Shortcut to Slim

Season 1: Episode 9

The Best Time to Eat, Anabolic/Catabolic Hunger and the Lentil Effect

You are listening to the Shortcut to Slim Podcast. Show details — Hosted by Lindsay S Nixon — Season 1: Episode 9;

Download button


In episode 6, I discussed Dr. Panda's theory that artificial light led to an artificial extension of our feeding times, which, for a number of compounding reasons, he believes is a contributing cause to obesity and diabetes.

Dr. Panda was basically saying don't eat at night, or too late, which seemed to confirm a piece of diet advice I've been hearing a lot lately: This idea that you should “eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner.”

But then all of the intermittent fasting research says the exact opposite, sort-of.

I suppose you could start your feeding window to start at breakfast, but with all the reading and researching I did around IF, I definitely got the impression that breakfast was the meal you wanted to skip, or at least delay.

In fact, Zinczenko, author of The 8-Hour Diet left no room for interpretation on this point. He wrote, “Let me apologize on behalf of an entire country full of fitness gurus, diet-book authors, trendy nutritionists, weight-loss clinic, unemployed actors working in gyms, and people who scream at chunky people on TV for a living. Almost all of us have been feeding you a line of bull. And we've been been feeding it to you for breakfast.”

So how can we rectify this?

OR, perhaps the real question is, if humans are evolved to eat only a few hours per day, as the last few podcast episodes have heavily suggested, what hours should we be eating?

That's the basis to part 1 of episode 6.

SPOILER ALERT: although these findings seem completely competing right now, they actually line up quite beautifully.

Should you eat like a king at breakfast?

Remember in episode 6, when I was talking about eating less frequently and that the habit of snacking can probably be traced back to marketing endeavors? That definitely seems true for “breakfast foods.”

I'll definitely explore marketing and its effect on obesity and our tablescape and foodscape in another episode but for now, here's a quick history of breakfast that basically answers this King question.

Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The History of the American Meal notes that in the 1600s, Americans didn't really have “breakfast.” They ate in the morning, sure, but they mostly ate leftovers. What they ate for “breakfast” was similar to what they ate at all other meals. There wasn't this notion that some item was a “breakfast food” the way we think of waffles or muffins or cereal like we do here in America. In fact, they didn't even have waffles, or muffins, or cereal, but they had toast.

By the 18th century, lots of meat entered the picture, often multiple kinds of meat were added to the breakfast landscape. Carroll notes this was in addition to, not a replacement. So basically, they were just eating a lot more food and rich foods at that… very King-like.

Breakfast then changed drastically mid-to-late 19th century because of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed our lifestyle on so many levels, one notable change being Americans got a whole lot more sedentary. This caused a national case of indigestion -- everyone had terrible indigestion which they called dyspepsia.

Magazines and newspapers overflowed with rhetoric about dyspepsia -- how to avoid it, what to do if you have it, and so on.

This is when and how breakfast cereal was invented. In 1863, James Caleb Jackson invented granula as a food treatment option for his patients with chronic indigestion.

His granula was basically wheat flour mixed with water and baked. That hard sheet was then broken up into clusters. These clusters were so hard and rock-like, that they had to be served with water or milk.

John Harvey Kellogg developed his own version, also called it granula, which he was sued for so he changed the name to granola. John Harvey Kellogg later invented corn flakes, and then marketers like John's brother Will Keith Kellogg, got their hands on it and the rest is history.

They basically said hey you have this problem, eat this instead. Since it worked (not because cereal flakes were magical but because people stopped eating like a King at breakfast) and it was really convenient, it caught on.

Should you eat like a king at dinner?

That's definitely what humans did pre-marketing.

Richard Wrangham (who you remember from episodes 2 & 3) wrote, “like every culture the main meal of the day was taken in the evening, and it was cooked... the typical pattern for hunter-gatherers [is] a light breakfast and snacks during the day, followed by an evening meal.”

