The sirtfood diet could change your life. Louise France introduces the wonderfoods – including red wine and dark chocolate – that turbocharge weight loss and improve our health, and reports on the science behind the revolutionary regime
Finally – a way to lose weight that involves eating, not going hungry.
You won’t have heard of it yet, but the diet of 2016 is all about everyday ingredients – many of which you’ll already have in your cupboard or fridge – that experts say turbocharge weight loss and help you to live longer. They’re called sirtfoods and, according to researchers, they mimic the effects of fasting and exercise.
Still not persuaded? What about the fact that these plant-based ingredients include red wine (especially pinot noir), chocolate (so long as it’s at least 85 per cent cocoa content) and coffee (ideally black)? For a certain wealthy, body-conscious set in west London, the sirtfood diet has become a way of life. Converts already include heavyweight boxer David Haye, the Olympic gold-medallist sailor Sir Ben Ainslie and Lorraine Pascale, the model and BBC television chef, all of whom say they have never looked, or felt, better.
So, as well as wine, chocolate and coffee, what are these sirtfoods? It’s no coincidence that among the top 20 (see below) are ingredients that form the basis of diets in parts of the world that boast the lowest incidence of disease and obesity, such as the Mediterranean and Japan (where people eat five times as many sirt ingredients as we do).
Experts even claim that including just a few of these ingredients in your diet can counterbalance some of the junk food we eat.
It’s as though they nuke the bad stuff.
To understand how the diet works, a quick biology lesson. Sirtfoods are rich in specific natural plant chemicals that activate genes in our bodies. These genes are known as sirtuins and they first came to light when researchers discovered that resveratrol, a compound in red-grape skin and red wine (especially pinot noir), dramatically increased the lifespan of yeast. Why the excitement? Because from yeast to humans and everything in between, the fundamental principles are nearly identical. If you can manipulate something as tiny as yeast successfully, then the potential exists for the same benefits in humans.
Sirtfoods have since become a focus of attention in the world of nutrition science, and many more sirt-rich ingredients have been discovered. Sirtuins are special because they orchestrate processes deep within our cells that influence our susceptibility to disease and, ultimately, our lifespan. Experts even argue that, if sirtfoods are eaten in the right quantity, their discovery could be as profound as the moment vitamins were understood 100 years ago. Over the past decade, pharmaceutical companies have invested vast sums into researching a magic sirt pill. It turns out it’s much more effective to actually eat.
The irony is that Aidan Goggins and Glen Matten, the men behind the sirtfood diet, didn’t set out to launch a weight-loss programme. Since writing The Health Delusion, an award-winning book lambasting the supplement industry, the authors, who have master’s degrees in nutritional medicine, have been fascinated by sirtfoods and how to harvest their potential – not in pill form, but by eating real food. However, their schtick is all about wellbeing and fitness. They did not foresee the dramatic weight-loss potential: “Dieting has never been our thing.”
The latest food phenomenon began at a high-end health club, KX, in South Kensington, London, where Goggins and Matten work as consultants. Last year, they had what sounds like a simple idea. Most people have some sirtfoods in their diet already, but not nearly enough. What would happen if they packed someone’s diet with as many of the richest-known sources of sirtuin as possible?
Their timing was serendipitous. We’ve become a nation of nutrition nerds, obsessed by carefully calibrated eating plans. We’ve learnt how to pronounce quinoa. We know all about goji berries.
What they didn’t realise is that sirtfood takes nutrition science to the next level.
In a pilot trial, Goggins and Matten put 40 people on a new regime (only one person dropped out). It began with three days of juices made up from sirtuin-rich ingredients kale, celery, parsley and matcha tea (like normal green tea on steroids) and one sirt meal, followed by four days of two juices and two sirt meals. The juices were designed to be the mainstay of the diet, packed with nutrition (the only supplements clients required were selenium and vitamin D).
The average daily calorie quota over 7 days was 25 per cent fewer than the recommended average for women, and twice the deal on the 5:2 diet, and most of the participants were already in good shape. If the diet helped these people, surely it would have even more benefits for the rest of us.
