The 5:2 Diet - My Review
If my life was a book, there would be a lengthy chapter called "Hayley vs Cellulite." I was a chubby, happy baby often likened to the Michelin Tyre man or called 'Papulka,' which my family tells me is Polish for chubby cheeks. It's cute when you're a toddler, but at high school my excess baggage was horrible. I was self-conscious, lacked energy and couldn't fit into anything fashionable.
My family ate healthily and my sisters and I rarely had sweets or junk food. I just didn't like exercising. When I went overseas for a year in the mid-2000s, I ballooned on my backpacker diet of pasta and beer. It was a moment, aged 19, when I saw my ankles in the mirror that shocked me into action. I started walking, doing yoga and I joined a gym. In the battle of Hayley vs Cellulite, I was charging ahead.
It took about five years but I lost around 25 kilograms (55 pounds). It took another five years to drop a further 5kg (11lbs) but then my weight loss hit a solid, cement wall in 2015. I desperately wanted to break the plateau. I was working out at least six days a week (cardio, strength and flexibility), weighing my meals and limiting alcohol and dining out. What more could I do, apart from stay home and eat dust?
Introducing... the 5:2 Diet
I put the question to my long-trusted naturopath. He's guided me on my health journey for a decade and I value his every word. When he answered "Have you heard of the 5:2 Diet?," I had a nervous twitch. Yes, I'd heard of this diet. I'd assumed it was another crazy Dukan, Gwenyth Paltrow, fruitarian regime touted by tabloid magazines. I had dismissed it as completely unscientific and unsustainable.
Yet I trusted my naturopath, so I listened intently. He explained the concept of 5:2, in which you eat just 500 calories a day, two days a week (or 600 calories for men) and the remaining days you eat normally (ideally healthily). The engineers of this diet, the UK's Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer, say you drop 0.5kg a week. Importantly, my naturopath noted you lose body fat while retaining muscle. Intermittent fasting was done in various cultures and religions across the world and was actually very natural. I was surprised.
It was tempting, yet petrifying. You see, I'm someone who wakes up ravenous. I eat lunch while thinking about my dinner and I pack a snack if I'm going out for more than an hour. How on earth was I going to fast for a day, and still function like a normal human? Desperate to change my body, I decided to give it a go.
My First Fasting Day
I had a fair idea of what 500 calories would get me. I planned my food intake the night before in MyFitnessPal and opted for three small, light meals. I ensured there was a mix of vegetables, some protein, carbs and a little fat. Throw in a cup of tea or two, some willpower, and I could do it!
How was my first fast day? It was HORRIBLE. I lasted an hour after waking up before having plain oatmeal. I ate slowly but mourned the loss of my regular fresh fruit toppings. I hit the gym for an hour, walked home and anxiously waited until 1pm for my next meal. Having skipped my usual post-gym smoothie, it felt like forever. I drank lots of water and tried to distract myself with housework. My tummy grumbled. I couldn't concentrate. But I persisted, and made it to my self-appointed lunch deadline. The bowl of zucchini noodles and tiny cubes of tofu was bland and completely unsatisfying. I wished the day would hurry up and end.
I drank more water, hitting two litres by early afternoon before doing errands for a few hours. This tactic was successful although I had a headache, and felt pretty hazy. I couldn't stop thinking about food. I wanted fruit, nuts and a thick slice of sourdough. I began to realise how much I relied on snacks but also how much I enjoyed them. I got home around 5pm and had a cup of tea with a splash of milk. I savoured every sip.
At 7pm, it was finally dinner time. I made a basic soup of some chopped vegetables, a little stock and a tablespoon of lentils. Waiting for it to cook helped kill time and the liquid made me feel full, even though it was essentially seasoned water. Every spoonful was slow and precious. It was surprisingly satisfying, and I felt good knowing I'd almost made it through the day. Within 90 minutes, I was hungry again. I had a cup of tea, felt slightly comforted and went to bed around 10pm hungry but relieved. I'd survived my first fast!
the next day
I had a terrible night's sleep. I'd gotten up multiple times to go to the bathroom (thanks, three litres of water) and I woke up before dawn with a roaring stomach. I grabbed some nuts while I put the kettle on. I treasured each, glorious bite of those walnuts. When I had some raisins as chaser, I was in heaven at such a rich and fatty combination. I didn't go crazy, just a few of each, but it was like sensory overload. I ate normally throughout the rest of the day, throwing in a bonus raw ball and maybe a second handful of nuts. I was definitely hungrier than normal but aside from the extra few snacks, I didn't go on a food rampage nor binge on chocolate cake.
What I remember most of all is how hollow my stomach felt, even the day after. I was surprised how good it felt to feel empty, even though I felt horrendously guilty for all those people who experience that feeling because of poverty or war. I'm told intermittent fasting is good for giving your digestive system a break, and it certainly felt like I had. I decided to stick with the 5:2 diet for a while, although only once a week as I didn't want to fast at work or all weekend.
what i like about 5:2
This was my biggest motivation for trying 5:2, and it worked. Fasting roughly once a week, I lost about 3kg over two months. I still ate well on other days and kept exercised intensely, but 5:2 helped break my plateau. I remember one run in particular at my lowest weight - I felt lean, strong and light! Of course, travel and Christmas put a pause on fasting and the weight came back. But I really liked seeing the results.
