Though the 5:2 diet has taken the world by storm, the idea of combining its benefits with the effects of High Intensity Exercise was pioneered in Dublin. We talk to the man behind that move on page 16, while here four volunteers for the programme tell Emily Hourican and Donal Lynch of their experiences.
'You have a baby and you feel awful, you just do. I'm 38, I'm single, I have a child. I needed desperately to do something, or I was just going to sit at home with Sam and eat buns." So says Diane Weatherup, who last week finished her IFAST12 programme. Trim, blonde and pretty, she came across the 5:2 when a male work colleague recommended it. "After I had Sam, I wanted to lose the weight, so I did calorie counting, and I did lose half a stone, but then I just levelled off. I finished maternity leave, went back to work, back to snacking and eating out, and the weight crept back up."
What appealed to her about 5:2 was the fact that she was only fiddling with calories twice a week, and the very short bouts of exercise. "It's very hard to get home after working all day and head straight off for an hour to the gym. Unless I bring Sam with me, I can't get out."
Another huge plus for Diane was the personal nature of the programme. "I did the genetic test and discovered that I am a high responder to exercise. This means I don't have any excuse not to lose the weight and get fit! If you're a low responder, you have to work harder, if you're high, it should just happen quite easily - as long as I'm doing the work.
"I probably knew that already, but it's interesting to be told. Other diets aren't individual to you. In general, I would be a real drop-in, drop-out sort of person, following one fad diet and then another, not sticking at them. But I did this for the whole 12 weeks, because I was part of the programme. That was my motivation. You don't want to let the team down. That's the psychology of it. You feel part of something."
She is, she says "a pretty typical girl," although I suspect fitter than many. "I would have done a lot of dieting over the years, tried all sorts of stuff. I also run 10kms and do triathlons, but I don't do much regular training. To be honest, I found the exercise harder than the fasting - some weeks I only managed to get out once - because of making time for it. The fasting was much easier than I expected. I was able to have a social life and go out on a Friday night without feeling stressed about what to order, or upset because I couldn't order something, or obsessed with all the things I couldn't have. And on the fasting days, I didn't crave food really, because I knew it was coming the next day. On fast days, I would have the same breakfast and dinner every time, with no lunch, and drink a lot of tea and coffee in between. That keeps it simple and organised. I know what I'm having and I get used to it. After a weekend, it's quite nice to do it on a Monday or a Tuesday, especially if you've been binging. You feel really good."
So in terms of food, what would be her downfall? We all have one - chocolate, toast, pasties, maybe ice-cream? "I have a sweet tooth," she laughs. "When they asked what I ate, I told them what I have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and if that was all I ate, I'd be a size zero! My problem is what I snack on - sweets, a chocolate bar mid-afternoon, a biscuit. When I go to the supermarket, I never buy chocolate or crisps or anything. I fill the trolley with healthy stuff, then in the afternoons I'll pop out to the shop and buy a bar to have with my tea or coffee. I'm a real creature of habit as well. That was the hardest part - breaking the habit of the mid-afternoon sweet snack. But I have broken it, I eat far fewer sweets and biscuits."
Did she find her sleep interrupted by the fasting? "Not at all. But I'm a very good sleeper anyway, so maybe that's why."
What about the psychological hold that food has over all of us - how did that change? "Normally, I would never be hungry in my life," she laughs. "Its nice to train yourself that it's OK to be hungry. That's a good lesson."
Diane lost two kilos across the 12 weeks, a figure that she confesses to having been disappointed by.
"At the first weigh-in, after two weeks, I'd lost five pounds and I was really excited, but after that it was always just one pound or so. What motivated me to keep going were the comments from people around me, 'you look great,' you've lost so much weight.' That made me really pleased. Because of that, I do think the 5:2 is working, I haven't had those comments before. I lost two inches off my waist - that's really hard to do, especially when you have a kid and you're pushing 40 - and I dropped a dress size. I'm now a size 12 and I've never been a size 12. I'm thinner now than I've been in 10 years."
So will she stick with it, even now the 12 weeks are up?
"It's working for me, so why wouldn't I? Not feeling good about yourself can hold you back. Being heavier affects your self-esteemugely, you're very aware of it. I've been heavy since I was a teenager, and getting fit and thinner is always something I wanted to do. I've done fad diets with friends, a triathlon here or there, and nothing has ever worked for me. Having something personalised for me is working. I can't say enough good stuff about this. I haven't felt as good about myself for so long, especially since Sam was born. I feel better about myself, and that's priceless."
