I have fasted regularly for 7 years, and this is why I recommend it
There seems to be a lot of noise on social media and in the popular press at the moment about intermittent fasting (IF) via eating windows. In essence, there are hours of the day during which no food or drink is consumed (other than water, herbal tea, black tea, or black coffee — not even sugar-free carbonated drinks are permitted, as these can affect insulin responses).
A commonly cited ratio is the 16:8 ratio — so 16 hours of fasting, followed by an eight-hour window during which eating and drinking normally can occur. This might work, as an example, by having breakfast at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., and dinner at 5 p.m. — then having nothing but herbal tea, water, and black coffee until the following day at 10 a.m.
But there are other structures of intermittent fasting, and the method that works for me (and helped me get to a healthier weight) is called 5:2—five days of regular eating and two days of drastically restricting calories.
Of course, no one should start IF without getting medical advice. In particular, intermittent fasting isn’t always suitable for diabetics or anyone else with insulin issues.
Intermittent Fasting: The Concept
IF, as it’s often called, is a popular way of eating with many people who are seeking to lose weight — and for good reason. There’s no need to restrict the types of foods eaten during the eating window — although, obviously, it makes sense for these to be relatively healthy foods.
The idea of no more obsessive weighing and measuring of portions, or of checking endlessly for calorie content, comes as an appealing relief to many people. And it can fit very well into the way lots of people live their lives.
(A friend of mine, for example, never has breakfast at all. Her eating window is naturally quite small, so with a few tweaks, such as avoiding milk in her morning coffee, she could easily eat in a 16:8 way).
I love breakfast, though. It’s the first thing I think about when I open my eyes. And it’s quite useful fuel if I’m running that day — I don’t think I could do without it. So it’s probably just as well that when I first learned about the science behind IF, it was when the regime on everyone’s lips and in every Sunday newspaper supplement was the 5:2.
The 5:2 diet, as a concept, is seductively simple. Eat what you want for five days of the week; then, stick to fewer than 500 calories (thus adhering to a strict fast) on the other two days, which shouldn’t be consecutive.
Back in 2013, I read an article in the Sunday Times that hit me like a smack in the face. I’m a private client lawyer, which means I’m regularly responsible for assisting and speaking with clients who have Alzheimer’s disease or some other kind of dementia. I’m very familiar with the myriad devastating effects of cognitive decline on people and on their families, and it has always been something that truly, genuinely scares me — not least because, as everyone knows, it’s not possible either to fully prevent or entirely cure dementia.
The article, though, was compelling. It presented a clear scientific link between an elevated BMI in midlife and the later risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
I was 32 years old at the time. I was not yet in midlife, or I hoped I wasn’t, but I did know — from getting weighed at the doctor’s surgery when I had my annual contraceptive pill check-ups — that my BMI was classed as overweight. I wasn’t unhealthy; I ate well, I was a regular runner by this time, and I didn’t dislike the shape of my body. It was fit and strong. But I knew objectively that I was heavier than I should be for my height. I didn’t tip into the obese section of the chart, but I wasn’t in the normal part either.
So that morning, when I read the newspaper article, I decided I had to make a change somehow. I wanted to get into the normal section of the weight charts and then to stay there. It was the first time in my life that I had wanted to change my weight not for the sake of smaller jeans but for my long-term brain health, and that made a huge difference in my head to the type of eating plan I chose. I wanted to do something that lasted. I did not want to yo-yo.
With the overriding premise that whatever I did needed to be sustainable long-term, I set about my research. I already had an idea of where to start. This was 2013, and in the January of that year, Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer had published their bestselling book “The Fast Diet.” It already had lots of devotees, and there were many Facebook pages and Instagram accounts based on its premise.
It didn’t take me long to track down their webpage, which was in its infancy at this point, but it had a clutch of knowledgeable-sounding contributors on its chat forums. I decided to give the 5:2 a go.
