It might seem strange that after concluding that I didn’t think the 5:2 diet – or the Fast Diet, or intermittent fasting – represented a step forward in the world of weight loss, I should be here giving you my top tips for a successful fast day.
But I have to accept that intermittent fasting has been so well publicised and marketed, that it looks very attractive to many people and indeed, it may work for many of them too. So if you’re going to try this eating plan, these are the guidelines that I found not only made each fast day that much easier, but might also continue to contribute to better health in the long term.
1. Take an electrolyte drink
You’ll hear a lot of people remind you to drink lots of fluids on your fast day, but nobody recommends an electrolyte. However, the point of drinking is to be hydrated, but hydration is about far more than soaking up liquid like a sponge. You’ve already read all about electrolytes (ions like sodium, potassium, or chloride) and why they need to be readily available to serve as the conductors for the important signals being sent through your body. By important, I mean things like telling your heart to beat or your diaphragm to contract and relax.
So you’re not getting as much water from your food, and liquid makes you feel full, and if you’re anything like me you need a displacement activity when not eating. Drinking makes a huge amount of sense – but if you drink loads of water, you run the risk of upsetting the electrolyte balance and making things harder on yourself. Plus, for me, it was a nice little routine; half a tablet in 250-300ml of water right before a meal started me out full and made the eating ritual last that little bit longer.
2. Don’t exercise
A personal trainer telling you not to exercise! Initially, when I watched the first documentary the BBC ran on intermittent fasting, they were very cautious in their guidelines and I remember them quite emphatically stating that exercise was not to be undertaken on fast days. Now they are saying it’s fine. But I don’t see how there could be any benefit to exercising on a body that is already low on fuel.
You may have an outcome goal (e.g. “lose weight”) rather than a performance goal (e.g. “run a half marathon”) but I still believe gym sessions should be about performing each exercise well, and ideally better than the last time. If you consistently work as hard as you can with the energy your body has available, you will make improvements and if you don’t then overeat, you will lose weight. So save the gym for the days when you can make the most of it, and make the most of the days that don’t involve a visit to the gym.
That’s without even mentioning that an unfuelled and possibly dehydrated (see above) body can easily shut itself down with very little warning, and I wouldn’t want to be perched on a cross-trainer when it happens.
3. Sleep well
If you’re on this diet because you want to change something about your body, chances are you may also need to rethink some of your other lifestyle habits. So use those two days a week to really look out for yourself. Think, “well, I’m not spending this time eating and feeling guilty about eating, so I’ll do something nice for myself that will make me feel good”. A good place to start is to make sure you get a good night’s sleep before and after a fast day.
When you are low on sleep, your cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise, increasing ghrelin (appetite hormone) levels, making you hungrier and more likely to gorge on high-sugar high-fat foods as they’ll give you the most energy. So, make sure you sleep well before fasting to avoid those hunger pangs and mood swings and promote sensible fast-day food choices.
After a fast day, your body’s energy will be depleted, and the last thing you want is to feel exhausted the next day, prompting a binge on high-calorie readily-available (read: processed) foods. Plus, getting an early and peaceful night will make the fast day shorter!
My top tips for a healthy night’s sleep include an earlier switching off of all screens (an hour before desired sleep time is ideal), taking the time to shower/moisturise/oil-cleanse my face (or whatever feel-good routine you might have), and a hot herbal tea in bed (like rooibos, fennel, or chamomile) whilst reading. Even a chat whilst lying in bed relaxing can help, if you’re not so into books or have someone you’d like to catch up with – either way, when TV and computer screens are off, you can bet I’ll be asleep within an hour. Do that two hours before your normal bed time, and you’ll get an extra hour of better-quality sleep, not to mention having caught up on personal care and a good book!
4. Don’t save all your calories for one meal
If you fill your 500 or 600kcal with fibrous vegetables (like leafy greens), you’re actually going to have a fair bit of food in front of you, and after hours of fasting you’re going to get full pretty quickly. The last thing you want to do is distend your stomach and enjoy total fullness only to go back to hunger within hours. I found it much easier to eat small meals and snacks just to take the edge off my hunger, so when the real hunger came back it wasn’t quite such a shock.
If you’re going to snack, I’d recommend something like yoghurt with a sprinkling of seeds, for some protein and fat to keep you satisfied, or a 100-120kcal snack bar with protein and plenty of fibre (something like a Frank bar or half a Trek flapjack is ideal). Even better, a small piece of fruit with a mug of cocoa and a splash of milk – comes in around 120kcal and provides plenty of fibre, fat, and carbohydrate as well as different tastes and textures to keep your palate happy.
5. Eat balanced, whole food-based meals and snacks
I know it sounds obvious, but when you get hungry and have a particular craving, it’s so tempting to just sit down and eat 500kcal’s worth of what you are craving. But in the long run, you’ll be far better off having a small surge of energy from some simple carbohydrates (don’t worry too much about those, they’re present in practically everything in some small way), held up by some complex carbohydrates (for once, will somebody please give carbs the respect they are due), stretched out a little longer by protein, and made more enjoyable by some healthy fats.Calories are not evil, and they are also only one small part of the food intake equation. You can put as much fuel in your car as you like, if you run out of oil, your car isn’t going to run so well. So just because you can survive on 500-600kcal for one day, it doesn’t mean that your body is getting everything it needs. Plus, if you are losing weight, it means your body is running low on fuel, which means it could also be running low on vital nutrients. So make sure you pack the most nutrition into those 500 or 600kcal as you can. Greens are a great source of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, at a very low calorie cost, but they’re not everything. Make sure you get some other colours, shapes, and textures in there too.
Also, it’s OK to want to enjoy your food!
Creating a balanced meal will help with that. The preparation process, for one, occupied my mind for a little bit longer thus stretching the mealtime out a little bit more, but also made me appreciate my meal so much more. I’ll have to write a lengthier post on food-shaming, but the long and short of it is, it’ll be far easier if we can all accept and indulge our love of food and the rituals associated with it.
So, think about colours, and textures, presentation, and – obviously – taste. Think about each meal or snack, turn it into something wonderful rather than getting cranky about what you can’t eat.
Then, sit. down. and. eat.
Don’t text, don’t email, don’t walk. You’ve only got 500-600kcal today so make the most of every calorie. Use it as a way to create healthy long-term habits so that hopefully one day you don’t need to rely on a gimmicky eating plan.
Those are really the big ones for me, they made sense both in terms of my experience as well as the logic behind them.
I will be back in a few days to share some of the meals and snacks – some of which are pictured in this post – that I enjoyed on my fast days.
In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions – and if you are on the 5:2 diet and try out any of my tips, let me know how you get on!