I needed to do something about my muffin top. I work out almost every day, close all the rings on my Apple Watch activity tracker, and limit sweets, carbs, and fat. But I still have pudge that hangs over my bikini underwear like a melting scoop of ice cream and nothing seems to change that. Though in general I resist society’s pressure for an impossible-to-achieve ideal, I really would like my body to look as fit as I feel. So several weeks ago, sheer frustration pushed me to desperate measures—living off the bare minimum of pre-packaged calories for five days, a.k.a. a fasting mimicking diet plan.
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The fasting mimicking diet plan was developed by Valter Longo, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California and essentially tricks your metabolism into thinking you’re on a prolonged fast—while allowing you to eat. Research has shown that periodic fasting can put your body into ketosis, a fancy word for fat-burning, and triggers autophagy, which is the clean-up of worn out cells—the equivalent of making a big pile of Goodwill-bound clothes as you go through your closet.
Reportedly, it elicits other longevity-boosting benefits, such as improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reducing the presence of a specific gene associated with cancer, and helping shed visceral fat, the dangerous kind that surrounds your organs, according to Robin Foroutan, an integrative dietician at The Morrison Center in New York.
All this sounds great, but to reach the promised land, I have to go through a serious test of discipline and deprivation. Could I do it?
How to Do a Fasting Mimicking Diet Plan
The only fasting-mimicking diet plan on the market comes from ProLon, which has packaged the nourishment your body needs to survive over five days. Survive is a key word here. Survival is not fun. We’re talking 1,100 calories on the first day, and roughly 750 for the following four. (For perspective, one serving of Cobb Salad has 632 calories.)
Apparently, I’m supposed to be happy I get any food at all. “It gives you the benefits of a five-day fast without giving up food, going too hungry, or eating lots of unnatural ingredients,” the ProLon website says. You pay handsomely for the calories you do get. The cost is $250 for a five-day meal kit, which I figure is about six cents per calorie. Cherish each one! To save the money, some people adopt a DIY fasting-mimicking diet plan instead. (Psst. Get $25 off ProLon by clicking here.)
Even with the cost, I went with the ProLon meal kit because my husband has done it twice and has lost pounds and inches and because I like my suffering to come without too much thinking.
During menopause, it’s common for weight to redistribute below the waist, around the belly button. That’s a low blow!
For best results, you’re supposed to do the five-day plan once a month for three months in a row, and then once a year after that. The ProLon website reports that in a clinical study, the diet plan is shown over three cycles to help people lose an average of 5.7 pounds and 1.6 inches off their waist circumference. Hmm. No mention of muffin top measurement.
I resolve to make the decision about doing three runs of it after I’ve been through one.
As part of the price, I get a phone consultation with a ProLon rep. I am lucky that I’ve seen my husband go through it and kind of feel like a freshman in high school who has a big brother to show me the way. But the truth is I’m still a bit nervous. My husband is stoic and way tougher than I am when it comes to being miserable. So my main question is, “What if I want to kill someone for food?” The rep laughs nervously and advises me to sip on something till the urge passes. A good choice, she says, is the L-Drink, which contains glycerol to preserve lean body mass, that is provided for Days 2 through 5. She is happy to get me off the phone.
Day 1: Learning to Love Olives
Weigh in: 149 lbs.
Prolon suggests you don’t work out while on the five-day diet (though I should tell you that my resilient husband did). I am going to be a stickler for the rules, and for this reason, I choose a time I wouldn’t be exercising anyhow—my hurt knee (maybe sympathetic pain from writing these articles?) needs rest.
The good news as I greet the first day is that I can still have my caffeinated tea (albeit without my usual half-and-half). The bad news is that breakfast is one bar (but it’s actually quite delicious). My husband advised me to cut it into pieces and put it on a plate, so that I can savor every bite. It feels more substantial that way. I also take the provided capsules of algal oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acid.
I had put off breakfast as long as possible (till 10 a.m.), and then wait four hours for lunch, which is a dried soup mix that I add a cup of hot water to. It’s tomato, and again not bad. I get to eat it with a pack of kale crackers. I remember that when my husband was doing the diet, he said the kale crackers were delicious, but to me this sounded like something a man dying of thirst in the desert would say about sewer water. One bite of a cracker, however, reveals my husband was right. As the days go by on this meal plan that is well suited for the toothless, I will appreciate the crunch and texture as well.
