“A smoothie isn’t a meal, is it?”
“And soup isn’t either, right?”
“What about a bag of crisps, or a slice of toast? They’re snacks aren’t they, not meals?”
This has been my internal dialogue for most of the past week. Hunger plays tricks with the mind and I’ve been very hungry.
I’ve been stupid enough to try the One Meal a Day (OMAD) diet, so called because it involves attempting to cram all your nutritional needs into one meal per day. This is the diet that Coldplay’s Chris Martin apparently adheres to, on the advice of fellow celebrity singer Bruce Springsteen – two men not usually recognised for their nutritional expertise.
Speaking on the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast, Chris mentioned that Bruce’s wife, Patti, had told him the reason her husband looks good for his age is that he only eats one meal a day. Chris – who was already on a strict diet when having lunch with the Springsteens – told them: “That’s my next challenge”. He said he was now not eating after 4pm, forgoing dinner.
Some of the touted, but unproven, benefits of this extreme way of eating are simplicity, weight loss and more time to do other things. Indeed, there is a school of thought that says animals function better when motivated by hunger. This may well be true for lions and cavemen but I can attest it does little to optimise performance when you are a writer with 1,000 words to file by 3pm and there is a packet of custard creams in the biscuit tin five feet away.
The first day of my OMAD journey was miserable. I woke as normal at 6am and headed to the gym where I did a 20-minute run and 20 minutes of functional resistance circuits and burned 500 calories. Normally I’d return home, make a flat white and have a protein shake or some fruit with kefir and a sprinkling of granola before lunch at 1pm.
Instead, I had a coffee and by lunchtime was debating with myself whether I’d be breaking the rules if I drank some meal replacement protein powder which I knew was packed with bulking fibre, the modern-day equivalent of the water-soaked toilet paper models ate in the 1980s before catwalk shows to stave off hunger pangs. I did not succumb but by 3pm was desperate and had half a banana.
According to advocates of the diet, people should take their one meal in the late afternoon but as I was eating with my wife that night I decided to wait until after work, by which time I was delirious with hunger.
Once the meal itself arrived – what should I eat? A trawl through the internet threw up an array of mainly meat-based recommended meals, including rack of lamb with asparagus sautéed in beef tallow, with three extra tablespoons of tallow for good measure plus roast potatoes and dark chocolate and strawberries to finish. The entire feast weighed in at 2,000 calories.
With this calorific goal in mind, I sat down at 6pm to a substantial pile of pad Thai noodles with vegetables and tofu and a prawn green curry.
OMAD guides advise that after their one gut-busting meal, dieters should allow a period of inactivity to give the calorie-shocked body time to digest the feast. After my first blowout I slumped into a postprandial stupor, like a snake that had just eaten an impala. Then, within an hour I started to feel light-headed and shaky. I also started sweating, which concerned me enough to call on the services of a nutritionist the following day.
Rhiannon Lambert, founder of nutrition clinic Rhitrition and author of The Science of Nutrition, was also concerned. “It’s not a good idea,” she said of the diet. “If you are looking at it to lose weight and are undereating, then of course you will lose weight, but that doesn’t make it a healthy thing to do. It can wreak havoc with your blood sugar balance, affecting concentration, mood and energy.
“When you suddenly eat after not eating properly for a long period of time your body is going to be desperate to get energy in. After that immediate uptake of energy you are going to have a huge blood sugar crash, and those episodes will become more prominent when you eat in this way. The reason people eat three meals is to maintain that steady line, not what I call a blood sugar roller coaster.”
Rhiannon explained that some of her VIP fashion industry clients do ask for advice on OMAD dieting, particularly around London Fashion Week where there is a pressure to lose weight. “My bottom line is that the best approach to diet is slow and steady,” she advised.
She explained that the likes of Chris Martin and Bruce Springsteen will most likely be monitored by nutritionists and doctors checking their blood and nutrient levels throughout the diet. “You don’t see the damage that’s done for many months or years down the line, that’s the worrying thing. To advise or publicise a diet like this is so dangerous,” she said.
Day two of my OMAD odyssey illustrated just how impractical the diet is for people with normal lives. I was travelling on an early morning domestic flight to attend a family function that evening. At the airport at 6am I had a flat white and allowed myself a small bottle of banana and date smoothie. At 3pm, after a day of hunger, I began to feel light-headed and shaky again and needed to sit down. A 5pm trip to the supermarket to buy dessert for the evening was torture and I found myself unconsciously drawn toward the most calorie dense options.
I ate at 6pm and piled a plate with around half a kilo of roast lamb and dauphinoise potatoes, washed down with wine and beer, which went straight to my head.
After a fitful night of sleep, I found I had energy for the gym the following morning and managed a decent workout of cardio and weights. This pattern did not repeat over the following days and I noticed myself becoming increasingly tired and lethargic.
Fraser Smith, master trainer at London EMS fitness studio Vive Fitness told me: “Training and fitness often suffer when someone is doing the OMAD diet because they will have to time the meal around training. If not, they are likely to be depleted and perform less.”
He explained that while there is research showing benefits to more sustainable methods of intermittent fasting such as weight loss, decreased inflammation and certain changes that indicate a potential defence against Alzheimer’s, the OMAD diet doesn’t seem to have the same benefits. “Limited studies on animals have shown it can have the reverse effect and cause higher glucose levels and worsen insulin sensitivity, which is the opposite of what you want”.
Indeed the OMAD diet is so extreme, it can cause people to put on weight. “There is a tendency for people to binge eat calorie dense food as they are excessively hungry and crave sugar by the time they eat,” he says. “People can often gain weight this way as they overeat to get all their calories in. I also wouldn’t recommend people with an unhealthy relationship with food to attempt OMAD as it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.”
Over the following days I attempted to eat my single meal earlier but found that afterwards I needed to lie down and still went to bed hungry each night. By day four I was constantly grouchy and frequently tired. I gave up and started introducing two or three healthy snacks throughout the day to control hunger cravings.
What did I learn? Not only is the OMAD diet extremely unpleasant and borderline dangerous, for anyone with a normal job and social life, it is also incredibly impractical. After five days (and three extra pounds) it was very clear to me why Coldplay had cornered the market in melancholic dirge pop. If this is how Chris Martin lives, he must be miserable all the time.