“I only had a small salad for lunch today,” I hear my mother’s voice say proudly over the phone. It’s not the first time we have this conversation. My response is always the same: Why?
My mom is a typical middle-aged woman. Every day, she is fighting her body’s desire to enjoy food so she can avoid calories and lose weight. In my work as a health-tech entrepreneur, I have interviewed many others like her.
In fact, I was once stuck in the same mindset myself. I struggled with a binge-eating disorder and desperately tried to compensate by eating less during the day. I was overweight and my overall health was suffering.
Now, I indulge in delicious, satisfying meals every single day and my body fat stays at 7–8% without effort (those last two words being the most important).
The idea that we should focus on eating fewer calories is arguably the biggest mistake in health and wellness to date. Adopting this mindset means starting a war with our own bodies — a war that 99% of us will eventually lose, and those who win don’t feel like winners.
Fat tissue is not just simple storage of extra calories — it‘s a complex endocrine organ, producing dozens of hormones — and the primary cause of obesity is not caloric imbalance, it’s hormonal imbalance.
To be fair, there is some evidence showing that reducing the total amount of calories consumed is associated with a longer lifespan. And according to the first law of thermodynamics, a caloric deficit is an important contributor to weight loss.
But there is a lot of nuance to how to best achieve that deficit.
Many people believe they have to eat low-calorie meals to successfully keep total calories low. In fact, more often than not the opposite is true.
Frequent low-calorie meals sounds like a good idea in the calories-in-calories-out model. But in practice, this strategy doesn't work for most people. Ironically, it often results in higher total caloric intake and can contribute to a number of health problems.
There is a reason why so many people struggle with this way of eating — It’s not the approach humans were designed to take.
There is a better way — a more natural way — and I’m going to make a case for it here.
But before we learn how to implement this new way of eating, we first need to explore a little evolutionary background to understand why our bodies react the way they do when caught in the low-calorie trap.
Hunting and gathering were the first-ever investments humans made. To get calories, you generally had to spend calories. “You have to spend money to make money”, as the saying goes today.
Throughout evolution, hunting and gathering demanded a significant investment of calories. The risk of that investment was to come home empty-handed or worse; to get injured and potentially die.
Just like today, there were different varieties of investments available. Walking a short distance to pick some berries with other members of the tribe was an aggressively safe investment, with low returns of calories. Going out alone to hunt down a large animal was dangerous, but the potential reward was off the charts. You would have had food for days and your status in the tribe would skyrocket.
The large number of calories required to maintain health, fend off intruders, build shelter and keep warm, motivated us to hunt large fatty animals, as explained by Dr. Miki Ben Dor in Man: the FAT hunter. We managed the risk of this type of investment by hunting together, using our increasingly superior communications skills, which in turn fueled further development of our brains.
Similarly, when investing in gathering plants, it made more sense to dig up the roots of a plant (its energy stores) instead of picking its leaves. If you happened upon some ripe fruit or a honeycomb filled with honey — jackpot! Big return on investment.
Historically, feast and famine occurred naturally. We went periods with little to no food, then we made a big kill and gorged ourselves for a while. We can see the same pattern in other hunters like wolves, who can eat 20 pounds of meat after a famine, and snakes, who can notoriously eat something seemingly larger than themselves, then go months without food.
Our physiology evolved under these conditions and our bodies developed to function optimally with these “inputs” to the system.
We are wired to eat calorically dense foods because, throughout evolution, food has always been on the other side of hard work.
Most people recognize the idea of “six meals a day”. The claim is that if we snack throughout the day, our metabolism will stay high and we will better control blood sugar and hunger signals. But studies have shown that that’s not what happens in most people.
More importantly, there is nothing biological about this approach. We still have the same instincts we evolved during the last 100.000–200.000 years of evolution. Eating six small meals a day will not give us the inputs we need for the body to work as it was meant to. On the contrary, it will signal to the body that we are starving.
The typical composition of low-calorie foods causes them to have some unique effects on the body of their own.
If we look at the most common snacks and low-calorie foods, they contain essentially just two things: carbohydrates and unsaturated fats.
Carbs are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Just like all things with any real significance to humans, they are a tool for survival.
But they are the macronutrient with the biggest impact on blood sugar levels. For those who are stuck in a loop of eating low-calorie meals many times each day, this can be a huge problem.
Blood sugar swings or what’s known as the “glucose area under the curve” is one of the strongest correlated factors with obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes type 2, and the detrimental effects these conditions have.
Frequent carb-based eating also creates an addiction cycle; the continuous supply of carbohydrates prevents fat burning through the presence of insulin and impairs the body’s long term ability to use body fat as fuel. This makes us more and more dependent on the continual consumption of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates on their own are not especially palatable (just imagine eating a potato chip without the oil and salt). To increase palatability, carbs are almost always mixed with unsaturated fats, in large part polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s).
PUFA’s are essential for the human body, but we only need minuscule amounts. If we eat high-PUFA foods six times a day, we will consume way too much, and the excess PUFA’s are stored in our body fat.
There are theories suggesting that the PUFA’s stored in our fat tissues both cause inflammation and make it harder for us to actually burn our body fat since doing so will release large amounts of the PUFA’s stored there.
If we can’t burn body fat easily, we become even more dependent on quick energy from the consumption of carbohydrates.