I will learn over the coming days that distraction is the best way to get through the harder parts of this diet plan.
I also get a pack of nine olives. I remember once my husband only got eight in his pack and was crestfallen. I laughed, but I understand now. Every. Olive. Counts. I hate olives, and actually asked my consultant if I could eat something else instead. But these people are strict. No substitutions! So I resolved to swallow my distaste, literally. I am surprised today to realize the olives actually taste good to me. It is a trick of the mind, I’m sure; moth balls would probably taste good to me right now.
Dinner is more soup, a vegetable variety, and for dessert (yes, dessert!) I get a crispy chocolatey bar the size of a matchbook. It feels like a splurge.
I go to sleep early for two reasons. I’m pretty tired (lack of calories has a way of doing that) and I want the distraction of sleep. I will learn over the coming days that distraction is the best way to get through the harder parts of this diet plan, and I will use any attention-diverting tricks I can think of.
Before I go to bed, I lay out all the parts of my Day 2 meals, and make up the L-Drink for the next day. I fill up the bottle provided, and add the amount of L-Drink concentrate suggested based on my weight. To add flavor, I also put in two bags of the hibiscus tea from the kit and place it in the fridge overnight. (See video below.) I’m getting OCD about my food.
Day 2: Don’t Mess With a Hangry Woman
Weigh in: 147.4
I know this is going to be harder day, with 800-ish calories instead of 1,100. That 300 calories makes a difference; 300 calories is your average burrito, damn it.
This is what ProLon says about Day 2: “Fat-burning ramps up, contributing to the initiation of ketogenesis (ketone production). By the end of this day (48 hours), ketosis may occur.” Ah, ketosis, that exalted state when your body is busy breaking down fat. I read that one of the signs you’re in ketosis is that your breath is stinky. Never before have I hoped for bad breath.
Again, I put off breakfast as long as possible, and aim for a 2 p.m. lunch. But before I can eat again, I start feeling weak and foggy-brained. That’s when I take a first sip of my L-Drink concoction and am revived like I’ve been given a low-dose hit of Ritalin.
Lunch is mushroom soup, kale crackers, and (again) olives. In the afternoon, we go to early vote, and the elation from that (plus a snack of yet more olives) carries me through the afternoon.
I read that one of the signs you’re in ketosis is that your breath is stinky. Never before have I hoped for bad breath.
Despite a low-grade headache (which I will have from time to time over the next days), I think I’m doing pretty well. I haven’t broken down and scarfed any cheese from the fridge (but a big wedge of it is there, I’ve seen it). I haven’t cried for a binky.
But I do have to lock myself in my office to avoid the aroma of the chicken-and-rice dish my husband is making for himself and our son. I don’t even look at the cat bowl because even those Little Friskies bits are looking good right now. When I venture out, just before he is ready to serve dinner, he asks me to make a salad for their meal. I’m appalled. While he was doing the diet, I never asked him to get near our food, feeling that would be unfair to tempt him. I want equal treatment!
His request blooms into a hangry-fueled argument—me feeling it was the height of passive-aggressive insensitivity; he feeling that I was blowing it all out of proportion. It’s only lettuce and carrots, he says. For the record, I do make the salad (and lived to tell). I even recover enough to laugh at myself, pitifully stirring my soup on the stove while my husband and son feast.
Before bed, I breathe into my cupped hands to see if I can pick up tell-tale staleness. I can’t and I can’t ask my husband. After the argument, neither of us wants to get that close to each other.
Day 3: A Sliver of Euphoria
Weigh in: 146.2
The ProLon website says that today is when “cellular clean-up (autophagy) begins. Fat-burning and ketone production/utilization continues and increases.” I sure hope that’s true, but my morning breath tastes no worse than usual. Something else has kicked in, though; I feel strangely euphoric this morning. All seems right in the world, even though it’s about a week before the election so I know that isn’t so.
