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Should you eat like a warrior?

Posted Feb 09 2010 12:00am
After my recent post about unusual breakfast foods, a reader commented that he never eats breakfast. Instead, he follows a “warrior”-style diet, which involves eating very lightly during the day, then consuming the majority of his calories in the evening. While he doesn’t recommend this approach for everyone, he says it has served him well for 20 years.

Naturally, this piqued my curiosity. I’ve run across a lot of different dietary theories, but none has ever recommended skipping breakfast. Still, any regimen a person can stick to for two decades (while maintaining good health) deserves a second look, in my view.

So I read up about the Warrior Diet online.

The official Warrior Diet web site explains it this way: When you skip breakfast, it activates your sympathetic nervous system, provoking the “fight or flight” response. This is a stress-induced state in which your adrenaline flows, your blood pressure rises, and your need for energy spikes, causing you to burn lots of calories.

Nighttime is the best time to eat, according to this theory. The pressure of your day recedes and your body is ready to absorb nutrients. In essence, we humans are programmed to hunt or fight during the day, and to drag our kill back to the cave so we can feast at night.

Okay, I can see the logic behind this approach. When you’re under stress, your blood flow is diverted from your gut to your muscles to prepare you for quick action. The food you eat doesn’t have a chance to be digested efficiently.

When you are calm, the blood returns to your digestive system, the nutrients in your food can be utilized, and your body has a chance to heal and rebuild itself: the “rest and digest” phase.

But I can tell you right now: the Warrior Diet would never work for me.

A manly diet?

One noteworthy aspect of the Warrior Diet is that many of its adherents are men. The official Warrior Diet web site is very male-oriented, in my view, with an emphasis on peak performance, endurance, and survival. The site’s founder is the editor of a men’s health and fitness magazine and a former Israeli military operative.

Talking with men about their eating habits, I’ve noticed that they’re often able to function throughout their day eating surprisingly little, whereas many women need to eat sooner and more frequently. (This is just a generalization, of course. Everyone’s unique.) When men get home at the end of their busy day, though, their food consumption tends to make up for their earlier restriction -- and then some.

According to Warrior Diet practitioners, this is our natural, instinctive pattern of eating. Indeed, it seems to be the default way of eating for many of us.

But is it healthy? Or more to the point, is it right for you?

You can answer this question for yourself. What happens when you go to bed on a full stomach? Do you sleep well? How do you feel the morning after a big meal -- alert or sluggish? Now consider what happens around mid-afternoon if you haven’t eaten much during the day. Do you have good energy, or do you begin to run out of steam? Do you feel bright and positive, or moody or irritable?

My approach

What works best for me is eating a good-sized breakfast and lunch to fuel my activities during the day, followed by a lighter dinner. If I eat a big meal at night, I don’t sleep soundly. If I try to restrict my food intake during the day, I feel jittery, cranky, and headachy. The truth is, I’m not much fun to be around when I haven’t had enough to eat.

If this sounds familiar to you, warrior-style eating may not work for you either. The diet may also create problems if you have a health condition that doesn’t respond well to feast-or-famine eating habits, such as diabetes or acid reflux. Needless to say, it would also a poor choice for anyone with a history of yo-yo dieting or binge eating.

By the way, there’s a new book out, called The Big Breakfast Diet, which calls for an eating pattern that’s completely opposite to that of the Warrior Diet. So which method is better? Your body deserves to have the final word.

For more on my personal history with inappropriate diets, along with tips on overcoming binge eating, check out my two-part interview this week on Weightless, a wonderful blog about eating disorder recovery and healthy body image.
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