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Preemptive eating: Why it’s best for fat loss

Jade Teta ND, CSCS

Preemptive eating is a strategy we use at Metabolic Effect to accelerate fat loss and make the fat loss lifestyle more sustainable. Preemptive eating involves eating more of the right foods more often to control the natural compensatory reactions of a “dieting metabolism”: hunger, energy, and cravings. By the “right foods” we mean foods that have the unique ability to help us feel full faster and keep us full for longer, as well as shut off our desire for calorie dense palatable foods (i.e salty, fatty, starchy, and sugary foods). These “right foods” also have the ability to balance blood sugar to help us stay focused, energetic, and more motivated to exercise. These “right foods” are what we call “fat loss foods”, and the most beneficial are non-starchy vegetables and lean protein.

This idea seems controversial in many circles of health and nutrition. For whatever reasons the calories-are-everything-zealots & the insulin-is-all-that matters-people seem to miss that meals are not mutually exclusive. What we eat and how frequently we eat has everything to do with how much we eat and what we choose to eat at future meals. Here are 4 reasons we at Metabolic Effect use this strategy with our fat loss clients.

1) We want fat loss

Weight loss and fat loss are different. If you want to lose weight it actually is pretty easy, just stop eating and go run a marathon every day. Problem is, you are going to lose a ton of muscle in the process and as soon as you resume your old eating and activity patterns you are likely to blow up like a water-balloon.

Fat loss is focused on burning fat exclusively. To do this you need to stay somewhat anabolic. It is true going longer without food lowers insulin more quickly and to a greater degree than if you eat more frequently. But by choosing to eat more of the right things more often, insulin and blood sugar levels will still drop, but do so more gradually. This helps the body to continue to benefit from insulin’s muscle building mechanisms. A sole focus on insulin is just as naive as a sole focus on calories. It is insulin sensitivity we are after, and preemptive eating helps achieve this in a more sustainable manner while keeping muscle on the body.

2) We are not all the same

Those who advocate only eating when you are hungry are likely the type who can get away with eating only when they are hungry. Those with balanced metabolic processes don’t have the same hunger, cravings, and blood sugar fluctuations that are so prevalent in those struggling with being overweight or obese. It has always been amusing to us to listen to experts in the field of weight loss give advice. It becomes immediately clear which of these experts has the most clinical experience and which ones struggle with weight issues themselves. The experts who have a large clinical practice to pull from almost always have a better appreciation for the real struggle of the overweight and obese. One of the key principles of Metabolic Effect is that we are all different and unique. What works for one person is not going to work for another, hence the acronym of our company ME. This recognition immediately dictates we must develop strategies to help those who do struggle with constant hunger and cravings. These are hormonal sensations NOT caloric ones. In fact, indiscriminate calorie reduction greatly magnify these compensatory reactions almost ensuring failure. Preemptive eating is the best place to start for these types, so that they can 1) understand they can control these reactions through food choices and eating frequency, 2) learn how different foods impact these sensations and, 3) realize these sensations when present are a warning as to the sustainability of their approach.

3) You are no longer a hunter gatherer

The idea that hunter gatherers went long periods without food and therefore it will work for us is shortsighted. It makes sense that our body’s are tuned to our ancestral origins, and at first glance it would also make sense to tell people to duplicate the habits that kept our ancestors lean and fit. The problem is our ancestors did not live in a world where palatable and calorie dense foods were available in unlimited supplies and could be procured within a few seconds to minutes. Because of this, they had built in insatiable urges to constantly seek food and find it at all costs. Lucky for them this took a lot of energy to do. Both the hunger and craving urge are relentless, and abstaining from food becomes almost impossible when they strike. Not only that, the foods you choose when you get to this state are the worst possible for fat loss. The hunger hormone ghrelin along with the stress hormone cortisol both rise when we avoid food. These two hormones have been shown to generate compensatory drives including insatiable hunger and relentless cravings for the most palatable foods (fat, starch, sugar, and salt). It is important to think through how our body’s evolved to function, but it is equally important to think holistically and realize we need strategies that address both our genetic predispositions and our current lifestyle realities. Preemptive eating bridges that gap.

4) Willpower always loses

You can’t win a battle of wills against your physiology. The conscious will & desire of the individual is no match for the impulses of the subconscious mind & compensatory physiological drives. We tend to think the mind and body are separate, but they are not. One little known fact is that self-control is exhaustible. In other words, the more you take on the less likely you are to be successful at any one thing. We humans are not great at multitasking. The inability of the mind to stay focused in the hectic modern day is compounded by drops in blood sugar. Research has shown that the ability to control impulses and reward seeking behavior is directly related to blood glucose balance. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation reported that falling blood sugar levels result in activation of brain centers that control emotions and impulses and lead to an inability to resist high calorie, palatable foods. Anyone who has come home from a long day of work where they missed lunch knows this intuitively. You can have all the vegetables and chicken in the world prepared and ready to go, but it is the burger, pizza, or Hagen-Daz that will be eaten instead, even if you have to leave the house to get it. Preemptive eating is the best way to keep brain glucose levels stable.

At Metabolic Effect, when we hear people say things like “it is simple, just eat when you are hungry” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” or “just choose vegetables instead”, we realize just how far away this industry is from having any meaningful impact on the obesity epidemic. Until we can realize that nutrition is more than just calories or insulin and that hormones, brain chemistry, stress, and lifestyle factors are all interacting in a way that may increase hunger, cravings, and energy, we will not be able to make meaningful long-term changes for people. Preemptive eating is one relatively simple behavioral modification that works in several ways to help overcome these natural compensatory reactions.

Here is a quick guide to preemptive eating; how to begin and how to transition out of it when the metabolism becomes more stable.

1) Eat more of the right foods more often (more vegetables and protein foods every 2 to 4 hours). Never go more than 4 hours without food, and eat before you get hungry. The idea that snacking causes fat gain is not supported by many studies.
2) Monitor hunger, energy, and cravings after each meal and adjust eating frequency as well as protein and fiber concentrations to adjust these sensations with the goal of eliminating their influence. You know you have it right when you go through the day with balanced energy, no hunger, and absent cravings.
3) Once these sensations are balanced, then experiment with modifying food frequency in a way that fits your lifestyle more fully (i.e. go from six meals per day to 4 meals per day). At this point, your metabolism is more balanced, and you may be able to tolerate less frequent eating without negative compensatory eating reactions.
4) Continue to refine the method. As the metabolism heals, you can move to a more normal eating regime that involves 3 meals daily. You may even be able to tolerate some of the more advanced fat loss techniques like 1 meal daily or even intermittent fasting (we have found only certain metabolic types do well on these approaches long-term). These techniques should always be viewed in the context of the three major biofeedback tools: hunger, cravings, and energy. If these compensatory reactions begin to return, resume the preemptive eating strategy which will quickly get things back on track.