If to feel more free is the aspiration, and getting rid of some of the accumulation of stuff is already underway, what else could I be thinking about shedding? We come round again to weight, fat, excess. I am not hugely overweight, probably about a stone or so (fourteen pounds to my American readers) but I have been carrying this extra weight for about eight years. I have never been one of these people who are rake thin and can eat anything but for most of my adult life my weight has hovered between nine stone and nine stone seven, not slender for my height of five foot four but not heavy either. I would only ever be able to eat what I liked if I was exercising a lot and I cheerfully accepted a sort of discipline which meant that when my weight started to approach nine and a half stone I would exercise more, eat a bit less until it nudged back down again.
All that changed when I became seriously ill with an ovarian growth nine years ago. I lost a huge amount of weight, down to seven stone, and for the first time ever you could see my ribs, the bony edge of the clavicle, the curve of my hip bones. I hated it. It was part of the frailty and physical weakness of being ill. I was off work for six months and most of that time , perhaps four months or so, was a slow and gentle recuperation and a return to myself. During that time I ate quite deliberately to regain my weight. It was great to watch the scales gently edging upward. I got to nine stone, and then nine and a half and still kept on going with the extra portion, the lavishly buttered bread, the extra slice of cheese. I seemed to settle at about ten stone five, heavier than I had ever been but not so heavy as to feel uncomfortable with myself. And there I let it stay. I was alive. I was healthy again. What did it matter? It was a relief not to think about weight. I was in my fifties and if I needed a size fourteen that didn't seem to me (still doesn't) anything unusual or excessive.
About eighteen months ago I decided that perhaps I would do something about my weight, noticing that things were edging up again and thinking that I didn't want to find myself very much heavier. I lost about half a stone, using the calorie counting app on MyFitnesspal, and felt much better for it. Then, out of the blue, my mother died. I don't think I have ever been a comfort eater but I put all that weight back on. I knew as I was doing it that the sad, emptiness I felt would not be filled by eating but we have always loved food in our family and somehow I found myself eating the extra sandwich, hearing my mother's voice from far away in my childhood saying "You will feel better for something to eat". I didn't. Only the slow passage of time does that.
And so we come to this year, 2015. I can tell by my clothes that I have put a little bit more weight on and I begin to wonder whether I should try to lose it. Things that were comfortable are not quite so comfortable. A couple of skirts which were a bit tight are now so tight that I take them off again. We were watching the recent Horizon programme which has been looking at the scientific evidence which indicates that different diets might suit different groups. One group of guinea pigs was put on a diet involving intermittent fasting, where for two days a week you eat very few calories and for the rest of the week you eat normally. "You could do that" said Ian. "You're a self disciplined type." Now I should make it clear that Ian has never commented on my extra weight other than to tell me jokingly that he doesn't like skinny birds. I was interested in what we were watching and wondering aloud about whether any of these diets were of any use to me.
After the programme I went and weighed and measured myself. And here was the shock, not so much the weight which was three pounds or so above the level it was last time I weighed myself but the measurements. I knew I carried weight about my middle because I always have. I know that the "apple" shape which that produces is associated with a number of health risks, particularly with regard to heart attack and stroke, but when I saw my waist measurement was thirty seven inches I could not believe it. I don't look like a beer barrel, honestly, but a thirty seven inch waist means I barely go in at the waist at all. My mother died of a heart attack. My brother had a huge stroke four years ago which has left him seriously disabled. It was not a vanity thing. I was messing about with my health.
So time to do something about it. I spent Monday evening researching intermittent fasting, or the five:two diet as it is often called to reflect the pattern of two days fasting and five days normal eating. I found a website which supports it and ploughed my way through information and forums. I found a waist to hip ratio calculator which told me my ratio was "extreme" and associated with increased health risks. I read about fasting for two days a week and thought I could and would do it. So yesterday was my first fasting day.
Fasting suggests no food at all and the 5:2 diet doesn't demand that. Instead it suggests that you should restrict yourself to 500 calories and day for women and 600 for men on your fasting days. The website offers you a way to calculate the calories you should consume on the non fasting days, based on your age, gender, height and levels of physical activity. This is based on something called Total Daily Energy Expenditure. It all seemed quite straightforward. The forums were full of a whole range of responses to fasting from "I feel terrible, I can't do this, I can't sleep" to "I feel wonderful. I feel so great on my fasting days that I look forward to them". How would I find it? There was only one way to find out.
Yesterday was my first fasting day. I started with a breakfast of two hard boiled eggs. That is an easy one for me. I love eggs and usually have them for breakfast, generally a poached egg on toast. My reading had suggested that protein kept you feeling fuller for longer than carbohydrate so I thought two eggs might work better than my usual egg on toast. It seemed to be true. I wasn't at all hungry over the course of the morning and arrived at lunchtime feeling I wanted a little bit of something but not even as hungry as I normally am. I did drink quite a lot of fruit and herbal tea, having had two cups of my normal tea with milk to start the day. For lunch I had a cup of Marigold Bouillon stock and another hard boiled egg. That felt fine. I was much less hungry than usual, had no headache or any of the downsides of fasting which I read about. So far, so good.
I calculated I had used about two hundred and ten of my calories for the day. It depends on how you categorise our home laid eggs! For dinner I reckoned I could have a salmon fillet with tomatoes and peppers and that should be it.
By late afternoon I was starting to feel decidedly peckish, not starving or uncomfortable, just ready for something to eat. I raided the fridge for a couple of cherry tomatoes and had another cup of bouillon. There is something about the salty, savoury taste which makes you feel you are having something more substantial than it really is! I had a bit of a wobble before dinner when Ian was eating black olives and bread cubes but I held out and made it through to meal time feeling quite proud of myself. I cooked the salmon in the oven on a bed of tomatoes and chopped yellow pepper with some capers for sharpness and a little oil and black pepper. It was delicious and Ian had the same but with roasted new potatoes as well.
I always knew that the evening would be the hardest time as this is when I normally get to around nine o' clock and have a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. No more calories left for this. Strangely I was aware that I wasn't really hungry, it was more that I have a habit of rounding off the evening this way. I had a couple of glasses of slimline tonic with ice and, without the wine to set off the munchies, didn't feel the need for anything else. So I reached bedtime having achieved my aim of no more than five hundred calories and feeling pretty good. I thought I might struggle to go to sleep which is a problem many people have complained of, particularly on their second fasting day of the week. Perhaps because this was my first day I had no difficulty going off to sleep. I woke this morning with a dry mouth but otherwise feeling fine.
Today I am keeping to 1500 calories, again using MyFitnesspal to track them. I will decide tonight whether to fast again tomorrow or on Friday. At the moment I am feeling hugely motivated. Somehow deciding that the driver is my health rather than anything else has been very freeing. It would be nice to fit into a size twelve again and to look slimmer but to be honest if that was that important to me it would have made me act about my weight before now. I hope to look better out of my clothes and in them but what I really want to do is to achieve a waist measurement which is no more than half my height in inches. That seems to be the rule of thumb which indicates that you are not carrying unhealthy levels of abdominal fat. So we shall see. I will give it a month of really having a serious go at intermittent fasting and keeping an eye on the calories on non fasting days. I think this will have a by product of reducing my wine consumption which can't be a bad thing. When Ian is completely recovered I will go back to walking our hills again. And I will report back. I hope this is not too personal and too boring but having the discipline of writing about what has happened when I have done my first week seems like a good idea. Wish me luck!