Get Ready for the Next Big Diet Craze: The Fast Diet

Can a nation of feasters be convinced to fast two days a week?

The Fast Diet

If you're fasting two days a week, anything can be 'diet' food. (Photo: James and James/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A new diet craze that has swept across Britain is hitting U.S. shores: The Fast Diet. But what will happen when perpetually time-strapped Americans realize the “fast” here doesn’t refer to shedding pounds in the blink of an eye, but actual fasting—as in eating a mere quarter of your recommended daily allowance of calories two days a week?

In the U.K., the phrase “fasting day” is already entering the broader popular lexicon, much in the same way a legion of non-dieters in the U.S. began talking about “counting carbs” during the heyday of the Atkins Diet.

And you’ve got to admit, if you’re going to try to convince a nation of overconsumers to limit their consumption, at least the premise behind The Fast Diet is ridiculously simple (and thus, catchy/marketable): You eat whatever you want five days a week, but severely restrict your calorie consumption the other two (500 calories a day for women and 600 for men).

Hence, the even more catchy and marketable alternative name for the regimen: The 5:2 Diet.

5:2’s promoters claim such “intermittent fasting” not only helps you lose weight quickly, but it’s also easier to stick to (because you’re not obsessing about your diet 24/7). Furthermore, it supposedly does everything from reducing the risk for certain cancers to increasing your cognitive functioning. There’s some fuzzy (yet kinda believable) logic behind all this: that 5:2 dieters are mimicking the sort of feast-and-famine fluctuations that humans evolved to survive.

In other words, your body was evolutionarily “designed” to be hungry for certain periods of time, a concept that’s become anathema in a culture where fast-food restaurants are looking to the overnight hours to grow their business (because, of course, everyone should have drive-thru access to a cheesy burrito at 3:30 a.m.).

As you might expect, there’s little science to back the health claims of those hawking The 5:2 Diet. A TV medical journalist in the U.K., Michael Mosley, popularized the regimen, and the whole thing took off after he appeared on the BBC program Eat, Fast, Live Longer. Mosely says he started on the diet after he found his cholesterol levels were too high and he was borderline diabetic.

“I started doing intermittent fasting a year ago, lost 8 kgs (18 pounds) of fat over 3 months and my blood results went back to normal,” he tells Reuters (already sounding like an infomercial).

But in response to the craze, the U.K.’s National Health Service has created a web page devoted to answering the question, “Does the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet work?”

The Cliff Notes takeaway? It does help people lose weight, but there’s really no scientific evidence to support the notion that the diet is easier to adhere to in the long run (because as anyone who grew up watching Oprah knows, you can drag a wagonload of fat out onstage in triumph, only to be tearfully admitting you’ve packed the pounds back on a year or two later). And the health claims advanced by The 5:2 Diet’s promoters largely rest on a limited body of scientific evidence revolving around the impact of intermittent fasting on lab animals, not humans.

Now, I wouldn’t usually direct attention to the picture of me that accompanies this column, but if you look at it, you’ll probably notice something: I’m skinny. Not just skinny, but ridiculously skinny. I always have been—despite the fact that for a good portion of my childhood I thought that Twinkies and Ding Dongs were breakfast food, because that’s all my poor mother could get me to eat in the a.m. before I tottered off to preschool. I’m one of the rare few who won’t tell you my weight not because I’m embarrassed it’s too high, but that it’s too low.

Hence, I’m not exactly the ideal candidate to evaluate a diet, since I’ve never been on one.

But what’s intriguing about The 5:2 Diet in relationship to our overfed, oversaturated culture is the potential (potential, mind you) for it to change the way more people think about, say, not only chowing down on another slice of Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza, but how we think about what you might call the too much of everything in our lives.

Seizing on the diet’s popularity in Britain, a U.K. TV critic adapted the premise of the diet to his television-viewing habits, eschewing the tube (his livelihood, mind you) two days a week in favor of some non-screen time, for a month. His experience is funny (and the results are definitely mixed), but you get the idea: Indulgence has become a way of Western life; maybe it’s time to scale back a bit.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea (Buddhism, Lent, clichés like “everything in moderation,” etc. etc.). It pretty much seems that ever since the dawn of civilization, we’ve understood on some subconscious level that there’s something morally, spiritually and physically bankrupting about having unfettered access to whatever we want, whenever we want it, all the time.

Yet if I’m being realistic, I imagine that The 5:2 Diet in the U.S. will look something like this: “Fast day? Feast day! Break your fast with a large stuffed-crust pizza with two toppings, an order of breadsticks and a box of CinnaNuggets for just $15.99!”

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