Back on November 30th, 2016, I wrote an article about the 5:2 diet.
This was popularized for weight loss, but what if someone just wants a little edge, doesn’t need to lose much weight, and wants to gain strength?
In the 5:2 diet, you eat normal for 5 days, and fast for 2. This was compared in clinical studies to going on a very low calorie diet, such as 1200k calorie a day. The participants lost more fat in the intermittent fasting diet, and maintained lean bone and muscle mass. Whereas the people who were on the traditional low calorie diets lost less fat and they also lost lean muscle weight.
Other studies were done on bodybuilders showing that if they ate their calories in 8 hours, and fasted for 16, they would maintain muscle building ability but lose fat vs eating the same calories over a 12 hour period, as we think we should.
A study done in October 2013, “The Effect of Fasting on Muscle Damage” in Exp. Gerontol broke young participants into 2 groups. Over several days group 1 fasted 8 hours before vigorous exercise, and group 2 ate in the prior 8 hours with plenty of fat, carbohydrates and protein.
Interestingly, the group who fasted had better exercise tolerance, it took them longer to fatigue, and they had improved chemical markers of strength and less inflammation.
The day I wrote the 5:2 blog, I took a photo of myself before getting in the shower with the intent of seeing what would happen to my body if I did the 5:2 diet.
In the 4 weeks of doing the 5:2 diet, here was my experience:
First, I clearly lost weight and kept it off. I was about 5 lbs heavier than I want to be, and it fell off in about 10 days with almost no effort. And secondly, I became stronger. I will describe that later in the blog.
What I Ate
On non-fasting days, I ate normal. It was around the holidays, so I did have some dessert and more calories than I usually do. However, I am pretty strict about my diet. Mostly vegetables, some chicken and fish. On fasting days, I had 2 vegetable fresh made juices (kale, cucumber, and orange) and 1 low fat yogurt. About 200 calories each day.
The first day of fasting is a bit of a challenge, but not as much as I expected. At my desk, I keep dark chocolate and almonds, and I snack on them normally during the day. Not excessive, but pretty routinely. When I went to my desk on fasting days, I noticed hunger discomfort. And when I got home from work, I felt it as well. I normally have a little snack when I walk in the door, but otherwise as the day progressed, the hunger became less noticeable. The second day of fasting was easier than the first. For me, fasting led to less hunger.
On the third day, when I would go back to normal calories, I had to be intentional. I had somehow lost my hunger, and had to start it back up. It was not much of an adjustment, and very easy to switch back.
In the second, third and fourth weeks, I’m not sure if it was necessary, but I intentionally ate a few more calories than I usually would on Sunday and start fasting the following Monday.
Exercising on the 5:2 Diet
Besides the ease of the diet, I experienced a few other unexpected things. I experimented with doing aggressive weight lifting exercises on the first and the second day of the fast. Turns out it didn’t matter if I had just started fasting, or if it had been 36 hours of fasting, my energy was actually a bit better. It is hard to measure, but I had been doing the same routine, with a timer since May of 2015.
The routine is a series of compound exercises. A compound exercise is where the fulcrum joint of movement is spread over 2 joints. So if you would normally do a bicep curl, I would bend over into a bent row. This way the same force is shared on my elbows and shoulders. This type of exercise allows stress to be shared by 2 joints, with the intent of building or maintaining muscle, and limiting joint stress and damage.
In addition to doing compound movements, I do a “5 second up, 5 seconds down” routine. This slow movement avoids the jerking and thrusts that are common for athletes, and frequently lead to injuries. I do the exercises for 90-130 seconds, so 9-13 repetitions. A typical 8-10 rep set is more like 30 seconds. Going slow places the muscle group under tension for a longer period of time, which leads to greater results, using less weight, and less risk of joint injury compared to typical weight lifting. I carry the exercise out to the point of failure. Not fatigue, but to where I fail.
Since May of 2105, when I resumed working out after a rest period that was needed after a surgery, I have had slow steady strength gains. When I get stronger, I would add reps, or increase the weight. I never take any steroids or muscle building supplements, so my gains occur slowly. But in the 4 weeks of the 5:2 diet, I estimate I got about 5% stronger. I didn’t do a body composition test before this diet (we have the machine to measure fat vs muscle and bone, I just didn’t think of it as I didn’t expect to gain muscle when fasting). Yet I clearly have increased muscle development in a fairly short time. Not much, but noticeable.
The results contradict conventional thinking but stay consistent with the studies I mentioned above. I wouldn’t recommend this to an elite athlete or a marathon runner. But as a man in my 50’s who wants to stay healthy and fit, it works for me. I am not sure I am going to continue it, but there were some other unexpected benefits that make me think I will.
Better Blood Pressure
My blood pressure has been a problem since my surgery a year ago. No idea why, as I was doing everything that is supposed to avoid the issue. But now I take medications. Don’t like to, but it is a fact of life. And I intend to figure out how to solve it and eventually get off of them. The things I am doing so far are helping, and it is much better, but still high, even with the medications in the morning. I drink beetroot juice which is rich in nitric oxide along with a vegetable smoothie for breakfast. I take probiotics that have been linked to altering the gut flora for the beneficial effect on blood pressure, as well as a few other maneuvers.
Since the intermittent fasting, my blood pressure has been the best I’ve seen it and I am going to start cutting back on medications.
Joint Pain Diminished
Another odd thing happened. In the past 3 years, my thumb joints have ached when I use them for certain things. I assumed it was from using my iPhone. Texting and playing solitaire would make them ache, so I’ve adapted the way I use my phone. I am always to some degree aware of it. Oddly, my right hand, index finger first knuckle started aching about 3 months ago, and has been swollen. I was very concerned because there are a lot of connective tissue and autoimmune disorders on my mother’s side. On the days of my fasting, my joint pain and even the knuckle swelling went away. In the four weeks, each time, it has taken longer for it to come back.
Can Fasting Make You Happier?
The last thing is less objective and more subjective. My mood and energy is better than usual. It may just be other things going on in my life, but it seems the fasting gives me positivity. I discovered a new way to do surgery without sedation, and I am writing a new book that I’m excited about. Overall, I feel noticeably more optimistic and energetic.
Want to Give it a Try?
Fasting isn’t as hard as you may think. It doesn’t lead to anger, fatigue, malaise or other things. You may feel symptoms at first, but it will go away and there are no health risks with fasting. Studies have been done on diabetics and although they need to alter their medication intake, all the things we assume should occur, do not.
It requires energy to digest food and eating is a very inflammatory process. It seems as though we need a bit of gut rest from time to time. Several alternative medicine practitioners have been recommending this for years. Fasting, gut cleanse, detox… these are real.
My son, Kevin and I were talking about this the other night. He likes to read and is very thoughtful. He said, “Ancient men would follow and hunt animals for long periods of time.” He imagined since they were tracking animals, they needed to preserve lots of energy and then use the stored strength to catch the animal. It’s similar to a pattern we see in the 5:2 diet. Whereas, going on a very low calorie diet is similar to living in an ancient period where food was running out and we’d need to start burning muscle to lower our energy demands and survive a famine. (Just some food for thought.)
In summary, I started the 5:2 diet in order to drop a little unwanted fat but found unexpected benefits. Hence, the journey continues.
Dr. Charles Mok