Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Column -

Anew diet in Jan­uary is pre­dictable: that’s why I started my lat­est diet at the end of last Oc­to­ber. By Jan­uary, I hoped, I’d be suf­fi­ciently en­cour­aged by pos­i­tive re­sults. Every peren­nial di­eter prob­a­bly knows Grou­cho Marx’s jest about quit­ting smok­ing: “Giv­ing up is easy. I’ve done it hun­dreds of times.” Start­ing a diet is easy. I’ve done it hun­dreds of times. Any diet works when you ad­here to it, how­ever zany it seems. Be­cause all di­ets op­er­ate on the same law: eat less food, and es­pe­cially less of the wrong kind of food (and drink less al­co­hol or any­thing sug­ary).

Stick­ing with the rules is the prob­lem. Faddy di­ets be­come a pain in the neck. Even quite sen­si­ble di­ets — cut­ting out, or cut­ting down on, sug­ars and car­bo­hy­drates — can in­ter­fere with your way of life. If you have to travel for your work, sand­wiches may often be the only con­ve­nient way of putting fuel into your body.

Obe­sity ex­pert Zoe Har­combe says that’s some­thing we should re­mem­ber: the body needs en­ergy to keep on the go. Starv­ing your­self all the time emp­ties your en­ergy tank.

She’s also against di­eters tak­ing out gym mem­ber­ship at the be­gin­ning of the year. Gym ses­sions use up en­ergy and can make you ex­hausted: then you have a muf­fin af­ter­wards as a com­pen­satory treat. You’re bet­ter off tak­ing an ac­tive at­ti­tude to ev­ery­day tasks — walk­ing more, us­ing the car less, stairs rather than lifts.

Gar­ret Fitzger­ald, a taoiseach who could be de­scribed as a true in­tel­lec­tual, once re­sponded to a civil ser­vant’s de­scrip­tion of some new pol­icy scheme with the im­mor­tal words: “That’s all very well in prac­tice, but how does it work in the­ory?” Me too, Gar­ret. I like any idea to have a nice the­ory be­hind it, be­fore we get into the prac­ti­cal­i­ties.

And thus was I drawn to the nos­trums of the diet guru Dr Michael Mosley. His diet phi­los­o­phy is based on evo­lu­tion­ary anal­y­sis and draws on a tra­di­tional re­li­gious prac­tice: fast­ing. Fast for two days a week — say, keep your calo­rie count down to be­tween 600 and 800 cals a day — and you’ll soon have a fig­ure like Nicole Kid­man.

No, the last bit isn’t true. Nicole Kid­man’s long legs and slen­der body come from her genes. But the the­ory of fast­ing will de­liver a slim­mer ver­sion of your­self, which is what every di­eter craves.

How old is Homo Sapi­ens? Our species has been around for about 200,000 years. And for the last 199,900 of those, most of hu­man­ity has had to prac­tise fast­ing. We lived by famine and feast. Food stocks would get de­pleted through the win­ter, and by Fe­bru­ary there was lit­tle enough to eat: not coin­ci­den­tally, per­haps, Lenten fasts would start around this time of the year. Vir­tu­ally all re­li­gions have pe­ri­ods of fast­ing, rec­om­mended for spir­i­tual rea­sons, but it now turns out they de­liver con­sid­er­able health ben­e­fits too.

And so, the hu­man body was adapted, through mil­lenia, to the fast­ing cy­cle. If there wasn’t enough food around, the body told it­self “live off the present re­sources for a pe­riod of fast­ing”. So it used up the fat that it had stored, and em­barked on re­pair­ing it­self gen­er­ally too.

The prac­tice of fast­ing fell out of favour as food be­came plen­ti­ful, re­frig­er­a­tion, jet planes and mi­crowaves ren­dered meals con­ve­niently avail­able to us all year round. And thus we grew obese.

Fast­ing the­ory as ef­fec­tive diet re­ally stacks up. But I also have a cousin who has done bril­liantly on the ‘ Fast Diet’, by keep­ing to 800-1,000 calo­ries a day for two days a week. She’s lost an im­pres­sive amount of weight and feels ter­rific. So the prac­tice proves the the­ory.

Yet not every diet suits every in­di­vid­ual. Just as med­i­ca­tion will soon be tai­lored to our in­di­vid­ual DNA, so diet will one day be adapted to our phys­i­cal pro­file, and also to our per­son­al­i­ties. In the mean­time, I adapted Michael Mosley’s diet the­o­ries to my own dis­po­si­tion and cir­cum­stances.

Fast­ing all day I found a bit de­press­ing. But fast­ing from 6pm at night un­til about 7.30am the next morn­ing is just fine for two or three days a week. Some­times I went to bed hun­gry, but that’s an as­pect of the fast­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that can be cu­ri­ously re­ward­ing. And how much en­ergy do you need as you wind down of an evening?

But I feel the need for a de­cent break­fast, and it would be tough to forego a square of choco­late with a morn­ing cof­fee.

There’s an old for­mula for this adap­ta­tion of the fast diet: break­fast like a king, lunch like a lord, sup like a pau­per.

Di­ets have to suit your way of life. I lost some weight a cou­ple of years ago with a slim­ming group, but the weekly at­ten­dance didn’t suit my peri­patetic trav­els, and any­way I grew bored with the meet­ings. Any vari­a­tion of the fast­ing diet could be un­con­ge­nial for those who live in a cou­ple or fam­ily re­la­tion­ship. For women who sit down to an evening meal after putting the kids to bed, sup­ping a mug of Bovril is not much of a cor­dial oc­ca­sion.

The­o­ries are dandy, but out­comes are the test. And yes, on Jan­uary 1 the scales showed that I had shed seven and a half pounds since the end of Oc­to­ber. At last, I hope, I’ve found a diet pat­tern that re­ally works for me.

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