July/August 2012 Alternative Health
The Hunter / Farmer Diet Solution
by Mark Liponis
Medical research on dieting is confusing and often contradictory. Not only are most people unsure about which weight-loss plan is best, but their physicians are too.
Recent studies have shed new light on the subject and may finally help us understand a successful way to diet. This research proves what many people have learned through trial and error: Some people do better on a low-carb diet, and others do better on a low-fat diet. This is because some people have the metabolism of a Hunter, while others have the metabolism of a Farmer.
Throughout history, there have been two types of people: Hunters and Farmers. But why are there two types of metabolisms that need two different diets? What accounts for these two types?
First, the idea of being a Hunter or a Farmer shouldn’t be taken literally — I’m not talking about whether you actually hunt things or grow things in a garden. The terms apply to a new paradigm — a new way of thinking about eating and controlling weight. The terms are useful because they also explain in part the eating strategy that’s best for you.
Hunters and Farmers are very different, and in some ways, opposite in their eating behaviors and food choices. Hunters are dependent on hunting animals or finding edible plants, fruits and nuts. Farmers grow crops that can be stored to create a surplus that provides a dependable and readily available source of calories.
The Hunter’s diet is more sporadic and depends on where and when food resources become available. Hunters are naturally more resistant to the effects of food shortages, as they’re better able to maintain a steady blood-sugar level, or to use belly fat for immediate energy.
Farmers are more sensitive to food shortages, as they become hypoglycemic — that is, they get low blood sugar — when they’ve gone just a few hours without food.
The most significant difference between Hunters and Farmers is that they have varying sensitivity to the hormone insulin. Hunters are insulin resistant, and Farmers are insulin sensitive.
Hunters need a low-carb diet based on protein and veggies and are better suited to eating less often, maybe once or twice a day. Farmers need a low-fat, grain-based diet and eat frequent small meals and snacks.
Hunter / Farmer Diseases
Anyone can get any disease, and for any one individual, it’s impossible to precisely predict what a future disease might be. That said, knowing a person’s Hunter / Farmer type can help make predictions about the likelihood of certain diseases. It’s certainly helpful for me, as a doctor, because I know what to be concerned about, what to be looking for and how to help prevent problems in the future.
For example, we know that Hunters are more likely to suffer heart disease than Farmers — as well as other diseases of the circulatory system like stroke and peripheral arterial disease.
Cardiovascular diseases all share a common thread of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the vessels. Atherosclerosis develops as a lifelong progressive accumulation of plaque in the arteries. The rate of accumulation is roughly proportional to the amount of blood flow over time, so direct arteries to the heart and brain along with the aorta and kidneys are especially affected, because they receive the most blood flow. Atherosclerosis shortens life by cutting off circulation to vital organs, and this can be catastrophic as in the case of heart attack, stroke or aneurysm.
Atherosclerosis has been linked with all of the Hunter characteristics including belly fat, narrow hips, low HDL, elevated triglycerides, and high blood sugar and insulin in both men and women. In addition, atherosclerosis accelerates faster as Hunter traits are accentuated. If a Hunter’s belly grows, or triglycerides or blood-sugar levels increase, the pace of atherosclerosis hastens.
Developing high blood pressure can add fuel to the fire, with higher pressures putting more strain on the heart and blood vessels, increasing the plaque accumulation and contributing to a seemingly vicious cycle.
The only solution is for Hunters is to eat a diet that prevents belly fat from accumulating, blood sugar going up, triglycerides rising and HDL dropping. That’s part of the reason why newer drugs like statins and blood-pressure medications have been so successful, because they’ve helped to slow the progress of atherosclerosis. Thus, medications can help, but they can’t help lose belly fat or improve fitness. Without the right diet and exercise, medications are only a stopgap measure.
Unfortunately, the perfect storm of stress, high blood pressure, bad eating and lack of exercise is the environment where catastrophic things often happen.
Farmers are less likely to get cardiovascular disease than Hunters. The predominant features of Farmers are usually protective factors against atherosclerosis — high levels of HDL and low levels of triglycerides, glucose and C-reactive protein (CRP). The protection these afford is probably a few extra years of life, relative to today’s Hunters, because of less cardiovascular disease.
Current life expectancy in the United States averages 77.7 years, with women averaging 80.2 years, and men 75.1. Farmers may do a little better than average, but their issues are that they contract more of the diseases of aging, like arthritis, cancer and Alzheimer’s. (It’s not that Farmers are necessarily more prone to those disorders, but because cancer is the second-biggest killer and Alzheimer’s sixth, they’re statistically getting relatively more non-cardiovascular diseases.)
The chance of a Farmer getting a Farmer disease, or a Hunter getting a Hunter disease, increases as Farmers or Hunters age, or as they gain weight. That happens when they’re eating the wrong diet: a Farmer eating like a Hunter or vice versa.
Just as the shape and physical characteristics of both Hunters and Farmers become accentuated when they gain weight, a slim Hunter and a slim Farmer are harder to tell apart. Even their blood results start looking more similar when they start losing weight. And their chances of getting Hunter or Farmer diseases go down, too. That’s the biggest reason for both Hunters and Farmers to maintain a healthy weight—to reduce their chances of getting sick.
Mark Liponis, M.D., author of The Hunter / Farmer Diet Solution, is the corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch Health Resorts. Take the Hunter / Farmer quiz to determine your type at www.hunterfarmerdiet.com.