And now for something a little different……
At Sneak Punch we aim to promote exercise to get you super ‘Fighting Fit’. Your goal might be to lose weight, tone up, train hard or just learn new techniques. Through boxing fitness training everyone can achieve this.
We are always thinking, researching and listening to the latest theories and developments within the fitness world. Diet is a key factor to staying ‘Fighting Fit’, and the 5:2 or fasting diet has received a lot of attention lately, so we decided to take a further look for our Sneak Punch readers. It’s an interesting concept and one we’ll be commenting on in future posts. So keep reading!
Intermittent Fasting – the 5:2 Diet – What to make of it?
In the summer of 2012 Dr Michael Mosley embarked on a revolutionary kind of diet, for the BBC’s Horizon programme. This new diet involved fasting – a somewhat controversial subject! The proponents of this diet argue that it has many benefits, ranging from dramatic weight loss, improved cognition, possible resistance to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, and increased longevity. Suddenly this seems worthy of an investigation!
Intermittent fasting – or the 5:2 diet– basically involves eating normally 5 days each week, and restricting calories for the remaining 2 days. The 2 ‘fast’ days must be non-consecutive, with a maximum calorie intake of 500 calories for women, and 600 for men.
That’s it. It is a very simple approach, which might account for its explosive popularity. No clever avoidance of certain foods, no food combinations to stick to (or avoid), no special dietary foods or drinks. No capital expenditure, no fancy recipes.
I must admit to feeling at this point, that I ought to be in the process of providing a grand explanation of this magnificent new diet, the likes of which we have never experienced before, the new revolutionary, amazingly effective, controversial dietary experience. But there really isn’t much else to say. Eat normally for 5 days, eat much less for 2 days. Diet explained.
Studies using animals have suggested that fasting produces metabolic benefits within the body. To be fair, at this point, it is hard to know whether benefits found in animals will be replicated in humans, so further testing is required.
Dr Mosley looked at some research involving long lived dwarf mice, and spoke to a Professor Valter Longo about why these mice live for up to 5 years, compared to an average mouse lifespan of just 2 years. Interestingly, these mice also seem to be resistant to heart disease and cancer – it appears that when they die, their hearts simply just stop beating, without a particular cause.
One of the links between increased lifespan and fasting appears to be a hormone called ‘insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). It’s this hormone that could be the key to the good health of the Laron Mice. Wilkipedia defines IGF-1 as follows “IGF-1 is a hormone similar in molecular structure to insulin. It plays an important role in childhood growth and continues to have anabolic effects in adults”.
IGF-1 hormone is produced by the liver, and along with other growth factors keeps our cells in an active state, encouraging cell reproduction. This is great when we are young and need to grow. But, in adulthood it can be harmful if all our cells are in a constant state of activity and reproduction, as this is when harmful cells can be reproduced. This can lead to premature aging and other negative outcomes if such harmful cells, like cancer cells are actively being reproduced.
The Laron mice are special because they have been genetically engineered to be unresponsive to IGF-1. This means their cells may be less likely to keep running in a permanently active state, and may explain why they age less and live longer.
Interestingly, in humans it has been found that a high protein diet increases IGF-1 levels. Many of us, particularly meat-eaters consume far too much protein on a daily basis. By doing this we may be unwittingly encouraging premature aging within our bodies, even if our actual calorie intake is within recommended levels.
Professor Longo has also studied IGF-1 in humans, and found a group of people in Ecuador who suffer from a genetic condition called Laron Syndrome. This is a very rare condition, with less than 350 known sufferers worldwide. These people, like the Laron mice, are unaffected by IGF-1. Their bodies don’t respond to this growth factor in the way that other people do. One of the consequences of this lack of response to IGF-1 is that they are short – usually less than four feet tall.
Another of their distinguishing characteristics is that they appear to be immune to cancer – although their relatives do seem to suffer from cancer just like members of the general population.
So, something in their bodies is providing resistance to cancer, and it has been suggested that the key to this resistence is their unresponsiveness to IGF-1, just like the Laron mice.
Laron Syndrome sufferers are long-lived, but not ever so. However, this may be due to their perceived infallibility – the knowledge that they are resistant to cancer (and diabetes it seems). They don’t seem to worry about their diets, and are often smokers.
The link between these facts and fasting – when we fast our levels of IGF-1 are significantly reduced.
