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Screw the 5-2 Diet: Eat Less, Move More

31/12/2014 13:18 | Updated 01 March 2015

2014 was the year I decided to change my life - and body - forever. A chubby child and always slightly overweight as an adult, I'd tried, and failed, to lose any meaningful amount of weight and keep it off. I ignored the scales creeping up over the years, treating my weight gain like some kind of inevitable rite of passage for someone with my genes/metabolism/height/body shape/insert excuse here. It's embarrassing for me to say this, but I just didn't see myself as fat. Also, I never exactly looked that fat; I'm one of those people who carries weight fortuitously well. I mean I knew I wasn't thin, but I always assumed that it was my lot in life to not be a fast runner or to struggle to zip up my jeans over my tummy.

I will say now that I'm tall, so always weighed a bit more than average. Plus, I've been living with hypothyroidism for the past 15 years, which although in itself isn't an excuse if controlled by medication, certainly makes weight loss that extra bit tricky. I remembered those text book pictures of people with under-active thyroids - chubby with double chins - and resigned myself to that image. During my university days and at my heaviest, I weighed 13 and a half stone and was a size 16. So, not obese, but not exactly the poster girl for perfect health either.

Except actually I've always eaten quite healthily. I love salad and vegetables, and very rarely eat fast food or drink beer or fizzy drinks or any of the usual culprits. Over the years, I'd tried various ways of reducing portion sizes or going cold turkey on sauces and condiments, my best thing. As for exercise, I've always been a keen gym-goer, walker, dancer, swimmer...you name it. OK, so maybe I didn't exercise obsessively, but my lifestyle wasn't inactive. Like many other struggling women, I tried every fad diet under the sun. But nothing worked for me, ever. Or so I thought.

A friend (who also has hypothyroidism and who'd visibly reduced) recommended the 5:2 diet at the end of 2013, so I decided to give it a go for the New Year. It sounded relatively easy to follow: eat under 500 calories, two days per week, eating whatever you like on the other days. I'd read a few blogs and recipes and came to the conclusion that like every other fad diet I'd tried, this probably wouldn't work, but was worth a go.

I began confidently in January. I picked Tuesday and Friday as my 'fast days', and downloaded a calorie counter app. I quickly discovered that 500 calories doesn't go very far, so reduced my intake to two meals a day: a small salad with protein at lunch and a healthy dinner of around 350 calories. My best friends became prawns, eggs, lettuce, spinach, beans, soy sauce, chillies and hot chocolate - food that filled me up and made me feel like I was treating myself, not depriving myself.

That first month was a mess. I was tired, depressed and moody, snapping constantly at my poor partner. I suffered from bad breath, headaches and nausea. But then I weighed myself. I'd lost half a stone, roughly two pounds per week, or a pound for every day I'd fasted.

By spring, I felt a million times better. I switched my gym routine from the cross-trainer to classes, doing a day of cardio (Zumba) on Monday, fasting on Tuesday, heavy weights (Kettlebells) on Wednesday, lighter weights, squats and lunges (Total Body Conditioning) on Thursday and fasting again on Friday (some people manage to fast and exercise on the same day, but not me). Weekends were for doing whatever I wanted.

But the funny thing that was I didn't want to over-compensate on weekends like I assumed I would. I ate normally, sensibly, on non-fast days, counting calories without even realising it and craving exercise instead of lying on the sofa. If I fancied chocolate, I'd have a teaspoonful of Nutella and be done with it. Wine was now a glass, not a bottle. No guilt, no feelings of shame, just total control and peace.

As the weight fell off - now a stone by the summer - I became obsessed with shopping for clothes for my new body. I hadn't changed shape exactly, I was just sort of me, but smaller. I still had a bit of a tum, but I was shocked to see I'd gone down a dress size. Another shock came when a few weeks later I dusted out the Wii Fit (I don't own scales, go figure), weighed myself, and saw the little Mii jumping up and down at the fact I'd now lost 20 lbs, nearly a stone and a half. This was by far my biggest ever success, and I was getting used to friends and colleagues commenting on how much weight I'd lost.

In the very same way I'd ignored (and denied) my obvious over-eating habits my whole life, I was also in a strange state of denial about my weight loss. I couldn't look that much different, could I? I surely wasn't that big before? Did I always fit into these old clothes? It's still something I struggle with even now: how I did it. I even went to see a hypnotherapist, searching for peace with my new body.

I'd got the one thing I always dreamed could bring me happiness - being slim and healthy. Where there was once complacency, there was now proactivity. So why wasn't I 100% happy?

Around September, I plateaued. I'd lost 30 lbs, a little over two stone, and my weight wouldn't shift. I went to my gym instructor for a 'Body MOT', and we identified different ways I could attack that last half stone or so - by cutting out caffeine, orange squash, intensifying my weight training - all of which I've since done.

I've been at the same weight - my ideal BMI weight - ever since. However much you set store by BMI, mine has gone from 'overweight' to 'ideal', which is one of my personal highlights. My general shape is more or less unchanged, just two dress sizes smaller (three sizes since my uni days), while my arms and legs are slender and toned. I'm now starting to buy a size 10, something I've never done, not even as a teenager.

So what's my problem with the 5:2? It worked, didn't it? Well, yes, it worked for me. But I was highly motivated, with an end goal in sight. It's just that goal doesn't quite feel like I thought it would.

I still would recommend the 5:2 as a decent way to get you to start losing weight, although there's no scientific proof it works. Combining it with a decent exercise regime seemed to work for me, while I found the structure of the week (exercise, fast, exercise, exercise, fast, whatever, whatever) satisfying.

Now that end goal has come and gone, I'm at peace with my new body and my extra half a stone keeping me warm in the winter. The control that the 5:2 diet gives you is like no other, but it's a dangerous control, a control that could easily lead too far the other way, away from self-love, into body obsession. I still sporadically fast, although not as religiously and not strictly counting 500 calories; I don't beat myself up about it.

When it comes down to it, the 5:2 diet works because it's just another way of eating less and moving more. Which is exactly what I'll be sustaining in 2015.

Natalie R Harris is the author of lifestyle blog The Edible Editor.