Food Cycling

A comprehensive guide to food cycling — the sustainable way of eating and fasting — with its definition, benefits, procedure and timing.

As a human, you rely on food to survive and to gather the energy needed to perform your daily tasks.

Indeed, you might even have developed a habitual pattern of eating, one which you adopt from one day to the next for reasons such as tradition, faith, convenience and simplicity.

And while you might have taken it for granted, your feeding pattern can actually have a substantial impact on your health, energy, productivity and longevity. 

Because of that, it makes sense for us to talk about the different feeding patterns and their viability, along with a key concept here referred to as food cycling.

Introduction to Feeding Patterns

Because of our differences in biology, cultural background, environment and habits, we can exhibit different feeding patterns in terms of the quantity of food consumed per meal — and the duration in between those meals.

In fact, in what follows, we'll explore some of the most common feeding patterns currently in practice, along with their respective drawbacks and benefits.

Constant Snacking

Constant snacking is exactly as its name suggests: the habit of constantly snacking on something. And while it can certainly be done deliberately, it is more often a reflection of faulty diet, fault sleep, medical conditions or impulse-driven habits.

In fact, constant snackers often have the tendency to binge-eat and are often never hungry. But if you are never hungry, how do you know how good or how bad you feel when there's no food in the body?

And then, there's also the problem of general overnourishment driving chronic inflammations in the body, which, as you might know, are linked to diseases such as obesity, sleep apnea, cancers and type 2 diabetes.

3+ Meals Per Day Diet

Traditionally, we are often told to eat 3 meals a day: one in the morning, one at noon and one in the evening.

And just as some might find this feeding pattern appropriate for most of their days, others might feel compelled to cut down their meal sizes even more, leading to 4, 5 or even 6 meals per day.

On the surface, while all these might seem like a good thing to do, meal trimming in general can also induce a faster breakdown of food, leading to a higher intake of calories than if fewer, larger meals were consumed.

In addition, the mere act of spreading out the meals at a higher frequency can also incur significant switching costs. These costs can include, among others:

  • More time and energy spent on preparing food
  • More time and energy spent on eating
  • More metabolic fluctuations (e.g., blood sugar spikes and crashes)
  • More bowel movements

For those reasons, adopting a high-meal-frequency routine is not necessarily ideal for efficiency — or even longevity for that matter.

One-Meal-A-Day Diet (OMAD)

As the name suggests, the One-Meal-A-Day diet is a fasting trend that consists in eating only one meal a day, leading to 20+ hours of fast a day. It's a trend that is primarily touted for its simplicity — and its lack of restriction on meal timing and diet.

For some, the strength of this eating pattern lies not on its diet but on its potential for higher productivity, since eating one meal a day can dramatically reduce the switching cost of food preparation and eating (which saves both time and money).

And while doing one meal a day might seem like a no-brainer for weight loss (as it's often hard to incur caloric surplus this way), it also means that extra care needs to be taken to ensure that one does not end up with chronic caloric/nutritional deficit.

And just as this meal pattern might confer many longevity and cognitive benefits, if done incorrectly, it can also lead to starvation signs such as stomach issues, dizziness, heart palpitation and lethargy.

As such, the One-Meal-A-Day diet is generally not recommended for people with compromised health. For others, one might not need to resort to this form of fasting to reap its benefits—let alone the strict, long-term adherence to it.

Low-calorie Diet

A low-calorie diet is a diet based on restricting one's daily food intake below a certain caloric threshold (typically 1500 calories or less). It's often adopted for specific therapeutic purposes such as:

  • To lose weight
  • To manage cancer
  • To mitigate diabetes
  • To lower blood pressure

While a low-calorie diet can be highly effective in mitigating many medical conditions, its deprivative nature also means that it's really only applicable to specific people — under specific timeframes and purposes.

Indeed, aside from the general hassle of counting calories, a low-calorie diet can also often fail to deliver the necessary nutrients one needs to maintain normal bodily function and well-being (e.g., proteins, vitamins, minerals).

