Dr Michael Mosley on fasts and feasts without the diet fads
PUBLISHED: 12:05 18 July 2013 | UPDATED: 12:06 18 July 2013
When Dr Michael Mosley developed health problems, he turned to science for a cure. In the process he created what is now being called a new worldwide health movement but, says Karen Kay, he remains an unlikely - and reluctant - diet guru
Dr Michael Mosley is the kind of genial academic that could inspire a generation with his gentle, infectious passion for all things scientific. Yet he is not a practising medic.
An Oxford PPE graduate and qualified psychiatrist, Mosley rejected a clinical career to enrol on a production trainee scheme at the BBC.
It is – true to Aunty’s remit – a great public service that the 56-year-old has devoted much of his professional life to informing radio and television audiences with his insightful documentaries and reports. Initially, he worked behind the camera as a producer but he has emerged as a popular presenter on programmes such as Horizon and The One Show.
Like any good teacher, Mosley has the knack of imparting knowledge in language that leaves you fascinated and curious to know more. More akin to a patient and enthusiastic father guiding you through baffling homework than the passionate professorial style of Brian Cox, his authoritative credentials and easy, conversational style of communicating on series such as ‘The Story of Science’, ‘The Brain: A Secret History’, and ‘Frontline Medicine’, have opened up complex clinical matters to a wider audience.
In the BBC series ‘Pain, Pus and Poison’ this year he showed how useful drugs were created and have since saved millions of lives across the planet. The series revealed how a crisis in the French wine industry led to the discovery of what causes disease; how a German scientist found the world’s first targeted drug and how, if it weren’t for a group of Oxford scientists and American industrialists, penicillin – the most powerful life-saving drug the world has ever seen – might have remained no more than a lab curiosity.
Right now, though, he is fêted as co-author, with journalist Mimi Spencer, of the best-selling Fast Diet book. With devotees including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Philip Schofield, model Miranda Kerr and Liv Tyler, The Fast Diet is based on the premise that you eat absolutely normally – croissants, chocolates, cappuccinos and all – five days a week, and fast for two days, consuming one quarter of your recommended calorie intake (so, 600 for men, 500 for women).
Yet Mosley is the most unlikely proponent of a popular paperback that’s become a bible for slimmers around the world. So how did the Beaconsfield-based broadcaster become a diet guru?
“It’s wildly improbable,” he says, a discernible blush creeping onto a characterful complexion that started life in Calcutta, grew up in Hong Kong, studied in Oxford, settled in London then raised a family in Buckinghamshire. “I never set out to do this, nor could I ever have imagined doing it. Never in a million years could I have envisaged myself inventing recipes. I can talk about protein, fibre, and the biomechanical advantages of onions, garlic or red peppers, but that’s not an appetising, appealing way to describe something that should be delicious. I am preoccupied by the science, and Mimi has the accessible, conversational way of communicating how to integrate this into real life.”
‘Diet guru’ is a label that clearly sits uneasily with a man who takes his work seriously and rigorously pursues evidence-based studies as part of his research. After all, in today’s society, the term ‘diet’ immediately conjures the idea of a restrictive, weight-loss programme, designed to appeal to a culture where skinny is the ultimate aspiration. Of course, in medical terms, diet is a generic word used to describe the way we habitually eat on a day-today basis, to provide nutrients for our bodies. And, as part of his research for a Horizon programme on prolonging human life, this is how Mosley came to discover a way of eating that he not only believes has the potential to deliver long-term wellbeing and explicit health benefits, but has the added bonus of shedding those stubborn excess pounds.
Six weeks after beginning the Fast Diet, Mosley had lost well over a stone, but more importantly his blood glucose, which had previously been borderline diabetic, was normal and his cholesterol levels, previously high enough to necessitate medication, were healthy again.
He and his glamorous co-author – who interviewed him after the Horizon programme aired and then became an evangelist of the 5:2 diet herself, persuading him to pair up and publish a book on the subject – have both now adopted ‘intermittent fasting’ as a long-term regime that they say (with great conviction) challenges all conventional thinking on hunger, nutrition and weight loss programmes.
“It changes your approach to hunger, and readjusts your palate, making you appreciate flavours and enjoy food again. The real challenge is to reassess snacking, which has been the big change since the 1970s when we didn’t snack between meals. We now think of hunger as a bad thing, and live in a society where grazing on sugar-based snacks is the norm. Hunger is okay. You are not going to pass out. And it passes quicker than you think.
“On a fast day, you can get a lot of food for 500 or 600 calories, and you eat more veg and protein, and less sugar and carbs. You become more mindful of the value of food. And the great thing is you still have tomorrow to eat all the things you love, so the deprivation is short-lived. And in truth, after doing this for a while, it no longer feels like deprivation at all.”
Mosley is currently fasting only one day a week, as he has reached a happy optimum weight, and his GP wife, Dr Clare Bailey, suggested that was a healthy option.
“Intermittent fasting is about health gain, not weight loss, but that goes hand-in-hand,” he says. “I initially expected this to be dismissed as a fad, but I have been contacted by many medics and there is genuine interest in this as something we should take seriously as a lifestyle option.
“On crash diets you typically lose 50:50 muscle and fat, which is less than ideal from a health perspective. On the Fast Diet, the evidence suggests you typically lose 80-85 per cent fat, and 15-20 per cent muscle: a far better balance. You still have the energy and strength to exercise, which is crucial to wellbeing. I’m a huge fan of walking: up the stairs, to the shops, out with the dog. Whatever.”
For Mosley, the move from London 14 years ago brought the benefit of an outdoor lifestyle for his family of four children – now between 14 and 23 – and Clare, who alongside her work as a part-time GP, has founded and manages the online family resource, parentingmatters.co.uk.
“She trained at the Institute of Psychiatry and believes parenting skills can be taught,” explains Mosley, with obvious pride. “A few years ago, she persuaded me to do a series on it, which we called Little Angels. It really spawned that whole genre that saw Supernanny and the likes.”
As Clare runs her business from home, they are well placed to enjoy their surroundings.
“Where we live you can step out and be in the countryside or woodland. I love the calming pleasure of getting home after being in the city: just going out for a walk with the dog and Clare, breathing in the fresh air. I love the colours and patterns and seasonal change of living here, but I’m embarrassed to say I still don’t know the names of trees and flowers - I just appreciate our landscape for what it is.
“We have the best of both worlds. I have nature on my doorstep, but can cycle to the station and be in London within an hour.
“We have lots of cultural stuff going on here: there’s a great Shakespeare event each year, and I’m a member of the Beaconsfield Film School Society. Clare and I love Latin dancing; it’s fun, keeps you fit and it keeps your brain alive too. We went for lessons for a while, but then filming took over and we had to stop.
“I think we’ll start again though – and if the call came for Strictly, I’d definitely consider it.”
Dr Michael Mosley
What does Bucks mean to you? Open countryside, walks, the Thames
Your favourite Bucks view? From the steps at Cliveden, looking down to the River Thames
Your favourite place to go for an informal, affordable meal? China Diner, Beaconsfield
Your favourite place for a more formal meal or special occasion? Artichoke, Old Amersham
Your favourite place to meet for a coffee or tea? The Cape, Beaconsfield
Your favourite shop in Bucks? Oxfam, Amersham – they have a great book section
Where you’d spend a wet afternoon? The cinema
Where you’d spend a sunny afternoon? On the river
Your favourite cultural experience or venue? The Swan, High Wycombe
Where you’d recommend a visitor to the county to go? Cliveden on a sunny day
What’s the best kept secret in Bucks? The National Film School in Beaconsfield. Fabulous cinema