Try the 5:2 fasting diet

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It's been a super-speedy and sensational hit, but there's more to the 5:2 diet, or fasting diet, than a trendy fad. The hot new eating plan advises dieters to eat normally for five days a week and then drastically slash their calorie intake for two, is being followed by everyone from top celebrity chefs to Hollywood's A-list.

And the best-selling book, 'The Secret of Intermittent Fasting - Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, Live Longer,' (Short Books, £7.99), which first got the British in a frenzy is now topping the US online diet book charts too.

The diet, also dubbed the 5:2 plan, is the brainchild of medical journalist Michael Mosley, who learned about fasting while researching a TV documentary released in the summer of 2012. He looked at calorie restriction as a way to extend your lifespan but, after meeting its advocates, ‘was never seriously tempted to join their skinny ranks’.

So he found that intermittent fasting was the perfect solution: cutting down on calories, but not all the time. There are many different ways of following these principles, but after travelling the world Mosley – who trained as a doctor - devised his own version. Urged to write a book after his programme aired during the London 2012 Olympics, he teamed up with Mimi Spencer, a columnist, feature writer and fad diet dabbler, and decided to spread the fasting gospel.

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On this plan, you can eat what you like for five days a week - they're called your feeding days and nothing is off-limits. Then, for the other two days of the week, you cut your calorific intake to just 500 calories if you're a man, and 600 calories if you're a woman. That's the only rule: you can eat your calories in one go, or graze so you spread them across the day. Mosley and Spencer recommend you try roughly half at breakfast and half at dinner, giving you a fasting space of about 12 hours in between.

It's totally up to you which days are spent fasting and which feeding - just bear in mind that the fasting days shouldn't be consecutive (Mosley favours Mondays and Thursdays as fast days).

So I can eat what I want the rest of the time?

Yes! The Fast Diet does claim to offer a safe way to lose weight, backed with plenty of proper medical research... don't forget that Mosley really did do his homework on this one. And happily, many dieters report that they are more aware of what they're eating the rest of the week - instead of feeling the need to stuff their faces, they generally didn't crave high-fat foods and stuck to the normal calorie consumption (about 2,000 for women, 2,600 for men).

As the pair write: 'When we first read about the alleged benefits of intermittent fasting, we, like many, were sceptical. Fasting seemed drastic, difficult – and we both knew that dieting of any description is generally doomed to fail. But now that we’ve looked at it in depth and tried it ourselves, we are convinced of its remarkable potential. As one of the medical experts interviewed for this book puts it: "There is nothing else you can do to your body that is as powerful as fasting."'

What about the health benefits?

As well as a route to weight loss, fasting for two days a week is also billed by the Fast Diet as a way to gain ‘long-term health and wellbeing’. 'The real dividend is the potential long-term health gains – cutting your risk of a range of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer,' they write.

'Using this approach it is possible to eat what you like, most of the time, and get slimmer and healthier as you do it. By reducing your calorie intake for two days a week (down to 500 calories for women, 600 for men) you’ll lose weight and enjoy a wide range of health benefits – the joy of the Fast Diet is that the side-effects are all good.'

Studies have shown that fasting can help to reduce levels of insulin-like IGF-1, which leads to accelerated ageing, as well as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is also said to improve the way your body handles insulin levels, as it makes it more sensitive - plus it can switch on your DNA repair mechanisms. (Read: 10 ways to reduce your cholesterol)

And Mosley refutes claims that fasting can kill muscle mass instead of burning fat, insisting he is living proof that it does work. 'Doing the diet, I have now lost just over 22lbs and my body fat is down from 28% to under 20%. I walk everywhere and do 30 press-ups each morning.

'Keeping muscle mass is important, not just because it looks better but also because muscle is more metabolically active than fat; it burns calories even when you are asleep. Rest assured, the diet will keep you healthy as well as help you lose weight.'

Who's a fan?

Celebrity nutritionist-to-the-start Oz Garcia, the man behind Heidi Klum's post-baby body and Hilary Swank's lean physique in 'Million Dollar Baby', is a huge fan of intermittent fasting. He fasts once a week, eating only nutrient-dense, low-calorie fruits and vegetables.

'There's a lot of information that indicates intermittent fasting and cleansing is also great for preventing heart disease and diabetes,' he says, although he advises his A-list clients to try their first fast several weeks before a big red-carpet event.

Celebrity fans of juice fasts, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore and Sofia Vergara, could use this plan to incorporate regular fasting into their busy lifestyles - although Mosley recommends you don't run a marathon on a fast day, he says it makes him feel sharper and more focused.

And it’s even convinced British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who’s been following the plan since January. 'The Fast Diet says I can continue to butter my bread, cheese my butter, and raise my glass – at least for five days a week,' he says. 'It also promises much more than mere weight loss. It will reduce my bad cholesterol, protect me against cancer and even sharpen my mind. It pretty much promises that I will live longer, and healthier.'

See what you can eat for 500 to 600 calories a day, plus more health benefits

 

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