The first thing I did was explain to my family what I was planning — and why. I didn’t want to accidentally come up against a clash between a fasting day and a family birthday dinner, so I then needed to pick my 500-calorie days quite carefully and keep everyone informed.
I decided to fast on Mondays and Wednesdays. Mondays because, well, Mondays suck, so why not add a bit more rubbish to the load and get it out of the way? Plus, also, in my world at least, very few social arrangements are made for Mondays. Also, I reasoned, I’d have eaten well on a Sunday; we usually have a big family meal on Sunday afternoon, so I hoped this would carry me through a bit and I’d be less hungry on Monday.
Wednesday, I thought, was another nothingy sort of day, when I’d be unlikely to be invited to dinner anywhere, and getting a fast out of the way on a Wednesday would then give me a good clear run-up to the weekend.
I then had to think about what I’d eat when I wasn’t fasting. There seemed at this stage to be very little suggestion that any restriction at all would be needed on the other five days of the week; most of the online chat seemed to boast that I could “eat what I liked!” on the days between fasting days.
I was skeptical, though. I don’t really have an off switch when it comes to things like buttered toast or crisps. I therefore decided to apply a rough 2000-calorie limit to the nonfasting days. This is a decent allowance of calories — it’s way more than the allocation on most weight-loss diets, so I knew I wouldn’t be hungry. I downloaded MyFitnessPal so I could keep an eye on my intake, but I decided not to be enslaved to it.
Logic thus applied, I began the regime. And the following points are, I think, the important takeaways for anyone planning to do similar.
1. 500 calories are really not very many
This is obvious, of course. It’s called fasting for a reason. It’s food deprivation. Hunger is inevitable.
2. Routine really helps
I quickly realised that there was no point trying to have three meals; trying to eat breakfast would result in me being hungrier for the rest of the day but with fewer calories left to eat anything.
So I got into a routine of having black coffee or herbal tea all morning, followed by a teeny-tiny lunch (usually a low-fat yoghurt and an apple) and a slightly larger dinner (generally a sachet of cup soup, a thin slice of toast cut into fingers to dip in the soup, and a small banana). And then I go to bed early, after a cup of peppermint tea.
3. There’s no point trying to prepare interesting recipes
A controversial viewpoint, this, but I stand by it. On my fasting days, I rely almost exclusively on prepackaged foods, spending as little time in the kitchen as possible. Why taunt myself with the scent of spices and everyone else’s delicious food cooking?
No, I decided, fasting days were for stress-free subsistence. Sachets of soup, packets of low-calorie crisps, and fresh food that naturally comes in neat portions, like apples or bananas.
The rest of my family doesn’t fast with me, of course. So a fasting day for me has been a great opportunity for them to learn to cook meals. Or so I tell them. (Usually, my husband puts the slow cooker on before he goes to work, and then they all have chili or spaghetti bolognese while I try to look enthused about another cup of Batchelors Golden Vegetable).
4. Being hungrier on the nonfasting days doesn’t happen
It doesn’t for me, anyway. I was so sure it would. I thought I’d wake up the day after my first fasting day and be absolutely ravenous. But I’m no hungrier on a Tuesday morning than on a Sunday morning.
5. Fasting on busy days is far easier
This is obvious, I guess. There’s less time to think about food, and the day passes more quickly anyway when you’re occupied with other things.
Days when you’re travelling long distances are another good time to fast. You get to swerve service-station burgers or those damp sandwiches from the train’s buffet trolley. And you’re usually preoccupied with all the logistics of travelling, so again, less time to think about food.
6. Exercise is possible on fasting days
Not at first, maybe, but after a few weeks of my 5:2 arrangement, my daughter asked me to accompany her to a Monday night exercise class. It surprised me to realise that although I felt hungry, I didn’t feel weak, and I was easily able to do the class.
This isn’t the same for everyone, I realise, and I wouldn’t run on a fasting day — although I do regularly run the morning after, before I’ve eaten again, for a bit of fasted cardio.
