You can also check out the video version of this post! (At the end of this post).
Nutrition & Our Hybrid Body
In the 1950’s, my friend Bill was a very gifted Engineer who made an extraordinary car. It looked very similar to a Chevrolet Corvette, but the insides of the car is what made it so unique. It wasn’t the first Hybrid car, but it was much more practical and appealing than its predecessors. There was one snag: it never took off because he couldn’t get people to use it properly. The car’s main fuel source was electricity, and gasoline was to be put in whenever available. It was fine for the car to use gasoline every other day or so, but the problem was that people ran it on gasoline nearly 90% of the time. This resulted in the car breaking down frequently, to the surprise of the owners. Everyone was giving each other advice on how to run the car smoothly, all the while Bill was trying to tell people “Just use it the way it was designed!” Despite his advice, people continued to theorize about how to properly use the car. Bill went bankrupt and left the Automotive industry soon after.
This situation my poor imaginary friend Bill found himself in is quite like our modern Health Environment. How did eating get so complicated? Most of us just want to feel good, look good and live a long life. You would think by now there would be a straightforward consensus on what our eating habits should look like, but we’re faced with countless trains of thought on the topic. Maybe we’re supposed to be doing the ABC diet or XYZ diet or something in between? One of the first “diets” was proposed by a man named George Cheyne in 1724. Now, on Amazon you can find over 50,000 different books on the topic.
Like Bill’s car, surely there is a simple way we should be fueling our bodies that is most suitable for its design. Obviously we’re not engineered, but we Homo Sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago and the majority of that time, the food environment could not have been anything like today’s food environment. Agriculture didn’t even exist for a good 190,000 years of that time. Not even the fruits and vegetables we have today would have been similar as we hadn’t cultivated them to our liking.
So what way of eating did we adapt to? The environment would have chosen our diet rather than us. Your choices would have been to eat what was available or be dead. The idea that our body must have adapted to a certain ratio of macronutrients available in the environment is not novel; and recently has become quite well known due to the “Paleo Diet”. However, what I’m getting at is our body would have also had to have adapted to how often the food was available – there should be a natural frequency of eating that promotes health and longevity.
Where to start?
The logic would be that more nourishment, more food would make you healthier and live longer. But let’s take a look at this from the First Principles method as described by Elon Musk: “It’s kind of mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than first principles. First Principles is a Physics way of looking at the world. And what that really means is you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say ‘OK what are we sure is true?’ and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.”
So what do we know about longevity? Other than exercise, the word “superfood” might come to mind. Maybe more Omega-3’s or some Red Wine or making sure to take supplements and drink less alcohol. There are a lot of things that contribute to longevity, but there is one method accepted by science that you can use to consistently increase longevity. Whether a yeast cell, a mouse or a rhesus monkey, research shows that calorie reduction will almost always increase longevity in animals. We had been seeing results like this since the early 1900’s. Depending on the animal, a 30% reduction in overall caloric intake can result in a 30% increased life span. Let’s reason up from here.
For some time, the conventional wisdom has been that you need to get 3 balanced meals a day to stay healthy. Ever since I was a kid, “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” seemed as natural as sleeping or going to the bathroom. Breakfast was the most important meal of the day, I needed a healthy lunch to focus the rest of the school day and being sent to bed without Dinner was child abuse. The situation is basically the same in Japan where I now live, as with the rest of the world. If we want to reduce caloric intake to increase lifespan, the only choice then is to eat less at each meal, because we need 3 meals, right?
But where did this 3 meals a day idea come from? As Abigail Carroll suggests in her book “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal”: Eating three meals a day was basically invented due to culture, not out of biological necessity. It goes back to Middle Age Europe when they would eat a light meal before going out to work, then a heavy meal in the middle of the day, then another light meal at night. When European settlers got to America, they found Native Americans were basically just eating whenever they felt the urge to, rather than at specified times. The Europeans took their lack of defined eating times as evidence that they were uncivilized and had them change. In short: The 3 meals a day paradigm is not based off of our biological needs.
How our environment designed us
In a Hunter Gatherer culture it wasn’t surprising at all to feast on a big catch, then survive on very little or no food for an extended period of time until they were in need of another big source of fat and protein. In fact, the environment up until now would suggest that if we could not do that, we probably wouldn’t be alive to be reading about dieting. The Pirahã people, an indigenous hunter-gatherer group of the Amazon Rainforest was extensively studied by an anthropological linguist named Daniel Everett. He found they do not eat every day or even attempt to do so. They were even aware of food storage techniques yet never used them except to barter with Brazilian traders. When questioned about why they do not store food for themselves they explained “I store meat in the belly of my brother”.
Until the advent of Agriculture, eating 3 meals a day and in some cases even eating every day was a near impossibility. Some of you may be pointing to the fact that the life expectancy in the Paleolithic era was much lower than now at around 33 years, as a sign that our modern eating habits are healthier. However, infant mortality rate was a big factor in bringing that number down. You have to understand that one of the effects of modern civilization and technology is that you can be unresourceful or made up of weak genetic material and not die. As Doug McGuff explains: “[Life expectancy] didn’t really have anything to do with anabolic catabolic balance or long term health benefits because there were older survivors and the fossil evidence of those older survivors based on ligamentous attachments and bony assessment and bone mineral density was: they were extraordinarily robust.”
