This is your definitive guide to 5:2 diet recipes, tips, tricks and low calorie food swaps.
What is the 5:2 diet?
The 5:2 diet plan is simple. For two non-consecutive days a week you must limit yourself to 500 calories a day (600 for men) and the rest of the time you can eat normally. Though, you may be disappointed to hear, like we were, that ‘normally’ doesn’t mean you can feast on takeaways and family-sized Galaxy bars, rather, you need to stick to the recommended daily calorie intake (2,000 for women, 2,500 for men).
How does the 5:2 diet work, then?
The 5:2 diet is essentially a fancy name for intermittent fasting. Fasting is seen as a more effective way to lose weight because by cutting down on your calorie intake intermittently, rather than all at once, your body goes into ‘repair mode’ and not ‘starvation mode’. This repair mode causes the body to restore damaged cells, which uses more energy, whereas starvation mode causes your body to store fat.
So, what are the pros of the 5:2 diet?
We asked nutritionists, health writers and experts what they thought about the 5:2:
1. Your cognitive function may be improved which can help to prevent conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia.
2. Felicity Cloake, Guardian columnist and award-winning food writer says: 'The 5:2 diet is the only one I've ever tried which feels doable long-term – the idea of depriving myself of anything seven days a week is so depressing I inevitably give up, but nothing seems so terrible about fasting for a single day at a time. After all, I can always have that cake tomorrow!'
3. Fasting for short periods may help to give your digestive system a rest.
4. Angela Dowden, author of The 5:2 Diet Cookbook, says: 'Fasting is a routine you can sustain and it's adaptable too - later on you can do just one day a week to keep weight off. Also it really does seem to help re-educate your eating habits, which is key to sustained weight loss.'
5. Initial studies suggest intermittent fasting may have the ability to increase lifespan.
6. Dr Sarah Schenker, author of The Fast Diet Recipe Book, says: 'Although you will find the fasting days challenging to begin with, you quickly get used to dealing with hunger pangs and some people feel empowered by fasting, others talk of a sense of freedom or relief by not having the dilemma of choosing what to eat.'
7. It may reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.
8. Kate Harrison, author of The Ultimate 5:2 Diet Recipe Book, says: 'The 5:2 is the first diet I’ve ever wanted to stick with for life – it’s incredibly simple and flexible. Plus, it’ll save you money – and, of course, you can still enjoy your favourite dishes, so 5:2 means never having to feel guilty about food again.'
9. Fasting is believed to reduce the levels of IGF-1 in the blood (a growth hormone which seems to lead to accelerated ageing and can cause cell divisions like those found in cancer).
Sounds great, are there any cons?
1. After fasting, you may find yourself overeating.
2. Emma Woolf, Times columnist, as seen on Channel 4’s Supersize Vs Superskinny, says: 'What’s wrong with 5:2? What’s right with it, more like. It’s unbalanced and unhealthy, alternating fasting with feasting. It’s the ultimate all-or-nothing cycle of hungry days and high-calorie days. Extreme dieting triggers over-eating, and causes mood swings. Like every other miracle diet it’s unsustainable over the long-term.'
3. Side effects may include difficulty sleeping, bad breath, dehydration and anxiety.
4. Fiona Nave, registered paediatric dietitian/nutritionist, says: 'It's not a sustainable diet – it's a diet which will see weight rebound. There are short-term health risks to consider. People could find they get dizzy, feel sick and could even pass out. And if someone was diabetic, for example, it could be extremely dangerous.'
5. Restricting food can lead to nutrient deficiencies if your body doesn't get all the essential minerals and nutrients it needs.
6. Alan Aragon, Men’s Health advisory board member, says: 'Researchers have yet to do a prospective randomised controlled trial, where they assign some people to fast and others to eat the same amount of food in a more typical pattern, then follow them both see what happens.'