Within a week, clients were ringing up saying that not only did they feel amazing, but weight was melting away. Indeed, the results were so dramatic that Goggins and Matten – who describe themselves as “serious sceptics” – spoke to the kitchen staff to check they were serving the correct portions. “This seemed too good to be true,” says Matten. “We kept thinking these must be outlying results, but it kept happening.”
“The original trial was all about stimulating rejuvenation and cellular repair,” adds Goggins. “We had no concept that the average weight loss would be half a stone. Because there was a degree of calorie restriction, we knew that people would lose weight, but this was way beyond what we imagined.”
By making sirtfoods the centre of an eating plan, they realised they were effectively boosting the effects of cutting calories, which is why clients could eat more for part of the trial, but still lose weight. Thus, without really looking for it, they had an irresistible formula on their hands. Eat, lose weight, don’t get hungry (or, for that matter, hangry – that broiling rage that overcomes anyone on the 5:2 at about 4.30pm on a fast day).
It seemed that combining sirtfoods – rather than eating them in isolation – actually increased their potency.
Clients were also increasing their muscle mass, which wouldn’t usually happen on a plant-based diet. Most weight-loss regimes falter because people lose muscle as well as fat, and if they do lose weight they end up looking gaunt. But with this regime they were toning up, even without exercise.
“ ‘Hold on a minute,’ we thought,” says Matten. “ ‘This is bigger than we realised.’ ” It was as though they were putting people’s bodies through a reboot.
I’m on Day 2 when I meet Goggins and Matten at their club. I’ve got my second juice of the day in my handbag and I’m wondering how early is too early to eat my ration of dark chocolate. I’m in luck. Alessandro Verdenelli, the club’s head chef, serves a sirt lunch, including carrot spaghetti with a puttanesca sauce and chocolate tart for pudding.
I eat everything. Not bad for a diet. The following day, I’ve lost 2lb. It’s slightly weird, as though my body is cannibalising itself. The only problems are the distinctive squeal of the juicer as it tries to eviscerate leafy kale, and the bits of parsley between my teeth.
But couldn’t one argue that the weight loss is merely down to cutting out calories? “The fact is, the calorie deficit is not massive,” counters Matten. “The overall weight loss is over and above what we would expect. That is what piqued our interest. What else is at work here?” He says many clients reported back that the portion sizes were so big, they couldn’t finish them. It turns out sirtfoods both fill you up and suppress your appetite.
And what about the flaw in every diet: the weight regain when you stop? “I have more emails from people saying they might be losing too much in the long term than saying it has come back on,” replies Goggins. He also suggests that some people can do the diet every three months for a fat-loss boost.
The first week is a hyper-success phase to get people motivated. There follow another seven days on a more relaxed regime of three meals a day. “That’s when the real wellness derives,” says Matten. He is keen to make clear that this is as much about wellbeing as weight loss. (There is a sense that the weight loss is almost annoying, which helps, paradoxically, to convince me of its efficacy. Especially after three days when I’ve lost another pound.)
Everyone at the gym started talking about the diet. The thrice-daily green juice became as popular as the soy lattes. Jodie Kidd had a nearly nude photoshoot coming up and asked Goggins and Matten to put her on the diet. Sir Ben Ainslie wondered if he’d have won even more Olympic gold medals (four at the last count) if he’d been eating sirtfoods. Another client, David Carr, a member of Ainslie’s America’s Cup team, lost almost 2 stone – and reversed his type 2 prediabetes. Sixty clients have now done the diet, with the average weight loss 7lb in 7 days.
Lorraine Pascale has been sirting (it’s a new verb already) for a year now. She tells me the diet has been “life-changing”. She sleeps better, her memory has improved, her skin is clear – and her body is leaner. “I’m 43 and I’ve never been happier with the way I look,” she says. She has lost weight, but for her the best benefits have been physical and mental.
The former heavyweight boxing champion David Haye is training for his comeback fight later this month. For three years he’s battled a serious shoulder injury. He’s eating sirtfoods. A year ago, he was carrying 22lb in excess body fat. Not any longer.
“I always knew I wasn’t optimising my nutrition like I should be,” he explains, despite being vegan. “Boxers are a bit archaic on the nutritional side of things. I’m 35, and I knew I had to live smarter.”
His problem – apart from being sedentary because of injury – was eating enough healthy food and not losing muscle. “If you lose too much, you don’t have enough energy to train. I need enough nutrients to train hard – twice a day, for six days a week – and to recover.”