Living Life in an IF Way, Longer Term
About eight months after I began intermittent fasting using the 5:2 technique, I had lost around 18 kilos (40 pounds), and I was into the normal section on that hallowed BMI chart at the doctor’s surgery. I felt I could breathe more easily about my later-life fears and that I’d taken a definitive step to improving my long-term health from this perspective.
At that point, though, I was well aware that I was in the danger zone as far as dieting is concerned. Maintenance is notoriously hard, and for good reason. Food is lovely. Without making conscious restrictions, it’s very easy to eat too much of it. And the advice on maintenance for 5:2 devotees was quite limited back then.
I basically cobbled together my own technique. I dropped down to one fasting day a week, which I still adhere to now (Mondays) — and I began to keep a slightly closer eye on the way I ate on the intervening days. For example, I try to avoid refined sugar most of the time, and generally I’ll swerve away from refined starches such as white bread and pasta. (I’m not slavish about that, though. And I adore pizza, with its refined starchy white base, so for some reason that gets a pass in my head. See also sushi, loaded as it is with sticky white rice, but a total favourite of mine).
5:2 or 16:8?
It’s not 2013 any more. There are many more options and resources available in 2020 for intermittent fasters. I hadn’t even heard of 16:8 when I started, but now I think that’s definitely what people think of when the term intermittent fasting is mentioned.
Obviously, choosing one or the other has to be a matter of personal choice. I don’t think one regime has the edge over the other in terms of effectiveness, and I haven’t found any definitive research to this end, although I have searched for a comparison. They both rely on the same science relating to insulin control and calorific restriction.
What I think is worth considering is how capable you’ll be at keeping up your chosen technique long term. Not just in terms of how well you can handle being hungry and for how long, but think also about how your social life works — and your family life.
I’d find it impossible to do 16:8 in any meaningful way because I often like to have breakfast before I run, and I also want to have a glass of wine with my husband after dinner or a cup of milky tea before bed. Those bookend events bracket a far longer day than eight hours would allow, and I’d be resentful in time of any big alteration to my routine.
Standalone fasting days work better for me from this perspective because once it’s done, it’s done, and the week can continue.
(Nothing is set in stone, though. At Christmas, when there are a lot of parties and daily meals to attend and a full fasting day would be difficult to fit in, I sometimes switch to 16:8 for a few days. I have no idea if this is a good idea from a scientific point of view, but I find it useful from a control perspective. So it’s worth bearing in mind that you can always switch and find a version of IF that suits you and your life).
Living a Life With IF in It
Random events can still affect weight when trying to maintain a stable healthy BMI long term. When I trained for the London marathon, I got noticeably thinner because the training was endless and I didn’t feel able to eat much after my long runs (although I tried to make up for it the following day). When I was particularly stressed over traumatic events in my personal life a few years ago, I couldn’t eat properly due to the stress, and the same thing happened — I shrank.
Conversely, after blissful foreign holidays, over a family Christmas, and during the strict stay-home part of lockdown, I’d expect my nonstretch test jeans to feel tighter on their weekly try-on session.
There are different ways to deal with this. I might introduce a second fasting day for a couple of weeks (not my preferred option, I’ll be honest), or I might try consciously to eat fewer carbs for a while (usually, I go for this one, and then I have a lot of cheese — which is quite counterintuitive, but on the other hand, very tasty).
The important thing, I think, is to recognise that these fluctuations can happen. Deal with them when they do, but recognise them as blips and glitches rather than seeing them as a derailment. I believe intermittent fasting is a great tool to assist in this recognition. A fasting day feels like a full-body reset.
Intermittent fasting is just one of many weight-management lifestyles out there, but I definitely think it’s one of the best. It makes a lot of scientific sense (to my mind, anyway) and can be adapted easily to suit most people’s lives. That’s why I wanted to talk about 5:2 — to remind people that it exists and that there’s an alternative to the 16:8 daily eating window, which currently seems to be very popular. But I think they’re both equally valid and useful.
Source : Medium