Extract from The Telegraph:
Lunch with Michael Mosley, the guru behind the 5:2 diet (By Xanthe Clay)
After losing a stone and a half in five months, Xanthe Clay talks to Michael Mosley, the writer and broadcaster who popularised the hugely influential intermittent fasting diet.
Was this how the young David Cameron felt when he first met Thatcher? Or Stanley when he encountered Livingstone? I’m cooking lunch for Michael Mosley, the medical journalist whose Horizon programme and Telegraph article last August launched the 5:2 diet, which became a bestselling book – and changed my life.
Melodramatic, yes, but true. In the past five months on the 5:2 diet I have lost a stone and a half, reducing my Body Mass Index from a lumberingly 27 to a healthy, if admittedly hardly Kate Moss-like, 23. I still have half a stone to go, but already I can fit into clothes I bought years ago, no longer feel self-loathing about occasionally ordering cake with my coffee, and have a positively Tiggerish spring in my step.
I’m not the only one to have jumped on the 5:2 wagon. Mosley’s article on the Telegraph website has garnered nearly a million hits, and the diet book has been reprinted 13 times, selling more than 340,000 copies and e-books and topping the Amazon charts for weeks. Half my friends (including both food writers and doctors) are either on the diet or seriously considering it. Saying “I’m on a fast day” when turning down a biscuit garners sympathetic, rather than confused, looks.
Mosley himself arrives promptly for lunch. He is youthful looking for his 56 years and, encouragingly, slim but not scrawny . He is very much Mosley of the Beeb: fast, clear, incisive and also curious, as he quizzes me about my experiences on the diet – an interest I find so flattering I have to remind myself I’m the one meant to be doing the interviewing.
He makes frequent references to expert advocates of various forms of “intermittent fasting” – experts such as Dr Krista Varady in the United States and Dr Michelle Harvie in Britain, who, he is keen to point out, have done the serious scientific research, while he has merely collated the information and presented it in a way he feels is accessible.
And – crucially – he has tried it himself. Self-experimentation is a theme of much of his work. He has gone to some bizarre lengths in the name of research – swallowing a camera for the programme Inside the Human Body, which turns out to have been even more gruesome in reality than those riveting inner-space shots suggest. “The really unpleasant part was that the night before I had to drink four litres of laxative. I was meant to be going to dinner with the director general of the BBC and the gastroenterologist said, 'Not a good idea.’”
Mosley’s interest in intermittent fasting is highly personal. His father died aged 73, of complications related to type 2 diabetes, a disease inextricably linked with being overweight. “He’s been both a role model but also a sort of a threat going forward, because I see myself in him,” Mosley remarks ruefully, sipping sparkling mineral water.
So when he was diagnosed as pre-diabetic last June he tried out various intermittent fasting diets, having heard about their potential beneficial effects on insulin levels. Not that these are the only positive aspects being investigated. Harvie and Varady have focused on the cancer preventive benefits of fasting, and other researchers are looking into how it may slow Alzheimer’s. There is, however, no conclusive proof yet. “Critics reasonably say it’s early days, you need to have proper long-term trials, which is absolutely valid.”
Mosley’s life has been varied, not to say experimental. Like his father, he worked as a banker after leaving Oxford, where he had studied philosophy, politics and economics. But it didn’t appeal, and after a couple of years he enrolled in a graduate medical training scheme, intent on becoming a psychiatrist. But shortly after qualifying, he became disillusioned with “how little could really be done for people with mental illness”, and left medicine. He became a trainee producer with the BBC and spent 20 years behind the camera working on shows such as the award-winning Pompeii: The Last Day, before moving into presenting.
There was, however, one lasting benefit of his five years of medical training. “The first day at medical college the dean looked around at us – there were about a hundred of us – and said that statistically four of us would marry.” Sure enough, Mosley’s future wife, Clare Bailey, now a GP, parenting expert and founder of parentingmatters.co.uk, was among them. They now live in Buckinghamshire with their four children, aged 14 to 23.
Lunch is ready, and as it’s a fast day, I dish up shiitake mushroom, lemon grass and ginger broth, laced with low-carb Japanese shirataki noodles, one of the ingredients that have kept me on the straight and narrow over the past five months of dieting. (Holland & Barrett sell Zero brand shirataki noodles).
Mosley is delighted, or at least very polite, about being served up less than 200 calories. But will it hit the mark nutritionally? I worry about satiating hunger on fast days, and bulk up with loads of veg rather than worrying about vitamins. Mosley, however, disagrees. “I think nutritional content is absolutely key. If you are going to eat less food it should be as good as possible. You need high protein because while you store carbohydrate and fat, your body doesn’t store protein.” If it runs out of protein, it’ll break down muscle.
My loads-of-veg policy is fine, too, as it has lots of fibre – as long as I have some high-quality protein such as chicken or fish, too. I quickly add some poached chicken to our bowls. Mosley looks approving. “Fibre and protein, those are the things that fill you up. But it turns out that those are the things that are pretty good for you as well.”
At home, Mosley fasts alone. “My kids and my wife are all slim, so although supportive they don’t really do fasting days.” There are other positive benefits to having a slimmer husband, he says. “My neck went from 17 to 15½ inches, and that meant I stopped snoring. It’s to do with the visceral fat in your neck. There are times when I overindulge and my weight creeps up a bit. And she says, 'You’re snoring again!’ And I go and lose weight.”
Rather than working out BMI, Mosley recommends measuring your waist around the belly button, now considered by some health professionals to be a better indicator of a healthy weight. “Your waist measurement should be no more that half your height. Men tend to go by their trouser size, which is wrong – it’s generally smaller than your actual waist.”
To keep his svelte figure, favourite dishes on fast days include mushroom and spinach frittata and marinated steak and Asian cabbage salad, both recipes from his literary collaborator Mimi Spencer’s recipe book. He has, he says, learnt to love vegetables. “I like using the griddle for things like courgette, touches of lemon and orange juice jazz up salad leaves.”
The family have had to be on side in the battle to lose weight. “We don’t have cookies or crisps in the house. Otherwise I find 11 o’clock at night I’m looking around for a biscuit. I’ve told my wife that if she ever has any chocolate in the house she has to hide it or I will eat it. It’s completely stupid. And even as you eat it you’re thinking 'this is a really, really stupid thing to do. And I’m going to regret it 10 minutes later. And I’m still doing it.’” Mosley muses on that for a moment. “That’s what I find interesting. Such contradiction as human beings.”
After black coffee – Mosley, once a latte drinker, has taught himself to like it without milk – he has to go back to the studio. There are tweaks to be made to his new Horizon programme, on meditation and mindfulness. “I’ve had a go at the body, now I’m having a go at my brain,” he says. I’ll be watching.