"A lot of us are still like, 'oh, it's five o'clock, I've got to go home and eat fish and chips,'" says Des McGuirk. "My eating habits have changed because of this, and for that alone, even if I hadn't lost a pound, the lifestyle is worth it - you feel better, you feel fitter, it's encouraging you to eat wisely."
Des admits that he wasn't particularly strict about the detail of the 5:2 and HIT. "I didn't stick to it religiously. I didn't do the bike or the running, but I did a lot of walking, and I stuck with the diet. I lost 10lb in the 12 weeks, which didn't seem like a lot to me, because I was overweight before I started it. But my BMI went down, which is good. I lost a bit of muscle, which at my age - I'm 61 - you don't want. But I'll put that back on easily."
"Bread used to be my downfall," he says. "That's what I was reared on. Now I'm like a recovered drug addict. I can walk through the bread section in Tesco and come out the other side with none." And despite not doing the HIT exactly as specified, he is finding benefits in the exercise. "I'm doing walks now where previously I would have had to stop twice, now I don't stop at all. I'm out walking six hours a week around Tallaght, where I live, up the mountains. I would have walked before, but I wouldn't have pushed myself. I'm much fitter and healthier."
Is this his first attempt at a diet? "I've tried a couple before, I was very heavy for a while, 16 stone 10 pounds. I'm two stone lighter than that now, but I found the other diets hard to keep up. I'll stick with this. I could go to 6:1, but I think I'll stay at 5:2. It suits me."
It is, he says, a mental thing: "if you get your mind in the right place and just stick with it, it's amazing how easily it goes. I don't dread the fast days at all. I usually do Mondays and Thursdays. I wouldn't even call it a fast, because I didn't find it punitive. I work as a builder, so it's hard physical work, and I never felt I had less energy, I never felt a downside to this at all. Now, you couldn't sit here with people eating cakes in front of you, and you couldn't go out for a few pints on fast days, because you'd use up your calories very quickly, but that's easy to avoid."
Thanks to increased fitness, Des is determined to do the marathon this year, "I'm fit enough, but there's still a little something in my head . . ." he laughs. "But I'll get rid of that." Why is he so determined? "I'd feel 100pc good about myself if I did it. I might finish a day or two after everyone else, but I will finish!"
Have the people around him noticed the changes? "I've had a lot of good comments. As I said, if I hadn't lost a pound it wouldn't matter, because I feel much better, I'm happier, better in myself, all those good things. I don't look for figures, I don't need to know what the weight loss is, it's about the feeling I have."
5:2 It sounds like it might be a faintly biblical ratio - "Matthew 5:2: Glut not thyself, lest ye be porky". But instead it is, of course, the diet craze that has swept the world over the last year and a half. Yet with its central component of two days of consuming only around 500 calories (depending on size and gender), combined with five days of eating what you like, it does indeed have a faintly religious or medieval ring to it. The idea of starving or fasting ourselves toward purification of body and soul has been around for a few thousand years after all - though it may just have taken BBC science programming presenter Dr Michael Mosley, the principal proponent of the diet, to back it up with a bit of science and evangelism to turn it into this generation's Atkins. Just don't call it a fad; 5:2 claims to be as much about improving health as losing weight.
Current devotees of the diet include a number of celebrities. In addition the book, The Fast Diet has now sold more than 300,000 copies in the UK.
It was an opportunity through his job in banking, rather than any celebrity endorsement or publishing juggernaut, that led 46-year-old William McDonald, above right, to first undergo various blood tests and Body Mass Index testing and then to give the diet a try. "I was up for my two-year medical," he tells me. "When I booked they asked me if I would be interested in doing the iFAST programme (which is run through the same company that runs the VHI Swiftcare clinics). First of all you did the medical and on the back of that you were given the opportunity to participate in this private programme."
At The Well at the Beacon clinic in Sandyford it was explained to him that three meals a day is actually more than is required by the body.
"In hunter-gatherer times we were much more alert when we were hungry," McDonald tells me. Really? I would have thought the opposite was true: surely concentration decreases when you're peckish enough to gnaw your own arm off? "No, I would have agreed with you", he insists. "I would have thought you're going around shaking for the day, but you're really not."
