Women

You’ve probably heard about intermit tent fasting experts say by reducing your calories two days a week you’ll slim your waist and reduce your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Finally, is this a diet that delivers?

Most diets don’t work, but could this one be an exception? Intermittent fasting popularly known as the 2-day diet or 5:2 diet has created a storm of interest, not just in the media, but in the science world too. A diet plan where you simply restrict your intake to 500 calories (600 for men) a couple of days a week sounds amazing and there’s compelling evidence that it works.

The evidence

A 2006 study by the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre in Manchester found that two-day dieters lost an average of 7.7kg (6kg of fat) over six months, by eating just 650 calories two days a week and following a normal diet for the rest of it. People who followed a daily calorie-restricted diet for six months lost 1.4kg less.

A diet plan where you simply restrict your intake to 500 calories (600 for men) a couple of days a week sounds amazing – and there’s compelling evidence that it works.

A diet plan where you simply restrict your intake to 500 calories (600 for men) a couple of days a week sounds amazing and there’s compelling evidence that it works.

But it’s the health benefits associated with intermittent fasting that are most intriguing. ‘Research shows that losing even a small amount of excess weight – five to 10 per cent of your body weight can help reduce your risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,’ says Dr. Michelle Harvie, of the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre, and author of The 2 Day Diet (Vermilion, $16.5). But the process of fasting appears to deliver these health benefits even faster. In 2006, the Centre began testing the theory that restricting calories a few days per week could reduce the risk of age-related illnesses. ‘Our two-day dieters had a 25 per cent greater improvement in their insulin function, the root of many weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and possibly dementia,’ says Harvie.

Interest in intermittent fasting was piqued following Dr. Michael Mosley’s BBC 2 Horizon documentary, Eat, Fast and Live Longer, last summer. For two, non-consecutive days a week, Mosley limited his intake to just 600 calories. After three months, Mosley had lost 8.6kg in weight, and he had also reduced his blood glucose levels from the pre-diabetic risk category to normal, lowered his LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels from dangerously high to normal and reduced levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a marker for cancer risk, in his blood.

So how to explain these benefits? Research shows that overeating causes levels of the hormones insulin and leptin to soar in the body, sending a barrage to multiply and grow. Levels of IGF-1 increase in our blood, cell maintenance is neglected and damaged cells accumulate, which can lead to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

‘Our two-day dieters had a 25 per cent greater improvement in their insulin function, the root of many weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and possibly dementia,’ says Harvie.

‘Our two-day dieters had a 25 per cent greater improvement in their insulin function, the root of many weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and possibly dementia,’ says Harvie.

But when the body is fasting, it goes into ‘clean-up’ mode. ‘Levels of insulin and lepton fall quickly when we eat less,’ says Harvie. ‘Cells can put more effort into staying in top condition, repairing damage and removing waste.’ This reduces the risk of disease.

Cruise control

Fasting may also be beneficial for weight maintenance and better health in the long term. Mosley explains that, having reached his goal weight, he now fasts one day a week and continues to reap the health benefits. ‘My weight has stayed steady at 12 stone and my bloods remain in good shape,’ he says. This was also the case in Harvie’s study. The two-day dieters kept their weight off for 15 months by fasting once a week, and maintained lower insulin and cholesterol levels.

But hang on…

Obviously this is an area of science that’s in its early stages, and as with any diet plan, intermittent fasting already has its critics.

Obviously this is an area of science that’s in its early stages, and as with any diet plan, intermittent fasting already has its critics.

Obviously this is an area of science that’s in its early stages, and as with any diet plan, intermittent fasting already has its critics. ‘The science is young and is largely based on animal studies so how well the diet can translate to humans is difficult to know,’ says Dale Rees, registered dietician (mydietaim.com). ‘As the research isn't robust enough, we need more human studies before this type of diet can be universally accepted.’ There are also a lot of unanswered questions: is fasting every other day or just twice a week enough? Should it be a water-only fast or restricted to 25 per cent of your total calories for one day? Should you fast for 24 hours or 36? Would a juice fast be better? ‘I have supported clients following an intermittent fasting plan and it can be quite tough for some,’ says Rees. ‘They report back that they’ve been snappy and grumpy. While some people can cope well consuming just 500 calories, others can’t handle the drastic mood changes. You might feel sluggish and less productive than normal. While the body can adapt quite well to stresses and strains such as fasting, you would need to be quite motivated to follow this for the long haul.’ Still, it’s hard to ignore that intermittent fasting is growing in popularity and people are seeing results and undeniable health benefits.

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