And if one is not careful, it can even lead to symptoms of permanent undernourishment or even starvation. These symptoms include, among others:

  • Loss of muscles and tissues
  • Wasting
  • Gastritis (as a result of buildup of stomach acid)

As such, even if caloric restriction at a milder degree can confer many health benefits, a low-calorie diet usually cannot be done for long without compromising health and well-being.

Time-restricted Eating

Time-restricted eating is a moderate form of intermittent fasting which limits one's daily feeding window within a certain timeframe. This includes the popular 16:8 diet, which consists of eating only within an 8-hour timeframe (e.g., from 8am to 4pm).

However, since there is no restriction on the amount of food or the amount of meals consumed during the feeding timeframe, the effect of this feeding pattern on caloric intake and blood sugar can vary depending on what one does during the day.

And while an eating window of 12 hours or more can hardly qualify as fasting, that of 6 hours or less might require proper planning. Either way, the flexibility of time-restricted eating is often such that it can be readily adopted with little side effects.

Alternate-day Fasting

As its name suggests, alternate-day fasting is another form of intermittent fasting where one alternates between feast days, where one eats without restriction, and fasting days, where one consumes either no calorie or up to 25% of their normal daily calorie intake.

While alternate-day fasting is often adopted for the purpose of losing weight, it is not necessarily more effective than the traditional approach of restricting daily calories.

And as with other deprivatory feeding patterns, individual responses to alternate-day fasting can vary. Some, for instance, can experience significant hunger and irritability that persist with time, making the regime hard for them to follow in the long run.

Periodic Fasting

An even more extended form of intermittent fasting is the so-called periodic fasting, which consists of fasting for a period longer than 24 hours. An example of periodic fasting is the 5:2 diet, which is a diet composed of 5 feast days and 2 fasting days.

Even though periodic fasting is only adopted periodically, its more extreme nature can also make it more difficult to follow. And while it might confer some benefits not available to shorter-term fasting, its long-term implementation is also not without its risks.

In fact, periodic fasting often shares the same or similar side effects with alternate-day fasting — save perhaps in a more pronounced way. These side effects may include, among others:

  • Continuous feeling of hunger
  • Low energy
  • Low-blood sugar (e.g., drowsiness)
  • Impaired thinking
  • Slower bowel movement (e.g., constipation)
  • General symptoms of frailty

As such, periodic fasting is best done under the supervision of a medical staff, who can play a key role in planning the diet and ensuring that the fasting protocol is effective, safe and sound.

What Makes A Feeding Pattern Unsustainable?

In general, a feeding pattern can be biased towards either feeding or fasting, and while both can be done in a way that promotes health and longevity, both can also be done in a way that causes harm to the body.

If anything, the problem with most feeding patterns is that they are often too rigid and too adjusted to our clock — rather than our bodily needs. In particular:

  • The amount of food consumed is often pre-determined, and does not take into account the potential for overnourishment or undernourishment.
  • The duration of fast is often pre-determined, and does not take into account one's satiety level, activity level and other individual metrics (e.g., metabolic rate, body composition).

From these, it's not hard to see why traditional feeding patterns and intermittent fasting are both fraught with mixed results, and why other feeding patterns are flagged for their questionable level of safety.

But the good news is, there is a way of eating that allows us to reap the benefits of fasting without its risks, and it has to do with the surprisingly-simple concept known as food cycling.

What is Food Cycling?

As the name suggests, food cycling is a feeding pattern based on alternating one's intake of food. It can be thought of as a more intuitive form of eating and fasting, where one alternates between moderate hunger and moderate satiety on a daily basis.

And by doing so, it incorporates elements of both calorie-restricted feeding and intermittent fasting, eating only out of necessity, and doing so with the utmost efficiency.

Obviously, every one of us eats and fasts to some degree regardless of our routine, but what makes food cycling what it is is that you only eat when you're moderately hungry, and you stop eating as soon as you're moderately full.

In that sense, it can be thought of as a form of hormesis, where one derives positive adaptational benefits by oscillating between moderate metabolic stress and "fasting stress" (without incurring malnutrition or overfeeding).