Metabolic effects of fasting – The Benefit of reduced IGF-1 in humans
Fasting has multiple effects on the body at a metabolic level. Blood pressure drops, blood glucose levels drop, and a certain amount of re-programming occurs at a metabolic level- namely our IGF-1 levels drop.
Lower levels of IGF-1 appear to somehow encourage the body’s cells to switch from being in an active/reproducing state, to being in repair mode. Somehow this state (which occurs after we fast and therefore have no new food supply) appears to switch on DNA repair genes within the body. To me, as a lay-person, this seems very sensible. When new resources are scarce, the body makes the most of what is already has.
Put simply – fasting benefits the biochemistry of the human body, encouraging the body to fix itself. It then uses the resources it already has, rather relying on newly consumed food.
Results of a 3-day fast
When Dr Mosley embarked on his fasting routine, he was weighed at the beginning, and at the end of the fast, plus he submitted to blood tests. He began fasting on a Monday evening, after eating his dinner (a steak treat!). He then proceeded to fast for 3 days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Interestingly, he found the feelings of hunger didn’t increase to an intolerable level as the days passed. He reported in fact, that after 24 hours it almost eased.
On the Friday morning it was time for the crucial blood tests and weigh-in. He had lost 2lb of body fat, his blood glucose levels had fallen (I don’t think this is particularly surprising find), but perhaps most importantly, his IGF-1 levels had halved! Now as mentioned above, if lower IGF-1 levels are a crucial factor in preventing disease and increasing longevity, and the act of fasting actually lowers these levels, this is extremely interesting in terms of the 5:2 diet.
At the moment there has been little research into these suggestions, so it’s hard to ascertain the long term effects of fasting or the 5:2 diet. However, what we do know, so far, seems encouraging for anyone who wishes to lose weight and fancies the idea of a little repair and regeneration in their cells!
Could this apply to many of us? Possibly so. Now do we wait for the long drawn-out studies or should we go for the 5:2, lose some weight and possibly increase our longevity in the process. You decide!
The Usual Suspects
It is a well established fact that many of us in the Western world consume more energy than we use. The result is an unsurprising amount of weight gain, as the years go on.
The trouble with most diets is the inevitable planning of meals, the need to stick to our plan, not deviate from said plan and keep on the diet day after day, week after week, month after month, even year after year. Sounds depressing before we even start! Typically a person who is dieting will have their lapses, worry they’ve ruined the diet, and end up feeling demotivated and possibly giving up altogether. This up and down cycle is very common because it’s actually very hard to be ‘good’ all the time, especially if we feel constantly in a state where we have to deny ourselves what we truly desire.
In order to feel satisfied, our thoughts and behaviours need to be similar to each other. When we slip up on our diets, the feeling of failure we have is caused by the discrepancy between our ‘plan’ and our action.
Some people think that the beauty of the 5:2 diet is that it only involves denial of ‘treats’ or ‘feasts’ for one day at a time. There is no need to become unhealthily obsessed with things we cannot have, because we can have them – tomorrow! This gives us a sense of control and reduces our cravings. Moderation becomes possible, normal, controllable, and even desirable.
In addition to these benefits, people using the 5:2 diet have reported feeling more awake, focused and alert during fasting days. This makes sense from a biological point of view, as it would be necessary for us to be alert and ready for hunting, if we were in fact starving and living in the wild. In our modern world, this benefit could translate to us being more productive in the workplace, or in our lives generally.
Dr Mosley also met with a Dr Kirsta Varady, from the University of Illinois in Chicago. She has been looking at Alternate Day Fasting, which involves the same reduced calorie intake on fasting days (600 men, 500 women), but on every alternate day, rather than just on two days each week. The interesting point about this was that Dr Varady found it didn’t matter what her volunteers ate on their feast days. She had two groups – one which ate pizzas, lasagne etc. on their feast day and the other which ate a low fat diet on their feast days. Both groups lost the same weight, and the high fat group even lost more weight at times throughout the ten week trial!
Dr Varady also found that both groups experienced similar falls in bad cholesterol levels (LDL Cholesterol) and in their blood pressure. She also found, contrary to what many of us might expect, that her subjects did not end up exceeding their ‘normal’ calorie intake on their feast days. This is particularly encouraging.
