What I learned from trying the 5:2 fasting diet

Our idea of what a diet is. Photo: Getty
Our idea of what a diet is. Photo: Getty

I’m not a fan of the gym. At all. But, if there’s anything I dislike more than exercise it’s dieting. But what if I told you there was a healthy eating plan you could try that STILL let you eat chocolate and drink wine for five days of the week? Sound a bit more appealing?

That’s exactly what I thought when I heard about the 5:2 diet. It was so intriguing that, out of curiosity, I decided to trial the plan for 30 days. From someone who feels the constant need to eat, the results were quite surprising.

What is the 5:2 diet and how does it work?

The 5:2 plan is an intermittent fasting diet which is done just twice a week. Fortunately, fasting in this case is more about reduced intake rather than zero food (otherwise I definitely couldn’t have done it!)

For these two days, you restrict your calorie intake to 500-600 calories and the other five days, you can eat ‘normally’. There are a few variations of the diet – some have a ‘fast and feast’ mentality, where you literally eat whatever you want on the ‘feast’ days, and others recommend that you continue to eat healthily and stick to a normal calorie intake for the five days. I tried to opt for something in the middle, healthy eating but with a couple of booze dinners thrown in.

The 5:2 plan is based on the concept of fasting, which is rumoured to date back to the caveman times, where our ancestors would have periods of feast and famine whilst they hunted and gathered food. After the body runs out of glucose from food, it starts to run off stored fat, thus making it seem an effective weight loss solution.

Can we do 5:2 instead of going to the gym? Photo: Getty
Can we do 5:2 instead of going to the gym? Photo: Getty

The good news

Unlike other diets, that require you to cut back from the good stuff permanently (no carbs, no booze, no sugar!), the 5:2 still allows you to eat what you want on the 5 other days. This means that it has quite a high compliance rate, with people sticking to the rules and staying on 5:2 for longer.

Shona Wilkinson, Nutritionist at SuperfoodUK.com says, “There is some research that intermittent fasting can lead to weight loss and a reduction in blood pressure, blood pressure and triglycerides. Fasting is also thought to help switch on genes and processes that repair the body.” Because of this, fasting is sometimes seen as a way to ‘reboot’ the body, so the two days can help regulate your system.

“The 5:2 meals recommended for fast days are generally well balanced and nutrient-dense.” says Shona, “But make sure you are incorporating protein and fibre into your meals to help balance your blood sugar and keep you feeling full for longer.”

The great thing about the 5:2 diet is that people seem to be able to stick to it, compared to other diets. It’s a lot easier to resist that chocolate biscuit for a day knowing that tomorrow you can eat it if you want.

A diet that lets you eat chocolate! Photo: Getty
A diet that lets you eat chocolate! Photo: Getty

What should we be concerned about?

“As with the every other day diet, I would be concerned about the potential of calorie counting leading to unhealthy eating patterns in vulnerable people.” says Shona. “While the fast day meal suggestions are generally quite healthy, a long-term eating plan should ideally focus on nutrient intake across the whole week, not just for two days of the week.” This diet focuses more on calories rather than a healthy balanced diet and we should be thinking about healthy eating in the long term.

“In summary, there are some benefits to intermittent fasting. However, following a pre-prescribed plan that doesn’t consider a person’s individual health needs and circumstances can be damaging.” says Shona. “I would definitely recommend discussing your personal needs and goals with a qualified nutritionist or naturopath who can put together an individual plan, taking into account what would work best for you.”

So with all of that in mind, we trialled the 5:2 diet for the whole of January, but what were the results?

This is what we imagine the 5:2 diet to be. Photo: Getty
This is what we imagine the 5:2 diet to be. Photo: Getty

Sticking to the diet 8/10

In general, the 5:2 was relatively easy to stick to – I can see how people build this into their lives quite easily but the tricky parts were planning it around your social life, remembering to prepare your lunches in advance and generally getting used to eating less.

As someone who always has to eat until they’re full, I was hoping that starting the 5:2 would help me get used to the feeling of not always having a sated appetite. The first week was quite uncomfortable but not impossible – drinking lots of water helped and over time I discovered certain foods which made me feel fuller. (Think fibrous leafy greens, lots of water and protein rich foods)

I managed to do it for a full month and I could definitely continue it.

Meal choices 6/10

Ultimately, a low calorie day means no meat, no sugar and no carbs. So food options were largely green vegetable based and with low-calorie meat substitutes like tofu and Quorn. Boring. It was a bit repetitive and also quite time consuming to prepare meals in advance.

