Why the 5:2 diet is stupid

Just in case you are under any illusions, given the title of this post, I think the current fad diet – the 5:2 diet – is completely ridiculous.  In my usual un-minced way, I’m here to tell you why.

Let’s start from the beginning… In September last year there was a TV program shown here in the UK called Horizon (episode 3/6 – Eat, Fast, live Longer), which I wrote about at the time. In it they spoke about the “revolutionary” new diet – Intermittent Fasting (IF). Since it’s mainstream TV the producers had to come up with a way for normal people to integrate this radical new concept into their lives, and since more advanced forms of IF, with their long fasting windows, would seem daunting to the (wo)man on the street, they came up with the 5:2 diet. The idea is that for 5 days a week you eat normally, and on the other 2 you eat 500 calories (or a few more if you’re a man) per day.

The diet was developed after the producers looked at one study, which seemed to spark the idea that a concept trialled on mice could be packaged into a diet (because, y’know, we’re just like mice). Wikipedia says of it:

Studies conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging reveal that fasting once or twice a week lowers Insulin-like growth factor 1 – IGF-1 levels, which encourages fat burning and can protect the brain against diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Tests conducted on mice have revealed that controlling the levels of IGF-1 through fasting can promote longevity; high levels of IGF-1 in later life promote aging, although it is needed in youth for growth. However, the general medical consensus is that fasting has not been researched extensively enough to determine if there are benefits.

For some reason the concept of the 5:2 diet was mostly ignored at the time the show was aired – I guess the population of Britain were too busy enjoying their summer, drinking outdoors at their local and having BBQ’s and picnics – but over Christmas everyones stockings were stuffed full of a desperate desire to shed the two kilos of mince pies they ate, and so the time was ripe for Yet Another Fad Diet.

Whilst previous fad diets – South Beach, Atkins and most recently Dukan – had some merit, the 5:2 does not. In fact quite the opposite. Let’s think about why people get fat – they eat too much, mostly of the wrong things, for a long time. To reverse that they need to start eating the right things, not too much of them, for a relatively long time (it’s fair to say that losing the weight can take you a similar amount of time to what it took to gain it).

Going on a diet is, or should be, about more than just losing that weight. It’s also about changing your attitudes – to yourself, to food, to change – learning new habits, getting rid of old ones, and generally equipping yourself with skills to take into the future to ensure that you don’t get fat again. Because let’s face it – the best way to avoid dieting is not having to go on one in the first place!

Whilst most diets don’t address many of these psychological and psychosocial issues, the 5:2 diet fails at even the most basic level – by teaching you a new way of eating. By telling you to eat “normally” for five days a week, you are in no way encouraged to change your habits. Frosties for breakfast, a supermarket chicken mayo sandwich for lunch, pizza for dinner – no problem! I’ve eaten that way for years – yahoo! No change for me. Phew – bad bad scary change – I like living with my head in the sand!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, for two days a week you then get dropped into eating disorder territory. The concepts of denial, guilt, and a form of punishment are common themes in dieting. We attach so much emotional gravity to what and how we eat, to a very unhealthy extent, that anything that exacerbates that is actually really damaging. Add to that the fact that 500 calories is not enough to sustain even the most sedentary person, and you have a pretty ridiculous concept for something that is supposed to be a healthy way of living.

So if you’re even considering embarking on this stupid diet, please don’t.

And if you’re still looking for a quick fix, then stop. There isn’t one. Eat proper food – meat, vegetables, fish, nuts, unprocessed stuff with a minimum of ingredients – and not too much of it. Take some exercise – whatever you enjoy. Enjoy a slice of cake and a chocolate bar occasionally. Just start making those changes in a sustainable way, so that they will be with you for the rest of your life, instead of a wagon that you will inevitably fall off.

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3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree with your article on IF. It’s a great piece and wish it could be more widely read.

    I have found a lot of opposition from fellow dieters online to my current practice of “eating to my appetite”. It’s as though they think it’s wrong NOT to be deprived, hungry and self-flagellating while dieting. I’ve lost 25lb, by the way.

  2. Fi says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not slamming IF as a whole – done properly – see http://www.leangains.com – I think it can be incredibly effective and a convenient and sensible way of eating for many people. My issue is with the 5:2 diet in particular.

    Personally though, I agree with you – eating when you’re hungry is the way forward :)

  3. Toby says:

    Five days a week, six mars bars. Two days a week just one a half. Balance accomplished, cheers dude.