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Beyond the diet

Beyond the diet

The 5:2 approach is incredibly popular in the dieting world at the moment, and its adherents are claiming impressive results. So could we apply it to other areas of our lives in an attempt to follow a healthier, more active and more wholesome lifestyle in general?

The 5:2 diet is based on the principle that absolute denial doesn't work for many people, and that the imposition of overly strict rules is the reason that many diets fail. Its core principle (in case you've been entirely out of touch with all forms of media over the last year) is that you have 2 “fast days” a week, during which you consume very few calories and follow a very restricted diet. You can eat whatever you like during the remaining 5 days of the week.

It's simple and it appears to be effective. Anecdotal evidence as well as more formal research is showing that this approach helps not only with weight loss but can boost general health in a number of ways. Its most vociferous followers claim that it can protect against dementia, slow down the ageing process and even reduce mortality.

The success of this approach is based on the idea that the human body has evolved to cope with times of plenty and times of scarcity, but doesn't do terribly well with a steady trickle of (more than) enough. In the context of dieting, that's enough food. Our caveman ancestors would have had plenty to eat when they'd just killed a mammoth or spotted a tree laden with ripe fruit, but in between those occasions they would have had to survive on lean pickings. So our bodies have evolved to thrive on a feast/fast pattern. It certainly sounds convincing enough (for more about our evolutionary heritage and its implications for our diet, exercise regime and general lifestyle, see here).

So if we've evolved to eat according to a feat-or-fast principle, it stands to reason that this approach might apply to other areas of our lives as well. Oliver Burkeman explored this idea in The Guardian last week. Here are some ideas on applying the 5:2 approach to life, the universe and everything. Well, to life, anyway.

5:2 and fitness

Applied to fitness, the 5:2 principle involves two days a week of intense exercise, with particular focus on resistance training. The idea is to really push yourself on those two days, rather than engaging in moderate levels of exercise across the week. The success of High Intensity Training bears testimony to the effectiveness of this approach – it appears that shorter bouts of intense exercise get the best results in terms of overall fitness and weight loss.

5:2 and alcohol

It's almost an official government guideline now: Stick to being tee-total two days a week and your liver will thank you for it. It's simpler to implement than counting units every evening, and it gives the body a much-needed chance to recuperate completely.

5:2 and other areas of life

The illustration of 5:2 applied to diet, exercise and alcohol gives you the general gist of how this approach works. There's nothing to stop you from taking it further. You could 5:2 your screen time, your relationship or your carbon footprint, to name but a few possible examples. The key to all of these different areas is to cut down on undesirable behaviour within a manageable framework.

But will it work??

The 5:2 approach has many advantages. It gets around the phenomenon that, for many people, periods of self-discipline or self-denial simply don't last. Furthermore, there's a rebound effect when people fall off the wagon where they don't just revert to bad old habits but get even worse – hence the all too familiar phenomenon of ending up fatter after a period of yo-yo dieting. It's also very simple and very precise, which

makes it particularly easy to follow and difficult to cheat. Surely we should be seeing a wave of improvement in public health as this approach takes hold?

Perhaps not. The fundamental problem with the 5:2 approach is that it's a version of “everything in moderation.” That's great if you're someone who can do moderation (sometimes referred to as a “moderator”). But not all of us can (for more about the benefits of an all-or-nothing approach to life and the myth of moderation, see here). In fact, some of us - the so-called “abstainers” - would emphatically agree with Samuel Pepys' statement that “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” You probably have an instinctive idea of which camp you fall into.

So the final verdict: If you're a “moderator,” by all means give the 5:2 approach a go. Apply it to your diet and to any other habit that could do with a bit of curbing. But if you're an “abstainer,” beware. Those 5 days of free reign will probably do you more harm than good.