In his over 20 years of helping people find the courage and conviction to make lasting health changes, Mark Liponis, M.D., has also seen his fair share of people who struggle. The Corporate Medical Director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., was particularly confounded by his experience with some clients who were not losing weight. He couldn’t figure out why, despite following the same tenets of weight loss—diet and exercise—that worked for most people, some people just simply couldn’t lose the pounds. In fact, some even gained weight while following the common advice to “eat less, exercise more.”
Eventually, Dr. Liponis came to realize that no single approach to a healthy diet would work for everyone because each of us has our own unique metabolism. “There’s a basic misconception that all people should be eating the same way,” Dr. Liponis says. “What the research shows is that people really have different results on different dietary strategies, and the best results come when you pick the right strategy for the right person.” Some of us do better on a low-carb diet based on proteins and vegetables, while others are healthier when we take a low-fat, grain-based approach to eating, Dr. Liponis says. That’s because some of us have the metabolism of hunters and others have the metabolism of farmers.
In his book, The Hunter/Farmer Diet Solution, Dr. Liponis explains that genetics is largely responsible for the differences in how we respond to food. So far scientists have found three genes that help control the way our bodies use carbs and fats, and others are likely waiting to be discovered in our DNA. What this means is that our genes determine whether each of us has a Hunter or a Farmer metabolism.
In one study that compared four types of diets, ranging from low-carb to low-fat, some people lost a tremendous amount of weight—30 to 40 pounds—on each of the diets, but others gained 10 pounds on the same eating plans. The researchers wanted to find out why there was such a huge discrepancy. It turned out that matching the right diet with each patient was most important.
This kind of research underscored what Dr. Liponis had been seeing for so many years at Canyon Ranch and elsewhere: There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. It’s important to match up the right people to the right diets for them—the ones on which they will maintain or lose, not gain, weight. Fortunately, you don’t need to get your genes screened to figure out if you need a low-carb or low-fat diet. Understanding the Hunter/Farmer approach, and knowing which type of metabolism you have, could help you finally reach your goal weight and improve your overall health.
What’s the difference between Hunters and Farmers?
Dr. Liponis coined these terms to represent two different types of metabolism—being one or the other doesn’t actually make you a real-life hunter or farmer. You can look at these terms as describing a new paradigm of eating and controlling weight. Hunters are people who have an easier time achieving a healthy weight by eating a low-carbohydrate diet that’s rich in proteins and veggies. This type of diet is closer to the original human diet of hunters and gatherers, who did not grow their own crops. Farmers, on the other hand, tend to reach their goal weight and maintain it when they eat a diet that’s low in fat and full of healthy grains. This metabolism may have developed when agriculture arose around 12,000 years ago, and people could now grow plentiful amounts of grains. Studies suggest that around 45 percent of Caucasian people have the Hunter genes, while about 39 percent have the Farmer genes. The rest are somewhere in between and do best on a Mediterranean diet that incorporates both whole grains and healthy fats.
How can I tell if I’m a Hunter or a Farmer?
There are a few tests you can get at your doctor’s office that will help you figure out if you’re a Hunter or a Farmer, including checking your cholesterol levels, your blood sugar and your levels of a marker of inflammation called C-reactive protein. But there are other indicators you can identify just by looking at your body shape. Hunters tend to be “apple shaped” (thicker in the middle), while Farmers are more likely to be “pear shaped” (heavier in the hips, thighs and bottom). Hunters and Farmers react differently to the hormones insulin and cortisol, which affects how and where they store fat on their bodies. Hunters also often have narrow and flat hips and buttocks; these areas on Farmers tend to be wide and rounded. Farmers often have thicker thighs and more cellulite, and they get hungry more often than Hunters.
What should Hunters and Farmers eat?
“If we’re trying to lose weight we’re really going to have to cut down on something, and knowing what to eat less of is so important,” Dr. Liponis says. Some foods Hunters might want to avoid are white bread, pasta and rice; sweetened cereals; sweets and sugary drinks. Hunters can have certain grains, like non-sweetened cereals and whole-grain bread and pasta, in moderation, and they can freely eat lean meats, non-starchy veggies, eggs and dairy. Farmers have trouble metabolizing fat, so it’s best for them to avoid fried foods, butter and cream, for example, while some fat-rich foods, like nuts, cheese and meat, are OK for Farmers in moderation. Farmers need a steady supply of carbs, so they should focus on eating whole grains, vegetables, bread, pasta and cereals, among other foods.
These aren’t complete lists, however. To see more foods that Hunters and Farmers should seek out and avoid, and to learn more about why certain foods suit certain people better, check out The Hunter/Farmer Diet Solution. Of course, there are other factors that influence weight, and some people fall somewhere in the middle between Hunter and Farmer. But if you’ve struggled with your weight, it may make sense to rethink your diet plan and figure out whether a primarily low-carb or low-fat diet could help your body thrive at a healthy size.