Stay slim and fit for ever: the new diet and exercise rules

We all know the drill we should follow to lose weight and stay fit – spend hours at the gym and live on lettuce leaves. The problem is that it simply doesn’t work – because most of us don’t do it. We struggle to stick with diets, and we’re too tired, too busy or just too lazy to go to a gym. But there may be another way... A growing number of experts are suggesting we may be able to achieve most of the health benefits we need with just three minutes’ exercise and a couple of low-cal days each week. Sound too good to be true? Read on to discover what the new diet and fitness approaches could mean for you.

The new diet rules

Even the most dedicated dieters would admit they find the monotony and restrictions of a 24/7 diet a grind – and it shows. The average dieter is ready to give up after a few weeks, most of those who lose weight regain it, and 60% of us are now overweight or obese. As Dr Susan Jebb from the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Centre says, we need another way: ‘We’ve got the all-or-nothing approach – the very low-calorie diet – and we’ve got long-term, calorie-controlled diets. What we need is a third way that fits somewhere in the middle.’

That third way could be intermittent fasting – eating a very-low-calorie diet (VLCD) of around 25% of your normal intake for one or two days a week, and eating normally the rest of the time. While it might sound contrary to every healthy-eating rule you’ve ever heard, a growing body of research shows that occasional fasting doesn’t just help people lose weight, but can deliver the same health benefits – and more – as a regular calorie-controlled programme.

Professor Mark Mattson from the US National Institute on Aging believes that, as well as helping to tackle the obesity epidemic, intermittent fasting could be hugely beneficial to health. His research shows that restricting calories triggers processes in the brain that protect cells from damage and, he believes, potentially guard against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative brain diseases. Another small study at Newcastle University last year found that when 11 people with type 2 diabetes were put on to a 600-calorie-a-day diet for two months, the diabetes was reversed in seven of them – something that was previously thought impossible.

While this kind of calorie restriction sounds too radical for the average person, other research shows that a less drastic approach can also have considerable benefits. At the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre in Manchester, Dr Michelle Harvie found that two days a week of slashing your calorie intake can be as effective for weight loss as a regular calorie-controlled diet, and also has major health benefits. In devising the diet, Dr Harvie was looking for a different approach to help overweight women at risk of breast cancer who struggled with regular dieting. As we reported in our January 2012 issue, the two-day-a-week group ate just 650 calories on their diet days, with a 1,800-calorie Mediterranean diet for the rest of the week, while another group followed a daily 1,500-calorie Mediterranean-style diet. The research showed that women who cut calories just two days a week were as successful as those who dieted every day, and the health benefits for the two-day dieters were actually better.

The groups lost about the same amount of weight and had the same health benefits of lowered cholesterol, blood pressure and biomarkers for breast cancer, but the two-day dieters had greater improvements in their insulin sensitivity – which means better control of blood sugar and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes,’ says Dr Harvie. It’s thought that severe calorie restriction causes beneficial changes in the body’s insulin receptors, and there are even suggestions that the intermittent approach could help overcome the weight plateaus that are the bane of every dieter’s life – and which lead to so many people losing heart and giving up before they reach their goal weight.

It’s not a quick fix, though. Like any sensible calorie-controlled diet, the two-day approach gives slow, steady weight loss – and it’s certainly not for everyone. Though it may sound like an easy option, some people find it harder to stick with than a seven-day-a-week diet and, in the original study, about half of the two-day dieters dropped out. But if it’s an approach that suits you, and you can cope with two days of feeling hungry, it could be the diet for you. Try making your diet days the ones where you’re busy at work and won’t be tempted, then enjoy the freedom of eating normally for the rest of the week.

It’s early days, however, and there’s still much more we need to know about the long-term implications of this kind of diet and its impact on the body. As Dr Jebb says: ‘We need to be sure that when people are left to their own devices they won’t just overeat on the non-fasting days, and that this type of approach won’t lead to a pattern of bingeing and fasting. Ultimately, the only diet that really works is the one that people can stick to and reap the benefits of in the long term.’

Try it yourself

The Genesis 2 Day Diet, which is designed by dieticians, is based on limiting yourself to 650 calories for two days a week.
● On fasting days, eat only four portions of vegetables, one of fruit, two pints of semi-skimmed milk (or the equivalent in yogurt: 1⁄3 pint is equivalent to two 120g pots of diet yogurt), two pints of other low-calorie drinks and a multivitamin and mineral supplement.
● The rest of the week, eat a Mediterranean-style diet of around 1,800 calories, based on fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, wholegrains and pulses with only small amounts of meat and low-fat dairy products. Click here for more details on the 'Genesis Intermittent Diet'.

See page 2 for the new exercise rules...

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