The Gut Co: Why Breakfast is NOT the Most Important Meal of the Day
If you want to turn your body into a fat-burning machine, skipping or postponing breakfast could be the answer.
While our physiology is largely geared to a feast-and-famine pattern of energy intake, characteristic of our hunter-gatherer homo sapiens ancestors, we live in a modern world where food is abundant and schedules dictate our eating patterns. This dilemma between our modern society and our ancient physiology is not new. But rather than ignore our physiology, we ought to understand what makes it function optimally and try to incorporate this into our modern lifestyle.
Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
Breakfast is often touted as the most important meal of the day and often recommended during a weight-loss regime.
This may have been established by the Kellogg company as a marketing strategy back in 1917 and re-enforced at a later date due to a small number of flawed research papers that thought to have established a link between skipping breakfast and obesity. However, there is no scientific research confirming a direct cause-and-effect relationship between skipping breakfast and gaining weight (1+2+3)
In fact, newer research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2014) showed no effect from either eating or skipping breakfast on weight loss. And a meta-analysis in The bmj (2019) actually suggested eating breakfast could lead to weight gain and added intake of calories. (4+5)
Why we don’t feel hungry in the morning
Many people don’t feel hungry in the mornings, but many of us have felt obliged to eat breakfast, because we have been told: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
The circadian rhythm keeps us in sync with the 24-hour day and responds to light and darkness. This system can affect certain hormones, body temperature and digestion. (6)
The circadian rhythm regulates hunger and appetite and causes a reduced sense of hunger in the mornings and a peak in hunger in the evenings—possibly in preparation for the overnight fast. This could be one of the reasons why, despite an extended overnight fast, paradoxically, people typically are not very hungry in the morning, and breakfast is typically the smallest meal of the day. (7)
This could possibly also be the reason that for many, breakfast is the sweetest meal of the day. Even if you don’t feel hungry, you can always squeeze in something sweet like a croissant or a sugar-laden bowl of granola. Ask yourself; could I eat a meal similar to lunch or dinner? If the answer is no, you probably aren’t that hungry.
Why we are not burning fat
Eating 6 meals a day (3 meals and 2 snacks) prevents the body from burning fat. The body prefers to rely on glycogen (carbohydrates) for energy. This is the easiest fuel to burn, but if we’re never forced to dip into our fat stores for fuel, our bodies will tend to not use fat. We need to re-train the body to use fat for fuel so that it becomes a fat-burning machine. To achieve this, the body must go long enough without consuming food forcing it to use fat as fuel. Intermittent fasting is a way of reaching this goal.
Why we feel like we need to eat every 3-4 hours
Some people complain that if they don’t eat regularly they feel dizzy, out of sorts and sometimes “hangry” (hungry and angry). For a person who doesn’t have blood sugar issues or diabetes, these symptoms are not normal and are a consequence of eating foods that cause blood sugar imbalances, such as too many carbohydrates, and possibly the absence of adequate fat and protein. Including fat and protein with every meal and reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates are key to stabilise blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels are stabilised, you will be able to go longer between meals.
Fasting by postponing or skipping breakfast
The easiest form of intermittent fasting is a 14 to 16- hour fast. You simply make sure you don’t eat after dinner and postpone breakfast a few hours, which deprives your body of glycogen and forces it to burn your fat stores to generate energy.
Women can do 14 hours and men can do 16 hours. For example if your last meal was at 7pm, you will have your first meal at 9am (women) or 11am (men). This is very achievable, as the majority of the fast has already taken place in your sleep.
Does a fast have to be 14-16 hours long?
No. Some people go longer, and others choose a shorter span. The right length of time is entirely dependent on your last meal, your activity level, how long you have been healthy for, and if you are eating food to stabilise your blood sugar. Fasting after a long night of eating and drinking is not a good idea but aiming for 4-5 days per week will have a profound effect.
The benefits of intermittent fasting
The benefits of intermittent fasting go beyond losing weight or preventing weight gain. It is a very promising tool in preventing many diseases and has strong anti-aging effects. (8,9,10)
How to get started
- Start slow. Aim to fast for about 12 hours the first day. So if your last meal at night was at 8pm, you eat breakfast at 8am. Subsequently, you can increase the fast by one hour every 2-3 days until you are at 14 hours (female) or 16 hours (male). If you tend to experience low blood sugar issues (dizzy, hangry, moody between meals), it may be a good idea to stabilise your blood sugar before fasting. This is done by omitting refined and processed carbohydrates and including protein and fat with every meal.
- Make sure the evening meal the night before a fast always contains adequate fats and protein.
- If you are having a special evening with wine and/or dessert, it is probably not a good idea to fast the next day, as you may be suffering from low blood sugar — but again, we are all different, so feel free to test out the effects on your own body.
- You can do this type of fasting as often as you like. I like to fast this way about 3 times per week or whatever fits in with my schedule. Some people do it every day. Others only use it as a weight loss tool. I have seen profound effects on people who do this 4-5 times per week
- When doing a 14 to 16 hour fast you may find that you end up eating 3 meals and no snacks in a day or 2 meals and 1 snack, whichever works for you. I eat brunch around 9am, then lunch around 1pm in the afternoon, and then dinner around 7. Omitting all snacking has worked for me.
Why be cautious?
It’s a myth that if we don’t eat frequently, our body goes into starvation mode and we lose muscle mass. Most humans are well equipped to handle periods of fasting, let alone missing a meal from time to time. Having said this, I have chosen to suggest the least extreme form of intermittent fasting, because at this stage in scientific research, we are not entirely sure where the tipping point is between achieving a healthy prolonged lifespan from intermittent fasting and causing a decline in metabolism. I also find this specific method is achievable for most people living a busy and active life.
As with anything new, go slowly, experiment, and listen to your body.
Who shouldn’t fast?
Diabetics, those who are breastfeeding, pregnant women and people with blood sugar issues should not fast. People on medication should consult with their physician before fasting.
Eating puts a lot of stress on the body, which is a main reason that reducing the amount of calories you take in will extend your life—but only if you ensure that the calories that you do consume are nutrient dense (meaning they’re full of all that you need for cell repair and growth). Intermittent fasting combined with a nutrient dense whole foods diet is a great combination to achieve vitality and longevity.
Author: Pernille Jensen / The Gut Co.
Pernille Jensen is a Naturopath and Clinical Nutritionist with over 10 years of experience. Pernille has dedicated her life to researching gut issues, as she truly believes everything begins in the gut; disease as well as health.
- How lobbyists made breakfast ‘the most important meal of the day’ 2016
- Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show 2 practices that distort scientific evidence, 2013
- Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?, 2018
- The effectiveness of breakfast recommendations on weight loss: a randomized controlled trial, 2014
- Effect of breakfast on weight and energy intake: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials, 2019
- Circadian Rhythm, 2020
- The Internal Circadian Clock Increases Hunger and Appetite in the Evening Independent of Food Intake and Other Behaviors, 2013
- Intermittent fasting vs daily calorie restriction for type 2 diabetes prevention: a review of human findings, 2014
- Alternate day calorie restriction improves clinical findings and reduces markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in overweight adults with moderate asthma, 2007
- Influence of short-term repeated fasting on the longevity of female (NZB×NZW)F1 mice, 2000