He has his sirt diet delivered to him every morning: four meals, two juices and one snack. “This is about 50 years’ time,” he says. “The damage I do to my body and what I can do about it now. It is possible to eat like this for the rest of my life.”
How do I fare? Over 7 days, I lose 6lb, and fall off once. My partner, who does it too, goes down two jeans sizes. It takes a couple of days to get used to, but it’s a revelatory way to eat.
I predict it is only a matter of months before a certain well-known sandwich chain starts flogging sirt shots – yoghurt-size pots of strawberries, walnuts and chocolate flakes to sprinkle over porridge. We’ll have sirt Thursdays (just as there were office 5:2 Mondays two years ago) and hold sirt suppers.
Unlikely as it sounds, expect a run on kale.
Top 20 sirtfoods
Extra virgin olive oil
Green tea (ideally matcha)
‘I lost almost half a stone’
The first week is tough, but it works, says Monique Rivalland
My weight fluctuates biennially. Last year I reached peak chubbiness and, as a result, spent much of it miserable and mortified by photos of me on Facebook. There I was at friends’ weddings, at birthday parties, on holiday, looking as though I had been inflated slightly, my limbs plump and my face bloated like a Moomin.
Come September, I’d had enough. It was around this time that an editor spotted the opportunity to employ me as a guinea pig. “The sirt diet,” she said. “It’s new. You can eat chocolate and drink red wine.”
This sounded too good to be true, but it works. There is, however, a tricky first week to conquer, which is supposed to help you lose half a stone. On each of the first three days I was to consume three sirt green juices and only one meal – a total of no more than 1,000 calories. That’s double what you’re allowed on fast days on the 5:2, though, and it’s the most hardcore part of the diet. On Days 4-7 you lose one juice, add a second meal and the total calorie intake rises to 1,500.
I started on a Monday so that Days 4-7, when extra meals and calories are allowed, included the weekend. On the first morning, I tried the juices. The taste of kale, parsley and rocket juice is certainly on the earthy side, but it’s perfectly palatable.
I found the key to successful calorie restriction was avoiding breakfast altogether. I’d have an Americano first thing, then hold out as long as possible before drinking my first green juice. If you make it to 11am or later, one juice will keep you full until lunchtime.
This is where things became problematic for me. The suggestion (not the rule) is that for the first three days you drink green juice all day and then eat a meal for dinner (but not after 7pm). However, I need proper fuel at work and I am regularly home after 7pm, so I would have a solid, sirt-rich lunch from the canteen salad bar – rocket, edamame beans, broccoli, capers and olives, maybe some tofu, mixed with plenty of olive oil and chilli flakes. A tip: miso soup from Pret is a sirt-ified afternoon snack, and just 32 calories.
Evenings were tough. I allowed myself a good chunk of dark chocolate with a cup of green tea when I got home. Then I kept busy and went to bed early. When I woke up on Day 2, I had lost 1lb. By the morning of Day 3, I was almost 3lb down.
By Day 4, when I could add an extra meal and 500 more calories, the idea of a night-time meal felt extravagant, as if I was putting my good work to waste, so I kept meals small and carb-free. I tried the chicken breast with kale and red onion and the chargrilled beef with red wine jus, which were both yummy. On Day 5, Friday night, it was my friend’s film screening, so I skipped dinner and drank three glasses of red wine instead, which had some extremely pleasing results. I saw my biggest drop yet: 5lb in total.
By the end of the week I hadn’t quite reached the half-stone mark, but I wasn’t far off. Since then I have continued to include at least one sirty thing in my meals (parsley garnish makes you feel so virtuous), and I have just an Americano and a green juice for breakfast. One night, a lovely friend cooked me a three-course meal consisting entirely of sirtfoods. We had tofu houmous, king prawns with buckwheat noodles in miso and 100 per cent dark chocolate for dessert. And lots of red wine. I felt stuffed. Miraculously, I had lost a little more by morning.
I am writing this one week before Christmas. I am almost two stone lighter than I was at the beginning of September. That is easily my most dramatic biennial weight loss yet, and all by following a diet where red wine is encouraged. This is not the year for a dry January, my friends.