Glucose Metabolism & How “conventional wisdom” screwed us
The common misconception is that a stable blood glucose is necessary for survival, which would biologically justify 3 meals a day. Bear with me through a bit of Biochemistry to understand why constantly consuming Carbohydrates to maintain blood glucose is not only unnecessary but can be a detrimental and vicious cycle.
★This is the CliffNotes of Doug McGuff’s presentation, make sure to check out the video of him explaining it in depth
After you eat some carbohydrates- Bread, Pasta, Potatoes, Candy et cetera, Glucose enters the bloodstream and insulin is secreted to distribute the glucose properly. Via an insulin receptor, glucose enters the cells and a chain of enzymes act on it to produce energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). This process produces a waste product called Pyruvate which is shuttled through the Mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell”. Mitochondria processes the Pyruvate through the Kreb Cycle which produces much more ATP. A waste product called Citrate is produced in the Mitochondria and when enough stacks up it blocks an enzyme called PhosphoFructoKinase in the enzyme chain creating a roadblock so excess glucose doesn’t harm the cell. When the process can’t continue downward, 70 grams is stored in the Liver, and in the Muscle 200 grams. So you have your morning bagel and some Frappacappa thing and you’ve stored all the glucose you can store. After that, glucose can’t be converted to ATP in the cell, stored in the Liver or in the Muscle.
Your body really doesn’t want glucose overloading cells or stacking up in the bloodstream because like pouring pancake syrup on a car engine, it can muck up the machinery in there. This is a harmful inflammatory situation called Glycation where glucose binds to proteins and inhibits their functions. So your body continues to secrete insulin to deal with the glucose. The insulin receptors on your cells become resistant to insulin everywhere, except on your body fat. Your fat cells do not have as complex machinery as other cells, so this probably the safest place to store it. As well as an energy storage depot, your body fat is protecting you from that Glycation damage.
The problem here is that if your energy levels start to wane, you can’t tap the energy out of your stored body fat because the Hormone that does that – Hormone Sensitive Lipase is sensitive to insulin. Insulin will not allow you to tap body fat for energy. If you have an elevated serum insulin and you need energy, you’re going to get ravenously hungry and will need to jack your blood sugar up short term with a snack to raise energy levels.
This is why if you’re following the recommended American diet, you’re usually going to be stuck in this loop of wanting to eat every time your blood glucose drops and 3 meals a day will feel very necessary. Even Medical Doctor Peter Attia fell victim to this: “Despite exercising 3 or 4 hours every single day and following the food pyramid to the letter, I gained a lot of weight and developed something called ‘Metabolic Syndrome’ “
Ketosis to the rescue
There’s another source of energy in your body that is a lot more efficient and stable than glucose. Ketone bodies are produced by the liver from fatty acids to produce energy, when you have depleted your Glycogen stores (which takes 10 to 12 hours depending on your activity level and body composition) ★Glycogen is the stored form of glucose. Ketone bodies can enter the aforementioned Kreb Cycle like Glucose to produce energy in the form of ATP.
You may have heard of this Ketosis state referred to as “Starvation Mode” in school, but this by no means suggests you are about to starve. I particularly dislike this term because it suggests that glucose/carbohydrates is our body’s primary fuel source, when in fact it is possible to live entirely without carbohydrates. Case in point: A 456 pound 27 year old man in Scotland fasted an incredible 382 days consuming only water and vitamin supplements. He lost 276 pounds and completed the fast with no ill effects. He was technically in “Starvation mode” this entire time and his body was using his stored body fat for energy.
Quick note: Ketosis and Diabetic KetoAcidosis are NOT the same.
Several years back, when I first heard about low carb diets, I was skeptical and frankly when I heard my close friend’s mother was trying the Atkins diet, I was worried for her. However, after doing a lot of research and finally properly understanding glucose metabolism, I started doing the ‘Paleo diet’. I felt great in general, had a better physique with less effort and much more stable energy levels. The downside was it got kind of annoying to have to plan my meals, so I would cheat a lot here and there.
The Benefits of Fasting
Even after people were in environments where they could eat much more frequently, the concept of fasting for health benefits has been around for some time. An Egyptian Pyramid Inscription from around 3800 B.C. reads “Humans live on one-quarter of what they eat; on the other three-quarters lives their doctor.” Plato apparently fasted for greater mental efficiency, the “Luther of Medicine” Philippus Paracelsus called fasting “the greatest remedy” and Mark Twain suggested fasting to be more effective than any medicine. The Romans even found that they cure people who were possessed with demons (actually poor misunderstood Epileptics) by shutting them in a room without food.
