Choc to the system: the trick to fasting and having a life
Willpower is grossly overrated - there's more to fasting than that, says the man who gave us the 5:2 diet
Michael Mosley seems, at least on first sight, like a walking advert for willpower. The 61-year-old TV doctor and creator of the 5:2 diet monitors what he eats with hawk-like precision, splices his dog walks with uphill sprints and has presented more than 30 BBC documentaries.
When it comes to being clued up on nutrition, he’s pretty much the full package. Just do not, under any circumstances, present him with a bar of Dairy Milk.
“Chocolate and biscuits are 100% my undoing,” Mosley says, before admitting to once retrieving a Cadbury’s bar, unwrapped, from the kitchen bin to quiet his sugar cravings. He bought another at a petrol station on a recent late-night drive home, and then threw the offending item in the back seat to avoid temptation. But 16km later, he pulled over and tucked in.
That nighttime root-around was, he admits, “awful”. But he remonstrates that “willpower is grossly overrated – you have to know yourself”.
For Mosley, that largely means building small, manageable changes into your lifestyle and ascribing to one golden rule: throw everything unhealthy out of the house. He even goes as far as to tell his local convenience store owner to refuse to sell him unhealthy food because “you have to create an environment in which you’re not going to eat rubbish”, and advises that any attempt at virtuous living is accompanied by getting friends and partners involved to alleviate the pressure of trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle alone.
It is this bigger-picture approach to dieting that, five years on from the Fast Diet book he wrote with journalist Mimi Spencer, which sold more than one million copies worldwide, Mosley is keen to espouse.
His original 5:2 plan suggested eating 500-600 calories a day, twice a week; his latest regime, the Fast 800, is a “digital lifestyle plan” that offers several routes – a more flexible set-up he hopes will “lay down tools” people can adapt to suit themselves. Those on the programme either eat 800 calories per day for 12 weeks before switching to two days of restricted calories thereafter, or ease in more slowly, consuming a Mediterranean diet on non-fast days.
This revised calorie intake is the result of large-scale studies released since the publication of Mosley’s 2014 book, which have helped him to pinpoint the magic calorie number, one that’s “sufficiently low to trigger metabolic changes to be beneficial, and that people find it easier to stick to over a longer period”.
He is also urging people to take up “time restricted eating”: a method reportedly favoured by the likes of Hugh Jackman, Beyoncé and Ben Affleck, in which the daily window for consuming all meals does not exceed 12 hours.
All of the above induces more rapid weight loss which, contrary to decades of (un)popular opinion, works better than going slow and steady. “Most of what people tell you about weight loss is completely wrong, based on flawed science and fads,” Mosley says, pointing to an Australian study in which participants who shed kilograms quickly both lost and kept off more than those who took the more balanced route. Eight hundred calories is, he adds, the “optimal figure” and can be undertaken with relative ease over two or more days per week, using the menus incorporated in the online guide.
Mosley himself does not do two 800-calorie days per week but is, alongside his GP wife Clare, fastidious about food, eating within a 12-hour window each day and eschewing carbs and – save for the odd bar of Dairy Milk – refined sugar. He can tell you the calorie count for most things with almost alarming ease. “Toast, butter and marmalade? 260 calories. Chocolate bar? 240 calories,” he reels off over a cup of ginger tea. “People are unbelievably terrible at working out how many calories they consume,” he says, by way of explanation for his permanent mental food maths.
“What I’d love to do is [create] AI systems that take pictures of your food and tell you how many calories are in it.”
Not that he’d need such technology himself, of course. But he is careful not to “fat-shame” or pepper dinner-party conversation with chat about the calorie content of the host’s homemade lasagne: “I don’t make a song and dance, but most of my friends know exactly what I think.” By and large, he’ll skip the starter – quietly, of course. “I’ll skip the carbs at mains, too. And the bread. And I’ll either have no dessert, or a smidgen of Clare’s.”
This all sounds virtuous at best, miserable at worst. But Mosley, who has four children aged between 19 and 29, has consumed enough science over his four decades as a GP-turned-TV medic, author and journalist to make him confident about the importance of making good food choices. This is partly down to the death of his father who, “hugely overweight” for most of his life, developed type 2 diabetes. “He was not healthy. I tried to get him to do a low-fat diet – he tried it, and failed abysmally,” says Mosley, who in his late 50s discovered he too had type 2 diabetes, but has since reversed it through diet.
“I think if I knew what I know now, I could have saved his life. I could really, really have helped him.”
During his early life Mosley and his three siblings lived in Calcutta, the Philippines and Hong Kong before he was sent to boarding school in England, at the age of eight. His parents took a lax approach to monitoring sugar consumption, which has since caused him to have “every tooth filled and drilled” due to a childhood affection for fizzy drinks. This led him to be “quite draconian” in raising his own children (three sons and a daughter) and junk was forbidden under all circumstances, even if cousins were ordering illicit fare at restaurants. Snacks were either a handful of nuts or a little cheese.
“They complained like hell but until the age of about 11, you still have control over them,” Mosley says. “That [diet] will shape the course of their life – it’s a heavy responsibility.” Now, they all enjoy eating healthily.
It is practice rather than theory, after all, that makes the difference. “Education is never enough,” Mosley says, pointing to the public’s reversal on cigarettes, which took four decades and sustained government intervention. He is a fan of the sugar tax, but believes it is just “stage one”; he wants to tackle the lack of proper regulations around the manufacturing of junk food, which is “unbelievably expensive for the state and us”. Earlier this month, the UK’s National Health Service revealed it spends £200m a year on hip and knee replacements for obese patients.
“You have to legislate,” says Mosley. “The challenge will be how. You have to make [eating unhealthily] difficult for people, you have to make it expensive, and you have to make it socially unacceptable.”
Discussions around diet do, naturally, take up much of his time but Mosley also appreciates literature of a non-medical kind, and has been a member of an all-male book club for the past decade. They are currently reading White Teeth, which he says is “great”; he once saw himself following in the footsteps of George Orwell after becoming infatuated with Down and Out in Paris and London, though a natural aptitude for science put paid to that. But he remains genuinely excited by the words committed to his own books and articles, and the raft of new data on diet and lifestyle we are yet to see – in spite of the seemingly Herculean task at hand.
“I’m enthusiastic,” he says, carefully avoiding eye contact with the biscuit sitting on his saucer. “I think times are changing.”
– © The Daily Telegraph