Preparing lunches is not something I’d normally have time for, so I also tried special 5:2 meal plans from LighterLife Fast and Exante. These are a range of low calorie ready meals, meal replacement bars and drinks – all measured around 150-200 calories. On your 2 fast days, you have 3-4 products, depending on whether they were a 150 or 200 calorie pack.

When you think of meal replacements, you might have immediate thoughts of Slim Fast milkshakes and chocolate cereal bars for dinner but I was pleasantly surprised. There were plenty of savoury options and the Exante 5:2 diet plan had interesting meals like bake-your-own cheese scones and gooey microwave chocolate puddings, starting from 60p a meal.

If, like me, you’re always leaving the house in a rush, these meal plans are a quick way to grab everything you need to eat in one day. The majority of the meals were instant meals, where you add water to powdered food and heat in the microwave but it’s not all Angel Whip texture. The LighterLife Fast range had a lovely Shepherd’s pie sachet which tasted very similar to a real Shepherd’s pie, albeit a bit smoother in texture.

Instant meals taste great but don’t look so good. Photo: Yahoo!StyleUK
Instant meals taste great but don’t look so good. Photo: Yahoo!StyleUK

Whilst the meals didn’t look that appealing, they all tasted really nice and the protein content kept me feeling surprisingly full. The convenience of these is not to be underestimated – I really didn’t have time or inclination to weigh and measure my meals (I don’t even own kitchen scales), so these were an easy way to keep count of calories whilst knowing you’re getting 100% of your recommended daily nutrition.

On the days where I tried to prepare my lunch, I skipped breakfast and stuck to large green salads for lunch with quorn, brown rice and vegetables for dinner. Over time it did get a bit boring, but experimenting with spices and herbs really does make a difference.

The important thing you all want to know though – did I feel hungry? The answer is not really, but the urge to snack was quite unbearable at times, particularly when your office has biscuits and crisps on tap.

The feeling of not being able to eat is actually worse than the hunger itself. I staved off hunger pangs with mugs of hot Bovril instead of savoury snacks and a couple of raw cacao nibs when I wanted a chocolate fix.

The majority of healthy lunches looked like this. Photo: Getty
The majority of healthy lunches looked like this. Photo: Getty

Results in a month 8/10

When I took on the 5:2 challenge, it wasn’t necessarily about losing weight – I just wanted to be able to somehow justify eating (and drinking) what I wanted for 5 days whilst feeling healthier. Over the course of a month, I lost just over a kilo without any additional exercise.

The benefits I did notice were that I didn’t feel as bloated after meals and my appetite was getting smaller. Energy levels were not affected at all on fast days and I didn’t feel as sluggish in the afternoons – if anything, I felt like I got by on less sleep. My hair and nails also benefitted from all the greens and were a lot stronger by the end of the month (I actually managed to grow my nails to the longest they’ve ever been – hooray!)

Downsides I noticed were my mood swings on fasting days – but I think a lot of those were mainly mini-tantrums about not being able to snack and I was noticeably less grumpy by the end of the month. My stomach would also make the most horrendous gurgling noises on fast days, like a mini voice shouting “feeeed me”, so maybe not ideal for any group meetings you have.

We know healthy living is about food and exercise. This was the first step. Photo: Getty
We know healthy living is about food and exercise. This was the first step. Photo: Getty

Overall, I’m glad I started the 5:2, even just to understand the nutritional content within the food I usually eat. For example, when looking at meal plans I thought that 230 calories was way excessive for an Exante Chocolate & Peanut meal bar, until I realised that a Snickers bar can contain over 400 calories. The meal bar contains protein powder, so actually kept me fuller as well.

Being more knowledgeable about my food has definitely changed my outlook, which has actually made healthy-eating a lot easier for me. I definitely will be continuing the 5:2 concept throughout February but over time I can see the days merging into just an overall healthy week. Just throw in some brief exercise and I’ll be living the healthy-living dream!

Healthy living goals. We’ll get there. Photo: Getty
Healthy living goals. We’ll get there. Photo: Getty

The tips you need to make 5:2 work for you

  • Salted popcorn makes a great alternative to crisps and is half the calories.

  • Add exciting things like mint and cucumber slices to your water to make sure you’re drinking enough.

  • If you’re low on time, invest in a meal replacement plan for the 2 days a week.

  • Green vegetables are your new friends – they’re very low in calories and are great for making you feel like you’re eating a big meal.

  • Avoid the hidden calories in salad dressings and use salt and spices to flavour your food instead.

  • Look for foods that are high in protein, to help you feel full.

  • Try and find a 5:2 buddy at work to motivate you to do your fast days.

Would you consider going on a fasting diet? Tweet us at @YahooStyleUK.

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