The benefits of turning the 5:2 diet on its head
For years, my relationship with my weight was like a Mexican stand-off. I didn't want to exercise (exercise being, until very recently, unseemly and uncool) but I didn't want to put on weight. I didn't eat much, followed a loose no-carb, no-sweeties regime, and that seemed to do it.
Then I had two children: Kitty when I was 30 and Sam when I was 33. I'm now 36.
I had been warned that once you pass 35 keeping the weight off gets harder – yet I was still surprised when 35 came and went and, indeed, the old weight-loss tricks didn't work any more. It wasn't enough just to more or less cut out carbohydrates but still eat meat, cheese and brown rice. But I had been coasting along like this for so long I didn't know how to change.
Then the 5:2 diet came along, with its infamous two fasting days. People all around me, mainly men, shed extra weight by eating barely anything for two days of the week.
But there were no two days in the week when I could eat nothing. In my 20s it was easy to pick at salads and fit into tiny jeans. But with two small children not yet in full-time education and with limited childcare, the physical demands on me were too intense to be light-headed from fasting.
Hefting a three-year-old and a six-month-old around, pushing a buggy laden with both children and shopping up hills, to and from the playground, was draining. Not eating was simply out of the question. But at the end of last summer, I saw a photograph of myself at my dad's birthday party and my mouth fell open. My weight had crept up and although I wasn't technically overweight, but I had to do something.
So in September last year, as soon as my daughter started school and my son started mornings at his nursery, I dug my heels in and cut out every extraneous foodstuff. There would be no more cheeky pastries at 11am, ever. There would be no more just quickly finishing off the kids' leftovers at dinner. There would be no more drinking during the week. I started going to a spin class.
By the following February I was tossing out pairs of "fat" jeans.
It helped that my husband, Giles, joined in the game. At 46, he is a veteran of the over-35 fat battle, and hates being overweight as much as I do. At breakfast, where we once gorged on sourdough toast with marmalade, we now eat porridge made with just water and a dash of milk. Sometimes I speckle mine with blueberries for excitement.
We eat our chosen frugal lunches during the day and then meet up again in the evening for fish soup, fish and greens, or sometimes just a salad. Oh, and no alcohol.
But what about the weekend? Following a strict diet during the week is all very well but it's too boring to do it at the weekend, too. Although I have managed to navigate my way to a weekday diet that I enjoy and can stick to, I also love and crave starch, sugar and wine. It's just not true that when you stop having those things you stop missing them. I can live without them for longish periods, but only with the knowledge that it's not absolute, not forever.
I'm also no good at "occasionally". When people who have given up sugar or carbs or booze talk about "occasionally" having a slice of cake or a gin and tonic, I can never get my head round how they can do that. What's occasionally? If I granted myself the "occasional" biscuit it would quickly turn into two and then just this quick ice-cream here and then this small bag of Maltesers there. And I would carry on like that until I was completely spherical.
Another factor is that we have a house in the country and often have weekend guests. Was I going to make them eat fish and kale for dinner, too? Would we all have mashed avocado and crackers for lunch? One single vodka, with soda and fresh lime, at drinks o'clock? Or perhaps I'd serve my guests delicious pies, cake and cocktails but sit apart, not eating, or just having an apple. Unthinkable!
If nothing else, it's bad manners.
In the end, it was Sylvester Stallone who inspired the 2:5 diet. My husband, who loves the Rocky films, said one day: "I read an interview with Sylvester Stallone – he said at the weekend he eats and drinks whatever he wants and puts on about three kilos. Then he spends the following week losing it."
And so the 2:5 idea was born.
Where 5:2ers eat mostly what they like for five days and fast for two, I eat carefully from Monday to Friday and then whatever I want at the weekend. Come Monday morning, I've got five days to lose what I've gained.
The weekend isn't always a massive blow-out, but nothing is off limits. That half-eaten pack of chocolate-covered raisins? I'll eat the rest. Fluffy pancakes drowned in maple syrup? Yes. Half a bottle of wine with dinner. A roast lunch on Sunday, with potatoes. The rest of the kids' fish fingers. Cheesecake. Lasagne. Whatever.
It helps that this eating free-for-all happens in a separate house. The drive from town to country on a Friday night is my Rubicon. We transfer sleeping kids from car to bed and then sit in the kitchen and drink large glasses of red wine, eat cheese, pâté, crackers. The journey back is the same. On Monday morning it's back to the water porridge, the berries, the chia seeds.
Although it's great for weight maintenance, the 2:5 is no good for weight loss. But I have given up on the idea that I'll ever be really tiny. Just losing that extra seven kilos was enough of a grinding effort for me to see that at my age, getting and staying actually thin (rather than just slim) is too hard, too all-consuming. Too incompatible with family and social life.
So the 2:5 diet it is. Me and Sylvester Stallone – I always suspected we had a lot in common.