Every year, without fail, a new diet gets media attention and every year I put my head in my hands. The newest trend for 2013 is fasting diets, dusted off and freshly repackaged to appeal to the masses.
Intermittent fasting, or the "5/2 diet", marks an especially exciting period for perpetual dieters, because these plans offer the idea that you can eat anything you like on your non-fasting days. The holy grail of binge eating has finally arrived and I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief across the country.
Now, every good fad diet knows that by avoiding the tag of a fad it stands a better chance of gaining a following, and Intermittent fasting, despite brimming with the qualities of a fad diet; is being taken very seriously indeed.
Perhaps this is because a prominent, high profile and eminently likeable Doctor has been expelling its virtues across the airwaves.
The concept behind the 5/2 Diet is simple. Eat very restricted calories for two days and eat whatever you like for the other five. To think, most people were only throwing caution to the wind at weekends before. It's akin to telling an alcoholic the best way to cure his drink problem is by necking more whisky.
There is nothing wrong with fasting, but nothing particularly new either. Civilizations have been practicing fasting for centuries as there are clear and demonstrated benefits, but the fasting part of the 5/2 diet is not the problem. It's the encouragement of explicitly unhealthy food consumption.
Just the other day I met up with a friend who gleefully informed me of this wonderful new diet whilst washing down a burger and fries with a thick strawberry milkshake. "The best thing about Intermittent Fasting" They said in between giant bites of burger. "Is if I can just get through a couple of days, I can eat whatever I like".
As I left the table I found it hard to believe that an extreme diet of highly processed foods in large quantities followed by periods of abstinence would deliver on its promises.
I know that not everybody following an intermittent fasting plan will eat so poorly in the non-fasting days, but when it comes to the mainstream this is the message that seems to be sticking.
I can hear the advocates of intermittent fasting frantically preparing the multiple studies on mice and fruit flies, ready to tell me about IGF1 and how they are going to live for eternity, and yes, there is evidence that fasting reduces oxidative stress, increases insulin sensitivity and resists the effects of aging. It would seem that there are benefits to reducing total calorific intake but surely not at the sacrifice of quality nutrition.
It may surprise you to learn that I have used fasting to great effect in clients experiencing difficulty losing weight or achieving health goals, but only once more proven methods are failing. In many cases IF does offer a suitable method of busting through a plateau, but in other instances, intermittent fasting leaves people irritable and performing terribly.
Crucially, in cases where intermittent fasting has been introduced successfully it is always alongside a healthy diet. This makes intermittent fasting not only more challenging than other diets, but more unappealing and impossible to follow for all but the most dedicated. You can't sell the stick without the carrot.
The first thing anybody should do to improve health and increase longevity is eliminate processed foods, not introduce them in large quantities on an empty stomach. By eating whole natural foods most people see an immediate benefit to health, weight and energy levels.
The truth behind nutrition, dieting and health, is that there really is no one size fits all, no magic pill and no answer. It is an ongoing process of commitment to ones vitality.
It takes daily effort to listen to your body and respond to the signals you are receiving from it, and that is why an intelligent approach to healthy eating will never catch on. It's too much like hard work.
You may reduce IGF1 levels and even lose weight on a 5/2 diet, but unless you seriously consider the foods you are eating on your non-fasting days, I would be willing to bet you won't discover the holy grail of health just yet.
Next year, as in every year that went before, somebody will do there very best to prove this statement wrong with a new concept and write a bestselling book in the process.