It's difficult to describe the feeling, but my stomach just felt good the day after fasting. It felt hollow but strong. If I'd had any stomach issues, such as a little bloating or gas, a fasting day fixed it. Often we're encouraged to consume something to feel better, but I find being empty is a great cure.
Reconnecting with hunger signals
How often do you truly feel hunger? In the Western world, you can buy a meal in minutes or have a snack instantly. Often you eat because the clock says it's lunchtime, or to prevent hunger later (like snacking before a long meeting). Sometimes, you just really want that cupcake. Fasting helped me realise the different stages of hunger, and importantly that it passes. No more grabbing fruit or crackers the second I feel hungry. Now I have some water or tea, wait, and I'm usually fine until lunch time.
Sense of accomplishment
Fasting absolutely tests my willpower. But there's something about setting a goal and achieving it that feels great. Fasting doesn't cost anything and doesn't take much planning. You just have to have be strong, and I always feel proud at the end of a fast day.
This is obvious. Being hungry is not fun or comfortable. However, it is natural. I doubt our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors woke up and went straight to the dining table. Enjoy the return to primal instincts (see "reconnecting with hunger signals" above).
In my first 10 or so fasting days, I'd get a dull pain in my head for a few hours or feel light headed. Suspecting it was lack of sugar (as I was still having caffeine from tea), I started adding a few strawberries to my oatmeal which helped. Whether it was this change or simply time, I rarely get headaches now.
- Low energy
I used to turn into a braindead sloth by 3pm on a fast day, cranky and only able to do robotic tasks like laundry or vacuuming until I considered it late enough for dinner (usually 7pm). Again, this symptom has subsided. I now go to work and function just fine, although I'm reluctant to do an evening gym session on a fasting day. My workouts are definitely harder the day after fasting, especially weights. I simply adjust my gym classes - cycling seems to be the best day-after workout so far.
- Bowel impact
I'll keep this brief. Any drastic change to your diet will impact your bowels and fasting is no different. Prepare for a lot of movement the day after you fast or none at all. There are plenty of forums covering this issue if you'd like more detail. I simply say eat healthy, fibrous foods and don't go on a long hike in the wilderness the day after.
Now you know the good, the bad and the gross. If you want to give fasting a go, here's my guide!
my Tips for 5:2 Diet
1. Pick Your Strategy
Are you a volume eater (large quantity of food, but low-calorie), or do a few, nutrient-rich bites work for you? Opting for volume means you'll eat for longer but you could just have one 500-calorie smoothie too. Personally, I'm a volume eater. I'll always choose a bowl of zucchini and mushrooms over 10 almonds. Yes, the calories are about the same if you cook without oil!
2. Decide Your Meal Frequency
Are you hungry when you wake up? Or does your tummy only rumble mid-morning? Think about your normal routine, and I'd suggest replicating that. Some 5:2 dieters save all their calories for an evening meal. For me, I started on three light meals (oatmeal, soup and zucchini noodles) but after a few weeks realised I could hold off breakfast until about 2pm. I could then just have dinner around 7pm, with a snack before bed. It comes down to whatever you can sustain.
3. Homemade or Ready-Made?
Like a normal day, you can prepare food yourself or buy your meals. Here are the pros and cons of each on a fasting day:
- Homemade: You'll need scales to weigh your ingredients and a calorie counting app (such as MyFitnessPal) to track your overall intake. Like all homemade meals, you can control the oil, dressings and salt and therefore stretch your 500 calories. This method is also reliable, as you'll know exactly what's in your food. But if you don't like cooking, you're adding another chore to an already challenging day.
- Ready-made: This is good option if you don't want to buy scales or if you're travelling. One way is to find grocery items that add up to 500 calories using the nutrition panels (such as soup, sliced bread or labelled-salads). Alternatively, you could rely on restaurants that publish nutritional information. I read about one 5:2 dieter who enjoyed two small sushi rolls on a fasting day. I'd stay away from fast-food outlets though. At 563 calories, a Big Mac will claim your entire daily limit.
5:2 Meal Ideas
It might sound restrictive, but when you cut snacks, carbs and dressings, you can get a decent amount of food for 500 calories. Think of the 5:2 Diet as going shopping - how much can you get with your allowance? My fast day staples include rolled oats (116 cals), half a punnet of strawberries (40 cals), and zucchini (40 cals). I always allow a cup of soy milk too (100 cals) to splash into oatmeal and with my Earl Grey.
Here's a recent example of a fast day. I did yoga in the morning, had two meals plus a snack before bed. Normally I'd choose fresh fruit over dried, but I'd run out.
When fasting, you learn magical things like an entire can of diced tomatoes is only 80 cals and packed with the antioxidant lycopene. And the average capsicum is around 30 cals and packs in 400% of your daily Vitamin C intake. You also learn that a turkish roll, at nearly 400 calories without anything inside, is off limits for a fast day. My favourite fast day foods are in a meal plan at the end of this post.
final tips & words of encouragement
- Pick a day where you're busy, but not challenged. Book in a physio appointments, make those store returns and collect your dry cleaning.
- You're giving your digestive system a rest. It'll thank you!
- Hunger is like sleepiness. It comes and goes in waves, rather than getting progressively worse.
- Fasting is way cheaper than a juice cleanse.
- And finally... YOU CAN EAT... tomorrow!
My fast day meal plan:
QUESTION: Have you tried the 5:2 Diet? What was your experience?