Pigs are generally considered to be smelly, dirty and greasy. That’s why comparing someone to a pig is considered a biting insult.
But as Theo van Kempen and Ruurd Zijlstra, both agricultural scientists specializing in swine nutrition, pointed out in an article published in March in the journal Metabolites, pigs don’t deserve this unflattering reputation. Rather, it is we humans who could learn something from them, particularly when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
While pigs may look stocky to most of us, they generally don’t have obesity issues. Even when given unlimited access to food in studios, pigs don’t “pull out.” They usually choose to eat smaller meals numerous times throughout the day, mainly concentrated in the early morning and late afternoon hours.
“Pigs are smart enough to eat when it best suits their metabolic needs,” wrote van Kempen and Zijlstra, “but humans seem to have lost that ability.”
Sadly, pigs can’t share their wisdom about exercising self-control with us. But we can study their behaviors and diets to try to discern weight lessons that might apply to us.
Eat like a pig
Pigs, after all, are very similar to humans in a number of ways. We have both historically followed an omnivorous diet, sharing many of the same tastes in foods. Both of our species have remarkably similar digestive tracts. Pig-derived insulin was primarily used to treat human diabetes before the human version was synthesized in a laboratory. Scientists are even working on transplanting genetically modified pig organs into humans.
Also, unlike most nutritional studies done in humans, the studies done in pigs are quite rigorous. There is no nonsensical, misremembered, self-reported data from lengthy surveys that can only show correlation, not causation. Instead, we have many long-term dietary studies where the nutrition of the animal subjects is tightly controlled.
We have learned a number of useful things from these experiments. For example, consuming carbohydrates that are digested slowly by the body rather than those digested quickly, thus preventing blood sugar levels from rising, results in leaner pigs. These carbohydrates include most vegetables, whole grains and legumes, among other foods. We also learned that the pigs’ favorite practice of eating many smaller meals keeps them leaner than if they’re forced to eat fewer large meals, even when calories are held constant. Thirdly, pigs are best at eating according to their energy requirements and are adept at turning calories into muscle rather than fat when fed a nutritionally complete diet with all necessary nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
‘The deficiencies can compromise the way the expended energy is used,’ the authors wrote. “Converting dietary energy into fat appears to be the ‘path of least resistance’; when deficiencies in nutrients such as phosphate impede other means of energy utilization, conversion to fat appears to persist.
The oinker diet
Above all, research on nutrition in pigs strongly indicates that energy balance is the greatest arbiter of weight gain.
“Calorie counting is something we rely on heavily in pig feeding and there is little reason to believe it doesn’t work in humans. Most humans should be able to lose weight by consuming fewer calories than they need for maintenance and physical activity,” wrote van Kempen and Zijlstra.
If all of these findings could be distilled into a diet patterned after pigs (with a catchy name like the Oinker Diet or the Piggy Protocol), it would probably look like this: Consume a variety of foods, aiming for a nutritionally complete diet, spacing your feed five or six smaller meals each day, with nearly all carbohydrates of the slow-digesting variety. Even a daily multivitamin may not hurt (although other supplements shouldn’t be necessary). Most importantly, if you find yourself gaining excess fat, reduce your calorie intake.
“Although a human is not a pig, borrowing data about pigs is probably much closer to the truth than having no data at all,” the researchers concluded.
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