To elaborate this point, Wrangham referenced several accounts written by anthropologists in the late 1800s that attest to this practice. Here's one of those accounts, written by anthropologist Jiro Tanaka, who was observing the !Kung of the Kalahari, “as the sun begins to set, each woman builds a large cooking fire near her hut and commences cooking… the hungers return to camp in the semidarkness and each family eats supper after the darkness has fallen… only in the evening does the whole family gather to eat a solid meal and indeed people consume the greater part of their daily food then. The only exception is after a big kill, when a large quantity of meat has been brought back to camp: then people eat any number of times during the day, keeping their stomachs full to bursting, until all the meat is gone.

I found this account fascinating, particularly the feasting part which describes our modern day Thanksgiving practices, at least here in the United States...

And too as an overeater, I must confess that I enjoy the feeling of an overfull stomach. In fact, part of my problem was that I thought I had to get to that uncomfortable point to be truly satisfied or think I'd had enough to eat thanks to all that magic calorie brainwashing I discussed in episode 1.

This also made me wonder… is the preference or desire for stomach fullness evolutionary or biological?

Anabolic / Catabolic Hunger Phases

If you read Eat to Live or have seen Dr. Fuhrman's PBS specials, this next part will be familiar.

Fuhrman says there is a difference between true hunger and what he calls “toxic hunger” which is a set of detox or withdrawal symptoms most of us experience a few hours after eating. He adds that eating processed foods creates this “toxic hunger” and the desire to overconsume calories.

Although I tend to squirm around buzzwords words like “toxic” I'm willing to roll with Fuhrman here. It's no secret that Americans are chronically malnourished despite their overconsumption of calories because the calories they are consuming (largely from processed foods) are devoid of actual, substantial nutrition.

In fact, this has been one explanation for obesity. That although people are eating thousands of calories, because those calories offer only fragments of nutrition, the body keeps sending out hunger signals, telling you to eat more because it's still looking for the nutrients it needs and hasn't gotten yet… another reminder that a calorie is not a calorie as discussed in episodes 2 & 3.

Before we can dive into true hunger or toxic hunger, let's back up and talk about digestion.

Fuhrman says there are two stages of digestion, the Anabolic stage which occurs when you are eating and then digesting, and the Catabolic stage which begins when you stop eating and your body begins to repair and heal any damage.

Using the car example, the anabolic stage is when you fill the gas tank up and the catabolic stage is when you're actually driving the car and burning the gas.

This lines up quite perfectly with the science behind Intermittent Fasting in episode 6.

Zinczenko had a great analogy comparing the human body to an office. If you want the exact quote, I read it at the very end of episode 6, but briefly: most people go into the office, they work hard for 8 hours and then clock out while the cleaning crew cleans up the trash and repairs any damage. Z says the human body operates most efficiently on that same schedule, but if we're eating (working) all day, the body never gets a chance to let the maintenance and cleaning crew come in to do their work. Work 8 hours. Eat 8 hours.

The anabolic/catabolic digestion process or cycle also enhances our understanding of a key point from Wrangham's Energy Theory of Cooking--the summation that cooked food is easier to digest than raw food, and by cooking our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients and calories in our food, which helped us grow better and evolve into the badass humans we are today. It's all about more efficient use of internal resources.

The underlying theme or takeaway is this: eating, or specifically, DIGESTING, takes a lot of effort. It's a big damn laborious deal, so if your body is busy breaking down food, it's not doing anything else. And that's a problem because our bodies have a long chore list beyond breaking down food.

This is one reason why sleep is so important. We basically need a break from ourselves and outside stimulus.

All kinds of important things happen when we sleep, like memory consolidation, but we also have to regenerate a new stomach lining once a day, and happens in the middle of the night… which is also when we are in the catabolic stage.

Quick reminder: the anabolic stage is when the body is busy digesting and the catabolic stage is when the body is repairing, detoxifying, and healing.

Here's the problem: Most of us are addicted to the anabolic phase of digestion.

We like to feel full and satiated. We also don't like to feel the symptoms that can happen during the catabolic phase. Symptoms like irritability, fatigue, weakness, and stomach cramping.

Now I know what you're thinking---didn't she just describe typical hunger symptoms or low blood sugar? I'll get to that in a second.

Point is, when we have these catabolic phase symptoms, eating again makes us feel better because it stops the catabolic stage. But eating again also stops the healing process because it sends us right back into the anabolic stage.

