By Laura Fraser
A college friend's mother was a marvelous cook, a woman who ate with gusto but never gained weight. The word diet didn't pass her lips. Rather, "These berries would taste much better with cream." When I asked her mother's secret, my friend replied, "She doesn't eat on Mondays."
At the time, the idea seemed awful -- Mondays are gloomy enough -- but now, after years of watching my figure, the strategy has a certain appeal: Why diet for the whole week when you could just endure a little concentrated suffering?
This is the idea behind the 5:2 Diet, based on the international best-seller The Fast Diet by doctor Michael Mosley and food writer Mimi Spencer. Wildly popular in the UK, the plan calls for intermittent fasting: Two days a week you eat only 500 calories; the other five days you eat as you normally would. When I heard about the trend, I was skeptical. Like anyone who has ever cut carbs or counted calories, I know dieting as a boomerang deal: You pretend you're pleased to be eating spaghetti squash until you lose ten pounds, at which point you find yourself facedown in a plate of creamy Alfredo. But the 5:2 Diet creators promise that just two days of restriction won't elicit that eat-or-die (or die-of-boredom) response.
So I've been trying it. On Mondays and Thursdays I survive on cottage cheese, egg whites, gazpacho, steamed green beans and zucchini and cabbage soup. No biggie when a hunk of Parmesan and a glass of red are on tomorrow's menu. The first week, I fell into the trap of treating the non fasting days as a license to gorge: pairing a buttery scone with my morning coffee, forgoing fruit for cheese and crackers and scarfing down my coworker's potato chips when I don't even like fried foods. By the second week, I realized that my five days off shouldn't be free-for-alls and I went back to my normal diet -- mostly Mediterranean, with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and olive oil.
Surprisingly, I never feel cranky or tired on fasting days (then again, I am drinking a ton of coffee -- there's only one calorie per cup), and I can work at warp speed; I think more clearly on an empty stomach. The 5:2 advocates even claim that intermittent fasting has health benefits -- mice that give up food from time to time live longer, and fasting may improve cholesterol levels.
After a month, I noticed that 5:2 was helping me realize when I was truly hungry or full. Now I never reach the last crumbs in a bag of pretzels wondering how that happened. Another shocking discovery: If I skip my wine nightcap, I have more energy in the morning. I'm losing only about a pound a week, but I have found my waist again, and my jeans feel loose. Better yet, I'm getting leaner without wasting time filling out diet charts and obsessively tallying what I ate for breakfast. And that makes every day so much more delicious.