For many of us, dieting brings to mind day after day of bland vegetables and tedious calorie counting. The 5:2 diet, or fast diet, was created by founder Michael Mosley as “an exciting new alternative to standard dieting.” For five days out of the week you can eat whatever you want, while your caloric intake is reduced during the other two days.
The 5:2 diet offers a lot of potential health benefits, but needs to be followed rigorously. You can’t cheat on your day off with that one extra cup of coffee, no matter how tempting it might be. As long as you are able to stay disciplined and stick to your diet, you will see firsthand the many benefits of intermittent fasting.
It’s only been fairly recently in history that we have been able to control our own diets. Before humans began cultivating crops, our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers that relied completely on wild sources of food. If a hunting party couldn’t bring home a kill, the entire tribe might go hungry for a few days.
Our bodies have evolved to withstand periods of famine. In fact, the three-meal-a-day pattern that we’ve become accustomed to is unnatural from an evolutionary perspective. There weren’t a whole lot of cavemen that had access to a steady supply of food like we do.
Our bodies have been sculpted over time in part by our ancestors’ eating habits, so it’s no surprise that intermittent fasting provides a variety of health benefits. We are optimized to cope with mild stressors such as weight loss and hunger on a regular basis. Having free and unfettered access to food, on the other hand, is not something we have evolved to cope with.
Fat accumulation functions to help us store away energy during prolific periods so that we can survive during a famine. Without a famine, your body won’t use up all that extra fat. What was once an adaptive trait for us is now causing a widespread obesity epidemic. We live in a period of abundance, so it’s important to be careful about what you eat.
For five days out of the week you get to eat your regular meals. Keep in mind that this diet expects you to consume only the recommended daily caloric allowance, which is about 2000 calories for women and 2500 for men. If you’re used to eating more than this, then you may have to cut back on calories during your five days off.
On your two fasting days, you’re limited to a quarter of the recommended number of calories. That’s just 500 calories for women and 600 for men. It may sound like a lot, but a glass of milk alone is a whopping 100 calories. You need to stick to the right kinds of foods to stay full on your fasting days.
It’s best to avoid refined carbs such as pasta or potatoes when you fast. These are packed with empty calories and won’t keep you satisfied for long. After a brief spike in blood sugar, you’ll be left feeling weak and hungry.
Instead, you should eat foods that are low in calories and high in fiber to feel full during your fasting days. A typical breakfast may include oatmeal and fruit or a spinach omelette. Hunger pangs can wake you up in the middle of the night, so make sure to save some calories for right before bedtime.
It’s no secret that obesity has been linked to cardiovascular disease. Losing weight through diet and exercise is one of the best things that you can do for your heart. It also turns out that intermittent fasting may help to lower your blood pressure and decrease your risk of having a stroke. Simply changing your eating patterns can go a long way towards controlling cardiovascular health.
Insulin resistance is a condition that has been linked to hypertension and heart disease. People who are resistant to insulin have more trouble metabolizing glucose and controlling their blood sugar levels. Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity better than simply reducing the number of calories that you eat.
Insulin is a hormone that helps your body to store the energy from a meal. After carbohydrates from food are converted into glucose, you experience a rise in blood sugar. Insulin signals your cells to absorb glucose and keep your blood sugar levels steady. Glucose that is not used by your cells can be stored in the form of glycogen.
The average adult is able to pack away about 2000 calories worth of carbohydrates before his or her glycogen reserves get full. If there is still more loose glucose floating around, it needs to be stored somewhere. This extra glucose is stored as fat instead.
People who are sensitive to insulin are able to remove glucose from the bloodstream more efficiently, so less ends up stored as fat. The increased insulin sensitivity that comes with intermittent fasting can help to keep your heart healthy and control your weight.
A lot of workers claim to keep a sharper head after lunch if they stick to a light soup or salad. Eating less can keep you more alert and focused during the day, but there are also long term benefits.
As we age, we become susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Oxidative stress is a major player in impaired cognitive function. Fasting intermittently has been shown to help reduce oxidative stress in the brain, which can slow down age related neural damage.
Intermittent fasting can also improve your body’s stress response. Exposing yourself to a mild stressor like hunger can “train” your cells to cope better with stress. This helps your cells, including neurons, to withstand more serious stressors later on. Intermittent fasting can improve both your learning and memory in the long term.
Your immune system runs on white blood cells, which your body produces and recycles on a regular basis. Intermittent fasting can strengthen your immune system by speeding up the production of white blood cells. This can be especially helpful for those undergoing chemotherapy, which can drastically lower your immune cell count.
The precursors to your white blood cells are stem cells found in the bone marrow. The hormone insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, plays a crucial role in regulating the life cycle of these stem cells. Fasting can reduce levels of IGF-1, which is what triggers your white blood cells to start proliferating. A strong immune response means that your body can fight off infections quickly and efficiently.
Food restriction could also help your immune system to fight off cancer before it develops. Intermittent fasting encourages autophagy, where your body destroys damaged or dangerous cell components. Your body is constantly monitoring its own cells so that it can immediately quash any potential problems. A cell that is growing abnormally can become cancerous, but it is usually destroyed by autophagy before it becomes a real problem.
Sometimes intermittent fasting can come with unwanted side effects alongside the health benefits. Headaches and sleep difficulties are common, especially for those who are first starting out. Most of us haven’t trained our bodies to live on 500 calories a day.
You shouldn’t deny yourself of food entirely during your fasting days, but just reduce your caloric intake. Prolonged starvation can have the opposite effect of intermittent fasting and actually increases oxidative stress. This leads to all sorts of health problems, such as hypertension and impaired cognitive functioning. As long as you eat your 500 calories on both fasting days, your body won’t go into “starvation mode.”
Pregnant women, children and adolescents should not fast intermittently. This can get in the way of proper development by limiting daily vitamins and nutrients. The 5:2 diet doesn’t take into account that a growing teenage girl can require over 2400 calories a day or that a pregnant woman is eating for two.
Those who suffer from type I diabetes also shouldn’t practice intermittent fasting. The 5:2 diet can reduce insulin resistance, and type I diabetics that are sensitive to insulin are at risk of hypoglycemia.
Always talk to your doctor before starting a new diet. The 5:2 diet isn’t for everyone, and you should check to make sure that practicing intermittent fasting is safe for you.
The 5:2 diet can be difficult to keep up, but it is rewarding in the long run. Make sure that you stick to your dieting schedule rigorously and eat plenty of healthy and nutritious foods.
Intermittent fasting is a simple, safe and effective way to lose weight. You won’t spend half of every lunch counting calories, and can enjoy added health benefits such as lower blood pressure. You can even indulge in the occasional slice of cake!