There is probably some truth to these theories, given that the consumption of PUFA’s, mainly found in so-called “vegetable oils” is another factor closely correlated with the obesity pandemic.
What about just eating clean low-calorie foods, like salad or some vegetables?
First of all, they are still low in calories. As we have learned, this is not a good thing from the body’s perspective.
Secondly, even if leaves and other parts of plants do contain various nutrients, these nutrients are often not very available to the body and can contain additional problematic molecules.
Lastly, the few calories they do contain will still come from mostly carbohydrates and potentially PUFA’s (in salad dressings for example).
Humans evolved to eat relatively infrequent, high-calorie meals. Doing so will create a favorable physiological response for most people, and will help to naturally regulate hunger, and maintain weight and overall health.
The clearest sign that you are following a species-appropriate diet is that you don’t have to struggle to maintain your health and well-being. Health is not supposed to be a fight.
At my startup, we meet lots of people who have been stuck in the low-calorie mindset for a long time. They are all struggling to make their own body into an ally, instead of an enemy.
Health is not supposed to be a fight.
If low-calorie eating works well for you and you are 100% happy with your health and performance — you don’t have to change anything. We are all different, and there is still much to learn about human nutrition.
If you aren’t happy, however, here is how to implement the ideas in this article to change the way you eat.
What does high-calorie eating mean in practice? It means transitioning from:
Frequent low-calorie meals with low nutrient density → Infrequent high-calorie meals with high nutrient density.
To do this successfully, there are four main things to keep in mind.
The first thing to note is that “high-calories” is a relative term. The actual meal size and meal frequency will be different for different people. Depending on your individual circumstances, you will settle into a combination of meal size and frequency that suits you.
The important thing is the underlying mindset: infrequent, high-calorie, high-nutrient density meals.
I am a 6'1" male with an active lifestyle. If I were to count my calories (which I never have to do) they would add up to 3500-4000 kcal a day. That is probably twice as much energy as the average person needs.
My point is that high-calorie meals become more of a necessity when you have a high metabolism. I can probably “get away with” a lot more than my middle-aged mother, for example. But that doesn’t mean it only works for people with a high metabolism. It will just look a little different for each individual.
The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
– Dr. Michael Ruscio
We don’t just need calories to thrive, we also need nutrients. It’s no surprise that the foods we evolved to eat also contain the most bioavailable nutrients.
Nowadays, there are many calorically-dense foods that have no part in our evolution. They don't elicit the same physiological response as eating a steak, an avocado, or some honey, for example. This article is not an excuse to eat donuts.
A good rule of thumb is to go for the foods your great grandparents would have recognized and prized.
According to the protein leverage hypothesis, protein is the most filling macronutrient. We basically eat until our protein needs are met. You will know this from experience — ever felt like bingeing on skinless chicken breast?
From a survival perspective, losing lean body mass is one of the most detrimental things that can happen to an animal. Lean tissues and structural components like bone are made mostly from amino-acids (protein), so it makes sense that we should have the instinct to prioritize protein.
At each meal, prioritize high-protein foods and “supplement” with fat and carbohydrates.
Because of protein quality, nutrient density, and many other factors, I personally favor nose-to-tail animal foods for my high-calorie meals, as well as small amounts of unpasteurized cheese, raw honey, tubers, white rice, sourdough bread, and fruits and berries. But you will find your own approach that works for you.
Keto, Low carb, OMAD, Paleo, intermittent fasting… these are just words. We made them up as a proxy to receive some of the benefits of living a completely natural life.
With high-calorie eating, your body will settle into a natural combination of meal size and frequency. Don’t think of it as intermittent fasting — you are under no obligation to “resist eating”. Instead, think of it as your body waking up to its natural instincts.
If you follow the advice here, you should be comfortable spending at least 5 hours between meals. But for this to work, you must do one thing:
Make sure you are really full after each meal. You should be completely satisfied and not want another bite.
My body has naturally settled into eating two large meals a day. After I wake up, I’m not hungry until I’ve been awake for about 6 hours. That’s anywhere from 14–18 hours of fasting. Occasionally I’m not that hungry at all and will just have one larger meal in the evening.
I think most people will settle into 1–3 meals per day.
A huge additional benefit of infrequent eating is that your Migrating Motor Complex (MMC) — the process responsible for cleaning out your gut in between meals — will have the chance to function properly. This is associated with many health benefits. There is a good little article about that here.
The idea behind low-calorie eating is simple and therefore quite attractive. It seems so obvious: “If I eat less and exercise more, I will lose body fat”.
And it is simple in theory. But as we have learned, it often doesn't work like this in practice.
For someone who is overweight and unhappy with their body, the low-calorie idea can be hard to let go of. When you already have so many ugly calories padding your waistline, the last thing you want to do is to eat a large high-calorie meal. It just feels counterintuitive. Trust me, I’ve been there.
When I was fighting my binge-eating disorder, I tried to compensate for the binges by eating less during the day. This just created a negative feedback loop; because I didn’t give my body the inputs it needed, the binges were simply a natural response.
If you learn to let this idea go and trust your body’s instincts, you will soon discover that high-calorie meals won’t make you fat. In fact, your body will quickly start to work for you, instead of against you.
The more you give your body what it needs, the more resilient and robust it will become. It will gain the ability to actually keep calories lower over periods of time, without breaking down and rebelling against you.
That’s it. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to discuss below, and if you have any questions — I LOVE to talk about this stuff!