I’ve always had problems with my weight. Not skinny since my teens, I had gradually put it on over several decades that included two pregnancies and their subsequent stressful fruition, one period of long-term unemployment and plenty of time spent at home, bored, with only food for company. When you’re only 5’1″ tall, every last chocolate and nut cookie, every extra pasta bow shows.
It also shows in my BMI – a notoriously unreliable way of measuring obesity but one, nonetheless, used by the most well-intentioned of kind, slightly patronising practice nurses (“At your age, I wouldn’t worry about it.”) – and, being short and quite muscular (muscle weighs more than fat) I was borderline obese. My BMI last Christmas was 29.5 while my dress size still varied from 10 to 14. With January and the cold, hard acknowledgement of the morning after, I decided that it was something I could no longer ignore.
Actually I never really ignored it. I just subsumed my stress about my weight, popping zips, rubbing at angry red scars on my skin, covering gaping blouses with strategically-placed sweater sleeves. One day, it all got so much that it could ignore it no longer. A good, long look in a full-length mirror is as brutal a reality as I can imagine.
What to do, though? I’ve exercised regularly at the gym and walked the dog most days and that’s never seemed to shift the weight. My problem is that I have a real lust for food. Not only do I have a sweet tooth and comfort eat, but I truly enjoy cooking and baking and good food.
I dislike dieting, seeing only the incessant fluctuations of dieting friends. I’d done Atkins once and lost 21lb but over the past 10 years most of that has come back again. Of course I know that the key to weight loss is more exercise and fewer calories consumed (isn’t it funny how naturally skinny people never tire of telling you this?) but I needed a quick boost to set me up for small portions in the long term.
Friends had started talking about Dr Michael Mosley’s 5:2 diet. I’d seen some people on this diet turn from pudding-like beings into extraordinarily svelte, glamorous people almost overnight. And how bad could it be? Initially the thought of the fasting was daunting but I read up on it and the fact that one ate normally the other 5 days was appealing.
I liked the spiritual dimension too. As you know I’m not at all religious but have a lot of respect for fasting traditions all over the world such as Lent and Ramadan. My Indian aunts have regular fast days. For me, food calories are so readily available in excessive quantities that it’s good to stop and think sometimes and be thankful for what we have.
So, in case you’re not aware of this diet, the idea is that for two days each week, you eat good, nutritious food up to a limit of 500 calories, (600 for men) and the rest of the time you eat normally. This sharp decrease in your calorie intake for two days of the week is enough to trigger weight loss. That’s the theory, anyway.
I began the diet quite suddenly at the end of January. That’s the thing with this diet: it’s really easy to do and requires no special cookbooks or preparation. You just get on with it. I used the MyFitnessPal app and kitchen scales to help me count the calories, and that in itself threw up some interesting information, such as exactly how many calories are in even a small quantity of skimmed milk.
A typical fast day menu would be something like:
Breakfast: a one egg omelette (made with a couple of squirts of low-cal oil-spray) OR an apple OR a crisp bread with some no-fat Philly cheese and a little smoked salmon.
Lunch: a packet of Miso soup OR a small Mandarin orange
Mid-afternoon: a pot of Hartleys 10 calorie jelly
Supper: seared tuna (maximum 100g) and stir fry veg OR the OMG chicken noodle laksa from Cook! or a calorie-counted ready meal from Marks and Spencer or Waitrose.
Unlimited black coffee or camomile tea and water throughout the day.
You might be surprised at the inclusion of that ready meal element there. But In my house we already have one veggie and two non-veggies and, while I do actually sometimes prepare three meal alternatives including my own, sometimes you just want to pop something into the microwave. In fact, by supper time, which is about 8pm in our house by the time the OH has come home from work, I invariably remind myself of that old, cruel joke about Elizabeth Taylor shouting “Hurry!” at the microwave.
How many of us are ever truly hungry these days? It’s a lesson that one can be hungry and get on with life without eating something every half an hour. It’s true that this diet is not without its pain and I do get very hungry but it does serve as a reminder to me how much we take for granted being able to pop a little something into our mouths without thinking and how some people are always this hungry.
How do I manage? Well, I try and make sure that I’m out and about on fast days. At first the prospect of standing around in dog class on Mondays while not being able to indulge in lunchtime tea and cakes was daunting but I’m used to it now. I spend all day in that freezing training hall with the two dogs now, and it’s actually OK. I do find myself becoming quite tired on fast days and the remedy for this is to go to bed earlier than usual. So that in itself is a health benefit.