In addition to this, some scientists have even suggested that the 5:2 diet can help to reduce some cancer causing hormones (found in The Daily Mail – 2010). Scientists found that following the 5:2 diet for 6 months reduced levels of leptin and insulin in the the blood. These hormones help to regulate appetite and blood sugar levels, and are thought to be a causative factor in some cancers.
Managing the 5:2 Diet
So, we have looked at 3-day fasting and Alternate Day fasting, as well as the 5:2 fasting diet. To me the 5:2 diet seems to be a more easily achievable version of these variations. It allows for 5 normal days during which any social events could be attended and a normal life enjoyed. The two fast days can be chosen each week and don’t have to be the same days, although some people might like to have a routine to stick to. Another benefit is that it doesn’t seem to matter how, or when the fasting day calories are consumed – all in one go, or spread out during the day, either seems fine.
Some people find that hot drinks can help to curb their appetite during their fast days. Other suggestions have been to use low calorie instant soups, and to avoid lots of carbohydrates when eating on fast days (as your blood sugar levels dip afterwards, you may feel particularly hungry).
The 5:2 diet seems to incorporate the best bits of the fasting research, without going to extremes. Although opinions may differ in terms of the extremeness of any kind of fasting! I have to admit to being a fan of eating every 3-4 hours, so perhaps fasting isn’t my idea of a fabulous day. However, if the benefits are true, maybe it’s worth a little sacrifice, after all the next day is a treat day!
Dr Mosely stuck to the 5:2 diet for two months, lost over a stone in weight, and normalised both his blood glucose levels (which had been very high previously) and his cholesterol levels. After the two months had passed, his IGF-1 levels had also remained low.
Benefits of 5:2
So, fasting certainly promotes weight loss (by significantly slashing a persons calorie intake) and perhaps more interestingly has a positive effect on our biochemistry.
The elephant in the room seems to be the question of who is going to pay for research that could result in a recommendation for people to consume less of anything? Where is the market incentive for that kind of research – who will benefit from that? I can’t see the multinational businesses lining up to fund this one.
So, another supporter is required. What if we consider the cost to the NHS of obesity related disease and treatment. The Department of Health estimates the current cost of obesity to be about 5.1 billion pounds per year! If that bill could be reduced somehow – maybe by a revolutionary diet , then perhaps that could justify some more research.
Perhaps this will happen, but in the meantime it’s left to us to review the available facts, throw in a pinch of commonsense and take control of our lives. If fasting is a way to achieve this, then maybe it’s time to have a go. As with many things in life, the element of control we feel we have is directly related to the level of stress we experience. Increased perception of control means reduced stress levels. This is quite a straightforward relationship, and one which has been thoroughly researched. Traditional diets focus on recipes, plans, weigh-ins, dates, etc.. and therefore do provide a sense of control. Bingo- we’re sorted. Now the problem occurs when we inject life into the scenario. A birthday party, cakes at the office, dinner invitations, or simply feeling hungry! Some diets don’t allow for this thing called life, and some make provision for it in the form of adding points up for various foods. But this all gets a bit too complicated for me!
Now, introduce the concept of the 5:2 diet and suddenly there exists the possibility of living in control and having treat/feast times, alternately yet successfully. It’s a new way of thinking and admittedly rather strange for most of us to envisage. Most of us have never experienced real hunger, and if we do, maybe some of us will decide this isn’t the route for us. It won’t be for everyone.
For those of us that feel we can handle it, this may just be the route for us to keep healthy, reduce our risk of disease and promote our longevity. If we can achieve this and manage to enjoy and live our lives, feeling in control, satisfied and successful, we may just have found a way to have our cake and eat it.
If any of you have tried the 5:2 diet or any variants, please get in touch and tell us how you found it.
Any ideas about how to make the fasting days easier, or what works for you would also be great, many thanks.
Wilkipedia – the free encyclopedia. Insulin-like growth factor 1
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulin-like_growth_factor_1
Dr Michael Mosley (August 2012). The 5:2 diet:can it help you lose weight and live longer?
The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/9480451/The-52-diet-can-it-help-you-lose-weight-and-live-longer.html
BBC Horizon (August 2012)
Department of Health – Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.dh.gov.uk/health/category/policy-areas/public-health/obesity-healthy-living/
Sophie Borland (October 2010). Strict Diet two days a week ‘cuts the risk of breast cancer by 40%’. The Mail Online. Retrieved from
Written by Julie Phillips BSc. Member of the SneakPunch Team