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Intermittent Feasting is Totally Paleo: How to Eat Like Our Ancestors

Is intermittent feasting Paleo?

In today’s society, the trend to “eat less, move more” is everywhere… especially when you’re treating the way you’re eating as another “diet to follow.”

The cycle of binging and restriction has recently come to light as a major downfall of this pattern for modern humans.  We’re always trying to “slim down” but somehow many seem to just fall in and out of the diet wormhole for years at a time.

However, when it comes to Paleo, we’ve never been ones to follow the [modern] status quo.  Enter: Feasting. Specifically, intermittent feasting.

Sure, calories do count at some point.  (You’re not going to burn off 10,000 calories of extra almonds per day). However… once in a while, there may actually be some benefit to indulging.

Let’s check out what a few of the benefits of occasional intermittent feasting…

Intermittent feasting is a major component of culture

Before we get into its benefits, it’s good to note that feasting is an inherent part of our history and culture.  Every society throughout history has had some form of ritual feasts.

Imagine the feasts tied to our world’s major religions, like Ramadan, Jewish Feast Days, and Christian feasts like Epiphany and its accompanying Fat Tuesday.

The word “feast” itself is all over the place – sharing a root with words like festival and festive, not to mention the common saying “feast or famine” (originally written as “feast or fast” but changed in the 20th century) or the fact that we “feast our eyes” on something wondrous.

It’s found among famous literature from tons of different eras, too.

Ernest Hemingway, once deeply impressed with Paris, referred to the city as a “moveable feast”, in that once you visit the city, it’ll never leave you.

One of my favorite food quotes – and one that I used to introduce my cookbook, The Ancestral Table: Traditional Recipes for a Paleo Lifestyle – mentions feasts: “Bear in mind that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.”

While at face value the quote appears to encourage indulgence, Greek philosopher Epictetus (55-135 AD) meant the opposite; he felt that trying to control the uncontrollable is the root of suffering, and that people should embrace an easy come, easy go approach to life – similar to how dishes are passed around merrily during feasts.

The science behind an occasional feast

So let’s just get right out there with this one: there is a scientific basis for periodic overfeeding or intermittent feasting.

Art de Vany, an economist whose research on ancestrally-minded eating helped to kick start the modern Paleo diet, encourages an intermittent, random approach to eating – one that likely mimics ancestral eating practices.

Similar ideas have been associated with other eating philosophies, like Matt Stone’s 180-Degree Health program and Martin Berkhan’s Leangains approach.

Likewise, Tim Ferriss’ book, The 4-Hour Body, explores similar territory, encouraging feasts (lovingly termed “reverse Lent”) every seventh day.

These authors assert that feasting is a critical component of fat loss and overall health.

Like intermittent fasting, feasting appears to have some positive effect on metabolic function.  Many of these benefits are tied directly to the fact that the hormone leptin increases with an over-intake of food.

Unexpected side effects of fat loss

When people go Paleo, they usually experience some fat loss (which is great!)

However, they may also begin to feel that trying to eat just until satisfied gets harder and harder.

This is because when we are in a calorie deficit (which happens naturally when most people “go Paleo”) leptin is reduced.

And with all hormones in the body… another one must rise when one falls.

When leptin (satiety) falls, the hunger hormone “ghrelin” rises.

An easy way to remember the difference between the two is that the name “ghrelin” kind of sounds like the growling of the stomach… and it’s the hormone that cues hunger.

Anyway, by occasionally feasting, we ensure that leptin levels do not decrease so much that we constantly feel the effects of low leptin (and high ghrelin).

The effects of a leptin boost due to an occasional feast include:

  • Increased satiety (satisfaction) after eating a meal
  • Lower hunger levels for much longer than immediately after the feast, due do decreased ghrelin
  • Overall adherence to eating until “just satisfied” the rest of the time you grab a bite.

There are mental AND physical benefits to feasting

Not only are feasts physically beneficial, they’re likely psychologically helpful as well.  Nothing beats sitting among like-minded friends, chowing down on a delicious platter of Paleo-friendly foods crafted with nutrient density in mind.

