Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The 14-percent advantage of eating little and then a lot: Putting it in practice

In my previous post I argued that the human body may react to “eating big” as it would to overfeeding, increasing energy expenditure by a certain amount. That increase seems to lead to a reduction in the caloric value of the meals during overfeeding; a reduction that seems to gravitate around 14 percent of the overfed amount.

And what is the overfed amount? Let us assume that your daily calorie intake to maintain your current body weight is 2,000 calories. However, one day you consume 1,000 calories, and the next 3,000 – adding up to 4,000 calories in 2 days. This amounts to 2,000 calories per day on average, the weight maintenance amount; but the extra 1,000 on the second day is perceived by your body as overfeeding. So 140 calories are “lost”.

The mechanisms by which this could happen are not entirely clear. Some studies contain clues; one example is the 2002 study conducted with mice by Anson and colleagues (), from which the graphs below were taken.

In the graphs above AL refers to ad libitum feeding, LDF to limited daily feeding (40 percent less than AL), IF to intermittent (alternate-day) fasting, and PF to pair-fed mice that were provided daily with a food allotment equal to the average daily intake of mice in the IF group. PF was added a control condition; in practice, the 2-day food consumption was about the same in AL, IF and PF.

After a 20-week period, intermittent fasting was associated with the lowest blood glucose and insulin concentrations (graphs a and b), and the highest concentrations of insulin growth factor 1 and ketones (graphs c and d). These seem to be fairly positive outcomes. In humans, they would normally be associated with metabolic improvements and body fat loss.

Let us go back to the 14 percent advantage of eating little and then a lot; a pattern of eating that can be implemented though intermittent fasting, as well as other approaches.

So, as we have seen in the previous post (), it seems that if you consume the same number of calories, but you do that while alternating between underfeeding and overfeeding, you actually “absorb” 14 percent fewer calories – with that percentage applied to the extra calorie intake above the amount needed for weight maintenance.

And here is a critical point, which I already hinted at in the previous post (): energy expenditure is not significantly reduced by underfeeding, as long as it is short-term underfeeding – e.g., about 24 h or less. So you don’t “gain back” the calories due to a possible reduction in energy expenditure in the (relatively short) underfeeding period.

What do 140 calories mean in terms of fat loss? Just divide that amount by 9 to get an estimate; about 15 g of fat lost. This is about 1 lb per month, and 12 lbs per year. Does one lose muscle due to this, in addition to body fat? A period of underfeeding of about 24 h or less should not be enough to lead to loss of muscle, as long as one doesn’t do glycogen-depleting exercise during that period ().

Sounds good? It actually gets better. Underfeeding tends to increase the body’s receptivity to both micronutrients and macronutrients. This applies to protein, carbohydrates, vitamins etc. For example, the activity of liver and muscle glycogen synthase is significantly increased by underfeeding (the scientific term is “phosphorylation”), particularly carbohydrate underfeeding, effectively raising the insulin sensitivity of those tissues.

The same happens, in general terms, with a host of other tissues and nutrients; often mediated by enzymes. This means that after a short period of underfeeding your body is primed to absorb micronutrients and macronutrients more effectively, even as it uses up some extra calories – leading to a 14 percent increase in energy expenditure.

There are many ways in which this can be achieved. Intermittent fasting is one of them; with 16-h to 24-h fasts, for example. Intermittent calorie restriction is another; e.g., with a 1/3 and 2/3 calorie consumption pattern across two-day periods. Yet another is intermittent carbohydrate restriction, with other macronutrients kept more or less constant.

If the same amount of food is consumed, there is evidence suggesting that such practices would lead to body weight preservation with improved body composition – same body weight, but reduced fat mass. This is what the study by Anson and colleagues, mentioned earlier, suggested ().

A 2005 study by Heilbronn and colleagues on alternate day fasting by humans suggested a small decrease in body weight (); although the loss was clearly mostly of fat mass. Interestingly, this study with nonobese humans suggested a massive decrease in fasting insulin, much like the mice study by Anson and colleagues.

Having said all of the above, there are several people who gain body fat by alternating between eating little and a lot. Why is that? The most likely reason is that when they eat a lot their caloric intake exceeds the increased energy expenditure.