Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #149: Feral Cat Feeding Frenzy

We have had a small colony of feral cats for 5 years. When four adolescent siblings appeared on our rear terrace one day, we fed them. What happened next was predictable. They returned every morning and evening for “two squares.” We tried to do what we considered was the responsible thing, but we were only able to trap, neuter and release three of them to the “wild.” They were truly feral and were too old to be domesticated. But in the spring the 4th, -just our luck - was obviously pregnant, and one fine day in April she delivered her litter. We found her nest and at 4 weeks separated six adorable kittens, domesticated them, and found them homes. But “Mommy” continued to elude us and reproduce. She also soon introduced another feral, who we think was her mother, to our banquet, and she too was fertile.

To make a long story short (and get to the point), we finally, after four years, have caught and neutered (spayed or altered) all the fertile ferals in our colony and the population has stabilized at seven adults. We feed them at least twice a day and have become quite attached to all of them, even though we still can’t touch or even get close to any of them.

And every year, when the weather turns cold as winter approaches in our temperate climate (upstate New York), I’ve observed that our small feral cat colony knows it’s time to fatten up for the long winter siege. Their appetites seem insatiable, by any measure greater than usual. Ordinarily cats know not to overeat. If they are “full,” they leave food on the “plate.” But their appetites definitely change when they sense they will need fat reserves to survive a long winter. Gary Taubes describes this mammalian behavior in “Good Calories – Bad Calories” (pg. 294). It’s an example, he says, of hormonal control of feeding behavior, just as growth hormones account for the appetites of children. Children don’t get fatter (on a “proper” diet); they get plump briefly and then get taller very quickly. And when cold weather is coming, cats eat voraciously to fatten up for winter.

The temporary fat provides insulation from the cold as well as body fat reserves. Of course, these cats don’t “know” why they have rapacious appetites as the days get shorter and colder. Their unconscious brains function autonomically regulating homeostasis on a daily and seasonal basis. Their hormones “tell” them to eat. It prepares them to live off body fat during the time when they will be unable to hunt or are less likely to be successful at hunting. It’s a survival behavior. When spring comes, and the fat reserves that enabled them to survive are depleted, their eating behavior will return to “normal.” They will need to be lean again to have the agility to hunt. “Fat cats” don’t get the “early bird.”

What can we learn from these observations? Well, we’re mammals too, and it’s only been 500 generations or so (10,000 years) since we learned to grow food as crops and then harvest and store them for winter. This was at the beginning of the Neolithic Age. The time before that is referred to as the Paleolithic Era, hence what is known today as Paleo dieting. But in today’s world, we (most of us, especially those who will be reading this) live in an environment of abundance in the food supply. Our modern lifestyle allows us to shop at the local super market rather than “hunt and gather” or grow our own food supply. The market is filled with a cornucopia of foods all year long, many of them “processed,” which means they have already been “partially digested”! White flour milled from whole grain is a perfect example, as are fruit juices and smoothies. Even fruits, which are primarily sucrose, fructose and glucose – all simple sugars, with a little fiber and pectin, have all been hybridized to make them even sweeter (and larger) than they ever were in ancestral times.

The result: When processed carbs dominate our diet, we eat every day like winter is about to descend on us at any minute. The same autonomic control system that tells the feral cat to prepare for winter, tells us to “overeat.” Not the same mechanism, but the same effect because there is no seasonal change. Spring never comes on this way of eating. We never get any leaner. We’re always hungry for “sugar” (glucose from carbohydrates). It’s never ending – a perpetual continuum.

The alternative is the way we were designed to eat. It takes both an understanding of what drives our eating behaviors and the wish to emulate that Way of Eating. Our bodies were designed to eat after a period of mild ketosis following a meal. It is a natural state. Food wasn’t always abundant. The cycle then was: feed, then fast, repeated maybe once or twice a day. If you do this in combination with eating very few carbohydrates, you will find you can do it without hunger. And if you need to lose weight, you can further restrict your protein calories (to a point), and do that as well, also without hunger.

Our feral cat colony ate twenty times more (by weight) for breakfast today than we did. It was a veritable feeding frenzy. But their feeding frenzy is being driven by the onset of winter. Our society is being driven by an over dependence on boxed, bagged, and “predigested” processed foods that we have come to overly rely on “for our convenience.” It is also with the blessing and encouragement of our government whose misguided advice is still being driven by 50 years of bad science, among other things.  The “corrupt bargain” of government funding, well-meaning but overreaching “big government” “fat cats” who want to tell us what we should eat, and the forces of “big agribusiness” (and “big pharma”) that profit from it. As individuals in society we need to learn to think for ourselves, to recognize what is really in our best interest. We need to learn what actions can lead to health, and then act.


  1. Hi! I met you at the farmer's market yesterday and said I'd come take a look at your blog. As promised, I'm looking around. In return, I'd like to ask you to think a little about your response to me when you first met me. Despite the fact that you spoke to me in front of a pastured beef and pork farmer's booth, you automatically assumed that I was overweight because I eat too many carbohydrates and was oblivious to their effect on my health. In fact, I was there to arrange to purchase bones for broth and organ meats because I am WELL aware of their importance in my diet. It doesn't hurt to ask if I'm looking for information, rather than assuming I don't know anything.

    1. Good point, Sandra. I deserved that 'dress down' for what I assumed and what I said to you. I apologize. I'm also glad to know that you know about good nutrition. Very few do.

      I've never made bone broth, but I 'know' how good it is, and would be for me. I love organ meats and wasn't aware that Sophie sold them. I do buy my both veal and lamb kidneys from venders at that market, and I have noticed that Adams Fairacre Farms also sells many 'cuts' of offal that I have never seen in any other local market. In Florida this year I bought and slow cooked lamb's tails in lots of fresh rosemary. Yummm.

  2. I'm reading this as I sip my cup of tea, then I'll go out and feed my "outside" cats, which are all feral. Our SPCA neuters and gives them their shots for only $15 and I only just caught the last female after she'd raised her batch of babies. She abandoned one of them and I had to bottle raise the rascal. My old house cat has a weight problem, I think originally caused by grain-based food, she has never been a big eater. For the past year I've been feeding her a low carb diet. She has lost a little weight, but more important, she's able to move better and seems healthier.