c) that have lured me into the diet.
Something I take as gospel is that no diet is pleasant. By definition, you are depriving yourself of something that you have taken pleasure in eating in the past, but you’ve decided that thing is now interfering with your state of health. The 5:2 diet is not pleasant. On a fast day, I end up feeling as if I’ve had 10 cups of coffee. (However, I must admit that of the fifteen or so people I know who are on the diet, I’m the only one who is regularly grumbling about it.)
But the real problem is not that the diet makes me uncomfortable. It’s that I don’t really know whether this diet is good for me or not.
I hate not being certain.
Because it’s a relatively new diet, not a lot of research has been done on it. Yes, people do lose weight on it, but does it transform their GFI-1 levels, their cholesterol, their blood pressure? It’s too soon for any definitive studies to have been done. Does it significantly extend people’s lives?—Well, that one will be a long time proving.
This isn’t just a problem with diets, it’s my struggle with a lot of things in the medical arena. No one can give me certainty. One day eggs raise your bad cholesterol, the next day your good cholesterol. One day you need 2 litres of water, the next that’s declared dangerous. Sugar is the devil incarnate; no, it’s fat; no, it’s salt. Carbs should form the basis of your diet; whoops, carbs are bad. “See your physician before starting this diet,” the fine print always says. That’s a hoot. Doctors attend as little as one class on nutrition during their training; when even nutritionists who devote their lives to studying food and its effects can’t agree, how can I possibly count on my over-worked GP to have an informed opinion?
So I’m doing this diet on something uncomfortably close to faith.
Someday, I know, it will be different. A few years from now I’ll be able to download an app, called something like “Howmidoin’?” I’ll simply hold my phone, or tablet, or whatever the gizmo I’ll be using is, and a wry voice will say, “Aha, Heather, been into the shortbread, have we?” After it has its little joke, it will tell me what supplements I need to take, what foods I should focus on for the next week or so, and whether or not I should seek medical attention about some rogue markers in my bloodstream. Our scientists have mapped the genome and turned little Curiosity loose on the soil of Mars; this gift to humanity will be a small next-step in the health game.
So back to this troublesome 5:2 diet. An English medical doctor, journalist and long-time student of health and well-being named Michael Mosley succeeded in getting the BBC to create a short documentary about his personal experiment in altering his diet. The film, called Eat, Fast and Live Longer, documents his discovery that he is borderline diabetic and needs to change how he eats. He doesn’t want to resort to medication so he follows his nose through various research projects and experiments, and ends up putting himself on a weekly two-day low cal regime. The documentary had an electrifying effect and suddenly half of England was on the 5:2 diet. (I exaggerate only slightly.)
He followed up the documentary with The Fast Diet, which became the top selling book in the UK in February 2013. American, Canada and Australia quickly followed suit, and so it is that so many of my thoughtful and careful friends are now on this diet—including all the Shedders. Beware: the video is very compelling.
The basic idea of intermittent fasting, where for two days of the week you restrict your calorie intake to about 600 calories a day, is that your body gets a break from processing food and a period where your blood is not filled with glucose, training it to deal more effectively with food when we eat it. You’ll lose weight, but that’s not the main game.
A good deal of research is also going on into possible mental benefits of calorie restriction, studying the video’s claim that “sporadic bouts of hunger actually trigger new brain cells to grow”, and that “fasting stresses grey matter the way exercise stresses your muscles”. As a lot of the research is being done on mice (genetically modified at that), I maintain my scepticism, peppered with cautious interest.
The other key factor, of course, is how we set things up around us. On a 5:2 discussion group I surfed, somebody called rockyromero had this piece of wisdom: “Fundamentally, there’s only one major reason that people discontinue anything: Their environment is unsupportive…With a 5:2 lifestyle, we are breaking out of the norm & require a support system to succeed…A supportive environment breeds success, always.” That`s where the Shedders and other friends come in. Having this “supportive environment” around me keeps me on track when the going gets tough.
Back to certainty. Until that widget comes along that can give us a clear and accurate picture, we will have to take responsibility for ourselves. Mosley ultimately believes in “becoming your own guinea pig”. and I think that gets to the heart of the matter. If this diet can help me learn more about my body, my health and my mental connections with food, I can forgive it giving me a bit of discomfort.
The other day Rick (known on several continents for his hearty stews and slow-cooked meat-laden specials) laid out a feast on our countertop, for seven people all having a fast day on the 5:2 diet. The spread consisted of tissue-thin rice paper, with grated carrot, cucumber, sprouts, mushrooms, thin slices of omelette, and assorted sauces. We each made our own Vietnamese rolls, with a caloric value of perhaps 75 apiece. I had three. They were delicious and we had fun building them.
Not so bad, really.