Illustration: Ciara Phelan
A college friend's mother was a marvelous cook, a woman who ate with gusto but never gained weight. The word diet didn't pass her lips. Rather, "These berries would taste much better with cream." When I asked her mother's secret, my friend replied, "She doesn't eat on Mondays."
At the time, the idea seemed awful—Mondays are gloomy enough—but now, after years of watching my figure, the strategy has a certain appeal: Why diet for the whole week when you could just endure a little concentrated suffering?
This is the idea behind the 5:2 Diet, based on the international best-seller The Fast Diet by doctor Michael Mosley and food writer Mimi Spencer. Wildly popular in the UK, the plan calls for intermittent fasting: Two days a week you eat only 500 calories; the other five days you eat as you normally would. When I heard about the trend, I was skeptical. Like anyone who has ever cut carbs or counted calories, I know dieting as a boomerang deal: You pretend you're pleased to be eating spaghetti squash until you lose ten pounds, at which point you find yourself facedown in a plate of creamy Alfredo. But the 5:2 Diet creators promise that just two days of restriction won't elicit that eat-or-die (or die-of-boredom) response.
So I've been trying it. On Mondays and Thursdays I survive on cottage cheese, egg whites, gazpacho, steamed green beans and zucchini and cabbage soup. No biggie when a hunk of Parmesan and a glass of red are on tomorrow's menu. The first week, I fell into the trap of treating the non fasting days as a license to gorge: pairing a buttery scone with my morning coffee, forgoing fruit for cheese and crackers and scarfing down my coworker's potato chips when I don't even like fried foods. By the second week, I realized that my five days off shouldn't be free-for-alls and I went back to my normal diet—mostly Mediterranean, with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and olive oil.
Surprisingly, I never feel cranky or tired on fasting days (then again, I am drinking a ton of coffee—there's only one calorie per cup), and I can work at warp speed; I think more clearly on an empty stomach. The 5:2 advocates even claim that intermittent fasting has health benefits—mice that give up food from time to time live longer, and fasting may improve cholesterol levels.
After a month, I noticed that 5:2 was helping me realize when I was truly hungry or full. Now I never reach the last crumbs in a bag of pretzels wondering how that happened. Another shocking discovery: If I skip my wine nightcap, I have more energy in the morning. I'm losing only about a pound a week, but I have found my waist again, and my jeans feel loose. Better yet, I'm getting leaner without wasting time filling out diet charts and obsessively tallying what I ate for breakfast. And that makes every day so much more delicious.
More Weight Loss Advice
From the February 2014 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!