Tag Archives: Great British Chefs

Intermittent Fasting Takes Over the UK

The Fast Diet

If you live in Britain then you’ve likely heard of the 5:2 diet, aka ‘The Fast Diet’, popularised by Dr. Michael Mosley in the BBC Horizon episode, Eat, Fast and Live Longer. Since the programme first aired in August 2012, thousands of people have latched on to his method of Intermittent Fasting for weight loss. Celebrities like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have climbed on board and now there’s a book on the subject, the fast diet, co-authored by Mosley and food and fashion writer Mimi Spencer.

Intermittent fasting is nothing new, and it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for the last few years, ever since I started reading about ‘primal’ and ‘paleo’ diets and how eating as our ancestors ate may have benefits to our overall health (I’ve found Mark Sisson’s work on Mark’s Daily Apple particularly interesting, useful and inspiring). But what’s amazing about Mosley and the Horizon programme is how strongly it’s struck a cord with what seems like the entire nation. I know dozens of people who have been doing the 5:2 diet, and what’s incredible is that they’ve been keeping it up and seeing results for weeks and months.

So what is the 5:2 diet? In case you’ve somehow missed it, the 5:2 diet works like this: two days a week you restrict your calories to 500 per day if you’re female, or 600 per day if you’re male. It doesn’t matter which days you choose to fast or how you partition the calories throughout the day. On non-fast days (“feast days”), you can eat whatever you want.

That’s it.

Perhaps this is what’s sold the nation on 5:2: the method is so simple and easy to follow. You can have your cake (and your beer, chips and chocolate) and eat it, too. It’s not socially restrictive. The only real hard part is not eating much two days a week, which isn’t really as hard as it sounds.

The diet is so simple that it almost seems a shame there’s now an official website and book about it, padding out the story with extra “tips” and “success stories”, and making the diet seem more like, well, a ‘diet’. And what ‘diet’ has ever really worked for anyone? (Seriously, I’d love to know.)

The book has merits, though. The most useful bits are the first few chapters that describe the science behind intermittent fasting and why this crazy 5:2 thing might actually be the way forward, not just for weight loss, but for disease prevention and long life. When we fast, we fool our bodies into thinking we’re in a potential ‘famine’ situation, and our body responds by toughening up. A major player here is growth hormone IGF-1, a hormone that influences cell reproduction, and thus ageing. Fasting causes levels of this hormone to drop, and in response, repair genes to switch on. This is a good thing, and has huge implications for reducing age-related diseases. Fasting also gives our pancreas a rest, which improves insulin sensitivity and thus reduces our risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. There is also evidence that fasting improves your mood.

Oh yeah, and you tend to gradually lose weight, too (a natural effect of dramatically restricting your calories twice a week).

At least, this is all true in theory. The problem with the science behind intermittent fasting is that most of it has been done on mice. In reading the book, you get a sense of the hand-waviness behind some of the theories. Dr. Mosley and Ms. Spencer aren’t shy about this, and that is why only a small portion of the book is devoted to ‘science’, and the rest devoted to their own personal experiences with fasting and tips for making it work for you (groan, it becomes a ‘diet’ book).

Intermittent Fasting: The Monica Method

I’ve practising intermittent fasting since December, but I’m loathe to call it “5:2” because my approach and my motivations are a bit different from most people I know (and I’ve never really liked being part of the “in crowd”). I’m less interested in losing weight than I am in longevity and mental health. I’ve already been through my own “weight loss journey”, and I’m grateful to have succeeded, but it’s left me with certain mental baggage about ‘diets’ and ‘calories’ that I’d rather cast aside. I like that intermittent fasting frees the mind from thinking about food as calories (except on fast days, of course). Also, in the same way that “feast days” allow food to be truly celebrated (as it should be – there should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”), fast days too offer a different kind of freedom.

If you’re a foodie like me, then you tend to obsess about food – what’s for dinner? What can I make today with all the ingredients I have? (How lucky are we to live in the modern world?!) And so I find fast days quite liberating: for a good solid chunk of the day, I just don’t have to think about food and I can get on with other things, be it work, writing, cleaning or walking (admittedly, the more active I am on fast days, the easier it is to forget I might be hungry).

I’ve seen many foodies channel their food obsessions towards creating really amazing super low-calorie fast day recipes. But here’s my issue with this: on fast days, I don’t want to worry about food. In fact, I personally find the idea of eating a lot of small pathetic meals throughout the day extraordinarily depressing. So my “fasting” approach is to simply eat nothing all day until about 6pm, at which point I have a “sensible meal”. I don’t typically count the calories, but I don’t go crazy either. I deliberately try to have a light meal, and usually go for soups. A recent favourite is vegetarian pho with julienned carrot and courgette “noodles”, broccoli and tofu. There’s also lots you can do with an egg (about 80 calories), be it hard boiled for a salad nicoise or filled with veggies and turned into a tasty frittata or omelet.

Pho extreme.

My other motivation for fasting this way is the argument that your body gets the most benefit from fasting when you’re actually, well, fasting. But again, the science is patchy on this and, according to Mosley, it appears even if you do snack on a fast day, you still glean most of the ‘benefits’ of fasting.

