This article first appeared in mindbodygreen.com and is written by Brant Secunda
The act of eating, for our ancient ancestors, was primarily to nourish the body and give it strength to carry on the daily functions in life. Eating for social reasons and for enjoyment was secondary. When food was plentiful, in the autumn, our ancestors ate as much as they could, storing up fat for the long, lean winter months that lay ahead.
Because food scarcity during the frigid winter triggered their body’s survival response to low food supply, their metabolic rate slowed down to help conserve energy. In the spring, when food was in abundant supply again, our ancestors ate moderate amounts frequently, a change in behavioral eating that gave their body the message that it could rev up the metabolism and there was no longer need to store fat.
Since those ancient times, our bodies have changed very little. What has changed dramatically, however, is the availability of our food supply and our eating habits. The way we consume food today has a lot more to do with emotional satisfaction than energy replenishment.
What if we were to eat like our ancestors and adopt “functional eating?” By learning how our body is genetically programmed to react to the amount and type of food we eat, we can eat in a way that’s more harmonious with our physical needs. Functional eating makes the body feel great and function optimally.
Here are 12 functional eating strategies that will help you lose weight and feel more balanced, healthy, and energetic:
1. Eat often.
In terms of survival genetics, eating small amounts of healthy foods throughout the day tells your brain that the food supply is plentiful, so it’s okay to burn through those calories quickly.
2. Eat small meals and snacks.
If you think eating a giant heap of grains, beans, and vegetables is wise, think again. Eating too many calories in one meal — even if they’re healthy calories — sends your brain the message that leaner times must be around the corner, so those calories will get stored as fat.
3. Eat good-looking food.
Visually appealing food sends messages to the brain that allow your body to absorb and utilize it much better than the same food presented in an unappealing form.
4. Don’t skip meals.
Don’t skip meals so you can have that piece of chocolate cake later. Your body responds as if it’s facing a food shortage and your metabolism slows way down to prevent you from starving.
5. Enjoy healthy fat.
Eating the right amount of fat helps you burn fat, but eating too little fat has the opposite effect. Studies show that people on low-fat diets often put on extra body fat because they replace fat with carbohydrate calories, which get stored in the body as fat and depress fat burning.
6. Keep blood sugar steady.
If you eat simple carbohydrates or high glycemic foods, such as fruit juices, refined grain products, or sugary snacks, your body releases insulin, which converts extra sugar in the blood into fat, and then stores it in all the places you’d rather not have extra padding.
7. Hydrate often.
Water is an important health food. The body needs water for virtually all of its functions. Drinking plenty of water will flush your body of toxins, keep your skin fresh, and help you eat less.
8. Fiber up.
Prevent blood sugar highs and lows by eating carbohydrates that are absorbed slowly and have their naturally occurring fiber still intact. Examples are whole grains, legumes, and fruits such as apples and berries.
9. Don’t skip the protein.
Eating the right amount of complete protein for your weight and activity level stabilizes blood sugar, enhances concentration, and keeps you lean and strong. A complete protein is any animal and dairy product or a grain plus a legume (such as whole grain bread with nut butter, or corn tortilla with beans). Our book has a formula to calculate your own daily protein needs.
10. Vary your diet.
Our ancestors ate as many varied foods as they could find in their environment. To absorb the most nutrients, eat real greens (dark leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collards) and other colorful fruits and vegetables (orange/yellow, red, blue/purple, and white).
11. Slow down.
Eating slowly gives the food time to start digesting and moving out into your body. This helps your body send signals to your brain, telling it to stop when you’ve truly had enough.
12. Eat gratefully.
Our ancestors had a profound relationship with their food — they hunted it, gathered it, planted it, picked it, and stored it. For us, food is abundant, so we take it for granted. That’s why we overeat, eat unhealthfully, or eat for reasons other than for nourishment. One way to regain your ancient connection to food is to be grateful for it and give thanks before you eat.
Shaman-healer Brant Secunda, along with six-time Hawaiian Ironman champion Mark Allen, teaches seminars worldwide on fitness, health, and well-being.