AND --here's the double whammy-- by doing that, we keep reinforcing this belief that the symptoms we felt, all that unpleasantness, were symptoms of hunger. But we weren't actually hungry. We're effectively rewiring our brains in the worst way.

Let me back up and talk about these catabolic phase symptoms: headaches, fatigue, nausea, weakness, mental confusion and irritability, abdominal and esophageal spasms, fluttering and cramping in the stomach are all signs of what Fuhrman calls “toxic hunger” which appear during the catabolic phase.

The more processed foods you eat, the more severe these symptoms will be. The catabolic stage isn't supposed to be unpleasant, and if you eat appropriately and/or intermittent fast, these hunger sensations will definitely decrease.

You might remember in episode 5, when I shared my experiences with IF, that I used to suffer from terrible bouts of “hanger” and that I would frequently wake up ravenous, sometimes in the middle of the night. This all went away with IF, and my best explanation was that eating all day long created a lot of shifts and ranges in my blood sugar, which led to those unpleasant feelings. And by eating larger meals less frequently, I stayed more level. I still think that is true and a part of it, but I also think this whole “toxic hunger” from catabolic phase explains it too. Specifically, by fasting, I was having more complete cycles which led to decreased symptoms--I'll talk more about this in a minute.

This idea of “toxic hunger” from the catabolic phase also helps explain why if you eat jelly doughnuts, you have a massive crash after, and then you feel hungry too, or why when I eat Twizzlers at the movies, I always feel “hungover” afterwards even though I didn't consume any alcohol.

According to Fuhrman, this is straight-up withdrawal and our drug is food.

There are huge libraries of research saying that yes, food is addictive -- some more physically addictive than others. Cheese, sugar, and caffeine for example, but Fuhrman says this happens with pretty much all foods, it's just that the more processed the “food” is, the more drug-like it is.

Meaning when we eat processed foods, our bodies become acclimated to them. Indulging the addiction is pleasurable, withdrawal is not, and that happens when the digestive tract is empty -- when we've sobered up, so to speak. As detoxification begins, you'll feel uncomfortable and if you eat, you get relief. It's kinda like “hair of the dog” with food.

This is that “toxic hunger” Fuhrman's referring to. He says, “the confusion is compounded because when we eat the same heavy or unhealthy foods that are causing the problems to begin with, we feel better while the detoxification process is halted or delayed. This makes becoming overweight inevitable, because if we stop digesting food, even for a short time, our bodies will begin to experience symptoms of detoxification or withdrawal from our unhealthful diet. To counter this, we eat heavy meals that require a long period of digestion, or we eat too often and keep our digestive track busy and overfed almost all of the time to lessen the discomfort from our stressful diet style.”

In case I lost you back there, Catabolism isn't supposed to be painful, but eating processed foods creates dramatic detoxification symptoms which starts this nasty cycle of eating more because we think we are hungry, but we're not actually biologically hungry, we're just hungry for some relief.

So how do we stop this cycle?

Fuhrman's advice is the obvious: eat more wholesome foods. Stop eating food that's toxic.

But intermittent fasting, or shortening your eating window, or not eating too frequently, can help too. Your mitochondria (remember from episode 6?) those organelle clusters are your personal power plants, your engine in the Prius vs Hummer example. Like all other engines, mitochondria generate waste--smog so to speak--and their smog is free radicals.

I'll have to podcast on free radicals some other time, but very briefly: a free radical is any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell. If that just flew over your head, no big deal, here's all you need to know right now: The free radical theory of aging states that organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. I can throw a lot of fancy terms your way like “oxidative damage” and “mitochondrial production of reactive oxygen,” but all this really means is free radicals impede the function of your mitochondria.

{Sidebar: Antioxidants (one of those oh-so-popular “buzzwords”) are reducing agents to free radicals, meaning they limit oxidative damage from free radicals. Vitamins like A, C, and E, can slow the process of aging by fighting the free radicals directly or by reducing the formation of free radicals, but there's a limit to their power. Popping vitamins or eating fruits and vegetables naturally rich in these antioxidants is helpful, but it's far superior to just not have the free radicals at all. Think prevention rather than treatment.}

Fuhrman says that by eating more wholesome foods--that is, by not having a toxic diet, we won't experience toxic hunger symptoms which are basically withdrawal.

