the 5:2 diet and the return to consciousness

A friend turned me on to the concept of intermittent fasting/alternate day fasting/calorie restriction/5:2 or (5/2) diet via the Mosley BBC piece about 14 months ago. Since then I’ve been following the diet religiously… and by that I mean halfheartedly. When I say halfheartedly I really mean devotedly for about 50% of the time, so it is not that half my heart is in it all the time, but all of my heart is in it half the time. So maybe this should be called the 5:2/2 diet.

If you hath not heard of the 5:2 diet, it consists of eating as you please for five days out of the week and for two non-consecutive ‘fasting’ days of the week, you eat approximately 20% or less of your normal suggested calorie intake (around 400-600 calories). If you are overweight, the idea is that you will naturally eat less by choice; if you are normal weight the idea is that you will make up the missed calories on the five ‘normal’ eating days.

I am not by any sense of the word overweight, nor was I when I started, nor do I have any desire to lose weight. My BMI is 19.7 with the CDC declaring a BMI of 18.5-24.9 to be ‘normal’. So why try out this diet? One of the biggest reasons is to switch things up, very little is gained from repetitive actions without change (hence the raw food diet). Aside from that there were other reasons:

  • There is some extremely preliminary scientific evidence, as well as strong anecdotal evidence, that this diet is in fact healthy for a variety of reasons.
  • This makes intuitive sense in that as humans evolved we did not have a constant supply to endless supplies of food on a daily basis.
  • I’m sure as hell not going to fast on the weekend, so this saves me from buying two lunches during the week (estimated annual savings $750).
  • The food I usually eat for lunch is not that exciting or exceptional (rarely are things that come from a microwave or a salad bar), so I can ‘save’ these calories for food (or drink) from which I actually derive enjoyment.

Being on this diet is in no way difficult at this point. The only reason I skip days here and there is because I have an unexpected opportunity to eat something that I really enjoy. The reason my participation rate has only been at about 50% was that I had to go overseas for several months and wasn’t sure how the change in diet combined with the fasting would work out. Getting back on the diet after hopping off the diet was easier than getting on the diet the first time around. Starting the diet is only difficult if you are around people eating food (which you are). This is when the realization comes about that you are not hungry at lunch, but you are in fact responding to habit of eating at a certain time when other people are eating. It is the Pavlovian effect of the Hot Pocket in the microwave. After you push through this knee-jerk response to eat, you will be comforted as your ‘hunger’ subsides and you are left with plenty of energy and alertness when not around plates of melted cheese. As dinner time rolls around you realize that you have been structuring your life around food for a long time. As you are faced with the concept of a light dinner (or non-existent one, depending on when you allocate your calories), you are decidedly less excited about the last few hours of your day.

Long story short, you repeat this process two days per week for a couple weeks and all of a sudden, it becomes second nature. You don’t care, you prioritize other things. You realize when you are actually hungry. You become more aware of how you feel. Not only this, but you start to question other parts of your life; what else are you doing out of habit?

People who shouldn’t try this diet:

  • Breastfeeding mothers.
  • Pregnant women.
  • (possibly )Women who are not overweight that are interested in having kids. There is some very preliminary research that suggests that the children of women who have gone though famine are less healthy. This seems to me to be an issue of malnutrition, which would not be caused by this diet.

So why bother? Aside from the awakened consciousness about your decisions, what else can you expect? First the bad:

  • (perhaps) smelly breath as your body enters a state of ketosis (either I have not experienced this or people have been very nice to me)
  • body feels a little cooler (not as much heat created from the constant digestive processes)
  • drink more water (I generally feel like I need to drink 50-100% more water than normal)
  • more sensitivity to caffeine on fasting days (not sure this is a negative, but I find I don’t need coffee on fasting days)

Now the good:

  • better insulin response (body responds to sugar in the blood more quickly and doesn’t over compensate). This means you don’t get tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner or a loaf of bread.
  • you will live forever (possibly not true). The only proven way to drastically extend the lives of lab rats is to cut their caloric intake. Alternate-day fasting produces similar responses within the body as overall caloric reduction, but without resorting to a life of apple peels or lettuce wraps filled with lettuce.
  • less inflammation/bloating/water retention
  • improved stress resistance
  • reduction in levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). This is a hormone that causes the cells in your body to grow. This is great for when your body is supposed to be growing rapidly, but is generally a great way for your body to age and get cancer once your body is pretty much out of the growth phase (sometime in your 20’s most likely).

As always, you have to go with what feels right. It’s not the norm, that is certain, but to me it makes sense considering the norm wasn’t normal for a long period of human existence. While I don’t care terribly about extending my lifespan, I do wan to live my life in a healthy vessel of consciousness that is able to take the punishment associated with a life well-lived. Sometimes change for its own sake is a worthy undertaking, the 5:2 diet seems like that and more.

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