Breakfast is (always) the same; lunch is just soup and kale crackers. No olives. No snack today. But I’m sneaky, see. I save my kale crackers for a mid-afternoon snack. (You are allowed to eat the items given for each day in any order you want, but you aren’t supposed to eat items on days different than the days indicated.)
The euphoria doesn’t last very long, but I get through the early afternoon by sipping on the L-Drink and doing some work. I’m amazed that my head is clear enough to compose complete sentences on a business call. I even experience a bit of oblivion—blessed spans of time when I don’t even remember that I’m hardly eating.
Later in the afternoon, before dinner (just soup, no chocolate treat today), I feel my energy hitting a low spot, and the L-Drink isn’t completely doing the trick. That’s when I do something I never usually during a work day: a bit of binge-watching. A few episodes of The Queen’s Gambit transports me from Starvation Nation.
Day 4: The Melt-Down
Weigh in: 144.6
Today’s meals are going to be exactly like Day 2, which gives me some relief, because I know I’ll be able to get through it. But I hit a bump in the early afternoon. I have tried to clear my schedule of any important phone calls or meetings, but I couldn’t get out of a Zoom session with some clients.
The session starts out fine, but as we go over the technical aspects of an upcoming event, we hit one snag after another that I have to help figure out. I don’t have much patience as it is for computer problems, but with no food, I’m about to explode in an epic techno-tantrum, When my face (surely growing redder by the minute) isn’t visible, I’m sharing my screen with the client. There is no where to go for a satisfying melt down.
When we finally figure out the last problem and I get off the call, I realize this is the time I would normally let off steam by stuffing my mouth with cheese (my weakness, can’t you tell), or if I was trying to be good, cashews. All I’ve got is my L-Drink. I want to weep. That night, as I go to bed (again, early), I remind myself I’m 80 percent done. Surely I can get through one more day.
Day 5: The Longest Day
Weigh in: 142
I had purposely scheduled one of my days on the diet to fall over a weekend. I figured vegging out in front of the TV watching college football (one of my favorite fall pastimes) would make the day fly by. I was wrong. Without the normal structure of a work day and its distractions, the hours inch along slower than the vote counting in Georgia.
This day’s meals are like Day 3. I savor my L-Drink as if it is Dom Perignon, and I use the smallest spoon possible with my soups trying to trick my brain to thinking I’m getting more.
Toward the end of the day, I enter slap-happy territory, knowing I’m so close to being finished. I dance around the house, laugh at nothing, and get some head shakes from my husband, who has never experienced such a silly stage on the diet. I go to sleep even earlier than usual, thrilled that when I wake up the next day I’ll be done. I have dreams of ice cream and tika masala.
I did it! I lost a total of seven pounds without losing my mind. Over the next few days, I gain a couple back and as I’m writing this, three weeks after I finished my first go-round, I’m at 144. I have held steady at this weight even after going back to my regular eating routine.
But what about the muffin top? The whole impetus for the five-day journey of deprivation? I admit that every morning and every evening I checked out a sideview of myself in the mirror, and that blob was still muffin-topping over my undies. Maybe, maybe more like a dollop than a scoop now, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t measure in advance.
But I do feel like I’d gained more of a waistline and there is more definition separating the bottom of my behind and the top of my thighs. Both good things.
I have held steady at 144, five pounds lighter than when I started, even after going back to my regular eating routine.
“How do I look?” I asked my husband, wearing only my panties and bra, on the day after I finished.
“Um good,” he said. “But are you sucking in?”
“Of course,” I answered, laughing.
I have noticed another real change besides my weight loss (and my new appreciation of olives). I’ve become more aware of my portions. During the diet, I realized that taking small bites and relishing the food instead of mindlessly chewing helped me feel full on less. I’ve definitely held onto that, and maybe this different style of eating has helped me keep pounds off.
After this first experience, I’ve decided to do two more rounds of it. Next time, I’ll measure my abs, right below my belly button, to see if I can shrink my muffin top. A friend says I shouldn’t hold my breath that diet alone can get rid of it; she says I’ll probably need to have an (expensive) procedure to freeze it off. But I would never spend good money on that. I gained my muffin top through my diet, and by God, that’s how I’m determined to lose it, no matter how much sugar-spiked water I have to suck on. Stay tuned.