It’s a time honored adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. But is it really?
In recent years, the popularity of a dieting technique called intermittent fasting has been gaining ground. Intermittent fasting is typically done by skipping breakfast and consuming all calories for the day within an 8 hour window. Some people take it a step further and fast full days out of the week, eating normally otherwise.
While at first glance this may seem unhealthy, research shows that those who fast tend to live longer and age better. In fact, intermittent fasting has been shown in both animal and human studies to improve cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, mitochondrial health, DNA repair, and brain health.
So if this is true, why do we constantly hear about eating breakfast being so important?
Studies have shown that those who eat breakfast weigh less and are healthier overall than those who don’t. However, there are some important things to consider that can cloud the implications of these results.
First, traditionally people who ate breakfast tended to be healthier overall. Those who focused on waking up and eating a balanced breakfast tended to eat more balanced meals throughout the day.
Second, those who ate balanced breakfasts were less likely to overeat at later meals because they continued to eat balanced meals throughout the day. Eating breakfast also made many people less hungry for lunch and dinner, meals in which we typically over consume.
Those who did not eat breakfast then were those who were inconsistent. They were more hungry for lunch and tended more towards overeating at those meals.
These studies are often done on people who eat a typical American diet, which means a diet higher in carbohydrates. This kind of diet increases blood sugar fluctuations leading to the need to consume foods at regular intervals. When people eat higher carbohydrate diets, they are “glucose-driven”. The body burns glucose at a faster rate, and thus requires more and frequent infusions of these starches and sugars into the body to maintain blood sugar levels.
Intermittent fasting, on the other hand, is typically paired with a balanced, lower carbohydrate diet which contributes to appetite suppression. When this becomes a regular routine, people find that they aren’t as hungry and become used to the new schedule. Because they aren’t over-consuming carbohydrates, energy levels remain stable.
Increasing the number of hours that the body fasts while on a lower-carbohydrate diet increases the amount of time the body has to burn through glucose stores and create ketones from fat cells which drives weight loss. The longer the fast, the most weight will be lost. Far from contributing to starvation mode, most evidence suggests that skipping some meals can be beneficial for weight loss and overall health for most people. If this kind of pattern is maintained, it is an effective and relatively simple way to maintain weight.
Keep this in mind too: breakfast for many people does not mean balanced. It means a high carbohydrate bowl of cereal or a pastry. This kind of breakfast does the body no favors, increases appetite as blood sugar becomes unbalanced, and contributes to eventual weight gain and chronic disease.
It is far better to skip an unbalanced breakfast than to eat one at any cost. (Here are some of my thoughts on creating balanced meals)
Intermittent fasting is not for everyone. I have had many clients who do not respond well to skipping breakfast and feel that they do not have as much energy. For most, this is because they are not adapted to a lower carbohydrate, balanced diet and are trying to ease in to fasting too quickly.
It is worth noting that historically, at least within the last several generations, humans have typically consumed our largest meals at breakfast and lunch. This was to help provide energy for hard work in the fields.
While I often have clients skip breakfast to incorporate intermittent fasting, it may actually provide more benefit to skip dinner. This increases response due to circadian rhythm, but does seem to make some people too hungry to sleep well, which is why I don’t personally recommend it.
My personal preference is to work on blood sugar regulation and metabolic healing first, before approaching intermittent fasting in most people. This means eating the traditional 3 meals a day plus 2 snacks and working on incorporating fasting slowly. For many people, it is a fast to just stop eating after dinner time!
If you have high cortisol and related hormone issues, or severe blood sugar issues, intermittent fasting may not be right for you. Talk with your doctor and nutritionist before starting to fast.
Some supplements do help with the transition to intermittent fasting. Chromium (like this) is good to take with meals if you deal with high blood sugar. It can help lower blood sugar over time which can help you adjust better to fasting. Because you may be consuming less food, it is important to ensure the foods you eat when not fasting are nutritious. Still take care to eat enough Omega 3 fats from fatty fish like salmon (or supplement with a fish oil here) and make sure to eat a wide variety of vegetables and leafy greens and take a good multivitamin (like this one).
There are several kinds of fasting and everyone is different. I’ve written some thoughts on other kinds, like juicing which you can read here.
If you need help determining what is right for you, please contact me to set up an appointment. Find more info here.
If you’ve given intermittent fasting a try, I’d love to hear from you!