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The Lion Diet
Many years ago, I brought my family to a lion rescue preserved in Brighton, Colorado and we were able to watch them do their thing in a very respectable replica of their natural habitat—if that is even possible.
These cats were mostly rescued from circuses, other smaller rescue centers, or from people who bought them as pets years before and had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
My son was really into cats, so we went back a few times and learned a bit about big cats including their eating patterns. Lions eat just two to three times a week, and when they do, they feast!
They basically pig out, then rest, sleep, and chill for the next couple of days. That’s probably why when you visit a zoo—the cats are all asleep more often than not.
My first instinct was to try eating like the lions do. I called it The Lion Diet—my kids thought I was nuts! Eating a “feast and famine” diet, as the lions do, was many years before the calorie restriction explosion we are in the midst of today.
The idea of eating only twice or thrice a week seemed a bit extreme, so I started fasting completely one day a week and tried to eat only one big, midday meal for the rest of the week.
I was able to maintain the weekly fasting for a while, but on a regular basis I was only able to dial back my daily meals to two times a day—which I still do today. Less food than that, I lost too much weight and was ravenous—instead of a peaceful lion, I became a hungry tiger.
I was recently reminded of The Lion Diet while reading a recently published paper entitled, Meal Frequency and Timing in Health and Disease, which suggested that our ancestors may have actually been eating my infamous Lion Diet! I was so taken by this article, I included some of the highlights here: (1)
The most common eating pattern in modern societies, three meals plus snacks every day, is abnormal from an evolutionary perspective. Unlike modern humans and domesticated animals, the eating patterns of many mammals are characterized by intermittent energy or food intake. Carnivores may kill and eat prey only a few times each week or even less frequently (thus my Lion Diet)! Hunter-gatherers and earlier primates including those living today, often eat intermittently depending upon food availability. (1)
The ability to function at a high level, both physically and mentally, during extended periods without food may have been of fundamental importance in our evolutionary history. Mammals have made many adaptations for an intermittent food supply, including storage of rapidly available sugar (liver glycogen stores) and longer-lasting energy such as fatty acid fuel stored as fat. (1)
The agricultural revolution, which began some 10,000 y ago, resulted in the constant year-round availability of food typical of modern societies. Our agrarian ancestors adopted a three meals per day eating pattern, presumably because it provided both social and practical benefits for the daily work and school schedules. More recently, within the past 50 years, high calorie density foodstuffs such as refined grains, sugar, cooking oils, corn syrup, and processed food have permeated these three daily meals. When superimposed on increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the consumption of high calorie meals multiple times each day plausibly contributed to the emergence of obesity and related diseases as major causes of morbidity and mortality. Indeed, animals in the wild and hunter-gatherer humans rarely, if ever, suffer from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (1)
Emerging findings from studies of animal models and human subjects suggest that intermittent energy restriction periods of as little as 16 h can improve health indicators and counteract disease processes. The mechanisms involve a metabolic shift to fat metabolism and ketone production, and stimulation of adaptive cellular stress responses that prevent and repair molecular damage. (1)
While my Lion Diet may have been a bit extreme, eating less food is now an evidence-based approach to health and longevity. (1-5)
The problem that I see with my patients is that they do not digest efficiently enough to eat less food without feeling ravenous.
I spend most of my days working with patients to help them reset their optimal digestive function while resetting their natural ability to burn fat as a primary source of fuel.