To simplify an incredibly complex process, aging in essence is the result of cumulative damage to your DNA. Professor of Genetics, David Sinclair and his team found that not eating stimulates the Sirtuin proteins which are directly responsible for DNA repair. Mark Mattson, a professor of Neuroscience at John Hopkins University, gave a speech at TEDxJohnHopkinsUniversity talking about the extensive benefits of fasting for your brain and body. In particular fasting stimulates the production of Neurotrophic Growth Factors, BDNF and FGF which promote the growth of new neurons in the brain. This explains why fasting has been linked to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
This information got me excited about Intermittent fasting. With intermittent fasting you’re not eating for 16 hours of the day which gives your body time to deplete the glycogen stores and start burning fat as well as reap the benefits discussed above. So many sources are pointing to the key being that whether you are doing extended fasting, intermittent fasting or simply eating less, you are giving your body a chance to deplete its Glycogen stores and dip into ketosis, leading to many health benefits. Check out these two studies: “Ketones Keep Neurons Alive” and “The neuroprotective properties of calorie restriction, the ketogenic diet and ketone bodies” I was keen on the fact that I could get similar effects to Paleo with more leeway in my diet. The problem with Intermittent Fasting was I found with myself craving food outside of the 8 hour eating period, and I still had to be somewhat strict with what I ate (although not as strict as my 3 meals a day regimine)
Upton Sinclair who was born in the the late 1800’s and lived to the swell age of 90, published a book in 1911 called “The Fasting Cure”(click here for full text). The book was inspired by the personal accounts of 250 people who cured some ailment with extended fasting. The ailments ranged from colds, headaches and constipation to arthritis, valvular heart disease and cancer. Dr. Alan Goldhamer spoke about how in 2012, a 42 year old patient cured her cancer (stage 3 follicular lymphoma) with a 21 day fast. Nowadays you can find personal accounts of people on Youtube who have cured some ailment of theirs with an extended water fast (consuming nothing but water).
My journey to one meal a day
“The Fasting cure” was one of the first materials that opened me up to the health benefits of more prolonged fasts. I had a lot of inhibitions despite all the incredible personal accounts in there, but once I learned about the Scottish man (mentioned above) who fasted for 382 days, I figured surely a week couldn’t be that big of a deal. I tried a week long fast and gave up around the 4th day even though I didn’t feel particularly bad. While I missed my goal and I didn’t really feel all that different afterward, over the following days I started to notice I didn’t have as much interest in junk food. I used to enjoy eating some delicious refined sugar crap while doing intermittent fasting since it was within my 8 hour eating period, but that fast had reset my eating preferences.
Around this time I came across a book called 「空腹が人を健康にする」”Hunger makes people healthy” by Dr. Yoshinori Nagumo which provides an incredibly compelling argument for limiting yourself to one meal per day. It touched upon many of the things I’ve talked about, some things I didn’t and it dispelled some worries I had like malnutrition and whatnot. (Also, It was easy to trust him since he’s 30 years older than me and looks younger than I do.) I decided to try eating once per day for 2 weeks.
For 3 weeks prior, I had been showing my little sister around Tokyo while eating basically anything and everything that looked good. I started the Nagumo plan the day after she left and the first three days were definitely the hardest. When the clock hit around 11AM, I realized I wasn’t getting the joy from eating that I was used to around this time of day and started really wanting to eat. My stomach didn’t particularly hurt, it was the equivalent of not being able to play video games when getting home from Middle School. Around 4PM is when I was convinced that I really was hungry and needed to eat. Waiting another 30 minutes until 4.30PM to eat was like pushing through a last set of squats. The next two days were slightly easier, and come the 4th day I realized I wasn’t looking at the clock thinking “Only X more hours to go!”.
I decided to test the diet a week later and do a 50 kilometer bike ride to Atsugi from Tokyo. I hadn’t been working out all that much and a usual bike ride for me was about 3 kilometers. It was unsurprisingly difficult, but I never felt physically weak. I had hunger pangs earlier than normal, but I didn’t feel like I had less strength from lack of food. This made me decide to stick with eating once per day. It’s been a month since I started and I feel great in general, my energy levels are very stable, tolerate less sleep better, I feel more focused and surprisingly I have less problems with hunger compared to Intermittent Fasting. It’s not until an hour or 2 before my usual eating time that I start thinking about food and if I’m focused on something I might even eat an hour later than normal.
Even if I don’t eat the healthiest meal I can now feel confident that my body will have more than enough time to empty out whatever excess glycogen or toxins I ingested. (The only time I do crave unhealthy food is when I’ve had some alcohol.) Looking back, it’s hard to imagine having to pile so much food into my stomach throughout the day.
Other than the health benefits, one other reason I do this is the same reason Steve Jobs wore basically the same thing everyday: It makes choosing easier and frees my brain up to focus on other things. (See “Decision Fatigue”)
For myself, the amount of new information I get only changes my behavior by a small factor. For example if I increase my knowledge about the detriments of alcohol by 60% maybe I’ll cut my intake by 30%. With this article alone I’m not expecting you to suddenly start eating once per day, but hopefully you can start giving your body a break and eat when you need to, not when the clock says you should.