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My Hunger Games: why I quit the 5:2 fasting diet

This is a very personal account of my experience with the 5:2 (also known as the alternate fasting diet or fast diet). I am not claiming that the diet itself does not work, nor that it is harmful in general- I have no scientific or medical credentials, just a history of eating disorders in my teenager to early 20s – which should have taught me to stay away from any diet, let alone one which encourages fasting (and potentially binging). Whilst the pioneer of the diet, Dr. Michael Mosley, clearly states in his book that the diet is not suitable for people with an history of eating disorders, I don’t see this stressed enough in most UK publications. I just hope my story will raise awareness of the potential side effect of the 5:2 diet for people with eating disorders, who should always consult a doctor before starting any diet. It is not a game.

5:2 diet hunger side effects

I remember the details my 17th birthday vividly. I had bugged my parents to let me have a real birthday bash, the type of party most people in Italy would have for their coming of age at 18. I still see clearly in my memories my calories intake for the day– of a lavish banquet prepared for the 100-odd invitees, I had a very thin slice of pizza, one bite of prosciutto and a few drops of the cream on the birthday cake. It wasn’t a sacrifice; I was not hungry at all. In fact, I felt like it was a lot of food and I had to move incessantly in my very tight, size 4 leather trousers and make unnecessary trips up and down the restaurant stairs. Yet, I was still alive and officially “on the way to recovery” – which is probably why my loving and frazzled parents agreed to my silly request for this early extravaganza.

Fast-forward 13 years, and here I am. A size 8 for 5’3’’, I most definitely don’t wear leather trousers anymore, as I don’t really have to look bigger than I actually am. I am still obsessed with food, although (I like to think) in a different way. I run a food blog.

I don’t diet, I don’t keep a food diary, I have lost my habit of counting calories when I cook  food, although I always keep an eye on labels when buying, for preservatives and additives.

During the 2012 Christmas holiday, a scale in the bathroom of a rented holiday apartment lured me until I jumped on and discovered I was some three kg heavier than my mind thought I would be. I made an effort to shrug it away and tell myself that it was not surprising after days on end of Italian family lunches; but the bug was now firmly planted in my mind, destroying my mature, considerate, reassuring thoughts and leaving disappointment, guilt and the desperate need to “regain control” to roam free.

Back in London after Christmas, everybody in food circles and outside was talking about detox, the 5:2 diet and how it allows you to lose weight without disrupting your foodie life too much. The 5:2 diet just seemed the perfect solution and I thought that actually, I was probably already sort of doing it – as I naturally tend to eat less after a rich meal or two. To avoid wasting too much time on the web – ironical, I know- I bought the 5:2 diet book from Amazon, announced to my boyfriend that “I was on a diet” and got started.

Previously, my only attempt at a diet had been the Dukan and it lasted 12 hours. I only went so far as my first shopping (an inordinate amount of M&S cooked chicken strips and lean cuts) and called it quits at breakfast the morning after, as I discovered that my love for savoury breakfast was limited to bacon sarnies. I don’t snack, I don’t like crisps, I am very fussy about chocolate (you hate me, I know). I thought I would easily swap a few meals for lighter options to keep under the 500-calorie threshold and be done with it.

My first fast day was indeed very fast. I had breakfast – bacon bagel, just to say goodbye to food with a blast, and went to work as usual. I was very busy in meetings and it did not take a lot of effort to skip lunch- just wave off the intern going to buy team lunch. At dinnertime, my boyfriend made a face when I refused to share his noodles and headed to cold chicken strips in the fridge, but apart from that my first approach to the 5:2 diet was a smashing success.

When I could not avoid eating lunch, I told myself I would diet for dinner, cooking myself a 5:2 recipe. I usually enjoy cooking, but started thinking I’d rather save my precious time in the kitchen for the “real meals” – but then, I would end up having most of them out of home, or not at all. I found myself knowing exactly which chain would sell options with less than 500 calories- in fact, my favorite lunch was a Pod nori wrap containing a meager 240, as honestly why have 500 calories when half that amount fill you up so well? Days went on; when my boyfriend was not there in the evening, as I hate eating alone, I skipped dinner altogether. And breakfast.

It really is true that if you don’t eat breakfast, your metabolism does not rev up properly, so you’re not even that hungry for lunch. I was going to eat out with foodie friends for dinner anyway, so why bother with my 500 daily calories?  Plus, how many are you supposed to eat if you fast for 36 hours instead? I couldn’t be bothered. And so didn’t eat.

