The mimicking diet that really does work
With poor diet a factor in one in five deaths, Victoria Lambert shares her experience of ProLon, the fasting regime showing results
TS Eliot was wrong. September – actually – is the cruellest month. All that summer bonhomie dissipated the instant you try to do up your jeans. But not this year. Not for me. Because while you were all off on holiday having a good time, I was undertaking a trial of ProLon, the first fast-mimicking diet (FMD) programme, which has been designed to kick-start the body at its cellular level.
On this type of fast – a scientifically designed, pre-packaged micro diet that mimics the effects normally generated by water-only fasting, but without the adverse effects – you can lose weight, especially from the abdomen, and see levels of cholesterol and other risk factors for chronic disease fall, potentially improving longevity.
Finding a way to deal with obesity has never been more important. According to a new report in The Lancet from the huge and ongoing Global Burden of Disease study, poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths around the world, with ischemic heart disease – for which obesity and diet are among the risk factors – the leading cause of early deaths worldwide, including in the UK.
And recommendations from the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) could soon see every single person aged 40 and over offered an NHS diabetes check, with potentially five million Britons at risk of type 2 diabetes ordered to go on strict diets by GPs as a result.
Which is where ProLon could come in. This fasting regime is the brainchild of biogerontologist and cell biologist Professor Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC), who is fascinated by the way the body behaves when calories are restricted through periodic fasting (PF) – fasting which lasts for more than two days at a time.
His research in humans is beginning to confirm the tremendous effects he has already seen in mice. Most recently, a USC study found that markers most associated with chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD) – body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, fasting glucose, IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor), triglycerides, total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and C-reactive protein (which increases in response to inflammation levels) – fell in subjects who were placed on the FMD for five consecutive days per month for three months.
Although Prof Longo is keen to stress that we need more and larger studies in humans before making definitive claims, it would be hard to argue that something is not going on.
“The way this type of fasting improves our health is multi-fold,” he explains. “Almost every chronic disease is age-related. From Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s, cancer, type 2 diabetes and CVD.
“When our calorie intake is restricted it stimulates and speeds up autophagy – the orderly breakdown of old cells in the body which might otherwise begin to degenerate and cause disease. By helping us to slough off these old toxic cells, PF promotes the growth of new healthy stem cells instead. We think fasting can cure a damaged cell and make a normal cell healthier.”
In addition, periodic fasting seems to help shift visceral fat – the layer under our muscles which wraps around our organs (and which seems to come as standard in middle age). This is the dangerous type of fat as it inhibits crucial organs like the liver from working efficiently. Yet as it collects independently to subcutaneous fat – the kind which gathers under the skin – you can look in good shape yet still be storing up health problems for the future.
It is possible, he explains, that what PF is doing is giving the body a break from constantly stockpiling new calories, exhausting itself in the process, so that it can work efficiently again. One particularly promising area of study is in cancer treatment. His studies indicate that fasting could make cancer cells more receptive to chemotherapy while protecting other healthy tissue.
While Prof Longo isn’t suggesting fasting could be some kind of alternative cure, he points out that “medicine doesn’t take you back to when you were healthy – it merely blocks the problem. Fasting rejuvenates the system. If there is a problem with the liver, for example, PF can shrink the liver, get rid of the damaged cells and then allow the liver to expand again.”
So, do the tens of thousands who practise the 5:2 diet – five days normal eating, two days fasting, as recommended by Dr Michael Mosley – also get these benefits? “That’s not really fasting,” says Prof Longo, gently. “It takes 30-40 hours to deplete the liver of glycogen before the body has to start burning abdominal fat properly.”
With all this in mind, in June I went to be weighed and measured at the Harley Street practice of nutritionist Kim Pearson, ProLon’s UK ambassador, to begin the regime. Having tried a prototype of the diet two years ago, I knew what to expect: tiny portions, headaches and a gnawing feeling in my stomach that could have been hunger but would also probably be despair.
Back then, I approached the diet merely as a way to shed some pounds fast – and I did: half a stone melted off. But time, and biscuits, had seen the weight creep back on and I was horrified to see the scales had snuck back up and beyond my previous weight. My body fat was almost 40 per cent and my BMI was 27.7 (normal is 18-25).
This summer, my mission wasn’t just to lose weight but to improve radically my disease markers. My blood sugar was in the normal range, but aged 52, my cholesterol was creeping up. What could 15 days of fasting, spread out over a summer do? Feeling motivated, the first five days were not terrible. The diet allows you 1,100 calories on day one, and then 800 calories on each subsequent day. A nut bar for breakfast is followed by two packet soups at meal times, with occasional sachets of olives to keep you going. The idea is not to starve, but to trick the body into thinking it does not need to go into survival mode – just to work a bit harder with the fat already on board. Yes, I got stonking headaches on day two and three, but I slept incredibly well. The next three weeks of “normal” eating seemed to go faster than the fasting. But, I kept telling myself, anyone can do anything for five days. Even eat kale crackers. By the next rest, I was feeling so much more comfortable in my clothes that I was becoming more mindful of my everyday diet. Pearson, who offers the plan to clients, says that in between fasts and after, she encourages a Mediterranean diet. “Stick to a predominantly plant-based dairy-free diet,” she says, “moderate amounts of protein, moderate carbs coming mostly from veg and pulses rather than processed grains, but rich in nuts, seeds and olive oil, plus the occasional square of very dark chocolate.” Pearson has only been offering ProLon – which costs £225 per fast – for a few months but reports her clients are thrilled with the results. “I’ve done it myself,” she says. “Of course you feel hungry, but it could benefit so many people.”
I found the last five days toughest but I didn’t crack. Was I occasionally grumpy or short-tempered? Well, my family swore that I was my usual cheery self. Then again perhaps they didn’t want to provoke me, further.
So what was the final result? I can reveal it was gratifying: my cholesterol was back in the normal range, my inflammatory marker had been reduced by two-thirds. And the weight loss was stunning: 11lb off, including 7.5lb of pure belly fat. My BMI was down to 26, and my body fat was now 37 per cent.
Particularly pleasing was the consistency: pounds that came off in the first fast stayed off even when I ate normally. Another benefit was that my appetite shrank and stayed that way. Six weeks on, the weight has not crept back and I am more motivated to eat in a mindful way.
Prof Longo is convinced that we would only need to do his fast three times a year to stay healthy and on top of our weight. Just think of that: 15 days of annual denial in exchange for reducing your risk of chronic illness and early death. Surely, the deal of a lifetime?
Pounds that came off in the first fast stayed off even when I ate normally
Weigh-in: kale chips, tomato soup, and herbal tea, right, are part of the trial by Victoria Lambert, below with Kim Pearson