Feasts are tied with celebration, merriment, and camaraderie.

Not only is eating with others great for memory-making, it also promotes mindfulness of the act.

There are many reasons why someone may eat more when they are alone.  But when we feast with friends, we tend to truly enjoy the food we’re eating because it’s enriched with lovely company, too.

That fills something food simply can’t.

And when our indulgences still involve Paleo-friendly, nutrient-dense foods – well, we’re REALLY rocking it by hitting a bunch of different aspects of health all in one!

That cultural tie to food I already mentioned is no coincidence.  Maybe our ancestors knew about the concept of “wellbeing” when it comes to health long before we did…

How are Health and Wellbeing different?

If layman’s terms, the governing bodies of the modern world have loosely defined the two terms as such:

  • Health” is in reference to the physical body (i.e. “not sick”)
  • Wellbeing” is the thriving nature of all aspects of the whole human.  These include physical, mental, emotional, social, and financial avenues.

The past few decades may have brought us severe decline in health due to chronic disease, but it’s also brought awareness to the nature of well-rounded care needed for wellbeing (and therefore optimal physical health).

Governing bodies around the world have taken cues from this new discovery, setting new health standards to actually encompass wellbeing goals.

That’s why there is an increase in focus on mental health, maternity leave in many countries, and finance classes for adults.

So… when it comes to feasting, they just might be a way to hit on several of those other “whole person” wellbeing categories that sitting by yourself with some Tupperware full of Paleo quiche just won’t do.

When we get together for the special times of the year, whatever they may be, we’re enriching our social wellbeing.

We’re relaxing our minds by being around those who matter most.

And we’re definitely having a good time, hence the feeding of our emotional buckets.

Paleo f(x)™ & its feasts

With all this food talk… I’m getting very excited for this year’s Paleo f(x) conference.

This conference a great time to learn new and interesting things about the ancestral community.

However…It also presents a unique opportunity to meet and connect with other members of the Paleo world.

And if I’m to be perfectly honest, half the fun of attending big conferences like Paleo f(x)™ is in attending the celebratory feasts that always accompany an event like this.

There is an ancestral precedence for feasting.  For as long as humans have struggled to put food on the dinner table, they have relished in the rare moment of excess food.

So after visiting and celebrating at this year’s Paleo f(x)™, don’t worry about the crazy amounts of food you ate, or the fact that you may have made one too many trips to Lick for grass-fed ice cream.

Instead, consider those physical and psychological benefits of celebrating and feasting with friends!

PS – There’s a history of famous feasts!

While there may be some pretty crazy feasting going on in Austin during Paleo f(x)™ weekend, it doesn’t hold a candle to the shenanigans recorded throughout history.

  • In 1903, a racehorse owner conducted a feast on horseback inside a restaurant.  Roman Emperor Vitellius served pike livers, peacock brains, and flamingo tongues at a feast in the 1st century AD.
  • In the Middle Ages, it was common to bake enormous pies filled with live birds, frogs, or even musicians to emerge and provide entertainment during feasts.

Not all feasts have been fun, mind you; in the 3rd century, Emperor Heliogabalus mixed pearls, rubies, and pieces of gold into his guests’ meals, allowing them to keep the precious jewels in compensation for their wrecked teeth.

But let’s be honest… those guests were probably just fine after that, since they could find some witch doctor to pay to fix their teeth for them. ?

A final word on feasting

This is by no means an encouragement to go home and over-eat all the time.

However, at times of celebration, there is always an air of guilt from many people… especially those of us who try to stay healthy.

But feasting is not always bad.  As we just saw, it may actually be pretty great overall when you partake occasionally.

So don’t sweat it if you’re having a good time with friends and need to unbuckle a few times a year – it’s part of a natural human cycle created long before us.

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Russ Crandall

Russ Crandall

Russ Crandall is the home chef and blogger behind The Domestic Man, where he focuses on traditional recipes that are inherently gluten-free and Paleo-friendly.