Nevetheless McDonald, who lives with his family in Dublin 2, found the first two weeks very daunting. "I'm not going to lie: it wasn't easy at the start. The first two weeks it takes some getting used to - 500 calories isn't a lot. There are times when I would have eaten my own hand. But if you get through breakfast time on a few poached eggs and a piece of toast and coffee, then at lunch you can have some fish and steamed vegetables. It's a reasonable amount - you're not going away hungry. But the benefit comes because you're also combining it with high intensity training." For William, this involved a few burst of cycling hard on a stationary bike, building up each time to an all-out sprint.
But wouldn't it only be human nature to gorge on the non-fast days? The idea is that one will, to an extent at least, eat sensibly on the normal eating days, McDonald explains. "I've done other diets and they're too relentless - the same old thing every day. You do end up feeling deprived. The variety with this one is actually what makes it so sustainable." As part of the programme he also used an app called My Fitness Pal. "This takes a picture of what you're about to consume", he explain. "The app takes the bar code of whatever the product is and tells you how many calories in one serving."
The results speak for themselves. In person, William looks fit and strong, and he tells me that the weight has fallen off. "When I started all of this I clocked in on the first day at 97.9 kgs. When they measured me again the other day I was 91.4kgs, so that's a big reduction. My BMI was also toward the top end of acceptable, even given my height. That's improved quite a bit too."
It's a big lifestyle change for a busy professional - all eating out has to be done on the non-fasting days for instance - but McDonald emphasises that, for him, this isn't a diet. He intends to continue with the programme indefinitely. "I actually now look forward to the fast days, and I never thought I could say that."
His family haven't tried it out but several of his friends did and he tells me that the competition provided a mutual spur for them. "The Well had everybody linked so you could monitor people's progress and you share tips. I'll continue with it. It's been life-changing for me."
Anyone who has ever suffered from a stroke will attest that you never forget the day it happens. For Pat Murphy, a retired guard from Cork, the moment is burned in his memory. He was 35 years old, had just played a soccer match that morning and felt like he was in the prime of his life. He went to work that day and was searching a house as part of a criminal investigation when he suddenly felt a tingling up his left leg which soon moved up his side.
For Pat, who was a champion swimmer for much of his life and who had worked in Angola after the war there, the shock was enormous. "I'd never had health issues up to that, so this really took me by surprise", he says. "During the recovery period I was stressed out not being able to walk and that, in turn, gave me high blood pressure." After three months Pat, who is married with three sons and a grandchild, was able to return to work but playing soccer, which he loved, was out of the question. And, while he continued to swim, slowly but surely over the intervening 19 years his weight began to creep up.
He first heard of the 5:2 diet, which involves two days of eating roughly 500 calories combined with five days of normal, healthy eating, during the London Olympics of 2012. "My brother got me into it", he tells me. "I also researched it myself and looked at videos by Dr. Michael Mosley (who is credited with pioneering the diet). I decided to give it a go."
Pat tries to navigate his way through the fast days in his own way: "I try to have a late breakfast, which I find helps a lot," he tells me. "I'd then have a stir-fry chicken for dinner. Or maybe grilled salmon - both of those meals would bring me up to about 550 or 580 calories. I find that if I keep active I don't think as much of food. It's when you're sitting around doing nothing that you can have a problem."
A huge element of losing weight and regaining control of your health through the programme is the high intensity training. Pat relished this aspect as even while gaining weight he had continued to swim fairly intensively.
His results were dramatic. He dropped eight kilos in twelve weeks - moving from 106.7kgs to 98.7kgs and additionally lost 2 1/4 inches on his waist and 1 1/12 inches on his hips.
"My blood pressure was 133/88 and when they did it again it was 128/64 which is near perfect", he tells me. "The training isn't a walk in the park - you have to get your heart up to 90pc" he adds. "It wouldn't be uncommon for me to get my heart rate up at 150 or 160. But an ordinary Joe Soap might find the exercise element more difficult. But it's worth persevering with because the health benefits are huge. I also love being in the pool and not looking like a whale!"
Pat, who now works as a private investigator, says he will continue with the diet and exercise programme and intends to lose another eight kilos by Christmas. "That might be a little ambitious, but I'll see how I go", he says. "They say once you get down to your target weight you can maybe do 6:1 instead of 5:2, so that's something to aim for too. It's improved my energy levels and it'll probably make me live longer: I'd definitely recommend it."