A Foundation for Health: Feast Versus Famine: It is a common misconception to think we have evolved in a way that is superior to our past. After all –the majority of us live in an environment where anything we want is at our fingertips. But is this always a good thing?
Evolutionary medicine is research that looks at biological changes that have occurred in humans over time and how these changes may affect our health. Many of these adaptations are clearly beneficial – such as the growth of our brain size. But with development and progress, we have also increased our vulnerability to diseases such as obesity. And given over 40% of the US population is obese even though the diet industry is worth $72 billion, we are clearly out of touch with what our bodies need. We now know that the mantra “calories in equals calories out” for weight loss simply isn’t true. Otherwise, weight-loss diets based on caloric restriction wouldn’t fail all the time.
Instead, we should be focusing on looking back at what the body was designed to do and how to use biology to our advantage efficiently. An eating pattern known as “feast versus famine” that naturally existed in our past as a result of changing food accessibility can be applied to modern lifestyles to benefit our health.
What is feast versus famine?
Our ancestors lived in a very different environment than the current immediate gratification world. With changing seasons and climates, hunter-gatherers would adapt their diet based on the availability of food. Fasting was necessary when food was scarce. At other times more carbohydrate-dense foods were abundant, and starchy roots, tubers, and berries would increase in their diet. And when meat, fish, or game was available, the diet resembled a ketogenic pattern.
This food availability began a cycle of hormonal and metabolic adaptations that set our ancestors up to benefit their health unknowingly. As we now know, during fasting and ketosis, the body would focus on healing and repair through autophagy. When entering into temporary times of “feasting” with an increased intake of starchy carbohydrates, they were able to disrupt the metabolic stress hormones that signal the risk of starvation while promoting stem cell growth.
How does feast versus famine compare to modern-day eating patterns?
While there are currently several small populations of hunter-gatherers who follow a similar lifestyle, the majority of us have access to food whenever we want it. And this is precisely the problem. Diet culture bounces people from diet to diet, promising the best results. A person may feel better for a while, but soon lose their way, either gaining the weight back or feeling worse than before starting.
The average person not only eats too much but too often. While the cyclical ancestral patterns allowed for periods of famine in-between times of feasting, we are in a constant “feast” state. This state not only includes how much we eat but how often and what we eat. Even many “diets” allow – or even encourage – eating meals and snacks all day long. The body never gets a break; insulin is continually spiking, leaving us in a constant state of inflammation.
Many people are also so removed from hunger cues that they don’t even know how to eat. Many people are pre-programmed to see 12:00 on the clock and think “lunchtime” regardless of if they are hungry or not. The three meals a day with snacks in between pattern is a creation of modern lifestyle and does not match-up to biological adaptations in which our body thrives.
In fact, studies have shown that over time some humans express genes that allow them to hang onto extra fat in case of times of famine. Known as the “thrifty genotype,” this theory tells us that certain people may convert excess calories to fat to save for times of fasting to survive. These people will hold onto stored fat more easily than others, risking their health given they don’t experience the famine as was biologically predicted.
When we don’t eat in rhythm with our natural biology, we run the risk of overriding fundamental signaling mechanisms, such as our circadian rhythms. Most of us are familiar with the role the circadian rhythms play in regulating sleep in the body, but they do much more than just signal the body to go to sleep. Cells that play a role in immune and metabolic health also respond to cues from our circadian rhythms. Overriding these innate signaling molecules can disrupt processes in the body that help with energy balance and even increase our risk of chronic disease.
How can we apply the feast versus famine concept to modern life?
While we can’t go back to the ancestral lifestyle (and probably don’t want to), we can carry some of the principles to our diet patterns to benefit our health. The patterns of feast versus famine, while also eating seasonal, fresh foods can impact our health significantly if we apply it correctly.
We can use these concepts in modern-day by cycling through several ways of eating, or what we call diet variation, by combining three principles:
- Intermittent fasting.
- Ketogenic diet principles.
- Feasting on appropriate food choices.
While the benefits of each of these concepts require their own article, let’s examine each a bit closer:
- Fasting: Intermittent fasting mimics periods of famine in indigenous lifestyles. Using fasting principles, we can apply the periods our ancestors went without food. We know the benefits of fasting are numerous – from longevity to weight loss, to blood sugar control, and more. Fasting addresses eating less often instead of eating less. The typical “calories in equal calories out” weight loss diet fails as the body adapts and reaches plateaus. By taking structured periods of fasting, we allow our body to take advantage of the innate, biological adaptations developed through evolution.
- Ketogenic diet: As described, our ancestors would experience seasonal shifts where plants may have been scarce, so meat and game were the only options for food. We can mimic this pattern initially used as a survival mechanism to live with limited food options with a nutrient-rich ketogenic diet to obtain the same health benefits, including autophagy, as seen with fasting.
- Feasting: Still focusing on nutrient-dense foods, but allowing the body to cycle out of keto to reduce stress on the body, further supports hormone adaptations. While we know that the ketogenic diet has impressive benefits, it may not be necessary, and even detrimental for some, to follow it strictly all the time. Instead, we can plan for a period of feasting when we open up our diet to include more berries and starch-based plants, so the body doesn’t believe it is in danger of starving.
By following these three patterns, we not only take our biology into account, but we also address other issues with diet changes – including feelings of deprivation and boredom, which can ultimately interfere with the best intentions of diet changes.
Considering feast versus famine when making diet changes is an under-utilized tool to wake the body up to its intrinsic patterns. If you are someone who has struggled when following only one diet or aren’t seeing desired results – this is the next crucial step to optimizing your health.
Dr. Pompa’s bestselling book Beyond Fasting holds all the secrets of fasting and more, with a 7-week proven protocol that sets you up for fat burning, blood sugar control, and endless energy. And if you’ve tried fasting before with no luck? Set yourself up for success with the only fasting program that equips you with the tools to create new stem cells from day one. It’s time to banish fatigue, constant food cravings, and stubborn fat.
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