7. This diet is not suitable for pregnant women, Type 1 diabetics, children or people recovering from surgery.
8. Fasting can leave you with less energy, which can affect your ability to function with daily tasks.
9. There is concern that the 5:2 diet can encourage eating disorders among vulnerable people.
So, now you know the facts, here are some 5:2 diet recipe ideas that’ll keep you under the 500 calorie threshold:
Banana Oat Muffins
Calories per muffin: 219
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20–25 minutes
- 100g rolled oats 355 cals
- 50g wholewheat flour 155 cals
- 150g plain white flour 503 cals
- 2 tsp baking powder 10 cals
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda 5 cals
- ¼ tsp salt
- 75g muscovado sugar 300 cals
- 4 large very ripe bananas, mashed 480 cals
- 1 large egg, beaten 100 cals
- 4 tbsp light olive oil 540 cals
- 2 tbsp pumpkin or sunflower seeds or a mix 175–184 cals
1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4. Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.
2. Mix together the oats (keeping a tablespoon aside for the topping), flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar.
3. Mix together the mashed bananas, egg and oil and then pour into the dry oat and flour mix and fold together.
4. Spoon into the prepared muffin cases and scatter the top of each muffin with the reserved oats and the seeds. Bake for 20–25 minutes, until brown and slightly springy to touch.
One-Tray Baked Cod Provençal
Calories per serving: 247
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
- 1 red pepper, seeded and cut into wedges 30 cals
- 1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into wedges 30 cals
- 1 courgette, thickly sliced 34 cals
- 1 red onion, peeled and sliced 38 cals
- 1-cal cooking spray
- 2 x 150g cod fillets, skin removed 288 cals
- 100g cherry tomatoes 20 cals
- 30g drained and rinsed pitted black olives 40 cals
- zest and juice of ½ lemon 9 cals
- 1 tbsp fresh oregano or thyme leaves 5 cals
- salt and pepper
1. Heat the oven to 200˚C/400˚F/Gas mark 6. Place the chopped peppers, courgette and onion in a shallow baking dish. Spray with a little 1-cal cooking spray, season well with salt and pepper and roast for 10 minutes.
2. Place the cod fillets on top, season and spray with 1-cal cooking spray. Scatter the tomatoes, olives and lemon zest around the fish, and squeeze over the lemon juice. Sprinkle with the herbs, season again, and bake for 8–10 minutes, until the cod has just turned a denser white colour (this shows it’s cooked). Scatter with the olives and serve immediately.
Spicy Mexican Bean Burgers
Calories per serving: 244 with halloumi; 459 with burger bun, halloumi, guacamole and salad
Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus chilling
Cooking time: 20 minutes
- 1-cal cooking spray
- ½ red onion, peeled and finely chopped 19 cals
- 4 spring onions, finely sliced 6 cals
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 8 cals
- 1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped 5–10 cals
- 2 tsp Mexican or Cajun spice mix 10 cals
- 1½ x 400g tins mixed beans, drained and rinsed 360 cals
- 1 egg, beaten 78 cals
- 50g fresh breadcrumbs 134 cals
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves 10 cals
- juice of ½ lime 6 cals
- 75g low-fat feta cheese, crumbled 135 cals
- 80g reduced-fat halloumi cheese 204 cals
- salt and pepper
optional extras per burger:
- 1 toasted seeded granary burger bun 180 cals per bun
- 1 tbsp low-fat guacamole 17 cals
- 10g rocket leaves 2 cals
- 1 tomato, sliced 16 cals
1. Spray a non-stick frying pan with a little 1-cal cooking spray. Add the onion and spring onions, season with salt and pepper and fry over a low heat for about 5 minutes, until softened but not coloured.
2. Add the garlic, chilli and Cajun spice, then fry for 2–3 minutes. Tip into a bowl, add the beans and roughly mash.
3. Leave to cool slightly, then add the egg, breadcrumbs, coriander and lime juice. Season well, then mix to combine. Gently stir in the crumbled feta.
4. Wet your hands lightly, then shape the mixture into 4 large patties. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up.
