Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

I have never been greatly tempted by the 5:2 diet. The five part looks OK but the two, not so much. So, the news that the government is being pressured to adopt what is essentially the same strategy for containing coronavirus has not been entirely welcome.

For those who do not follow the twists and turns of dietary fads, the 5:2 method involves eating normally for five days and then cutting your intake to about 500 or 600 calories for the other two.

Its advocates include Benedict Cumberbatch, George Osborne and, apparently, Jennifer Lopez, although some reports say her regime more closely resembles clean eating, which I assume is to do with washing your food. Anyway, they all swear by it — and Osborne in particular looks amazing for his age. Or maybe it was Jennifer Lopez.

Those who can cope with the two days of fasting report miraculous benefits. Indeed, they report them every time you see them, and several times during each meeting. A good friend lost a shed-load of weight on his “2” days, fasting until night then dining on grilled fish and mountains of vegetables. If it works for you then more power to your will, but I struggle to see the appeal in the thought of coming home to feast on wilted spinach. There are a number of restaurants offering all-you-can eat deals. Very few of them have a spinach bar.

Anyway, this all seems rather relevant given the discussion of two-week “circuit breakers” in which everyone goes back into lockdown in order to slow the spread of the virus. At the moment the talk is only of a single fortnight, fairly soon. But, privately, some politicians acknowledge that if a vaccine does not materialise, then a circuit breaker every five to six weeks might be necessary.

The appeal of this idea is that you can plan them around, or close to, school holidays and, because that makes them predictable, businesses and people can function more normally in the open weeks. Companies may even see a pick-up as people cram in all the things they wish to buy or do. Indeed, there are concerns about panic buying, especially with a no-deal Brexit also a possibility. Ministers are considering emergency legislation to force consumers to state whether they are hoarding for Brexit or Covid-19.

Even so, I worry about the 5:2 model for the pandemic. For a start, it doesn’t work if you binge on your normal days. I don’t mean that people will spend those weeks literally shoving Hobnobs down their throat; they can do that in lockdown. But metaphorically, that may be exactly what they do. If you know you cannot see your friends, go to the pub or have sex with someone you can’t prove you have known for at least 20 years, you might just pack in as much of that as possible in the open weeks. A 5:2 Covid-19 diet requires not only two weeks of social spinach but five weeks of self-discipline.

Others say circuit breakers should be limited to places that need them. Making an area with a very low infection rate go into one is like telling your slim friends that they also have to diet for the wider good of your group. (Actually, put that way, I can see the case; there’s nothing worse than some smug thinny wolfing down chocolate cake in front of you because they “just have a fast metabolism”.)

Still, the 5:2 diet may be better than some other options. The Tier 2, also known as the South Beach diet, does involve restrictions. People from different households can meet up — but only outside, and only if they refrain from eating pasta and bread within a two-metre radius.

Nevertheless, all these notions are, as they say, guided by at least some science. The real concerns are the rather more faddy lockdown plans. The no-drinking-in-public-after-10pm diet, aka Dry Darkness, has been shown to have few proven benefits. And the face-mask diet still provokes arguments over its success in preventing Covid-19 — although wearing one definitely does reduce the amount you eat.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article