Intermittent fasting: a cure for diet WOEs?

For a few years now I've been aware of the interest surrounding Michael Mosley's BBC Horizon programme about the effects of intermittent fasting (IF) - often called 5:2, 4:3 or even 16:8 - and have ignored it in favour of low-carb-ish eating.

But since hitting my 50s, my weight has crept up no matter what I've tried. Light exercise = weight gain; heavy exercise = weight gain; lower carbs = weight gain; higher carbs = BIG weight gain.

So, what to do? Well, I'm drawn to this way of eating (WOE) because there's research to back up what Michael Mosley concludes in the programme - that restricting calories just a couple of days a week may have many health benefits, including increased longevity, reduced risk of some diseases, including certain cancers, and an improvement in general health. standing on bathroom scalesThere are even indications that it may stave off dementia. With a side-effect of reasonably effortless weight loss, what's not to like?

I also like the fact that intermittent fasting is not something that's been spun into a diet 'package' for sale, although I'm sure there are people out there doing just that. It's not necessary to buy special meals, attend groups or cut out particular foods. Maybe that makes me trust the concept more.

Anyway, the upshot is that three years after I first saw the programme, I watched it again a few weeks ago and decided to give it a try.

It couldn't be simpler. On two days a week you cut your calories to a quarter of what your body would normally use (calculator here) and the rest of the time you eat normally. That's it. Of course, if your version of normal is an entire chocolate cake every day for breakfast, you'll need to rethink, but essentially you can eat what you like up to what your body needs in a day.

Some people fast every other day, others do it three times a week and some fast for 16 hours out of 24 each day, but Michael Mosley points to 5:2 as offering the benefits of more stringent regimes without struggling through extra fasts.

So what's it like to fast? Actually, not too bad. The first day I did it was a Saturday and I must admit that I started on impulse having missed breakfast. I ate most of my 500 fast-day calories at around 1pm as I was visiting my dad and taking lunch. I had a small lamb steak and a pile of broccoli. That was it for the day, apart from several cups of tea and coffee. I have very little milk in hot drinks - just a splash - so that came within my limit. It's also important to drink lots of water. At least a couple of litres if you can. The evening was tricky as I'd already eaten but I realised that I only wanted to eat out of habit, rather than because I needed a meal, and I was fine without eating.

The following day I was certainly ready for breakfast but not desperate by any means. One helpful insight I've gained from various forums is that people generally find the hunger pangs don't build up and up. Rather, they come in waves so you know they're going to go away again. That knowledge is power, in that it removes the fear of being hungry. Having an empty stomach is an alien feeling for those of us lucky enough to have access to plenty of food but it's not unpleasant once you get used to it. And you can always eat tomorrow.

Let's face it - nobody's going to starve if they cut their food intake for one day at a time: most of us have plenty of reserves (provisos below). Some proponents argue that our hunter-gatherer origins mean we're designed for periods of feast and famine, as food wasn't always available. They suggest that an alert state when fasting is normal, as people would have needed their mental and physical faculties to be sharp in order to find food.

So who shouldn't fast? Fasting isn't good for children, whose nutritional needs are different from adults'. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and anyone who is particularly frail or unwell should avoid fasting, or at least modify it to suit their individual circumstances. As with all these things, if in doubt seek medical advice first. Those with a history of eating disorders would also be wise to steer clear, as fasting has the potential to trigger issues. Other than that, what's the harm in giving it a go?

Over the past couple of weeks, the fasts have actually got easier. I'm now three weeks in and have lost around 7lb. I feel great - I'm more alert and don't seem to be suffering any ill-effects. I have my regular week in hospital (I have scleroderma - LSSc - and receive regular IV medication) coming up so I'll be interested to see whether there is any difference in my blood results.

So far, so good. I'm exercising three or four times a week and working out doesn't seem to be any tougher than before I was fasting. I've even exercised on fast days with no noticeable problems. It hasn't made me feel woozy or lightheaded and it even seems to boost my energy levels.

Is IF all it's cracked up to be? The answer after the first few weeks would have to be a resounding 'yes' from me. As it happens, I think I may have found my holy grail of a long-term WOE (way of eating) but it's still early days. Watch this space...

Glad to hear this works for

Glad to hear this works for someone, and the 7lb weight loss is fantastic. I've been tempted by the 5:2 as the weight will NOT shift now I am in my 50s.

Fascinating - in fact I fast

Fascinating - in fact I fast twice a day. Initially between breakfast and lunch and then again between lunch and dinner. Seriously though, I have at times considered doing something rather better but never quite had the courage to do so - love the idea of steak and broccoli followed and a lot of tea and coffee. Your piece has certainly encouraged me to give this a go.

Thomas, I think my original

Thomas, I think my original problem was partly that I didn't fast between meals! If you decide to give it a try, I'd love to know how it goes. You could post here or write about it on the Storyboard section of the forum.

Update - I'm still fasting

Update - I'm still fasting twice a week with no real problems, other than a mildly growling stomach at intervals during the day. I've taken to eating just once a day in the early evening as that seems to suit me best.

I've lost around 11 pounds in all, although the weight loss is definitely slowing down, which is to be expected. Weirdly, I rather look forward to my fast days but maybe I'm just odd...

As a committed coffee addict, I've surprised myself by developing a liking for ginger & lemon and peppermint teas, which I chug ad lib on fast days.

I feel pretty healthy so far. If the weight stays off, I'll drop to fasting just once a week. I'll let you know!

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