5. Preheat the grill to medium. Spray a little more cooking spray in a grillproof frying pan and heat over a medium heat. Add the burgers and fry for 3–4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Top each burger with a slice of halloumi, then cook under the grill for 3–4 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and melted.
6. Serve in toasted buns topped with guacamole, rocket leaves and sliced tomatoes, if desired.
These 5:2 diet recipes were taken from The Ultimate 5:2 Diet Recipe Book (Easy, Calorie Counted Fast Day Meals You'll Love), by Kate Harrison, £6.99. We asked Kate for some extra top tips, tricks and swaps so you can make this much-talked about diet work for you. Here is her brilliant advice:
Maximum flavour for minimum calories
• Fast days and carbs don’t mix. A sugary croissant will eat up most of your daily allowance and leave you famished by eleven o’clock.
• Focus instead on vegetables, salad and small servings of lean meat, fish, eggs or tofu.
• Jazz them up with herbs, spices and flavourings – chilli flakes or curry pastes in soups, stews or baked beans; flavoured vinegars or lemon juice to dress salads, and fresh herbs as a topping for most dishes.
• Soups are a great bet because they’ve been proven to fill you up for longer than the same ingredients served on a plate!
Experiment with meal times
• We’re always told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – but many of us on 5:2 find that the later we eat, the less hungry we feel.
• Experiment with meal times to see what suits you best.
• Swapping three meals for two or even one gives you more calories per meal. Try brunch at 12 and supper at 6, or a bigger meal with your partner at 7pm. There’s some evidence that leaving longer between meals has bigger healthy benefits.
• If you like ‘traditional’ meat and two veg, flip the proportions – serve a small piece of grilled chicken or seared tuna, with two or even three big portions of veg.
Fresh ingredients are best – and cheapest
• The 5:2 diet saves you money, because you’re eating less and because fresh, seasonal produce is the most satisfying and best value.
• Pick what’s fresh and cheap at the supermarket or market stall – those overripe tomatoes will be delicious roasted with balsamic vinegar and herbs. You can turn any extra into soup.
• In winter, root veg like parsnip and butternut squash are delicious in soup or roasted and served with low-fat feta.
• Halved peppers can be stuffed with cream cheese, veggies or tuna, then grilled. You can even bake an egg in one.
Fast low calorie food swaps:
• Swap bananas for fresh or frozen berries in yogurt, for less of a sugar rebound.
• Swap quiches or flans for omelettes – all the flavour, none of the high-calorie pastry.
• Swap high-fat hard cheeses for lower-fat ricotta, feta or reduced fat cream cheese.
• Swap cappuccino for a black Americano.
• Swap ice cream for home-made lollies (made from low-sugar cordials and blueberries or raspberries).
• Swap rice for cauliflower ‘rice’ – grate a portion of uncooked cauliflower and microwave for 1-2 minutes for a lower-calorie substitute that – honestly – doesn’t taste of cauliflower!
• Swap tagliatelle for courgettes sliced into thin ribbons with a potato peeler – boil or steam for 1 minute and serve with your normal pasta sauce.
In case of emergency…
• Have something instant to hand in case of a snack attack: if you love sweet things, then no-sugar jelly is ideal at under 10 calories.
• For a savoury craving, a sachet of miso soup or lower-cal cup-a-soup is between 10-40 cals.
• For days when you’re too tired to cook from scratch, a ready-made fresh soup or a small can of beans on a slice of wholemeal from a small loaf come in at under 200 calories.
• Ready meals aren’t fashionable, but the M&S range, Innocent Veg Pots and the Morrison’s NuMe dishes have been highly rated by 5:2 fans.
• Drink plenty. Teas, coffees and herb teas are great, but remember to count cals in milk. Low-cal soft drinks or fizzy water are good too.
• If you do get hungry, distract yourself with work or a phone call, the feeling will pass.
• Or join the Facebook group or forum – there’s always someone on hand to help you stay on track!
The Ultimate 5:2 Diet Recipe Book (Easy, Calorie Counted Fast Day Meals You'll Love), by Kate Harrison, £6.99.