Wednesday, December 23, 2015
The evolutionary pressures placed by periods of famine shaped the physiology of most animals, including humans, toward a design that favors asymmetric food consumption. That is, most animals are “designed” to alternate between eating little and then a lot.
Often when people hear this argument they point out the obvious. There is no evidence that our ancestors were constantly starving. This is correct, but what these folks seem to forget is that evolution responds to events that alter reproductive success rates (), even if those events are rare.
If an event causes a significant amount of death but occurs only once every year, a population will still evolve traits in response to the event. Food scarcity is one such type of event.
Since evolution is blind to complexity, adaptations to food scarcity can take all shapes and forms, including counterintuitive ones. Complicating this picture is the fact that food does not only provide us with fuel, but also with the sources of important structural components, signaling elements (e.g., hormones), and process catalysts (e.g., enzymes).
In other words, we may have traits that are health-promoting under conditions of food scarcity, but those traits are only likely to benefit our health as long as food scarcity is relatively short-term. Not eating anything for 40 days would be lethal for most people.
By "eating little" I don’t mean necessarily fasting. Given the amounts of mucus and dead cells (from normal cell turnover) passing through the digestive tract, it is very likely that we’ll be always digesting something. So eating very little within a period of 10 hours sends the body a message that is similar to the message sent by eating nothing within the same period of 10 hours.
Most of the empirical research that I've reviewed suggests that eating very little within a period of, say, 10-20 hours and then eating to satisfaction in one single meal will elicit the following responses. Protein phosphorylation underlies many of them.
- Your body will hold on to its most important nutrient reserves when you eat little, using selective autophagy to generate energy (, ). This may have powerful health-promoting properties, including the effect of triggering anti-cancer mechanisms.
- Food will taste fantastic when you feast, to such an extent that this effect will be much stronger than that associated with any spice ().
- Nutrients will be allocated more effectively when you feast, leading to a lower net gain of body fat ().
- The caloric value of food will be decreased, with a 14 percent decrease being commonly found in the literature ().
- The feast will prevent your body from down-regulating your metabolism via subclinical hypothyroidism (), which often happens when the period in which one eats little extends beyond a certain threshold (e.g., more than one week).
- Your mood will be very cheerful when you feast, potentially improving social relationships. That is, if you don’t become too grouchy during the period in which you eat little.
I recall once participating in a meeting that went from early morning to late afternoon. We had the option of taking a lunch break, or working through lunch and ending the meeting earlier. Not only was I the only person to even consider the second option, some people thought that the idea of skipping lunch was outrageous, with a few implying that they would have headaches and other problems.
When I said that I had had nothing for breakfast, a few thought that I was pushing my luck. One of my colleagues warned me that I might be damaging my health irreparably by doing those things. Well, maybe they were right on both grounds, who knows?
It is my belief that the vast majority of humans will do quite fine if they eat little or nothing for a period of 20 hours. The problem is that they need to be convinced first that they have nothing to worry about. Otherwise they may end up with a headache or worse, entirely due to psychological mechanisms ().
There is no need to eat beyond satiety when you feast. I’d recommend that you just eat to satiety, and don’t force yourself to eat more than that. If you avoid industrialized foods when you feast, that will be even better, because satiety will be achieved faster. One of the main characteristics of industrialized foods is that they promote unnatural overeating; congrats food engineers on a job well done!
If you are relatively lean, satiety will normally be achieved with less food than if you are not. Hunger intensity and duration tends to be generally associated with body weight. Except for dedicated bodybuilders and a few other athletes, body weight gain is much more strongly influenced by body fat gain than by muscle gain.