At my dinner, I noticed for the first time the vast pools of grease on the surface of the ramen and found myself wondering how many calories are there in a bowl of it. I was full to the point of retching after a few spoons so I started killing time fishing beansprouts from the soup. Somebody teased me as I notoriously clean every plate I order. I went home feeling full and thinking that maybe I should have made my next day a fast day because that stuff was really nutritious anyway.

Two days of consecutive fasting worked really well; three were even better. The 5:2 diet book advises strongly against it but then, what these doctors know? Doctors also tell you the right amount of cheese to eat is the size of a pair of dice and honestly, I love cheese and would rather not eat it at all than eat that little…oh wait.

Now, you see where this is going? The problem with the 5:2 diet for me was that the restriction/nutrition cycle just triggered all the behaviors and thoughts I had learnt to keep at bay in years of nutritional and psychological therapy. Calorie-counting; tricks to stave off hunger to the point when you are so light-headed you actually feel euphoric; white lies and excuses for not eating in public; daily weighting; trawling through diet forums and blogs; and more than anything else, continuous, obsessive thinking about food – a lot more than my usual food blogging self.

My Games on the 5:2 diet (which was actually starting to look more like a 2:5 one) lasted a month, in which I lost about 5 kilos and became really flabby around the arms.

At the end of January, I fainted in the toilet at work. A few days later, my Dad who lives abroad was diagnosed with cancer. In a flurry of desperation and sense of guilt for being away, I went back through thousands of family pictures and found my 17th birthday shots. I cried and decided that the day after I would just force myself to eat my usual three meals a day, seven days a week.

In the first few days, I really struggled. I felt bloated, guilty and dirty when going back to my usual food routine, not to mention the eating out feasts, which I had been cutting down on unconsciously although the 5:2 diet was supposed to give me freedom to enjoy them. I left the scale I had bought on the street with a “please take me away” fluo Post-it, and it disappeared in no time. I wish I could wipe out those Hunger Games weeks as easily. Anorexia is a dangerous ex to flirt with and I will stay away from the temptation of dieting as others have to stay away from the temptation of chips or brownies.

Lesson learnt, the Hunger Games are not for me to play anymore.

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15 Comments

  1. Oh, what a brave and eloquent post. As you say, a highly personal account of a diet that so many people accept unquestioningly as having no side effects (or at least only positive ones). But as you say, if you look at the increasing prevalence of eating disorders, there should be more warnings that this diet is certainly not for those who have suffered from eating disorders in the past. Everything about it plays to the kind of obsessive behaviour that comes with an eating disorder. Thanks for sharing your story.xx

    • Thanks for understanding the spirit of my post, J. I didn’t mean to “wash dirty laundry in public” or anything, in fact it is not something I am proud of- but I felt the need to counterbalance the massive media hype about the “easy diet with no side effects”. As all things too good to be true, it’s probably not true ;)
      One thing the 5:2 diet may be useful for is to bring some people to actually feel hungry again- we don’t realise, but often series of heavy meals or continuous snacking effectively leads us to know know what “eating because you’re hungry” means.
      That said, it should be a slight pang in the stomach, not mad, debilitating hunger – the latter is so disruptive for the body that it suppresses it after a while…with dangerous effects. Eating when you are hungry and listening to your body is the best way for me, and how I manage these day to enjoy food, be happy and don’t obsess. Thanks for your kind words x

  2. You are so brave in sharing your story! I have always struggled with diets: I would either starve myself or binge on chocolate and cakes. Since January I’ve been tempted to try the 5:2 diet, but I feared it would be bad for me. I wouldn’t be able to control myself and only fast for 2 days! Thanks a lot for sharing this!!! xx

    • Thanks for your comment. If that is how you feel about diets, then I wholeheartedly suggest you don’t try it. It’s a slippery slope and I am sure that if i had had kept at it, the binging would have followed…so easy with so much food around in our lives ;) But there are better ways to love food. Glad that you found the post useful xx

  3. As you know it’s something that works for me, but I’ve never really dieted before or had a problem with losing too much weight.

    And, I’ve seen comments on my own blog which have scared me, from people who have got totally obsessive about the calories they are eating on non-fast days or tried to cut the fast day food right down. I’ve tried to warn them off 5:2.

    I’m glad you realised it wasn’t right for you quickly! And you are right, this and other diets DO need caveats and warnings. I can think of other eating plans which are just as likely to cause a problem (remember the cabbage soup diet?).

    A big hug to you from me.

