are you what you eat, or are you when you eat?
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
A main takeaway from getting a degree in anthropology is that you should always critically question what we consider obvious, especially those rituals we do not usually think about deeply. That which we take for granted may in fact hide some interesting clues about ourselves as the embodiment of a specific socio-cultural framework.
In the past few days I have been reading about intermittent fasting, following, perhaps later than others have, my curiosity for health fads and biohacking. ‘Intermittent Fasting’ has been steadily increasing in numbers on the Google search, making it a fashionable trend for some and a marketable product for others. Regardless of what you may think of this sort of pattern of eating, it is refreshing to see that the status quo of the ‘three meals a day’ is undergoing a shake up.
True, in the western world we have been acolytes of the ‘three square meals per day’ tradition for hundreds of years, but we all know that hundreds of years are comparatively nothing in evolutionary terms. Further, the place of this kind of diet has not fully solidified in our routine until the industrial revolution, where most people’s work entailed heavy labour in factories. A lot has changed since then.
When European settlers arrived in America, they observed that the natives did not have rigid schedules for their meals. Quite on the contrary, they ate whenever they were hungry and food was available. This empirical fact was used by white settlers to declare their ways ‘more civilized’ and nutritionally superior, somehow asserting that grazing is the norm in the animal kingdom, and that humans are ultimately above this kind of feeding. And so, the three meals custom got extended to the new world.
As the years passed, this tradition co-evolved with our lifestyles, and soon enough we started adding meats and other nutritional ingredients to our foods, making our meals richer, while our workloads underwent another type of evolution. Our jobs became more sedentary and less active than previous generations. City life began taking shape. Soon enough, nutritionists started advising for lighter breakfasts, in an effort to rein in caloric intake. Kellogg’s cashed in on this opportunity, and to this day it siphons the alleged importance of breakfast and turns its demand into profits.
‘Breakfast is the most important meal’ we keep hearing. To this day, this notion is ingrained in our lifestyle, as you can tell from this page too. Not that Kellogg’s would tell you otherwise anyway. So, what does the science say? Is skipping breakfast so bad for your body as it often portrayed? Well, according to a 2014 study by The University of Bath, breakfast actually has zero to relatively insignificant influence on your metabolism. Although the breakfast debate is still pretty much open, it is fair to assume that its importance may not be so relevant as we have been lead to believe.
What about fasting, then? We are accustomed to all sorts of religious fasts. In these cases, major emphasis is placed on the spiritual side of the practice, but little has been said about the physical part until today. In rodents, fasting has shown to fight off degenerative diseases through autophagy (disposal of damaged or unused cells at a molecular level), as well as significantly lower levels of insulin, which in turn help fighting diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Mark Mattson, a Ph.D biologist who has written over 700 scientific articles, holds that intermittent fasting (where an eating window is followed by a fasting window) acts as a mild form of stress which in turn switches on our cellular defences against molecular damage.
Nevertheless, human trials are still not numerous enough for us to draw clear objective conclusions on this topic. While it is fair to assume that intermittent fasting may have some benefits such as helping with weight loss, promoting cognitive functions and stretching life-span, it must be said that results of IF have differed substantially between men and women, who seem to be more negatively impacted by this eating pattern than men.
So, while you should be careful with what you decide to put (or avoid putting) in your body, and always follow your doctor’s instructions, it is good to notice that, at least from an evolutionary perspective, the three meals tradition is in stark opposition with what we think of a ‘natural’ diet.