Of course, this means that food cycling is not only sustainable, but a most natural and evolutionarily-sound way of eating as well. And since it seeks to achieve both hunger and satiety, it can also put one's weight automatically in check without much counting.

However, unlike many feeding patterns, the primary objective of food cycling is not about food indulgence, fasting, disease management or fat loss. Rather, it's simply a way to promote generational health and longevity.

And even if it can be better adopted by the different subgroups of the general population, it alone cannot completely negate the harm of highly-processed food and unsustainable diet, which can hamper your health in a myriad way.

Benefits of Food Cycling

Metabolic Flexibility

In most feeding patterns, there's usually some element of mindless eating or mindless fasting. In food cycling, however, the goal is exactly the opposite.

In fact, since you'll only be eating when you're moderately hungry, you'll be training your body to be more metabolically efficient when the food supply is limited.

And since you won't be leaving yourself in chronic hunger, you'll also be able to avoid the pitfall of malnutrition that is common in many fasting practices.

On the other hand, since once you start eating, you'll only stop when you're moderately full, you'll be training your body to handle a relatively large amount of food — without inflaming your body.

This means that when you incorporate food cycling into your daily routine, you'll be conditioning yourself for optimal metabolic flexibility. And when you do, you'll be able to better distinguish between true hunger, cravings, true satiety and overfeeding.

Secondary Benefits

At its core, food cycling is essentially an approach to eating that oscillates between calorie-restricted feeding and fasting, both of which train you to conserve energy and metabolism so that your body can convert food into energy in a more efficient way.

For example. when you fast, you tap into a cellular mechanism known as autophagy, where dysfunctional or unnecessary cell components are automatically removed from the body.

(in fact, autophagy is a principal reason why fasting is now adopted as a protocol for treating cancer tumors and reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.)

And when you refeed (without inflaming your body), you enable a form of cellular regeneration, where senescent cells are replaced by new cells generated from stem cells of nearby tissues.

As a result, when both moderate fasting and feeding are combined (as in the case of food cycling), it leads to a series of adaptational responses that enable cellular repair and confer longevity. These responses include, among others:

  • Decreased resting heart rate
  • Decreased basal metabolic rate
  • Improved cognition (e.g., memory, processing speed)
  • Improved mood and alertness

Without succumbing to the usual side effects associated with chronic fasting such as:

  • Loss of muscle/bone mass
  • Low blood sugar

Because of that, it's not unfair to say that food cycling, when practiced on a daily basis, may even have a positive contribution towards conditions such as:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular diseases

In fact, when food cycling is well-executed, you should get most of the benefits of feeding and fasting — without their shortcomings.

💡 Did You Know?

The Okinawans, a culture known for their high concentration of centenarians, often eat meals in small plates (e.g., in bento boxes), with daily calories summing up to around 1800 or 1900 per day.

In addition, they also practice eating up to 80% satiety level every meal (a concept popularized as the phrase "hara hachi bu").

Procedure of Food Cycling

As alluded to earlier, the goal of food cycling is to cycle between hunger and satiety. This can be achieved in two simple steps: fast until 80% famished, and eat until 80% full (and repeat).

Fast Until 80% Famished

If you are like most people, you don't go to sleep 100% famished.

(and if you do, you might know that it doesn't exactly feel good).

Because of that, by the time you get up the next day, you're probably not 100% famished either. Sure, your stomach might rumble a bit, but it is usually not completely empty.

If that's the case, then you should start your day with some water or tea, until you're 80% famished and ready to eat. For many, this would translate into delaying breakfast by an hour or so after waking.

But then, if you're just starting out, there's a chance that you might not be able to discern the difference between true hunger, craving or expectation of food. If that's the case, here are a few steps you can take to help identify the "sweet spot":

  • Start by moving your stomach around in a circular manner.
  • If it feels neutral or it feels like there's still something in your stomach, you're not hungry yet (since not all foods are metabolized).
  • If there are some slight rumblings and a feeling of emptiness in your stomach, you're most likely there.
  • But if you're experiencing persistent hunger pangs (contractions of stomach muscles), drowsiness or feeling of erosion in the stomach, you're most likely too late.