    Bestest

    Fiona

    • Thanks for your input Fiona- yes, I think you did the right thing to try and discourage the obsessive people on the blog- but then, don’t take it to heart, it’s THEIR choice. You are providing a lot of useful resources for interesting healthy recipes, regardless of the 5-2 diet these are good things to eat; the problem is stopping eating altogether!
      And as you say, any diet advocating drastic calorie reduction or mono-food consumption rings a big alarm bell for me!
      Thanks for your kind words x
      S

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. I have been doing the 5:2 for a while now but find the calorie counting and weighing stressful and demotivating (and boring) so have don’t bother with it. Its really important to make sure people are aware that this sort of vigilance around food can be really dangerous for people with a history of eating disorder. I think it works for the average Joe that hasn’t been able to diet before, to see that you don’t have to eat large amounts all the time but I don’t think all the obsession about calories helps. Hope you are feeling better now x

  5. Beautiful, strong and courageous article, Serena.
    x

  6. Thank you so much for this. I just heard about this diet, and have done a bit of web research, and have done 1 week so far, like it. Sounds so good for me (a just slightly overweight 62 year old woman). My 19 year old daughter, however, is just beginning to recover from non-specified anorexia. I was sort of thinking the 5:2 might be something she could do, once (if) she normalizes her eating behaviors and weight (she is not really underweight by much). She could actually enjoy food, knowing she could fast the next day. But your story tells it truly, I believe. It would most likely be a trigger and just encourage all the counting and restriction. What was I thinking??!! I will not even ever mention it to her now… too dangerous.

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for sharing your story. I am not a doctor so take this as purely my opinion- you are right, don’t encourage your daughter to take up this or any other diet. In recovering from anorexia, the key is shifting the focus away from food and onto other aspects of life and reconciling the body and the mind. Best of luck to her and to you :)

  7. Hi there – Thank you for posting this, it’s very helpful. I came across it while searching for blogs about negative experiences of the 5-2 diet. Because I started it myself a few months ago, in the knowledge it would probably be a bad idea. Did it anyway out of curiosity and because I’ve wandered into ED territory in the last few months. Restricting for quite a while (at least, undereating somewhat for my daily needs and actively trying to lose weight). My BMI was around 17 when I began, and it’s now 16. I’m 5’11, and I don’t appear to be underweight or unhealthy, so no-one really questions my health. I used to be quite fit, but that’s gone down the pan in the last month or two. Also feeling quite depressed about it all. Not to mention knackered!

    When I started I lost weight quite quickly and I was euphoric with the novelty of it. It was also my secret which no-one knew about, so that was quite exciting as well. Then the weight-loss naturally stalled and I started feeling rubbish. Really weak. My arms are all veiny and I’ve lost the motivation/energy to exercise. It makes me feel rather sad and resentful, but I’m too stubborn to stop doing it. I’m convinced it’s bad, for me at least. I didn’t need to lose weight, and now I’ve been sucked further into an ED. I’ve had some massive massive binge episodes, which I’d never had before. Just adds to the whole maelstrom of food confusion and the binge/fast cycle is utterly miserable.

    Am trying to get my head around stopping and risking the weight gain, but not quite in a recovery frame of mind just yet. I know all I need to do is eat a reasonable amount each day. Your post here has helped me think about that. It’s nice to hear a dissenting voice amid all the ridiculous media hype. I hate that I’ve fallen for it. I will try and find some help!

    K

    • Hi Kat,

      thanks for sharing your story – I am at a bit of a loss as to what to say…having been there myself, I know words are only words, but they can hurt (and rarely, heal). So I will be very brief. I am glad you are aware of the situation and planning to seek help- I hope that you do it as soon as possible. The journey up is hard, but it is so much better than the journey down.
      Don’t feel bad about yourself for falling for it; it happens, especially with all the silly media hype – and I am happy if I can help even just one person to hear a different opinion.

      If you ever want to write to me privately, my email is intothefworld12(at)gmail(dot)com and my name is Serena. I’ll be thinking of you! Best wishes, S.

  8. THIS IS A FLIPPING AWESOME POST. Every point on the dot. I’ve not really properly dieted before but I’ve been there before,playing around with restrictions, feeling guilty…just getting out of that mindset was so tough; I never want to go back there. Hence why I didn’t even flick the 5:2 diet one look when everyone started raving about it. Love your food and love your body x

    • Thanks Shu x

    • sorry I am getting to this so late, as you know the blog has been in a lull but I am finally going back…Thanks for your kind words and sharing your perspective Shu. “Love your food and love your body”, couldn’t have said it better :)

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