Monday, May 24, 2010

Intermittent fasting, engineered foods, leptin, and ghrelin

Engineered foods are designed by smart people, and the goal is not usually to make you healthy; the goal is to sell as many units as possible. Some engineered foods are “fortified” with the goal of making them as healthy as possible. The problem is that food engineers are competing with many millions of years of evolution, and evolution usually leads to very complex metabolic processes. Evolved mechanisms tend to be redundant, leading to the interaction of many particles, enzymes, hormones etc.

Natural foods are not designed to make you eat them nonstop. Animals do not want to be eaten (even these odd-looking birds below). Most plants do not “want” their various nutritious parts to be eaten. Fruits are exceptions, but plants do not want one single individual to eat all their fruits. That compromises seed dispersion. Multiple individual fruit eaters enhance seed dispersion. Plants "want" one individual animal to eat some of their fruits and then move on, so that other individuals can also eat.


It is safe to assume that doughnut manufacturers want one single individual to eat as many doughnuts as possible, and many individuals to want to do that. That takes some serious food engineering, and a lot of testing. Success will increase the manufacturers' revenues, the real bottom line for them. The medical establishment will then take care of those individuals, and prolong their miserable lives so that they can continue eating doughnuts for as long as possible. It is self-perpetuating system.

As mentioned in this previous post, to succeed in the practice of intermittent fasting, one has to stop worrying about food, and one good step in that direction is to avoid engineered foods. In this sense, intermittent fasting can be seen as a form of liberation. Doing something enjoyable and forgetting about food. Like children playing outdoors; they do not care as much about food as they do about play. Even sleeping will do; most people forget about eating when they are asleep.

Intermittent fasting as a religious and/or social activity, as in the Great Lent and Ramadan, also seems to work well. Any activity that brings people together with a common goal, especially if the goal is not to do something evil, has a lot of potential for success.

If you approach intermittent fasting as another thing to worry about, then it will be tough – one fast per week, on the same day of the week, from 7.33 pm of one day to 3.17 pm of the next day. I exaggerate a bit. Anyway, if you approach it as another obligation, another modern stressor, you will probably fail in the medium to long term. It is just commonsense. Maybe you will be able to do it for a while, but not for long enough to reap some serious benefits. A few fasts are not going to make you lose a lot of weight; the body will adapt in a compensatory way during the fast, slowing down your metabolism a bit and conserving calories. On top of that, you will feel very, very hungry. That will make you binge when you break your fast. Compensatory adaptation (a very general phenomenon) is something that our body is very good at, regardless of what we want it to do.

From a more pragmatic perspective, for most people it is easier to fast at night and in the morning. Eating a big meal right after you wake up is not a very natural activity; several hormones that promote body fat catabolism are often elevated in the morning, causing mild physiological insulin resistance.

If you have dinner at 7 pm, skip breakfast, and then have brunch the next day at 10 am, you will have fasted for 15 h. If you skip breakfast and brunch, and have lunch at noon the next day, you will have fasted for 17 h.

On the other hand, if you have breakfast at 8 am, skip lunch, and then have dinner at 6 pm, you will have fasted only for 10 h.

Leptin levels seem to go down significantly after 12 h of fasting, leading to increased body fat catabolism and leptin sensitivity. This is a good thing, since leptin resistance seems to frequently precede insulin resistance.

Many people think that skipping breakfast will make them fat, for various reasons, including that being what sumo wrestlers do to put on enormous amounts of body fat. Well, skipping breakfast probably will make people fat if, when they break the fast, they stuff themselves to the point of almost throwing up, combine plenty of easily digestible carbohydrates (e.g., multiple bowls of rice) with a lot of dietary fat, and then go to sleep. That is what sumo wrestlers normally do.

Eating fat is great, but not together with lots of easily digestible carbohydrates. Even eating a lot of fat by itself will make it difficult for you to shed enough fat to look like the hunter-gatherers in this post. But your body fat set point will be much lower if you eat a lot of fat by itself than if you eat a lot of fat with a lot of easily digestible carbohydrates.

Anyway, if people skip breakfast and eat what they normally eat at lunch, they will not gain more body fat than they would have if they had breakfast. If they do anything to boost their metabolism in the morning, they will most certainly lose body fat in a noticeable way over several weeks, as long as they have enough fat to lose. For example, they can add some light activity in the morning (such as walking), or have a metabolism-boosting drink (e.g., coffee, green tea), or both.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, living outdoors, probably spent most of their day performing light activities that involved little stress. Those activities increase metabolism and fat burning, while keeping stress hormone levels at low ranges. Hunger suppression was the result, making intermittent fasting fairly easy.

Again, intermittent fasting should be approached as a form of liberation. You are no longer a slave of food.

It helps staying away from engineered foods as much as possible, because, again, they are usually engineered with food addiction in mind. I am talking primarily about foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars. They come in boxes and plastic bags with labels describing calories and macronutrient composition, which are often wrong or misleading.

Let us say we could transport a group of archaic Homo sapiens to a modern city, and feed them white bread, bagels, doughnuts, potato chips industrially fried in vegetable oils, and the like. Would they say “Yuck, how can these people eat this?” No, they would not. It would be heaven for them; they would want nothing else for the rest of their gustatorily happy but health-wise miserable lives.

While practicing intermittent fasting, it is probably a good idea to have fixed meal times, and skipping them from time to time. The reason is the hunger hormone ghrelin, secreted by the stomach (mostly) and pancreas to stimulate hunger and possibly prepare the digestive tract for optimal or quasi-optimal absorption of food. Its secretion appears to follow the pattern of habitual meals adopted by a person.


Elliott, W.H., & Elliott, D.C. (2009). Biochemistry and molecular biology. 4th Edition. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.

Fuhrman, J., & Barnard, N.D. (1995). Fasting and eating for health: A medical doctor's program for conquering disease. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.