In fact, as you continue to observe your hunger, you'll notice that there is a short window between being hungry and feeling optimal, and being hungry with a damaged stomach. Your job is to identify that window — and to begin feeding when that arises.

Eat Until 80% Full

Once you have reached the state of being 80% famished, it's now time to shift your focus towards feeding.

Here, it's not a good idea to consume food in very little quantities, since you could easily find yourself hungry every few hours or so.

On the other hand, you also don't want to consume too much food either, since doing so can quickly contribute to chronic inflammations — and the general feeling of illness.

In other words, what you want to do is consume your meal on a calorie-restricted basis, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you'd want to automatically jump into measuring portions and counting calories.

In fact, you can even make do without any counting — just by paying attention to your satiety signals and eating until you're 80% full. This way, you'll be training yourself to be neither overfed nor undernourished (as long as your diet is sustainably healthy).

But then, if you're just starting, you might not always know when to finish your meal so that you'd be 80% full. To aid you in this process, here are a few steps you can take to improve your timing:

  • Chew and savor your food slowly (so as to minimize the delay between food intake and satiety signals).
  • With every plate, practice imagining how full you will be after the plate is finished — and adjust your portions accordingly.
  • When in doubt, move your stomach around in a circular manner.
  • If your body feels slightly warm and satisfied, you're most likely 80% full. But if you're experiencing stomach bloating, increased heart rate or urge to vomit, you've eaten too much.

In fact, as you continue to observe your satiety level, you'll notice that there is a short window between feeling satiated and well, and feeling satiated and terrible. Your job is to identify that window — and to stop feeding when that arises.

And as you do, you'd be shifting your focus back towards fasting until you're again 80% famished. For many, this is a process that can take 6 hours or more (depending on their activity level).

Timing of Food Cycling

When doing food cycling, you might notice that your timing of meals can change depending on various factors such as:

  • Previous food intake
  • Fluid intake
  • Temperature
  • Activity level

Because of that, this means that unlike many eating regimes, you won't be necessarily sticking to a timeframe such as 5:2, 6:1, 16:8 or 14:10.

However, since you would be eating to achieve 80% satiety, cycling between food this way usually translates into 2 meals per day that are fairly spaced out — or 3 meals per day when you metabolize faster. For example:

  • On days where you're fairly passive, you might do well by sticking to two meals that are 8 hours apart.
  • On days where you exercise or use your brain more, you might do better by sticking to three meals that are 6 hours apart.

So that if you're someone who typically rises and sets with the sun, one of your days might roll out as follows:

  • Get up at 6am
  • Have a breakfast at 8am
  • Have a dinner at 4pm
  • Go to sleep at 10pm

In fact, one can even argue that due to their stimulating nature, meals are best done between morning and late afternoon. This way, you can end up with better sleep at night, and better mood, performance and energy throughout the day.

Food Cycling Requires A Paradigm Shift

For many of us, food forms an integral part of who we are and how we think. Because of that, we sometimes develop a strong attachment to food — or a strong attachment to not eating food.

But the truth is, none of that is necessarily healthy for you. In particular, you shouldn't be guilty of eating (healthy) food, because it can be good for you, just like you shouldn't condemn yourself for not eating food, because it can be good for you too.

After all, the key to nutritional health is cycling — not feeding or fasting. Not only is this relatively-new concept evolutionarily sound, but it is also a duality and a fact of life as well.

And because food cycling is based on the idea that both satiety and hunger are critical to health, it requires that you learn to view both of them favorably — and to discard any misconception or attachment you might have of them.

Because if you don't, not only will you find food cycling hard to comprehend, but you'll also have a hard time adopting it on a permanent basis as well.

"In the ideal world, you should not be free from hunger, but from overfeeding and starvation. If that's what you want, then food cycling can get you there."

Anything to say?

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    1. Hi Mike. A movement such as moving the upper body from front to right to back to left will do. It’s a way to become more aware of the content inside our body (since this might not be obvious when we’re physically inactive).

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