This makes sense to me, if you are eating a whole food diet, there will be less free radicals and less damage to repair and thus, less “side effects.”

Bottom line here: Like all other engines, mitochondria are more efficient, both in producing more energy (resulting in less fat storage) and less waste (creating free radicals), when they are properly maintained, which you accomplish by eating whole foods from your meal plan and also eating less frequently--keep your head out of the troph!

Here's where catabolic and anabolic phases meets intermittent fasting:

During the catabolic stage, we have a chance to burn the glycogen stored in our muscles and liver from the anabolic phase (digestion-assimilation) since we're not eating. Meaning, there's no fresh strawberries so you're finally having that pantry challenge I talked about! Yay! But if you bring strawberries into the house and eat them, the pantry stops being cleaned out and the catabolic phase abruptly ends. Boo!

And here's another double whammy -- your body must complete the catabolic phase before you can experience “true hunger” which is why the 8-16 fasting works. It's guaranteeing you finish your catabolic cycle. (Symptoms for true hunger are enhanced taste sensation, increased salivation, and a gnawing throat sensation.)

For a triple whammy, when we are breaking down our body fats (which is the goal for weight-loss), those detoxification symptoms can get even more unpleasant. Cleaning out that pantry is very much a chore, one we want to abandon mid-way through.

And for a quadruple whammy--the more overweight you are, the more awful the detoxification symptoms will be. That is, an obese person is going to feel a lot worse going into the catabolic stage after eating donuts than a normal weight person would feel. And the more withdrawal symptoms you have, the more you'll be directed to overconsume. It's a vicious cycle.

I think this explains why intermittent fasting can be so unpleasant for people, especially in the beginning, and why dieting and weight-loss seems so much harder the more weight you have to lose. It isn't just that you have a long road ahead, but that your road has a lot more potholes and fallen trees getting in the way.

The Second Meal Effect (formerly the Lentil Effect)

In episodes 2 and 3 we learned that a calorie is not always a calorie because we absorb some calories better than others. My big example was oranges versus Oreos and how you probably won't take in every calorie of bioavailability in an orange, but you're probably going to assimilate every calorie in an Oreo.

Turns out there is even more to that -- that eating certain foods also creates a lasting effect in your body that can dictate how much you will or will not absorb or store in the next meal.

The Lentil Effect is this: the consumption of lentils blunts the sugar spike of foods consumed hours later at a subsequent meal. This happens because lentils are so rich in prebiotics that they create a feast for your friendly flora (those gut bugs I keep foreshadowing) which then feeds YOU with beneficial compounds such as propionate, that relaxes your stomach and slows the rate at which sugars are absorbed in your system.

Later research revealed chickpeas and other legumes have a similar influence like the lentils, so now scientists call this the “second-meal effect.”

I also think it's pretty reasonable to assume it's not just beans and lentils that are magic… that any sort of low-glycemic meal can have a positive effect on your blood sugar at that meal, and then again at the subsequent.

Citing one study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “breakfast carbohydrate tolerance is improved when low-GI foods are eaten the previous evening.”

What action can we take from this? if you're going to eat some high glycemic food like white rice, potatoes, or pasta, consider having some beans or lentils with it.

You'll see we do this a lot with dinners on the meal plans such as fan favorite Big Mac Potatoes, Cheezeburger Casserole and Spanish Rice. Even some of our breakfast foods, like smashing beans on toast with avocado, or the very British baked beans on toast, are great examples. Breakfast burritos -- vegan ones with refried beans or tofu scramble, or vegetarian ones with eggs and beans -- are incredibly popular because they are so filling and I think this might explain why. It doesn't just taste good to us, we feel good from the boost of carbohydrates, but the legumes keep it all more stabilized.

Download your free research-based 7-day meal plan at and leave the guesswork and science to me.

For the next podcast I'll be back answering the question, “Are some of us meant to be fat? Is there obesity by design? Have we evolved or adapted to obesity?


Show notes:

Shortcut to Slim podcast cover