We’ve all heard the impassioned arguments about the best way to lose weight being waged between the low-carb camp and the low-fat camp. Which side is right? There is no one-size-fits-all answer because success depends on an individual’s metabolic type, according to Mark Liponis, MD, author of The Hunter/Farmer Diet Solution. The premise is that, once you figure out which metabolic type you are and match your dietary strategies to that type, it’s much easier to lose weight and keep it off—without suffering from hunger pangs or cravings.
I called Dr. Liponis, who is also the corporate medical director for Canyon Ranch, to discuss this concept for this special double-length report. He explained that some people, whom he calls “Hunters,” are genetically programmed to feel and function best on a protein-based, low-carb diet. In contrast, “Farmers” are genetically programmed to do best on a grain-based, low-fat diet. Most women are Farmers, Dr. Liponis said, primarily due to the metabolic effects of estrogen. However: Some women are born Hunters (myself included)—and it’s not uncommon for a woman to become a Hunter after menopause when estrogen slacks off and her metabolism changes.
Compelling research in support of the Hunter/Farmer concept comes from a Stanford University study, which showed an enormous variation in the amount of weight gained or lost by different people following the same diets. DNA analysis revealed that people with so-called “low-carb genes” lost two-and-a-half times as much weight on a low-carb diet as people without those genes…while those with “low-fat genes” lost substantially more on a low-fat diet than people without such genes.
To tell whether you’re a Hunter or a Farmer: Consider these simple clues…
Body shape. Farmers are pear-shaped, gaining fat in the buttocks, hips and thighs. Hunters are apple-shaped, carrying more visceral fat in the belly.
Hunger patterns. If you frequently feel hungry and get weak or sleepy if you don’t eat every few hours, you’re likely a Farmer. If you can go without food for long stretches without feeling terribly hungry but get fatigued when you overeat, you’re a Hunter.
Cravings. Farmers can take or leave sweets…but Hunters generally crave sugary treats.
“The most significant difference between these two metabolic types is that Farmers tend to be insulin sensitive and Hunters tend to be insulin resistant,” Dr. Liponis said. Insulin is a hormone that allows our cells to soak up glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream for use as energy. For Farmers, just a small amount of insulin is enough to reduce blood glucose levels substantially, which is why Farmers are prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). But for Hunters, it takes more insulin to produce the same glucose-lowering effect, so their blood sugar stays relatively high.
SMART FOOD STRATEGIES FOR FARMERS
To counteract low blood sugar, Farmers need a steady supply of carbohydrates—which in turn will sustain energy, keep hunger at bay and make it much easier to keep weight under control. Best…
Adopt a primarily grain-based diet. Whole grains provide complex carbs that stabilize blood glucose. The major portion of your diet should consist of whole-grain foods such as barley, brown rice, multigrain breads and cereals, oats, quinoa, whole-grain couscous and whole-wheat pasta. In addition, eat other healthful complex carbs from vegetables, legumes and fruits.
Go ahead and eat every few hours. But don’t go overboard on the size of snacks—consume just enough food to restore blood sugar levels, Dr. Liponis said. An appropriate snack could be a quarter-cup of whole-grain cereal…one ounce of nuts…or a small glass of carrot juice.
Take more time for meals. Farmers tend to let themselves get so famished that when they finally do sit down for a meal, they gobble too much food, too fast. Focus on eating slowly, savoring each bite, and you’ll eat less overall.
Limit fatty foods. The Farmer metabolism has trouble turning fat into glucose, Dr. Liponis said. When you do consume high-fat foods, you tend to overindulge because—in a futile attempt to get the blood sugar lift it needs—your body keeps telling you to eat. To halt that cycle: Avoid high-fat foods such as bacon, bologna, butter, cream, fried foods, ice cream, margarine, potato chips, salami, sausage and shortening. It is OK to consume moderate amounts of healthful fats, such as those found in avocados, low-fat dairy foods, nuts, nut butters and olive oil.
Include lean protein in moderation. Eggs and poultry are low-fat proteins that the Farmer’s body can readily metabolize into glucose…fish and seafood also are good choices because they contain healthful omega-3 fats. Lean cuts of meats (beef, pork, lamb) are OK upon occasion, but generally red meat should be limited because it’s usually too fatty for Farmer types.
HOW HUNTERS CAN GET AND STAY SLIM
The low-fat, high-carb diet that helps many women keep their weight under control will only backfire if you have the type of metabolism that requires the opposite—a low-carb, high-protein approach. That’s because metabolic Hunters have problems metabolizing sugar and other foods that the body converts to sugar, such as grains, breads and starchy vegetables, Dr. Liponis said. This is why the grain-based diet that’s healthful for Farmers only pushes Hunters toward diabetes and obesity. What does help Hunters…
Build your diet around proteins. True, many high-protein foods (such as meat) also contain a fair amount of fat. But unlike a Farmer, a Hunter’s metabolism can handle fat pretty well—in fact, for a Hunter, a low-fat diet may actually lead to weight gain rather than weight loss. Best: Your diet should emphasize proteins such as dairy foods, eggs, fish, meat, nuts, poultry and soy products.
Go ahead and feast. Unlike Farmers, who need to graze throughout the day to keep their blood sugar from dipping too low, Hunters can go without food for many hours, having just one or two big meals per day and drawing on their abdominal fat for energy as needed. This is not a problem, Dr. Liponis said—provided you keep portion sizes under control.
Skip breakfast if you like. Dieters often are admonished to start the day with a substantial breakfast to provide energy and reduce the risk for overeating later. But this strategy can backfire for a Hunter, especially since so many grain-based breakfast foods are not ideal for your metabolic type. If you do want breakfast, eggs or other protein sources are a good choice. Don’t be afraid to have “dinner” for breakfast!
Limit carbs. Though you often crave sugar and other simple carbs, such as breads and pastas made with refined white flour, they cause your blood glucose levels to rise too high. So can foods you might think of as healthful—including corn, honey, rice milk, sports drinks and even whole-grain products.
Round out your diet with nonstarchy vegetables and a modest amount of fruit. Starchy veggies (parsnips, potatoes, squash, turnips) also keep a Hunter’s blood sugar too high, as do high-sugar fruit juices, dried fruits and bananas. Better: Nonstarchy vegetables (such as leafy greens)…high-fiber berries…beans and other legumes…and seeds. These are your best bets because their sugars are released relatively slowly into the bloodstream.
Remember: No matter how frustratingly ineffective your previous dieting attempts may have been, by making the appropriate Hunter or Farmer strategies a permanent part of your lifestyle, you can lose weight and keep it off—for good.