What eating one meal a day really does to your body
Great, dinner is cancelled now. Forever. That edict has come from rock titan Chris Martin, who in turn gleaned it from Bruce Springsteen, who is a veritable rock god, so that’s good enough for me. Farewell, dinner. Sad, though. You always seemed like a good idea. One of the few things left to look forward to.
The bombshell came in an interview with the Coldplay frontman where he shared an anecdote about meeting Bruce Springsteen. Martin was on a diet already (after all, this is the man who used to be married to wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow) but he noticed Bruce, 73, “looks even more in shape than me”. Patti, Springsteen’s wife, shared his one meal a day secret, and Martin followed suit.
It’s called the Omad diet – you get your meal in before 4pm and spend the long hours until “breakfast” (tea or coffee, no sugar), looking forward to lunch. That lunch, needless to say, is healthy. The benefits reportedly stretch from weight loss – clinical trials have shown repeatedly that time-restricted eating (TRE) results in fat loss, as well as a three per cent average drop in weight – to those related more specifically to health. These include a decrease in blood sugar level, better insulin resistance and improvements in cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Some studies suggest that fasting like this may help cancer patients tolerate chemotherapy.
It’s not all good news. Eating one meal a day can make it harder for the body to get the nutrients it needs making vitamin deficiency more likely. It can make you dehydrated, feel more irritable and stressed. Lower levels of blood sugar can lead to dizziness, headaches and poor circulation. And one meal a day is contraindicated for anyone with diabetes.
Sam Rice, nutrition expert and the author of The Midlife Method: How to Lose Weight and Feel Great After 40, says it is popular with men. She wonders: “Could there be a macho element?”
Aidan Turner and Robbie Williams have both tried the Omad and certainly it’s common among the big boys of Silicon Valley. Phil Libin, co-founder of the start-up company All Turtles, says fasting makes him a better CEO, while Jack Dorsey, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, only eats dinner, except on Saturdays when he has nothing. Which seems a hard regime, especially for his family and friends who might be looking forward to a convivial evening meal at the weekend.
But real men don’t do convivial dinners. For tech titans, there’s a sense that food is a waste of time – why cook or chew when you can opt for a pill, or a meal replacement like Soylent? Look at Jordan Peterson, with his all-beef diet, and the Liver King (AKA fitness social media personality Brian Johnson), who has millions of Instagram followers and argues that the root of our problems with modern masculinity is that we don’t eat enough raw offal.
The Omad is no-nonsense, which appeals to the tech bros. “People just like rules,” says Rice. “Simple rules like ‘just have lunch’. Because then they don’t have to think to lose weight.” There’s no calorie counting to worry about, you just do one thing and get fast results.
Women, who traditionally are more likely to go on diets earlier on in their lives, often scoff at these “man diets”. There’s an age element too – until men hit 40, they are happy to boast about how many pints they can sink or how much they can eat. The dad bod, though, is shameful – far better to appear a master of self-control, and one who looks like Chris Martin or Bruce.
But is it practical to stick to one meal a day if you are not Martin or Springsteen? Rice is sceptical. “It really just isn’t do-able for most people. What if you’re a teacher, say, in class all day? Or a nurse? I think the three-meal-a-day model developed for good reason. On the whole I am a believer in human and scientific progress.”
I too am a believer in three meals a day and take a practical approach to dieting: personally I find it just makes me too hungry. This has led to me being a stone and a half overweight, a situation alluded to by my doctor who announced: “Well, your weight’s fine – if you were four inches taller.” Would my wife get the same jocular treatment? Well, she wouldn’t need it, because she has been calorie counting since infant school. My dieting philosophy may need some work.
My only other experience of fasting has been religious: as a Catholic altar boy I regularly fainted on the altar after missing breakfast; at school, we skipped lunch each Friday for African children; then, guided by a family member, we have always fasted on Xmas Eve – until last year when someone bothered to check the papal ruling and found it had been waived in the 1950s. If it ever existed. That caused some quite un-Christian swearing.
Rice’s philosophy follows all the sensible watchwords of nutritionists: moderation, variety, quality (of food) and individual physiology. The idea that masses of people might be tempted to imitate Springsteen or Martin worries her: “It raises all kinds of red flags – especially the idea of taking on fasting as ‘a challenge’.” She is clear that there is evidence that occasional fasting allows your stomach to do some necessary housekeeping. But there is little hard science for other claims made by fasting aficionados, such as it making you more alert as you are delivered into a primitive “hunt” mode – actually, it has been shown that school children are more alert if they eat breakfast.
Long-term studies and trials have not proven that the method is any better than a standard calorie-controlled diet. And then there is the danger of boom-and-bust: gorging yourself during your lone meal, which definitely won’t be good for you. To be fair, Martin did joke that Springsteen has “a buffalo flank and steroids” for luncheon.
The definitive statement of the ideal diet came from Michael Pollan in his classic How to Eat: “Eat food, not too much of it, and mostly plants.” Which we all knew, of course. We have the knowledge in our bones; we just prefer to ignore it, to quibble, to advance exceptions and generally cherry-pick. Let’s face it, we’re not going to solve the diet issue any time soon. We don’t want to, and we will all continue to deliberately misunderstand relatively simple stuff. (“Bacon sandwiches are… bad? How so?”)
But let’s just have one final go with the only authority that matters, The Boss, Springsteen himself, who spoke on health in 2020: “The biggest thing is diet, diet, diet. I don’t eat too much, and I don’t eat bad food, except for every once in a while when I want to have some fun. So I think anybody that’s trying to get in shape, exercise is always important of course, but diet is 90 per cent of the game.”