The new diet coincided with having to travel to India with my mother and every two months after that. It IS difficult to combine the diet with travelling but I find I just ask for an apple or a small orange at the Care facility and they can usually manage that for me. Salutary, though, that an apple is not always available in their local market. How we take our fruit for granted, at all times of the year!
I try not to eat on planes, so fasting while traveling is not as bad as you’d think. I’m only sitting around anyway and if I’m sleepy it makes it easier to rest on an overnight flight. – It’s easy to pop a sachet of Miso soup powder or a small clementine into your carry-on, but do remember to eat it before you land. Many countries have very strict rules about importing food. – Fasting before a flight also helps with the digestive problems that so many of us experience. I’ll say no more on that score but generally, it’s a good idea.
The one time that I find my normal fast day problematic is when I have to do a night shift at my volunteering job, which often coincides with a day when I’ve been fasting. Through experience I’ve decided it’s not a good idea to manage on 500 calories during the day and then expect to be up and alert all night to help some people with truly awful lives and problems. On these occasions I just move my fast day and allow myself the indulgence of a chocolate biscuit, or several, to get me through that 2.30am sleepyness wall.
So how much have I lost? Well, at first the weight dropped off at quite an alarming rate. I’d set myself a daily unrealistically ambitious target of losing 20lb. If I achieved this weight, I’d be able to buy myself that red Melissa Odabash bikini as a reward. Sadly, I still haven’t bought that particular bikini but, having lost 14-15lb within the first three months, I did go down more than one dress size and felt completely without self-consciousness as I wore two new bikinis by the pool in Sicily in July. And they weren’t the ones with all that padding and “hidden support,” that makes one feel like a beached whale either. During those early weeks, I was mindful of what I ate on the other five days and the consequent drop in overall calories made a real impact.
Suddenly I could run faster and for longer on the treadmill and felt much perkier on non-fast days. It is a pain when all of your clothes are hanging off you, though.
Then I ran into a brick wall. With half a stone still to lose, I stopped and even GAINED weight, fluctuating wildly for a bit. How do I explain this? Well, summer happened. I naturally retain weight in May and September and that, along with hormonal variations and ice cream stopped my weight loss in its tracks.
It’s funny how much I console myself on Monday evenings with the thought of the next day’s breakfast which, at one stage, went from a simple muffin or bagel to scones or a slice of that week’s apple cake and fruit and biscuits. I realised that I was binge-eating the day after the fast day to reward myself emotionally for my previous day’s abstemiousness. Also, fasting while being tempted, Nigella-style, by a roast chicken in the fridge is not a good idea when cooking supper for everyone else. If I’m snacking at cooking time, a piece of raw courgette or pepper is a good nutritious, low-calorie snack. It’s not the same, I know.
My feeling is that one cannot, in fact, eat what one likes for the other 5 days. It simply does not compute and so ice cream and chips and biscuits and cake will have to remain an occasional treat.
I’ve read that most diets don’t work past 6 months and I think this is because the body becomes accustomed to the new routine. In fact, when I’m in India and naturally eating much less overall, including no meat or fish for several days, the weight loss rate does decrease as my body becomes used to coping with far fewer calories.
Among the unusual mental effects of this diet are a mindfulness about what I eat and an unexpected change in tastes: I have had to switch to skimmed milk in my tea on the other 5 days: semi skimmed is unbearably rich for me now and I feel guilty eating chips. Where I once found those low calorie chocolate pot puddings far too watery and insipid to eat, now I find them rich and satisfying, such have my tastes changed.
So now the summer has gone and I’m being sensible again. I’m on holiday soon and I still won’t make that red bikini but the good news is that I am being sensible and my weight has stated to decrease again. Isn’t it funny, though, how a target that seems completely unattainable six months before becomes a burden with which to admonish oneself when one is so close to achieving it?
What next? Well, I’ll see if I can discipline myself down to my ambitious weight target but if not it’s no great tragedy to be carrying a couple of extra pounds, is it? As long as it’s just a couple. I am keen, however, to carry on with a weekly fast day both to maintain the weight, when it stabilises, and to remind me how lucky I am.
By the way, I am aware how much of a trigger this article must be to people raising awareness of inequality and food banks in the UK. Truly, it’s not meant as a provocation.