But that’s just me, and as Dr. Mosley explains in his book, that is the beauty of the 5:2 – you can tailor it to suit your own personality and approach to eating, as long as you stick to the basic rules. The thing to remember is that you can deal with going hungry for a bit. It might seem hard at first, but that’s only because we’re so used to being satiated all the time. Hang tight in the knowledge you can eat whatever you want the next day and just get on with life. I know. We’re foodies. It’s kind of a bummer to miss out on a meal. But it means we get to enjoy the meals we DO eat with more freedom and pure pleasure, and none of that pesky guilt stuff.

A few final observations from my personal experience:

  • Fasting is hard but not as hard as it sounds
  • Sometimes you get hungry, but you just have to get over it, because…
  • Being hungry isn’t the end of the world, and if you’re only fasting for a day, the hunger doesn’t build and build until you explode… it comes in subtle waves and then it passes
  • Missing a meal isn’t a total travesty
  • Fasting is a handy approach to dealing with crappy airline food on long-haul flights
  • Drinking a lot of fluid is very helpful, and in fact necessary; I like tea and sparkling water
  • After an indulgent day or weekend, fasting for a day feels like hitting the “reset button” on your body, mentally and physically
  • Fasting is addictive
  • Fasting is harder when the weather is miserable
  • Fasting is easier when occupied by physical activities like walking, cleaning, shopping and exercising
  • You can work out while you’re fasting – your body won’t crumble to pieces
  • You should go to the doctor before you start fasting and make sure it’s a safe idea, plus get some blood work done to set a baseline so you can measure how fasting effects your physiology (one of the best features of the fast diet book is that it tells you which tests you can have done under the NHS through your GP)

This post first appeared on the Great British Chefs blog.

Posh Prawn Cocktail

Posh prawn cocktail

I’ve already mentioned my latest weekend of food and debauchery in my post about Brown Bread and Guinness Ice Cream, but that barely scraped the surface of our foodie shenanigans (in fact, I wouldn’t doubt if some of us were too drunk by the time the ice cream was served to remember if it was actually good – but take it from me, it’s badass).

Also on the food experiment list was this posh prawn cocktail. But before I go on, let me say a little bit more about our crew last weekend because they’re all part of the story…

It was me, Kavey from Kavey Eats, Pete from Pete Drinks and Marie from Lanyon Cottages. We met in Cornwall last June on a holiday organised by the Food Travel Company. Throughout the trip, we four were always the ones lingering around the dining table long after everyone had gone to sleep, and during those evenings of good drink and great food, we bonded. We affectionately call ourselves the “Fab Four”, and have now had two reunions here at the O.C. It’s hard to believe I’ve only known them since June – this a seriously rare case of instantly comfortable friendships, the kind where you can have these people over to your house for a weekend and never feel sick of each other, you don’t feel like you have to “entertain” and no one’s “in the way”. If Pete feels like taking a nap, he just goes and takes a nap. No body’s worried about anyone else’s well-being, because it’s all pretty clear that we’re totally at ease.

Posh prawn cocktail

Despite the lack of pressure to entertain, I got it in my head last weekend that I wanted to do something kind of retro-tastic, dinner party style for one of our meals. I wasn’t about to break out the cocktail dress, but cocktails sounded like a fun idea, and so did hors d’oeuvres.

Enter Great British Chefs recently posted their collection of Christmas recipes where I found Chris Horridge’s Prawn Cocktail. The recipe reminded me of my first and only prawn cocktail experience with Genie Cooks at The Bell at Sapperton just a few weeks ago. I think my recent foray into Jell-O molds and cheese balls in preparation for Thanksgiving has me jazzed about retro food (so weird!), so prawn cocktail has definitely appeal. Unfortunately, the prawn cocktail at The Bell was “rubbish” – crappy little prawns excessively splooged with the signature Marie Rose sauce (what we American would equate to Thousand Island Dressing) and with very little salad to speak of. Genie backed me up – this was not a great prawn cocktail:


Ever since The Bell, I’ve been driven to make a prawn cocktail that I would actually eat. An opportunity was knocking!

The prawn cocktail recipe at Great British Chefs isn’t your traditional prawn cocktail, and you could argue that it isn’t really prawn cocktail at all. But with nice prawns and a freshly made creamy tomato sauce, it’s a pretty solid starter regardless. The sauce – at least as I made it – erred more on the tomato side than the mayo side, and actually worked just as well with the vegetarian version we made for prawn-hater Pete, subbing buffalo mozzarella for the prawns, and garnishing with basil instead of dill.

Prawn cocktail, the vegetarian version with buffalo mozzarella

There are a few other Christmas recipes in the Great British Chefs collection that I’d like to try, particularly the carrots with tarragon and garlic and the apricot stuffing (vegetarian-ised). And having tried the prawn cocktail recipe, I know to expect the unexpected, which I kind of like, especially during the holidays when you’re meant to kick things up a few measures from the norm. Perhaps The Bell, a pub which tries to convey the image of super posh, artisanal, fine-dining country Cotswolds bliss (it has “horse parking” for goodness sake) could learn a thing or two from this recipe.

Recipe: Prawn cocktail with homemade sauce