Why you should eat like a zoo animal

Table of Contents 1. Eat whole foods (processed foods don’t grow on trees)2. Feed your…

With more than 20 years’ experience, Taronga Zoo’s wildlife nutritionist Michelle Shaw knows a thing or two about the diet of animals, and why we should follow them.

1. Eat whole foods (processed foods don’t grow on trees)

Animals – humans included – are designed to eat the foods and nutrients found in their natural environment.

Processed foods aren’t natural: they contain compounds such as artificial sweeteners, preservatives and flavourings that our bodies weren’t designed to digest.There’s no denying that eating large amounts of food that contain these chemical compounds can harm the body – including increasing one’s chances of diseases such as cancer.

When feeding zoo animals, we stay away from processed foods, even with our treats. If one of our bilbies doesn’t like some medication they’re prescribed, then we might use a little jam or peanut butter to help the medicine go down – but we stay away from sugar-free versions and opt for all-natural ones.

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2. Feed your microbes

Our guts contain trillions of microbes. They have important roles in keeping us healthy, such as digesting our food or boosting our immune system. A variety of whole foods such as nuts, seeds and wholegrains, and lots of low-sugar, high-fibre fruits and vegetables keep the human gut microbiome healthy.

I know that when I’m feeding an animal at the zoo, I’m also feeding those microbes, and they get addicted to sugar just like we do. Years ago, when we removed all the high-sugar fruit from our primates’ diets, some of the animals showed us the effect sugar can have.

Some of our keepers in Dubbo had to be extra cautious when it came to their daily interactions with the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (a species of primate). They noticed they were exhibiting quite unusual behaviours, but they were actually experiencing sugar withdrawal.

Those sugar-loving microbes were driving those cravings, but in just a few weeks the healthy microbes took over and those lovely lemurs calmed right down.

3. Listen to your gut

Feeling anxious and not sure why?

Are you bloated or gassy, or just not feeling “quite right”? Is your skin breaking out? Are you not sleeping well? There may be a multitude of contributing factors, but it could also be something you ate.

The food you consume not only affects your weight and physical health, it can also have a massive impact on your mental health and behaviour. At the zoo, we keep detailed records on all the animals.

Keepers record things such as faecal consistency, body condition, appetite, general health and behaviour.

Be your own keeper: monitor your own mood, sleep quality, anxiety, gut health (yes, that’s poop and gas) and anything else that is important to you. Write it all down along with what and when you eat.

For me, coffee in the afternoon and chocolate after 6pm wakes me up in the middle of the night, while dairy causes my asthma, eczema and acne to flare up. Everyone is different, so listen to your gut.

You may find it has secrets to share.

And one more thing…

The time you spend not eating is as important as what and when you are eating. All animals have a natural feeding rhythm. There are times when an animal would naturally feed and those are the times when their metabolism is high and their microbes are revved up for action.

Some animals, such as Taronga’s zebra, would naturally “graze” on grasses up to 19 hours a day.

At the zoo, we try to replicate this by having hay freely available to them. Other animals may not eat for days at a time, so we provide fasting periods that are natural for them.

For human animals, fasting for 12-16 hours through the night is natural and gives you (and your microbes) time to digest all those healthy whole foods you ate.

Michelle joined Taronga Conservation Society Australia in December 2013, and has over 20 years’ experience in zoo nutrition. She Shaw features in Taronga: Who’s Who In The Zoo season 2, airing 7.30pm on Fridays on the Nine Network and 9Now.

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