Is it safe to diet like Des?

Last updated at 14:23 01 April 2004

Des O'Connor looks incredible. He is fit, slim and full of energy. The fact that he works so hard and is going to be a father again in his 70s tells you everything about how young he feels and how good his sex life must be.

His diet, combined with his active lifestyle and rigorous exercise routine - Des power-walks for 45 minutes three times a week - is obviously working well for him. He's having the right quantity of food and he's eating it in a way that suits his lifestyle.

But just how healthy is Des's diet for the rest of us?

We do have a problem with obesity in this country, and part of the reason for this is that people seem to think it's a disaster if they get hungry. It's for this reason that many people turn to junk food and caffeine drinks between meals to keep them going.

So it would be good for us as a nation to follow Des's example and eat less. It could also help us live longer.

For centuries, Buddhist monks have been surviving perfectly well on small light meals of simple nutritious foods such as vegetable curry with brown rice, fruit and, before bed, a glass of soya milk and a banana. It's no coincidence that they have a reputation for longevity and good health.

Eating one well-balanced main meal in the middle of the day can also be kinder to the body's digestive system. Your liver is constantly detoxifying all sorts of substances, and the less you burden it each day, the better the job it will do for you.

Also, if you ensure that your main meals are packed with fresh, minimally processed foods that are high in fibre and rich in nutrients you can vastly improve your digestion.

This has the knock-on effect of making your mind and body work more efficiently for you - which can only be for the good of your long-term health.

Less mental stress

As well as the physical benefits, it can also be mentally liberating not to have to think about preparing three meals a day, trawling round the supermarket for food and then spending hours in the kitchen.

As Des has shown, eating healthily can transform your sex life, too. A lot of couples have no energy for sex after surviving the day on endless coffee and sandwiches. They slump on the sofa with a TV dinner, which leaves them feeling bloated and with no energy to make love. They just want to go to sleep.

However, while most of us could benefit from consuming fewer calories and more healthy food, not many people can cope long-term with such a strict, one-meal-a-day regime.

Our bodies are very carefully designed to maintain balance - and blood sugar is no exception.

In order to avoid potentially dangerous highs or lows, the body rapidly compensates for any changes in blood-sugar levels caused by food intake or a skipped meal.

When blood sugar plummets, lethargy, sleepiness, irritability and cravings set in, and perhaps even anxiety, palpitations, a headache or light-headedness.

These symptoms of low blood-sugar are more likely to cause people to react by reaching for a cup of coffee, a cola, a cigarette or a bar of chocolate to give a rapid but unhealthy sugar fix.

Blood sugar see-saw

It is this see-sawing of blood sugar levels that is often the root cause of people's struggle to lose weight - because when your blood sugar level surges, any excess levels are converted to fat.

A far better way to lose weight successfully is to eat to maintain blood-sugar levels.

This means never going more than four hours without food - perhaps eating five or six small, regular meals throughout the day to keep your levels more even.

Eating one meal at the wrong time of day can also have a detrimental effect on your health. Waiting all day to gorge on a stodgy meal of burgers and chips at night will overload the digestive system, overwork the liver and make your body feel sluggish, tired and stressed.

The viability of a diet like Des's depends heavily on a person's lifestyle. Obviously, if you are very active, doing a physically demanding job or lots of exercise, then you are much less likely to be able to survive on so little food.

Certainly, a pregnant woman could put her baby's development at risk by cutting back on a regular supply of nutrients.

Similarly, the elderly and people on medication could go in to shock if they made such a dramatic change to their diet.

Less drastic approach

It is clear that the one-meal-a-day diet is working for Des O'Connor, but I would recommend that most people consider a slightly less drastic approach.

Far better to combine one main meal - ideally, eaten in the middle of the day - with a light yet nutritious breakfast. You could then have one or two healthy snacks, such as fruit and nuts or a natural, live yoghurt, throughout the day to keep you going.

  • Natalie Savona is the author of The Kitchen Shrink, which is published by Duncan Baird Publishers, £14.99. She will be presenting The Kitchen Detective on Discovery Health in June.