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

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features -

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

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