The Great Breakfast Debate
For decades breakfast has been touted as the most important meal of the day…but, is it really?
Let’s take a look at some of the claims that have been made about eating breakfast and then we’ll talk about the other side of the big breakfast debate. Plus, I’ll even give you the scoop on my own personal experiment with skipping breakfast.
A Few Claims in Favor of Eating Breakfast:
1. Breakfast Eaters Have Healthier Habits
Current “official” nutrition guidelines suggest that breakfast helps with weight loss and that skipping breakfast has often been associated with obesity. While observational studies indicate that breakfast eaters tend to be leaner and healthier than non-breakfast eaters, there is no evidence of a direct causal relationship between eating breakfast and these outcomes. It’s quite possible that people who tend to eat breakfast are healthier due to other healthy habits, such as exercising regularly and/or refraining from both smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
2. Breakfast Helps to Rev Your Metabolism
There’s been a lot of talk about the metabolism boosting benefits associated with eating breakfast. The idea behind this is based on the fact that when we eat we burn energy, and therefore calories, during the process of digestion. So, after fasting overnight, that first meal of the day jump starts your metabolism. However, studies show that there really is no difference in calories burned over 24 hours between breakfast eaters and breakfast skippers. The takeaway here is that whether you eat or skip, there’s no significant difference in calories burned from one day to the next.
3. Skipping Breakfast Causes Weight Gain
This sounds like a reasonable claim based on the notion that if you skip breakfast you may end up overly hungry, which results in overeating later in the day. Once again, this claim is not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, there are studies that show that skipping breakfast could result in an overall caloric deficit of up to 400 calories per day. While skipping breakfast might make you eat more at lunch, studies show that it’s not enough to overcompensate for the calories skipped at breakfast.
Can Skipping Breakfast Incur Health Benefits?
Let’s take a look from a different perspective. You may have heard of a term called “intermittent fasting,” which has become a very popular trend in the last few years. While there are several approaches to an intermittent fast, the general rule of thumb is a 16/8 hour rule, which means a 16 hour overnight fast, followed by an 8 hour window of eating. The time frame in which you fast and eat can vary from person to person. For example, it’s suggested that women find a 14/10 rule to be more reasonable so as not to compromise hormonal balance.
Typically, the eating “window” runs from lunch until dinner, therefore automatically omitting the breakfast meal. Oftentimes this looks like an eating window of 12 pm – 8 pm, give or take. You would expect that consuming calories in a smaller range of time would naturally reduce overall caloric intake, and research supports that it actually does, leading to weight loss and improved health. However, this may not be the case for everyone.
Intermittent fasting can affect men and women differently, and it seems that women may not benefit from it as much as men. Specifically, menstrual cycles can be vulnerable to disruption, especially if calories are significantly reduced, which can offset hormonal balance and communication between the brain and reproductive organs. The aftermath could translate to irregular periods, infertility and compromised bone health. For this reason, it’s recommended that women who desire to Intermittent Fast should adhere to a shorter fasting window using the 14/10 rule.
Some of the proposed benefits of Intermittent Fasting include lower blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, improved management and or/prevention of diabetes, reduced inflammation, preserved muscle mass, and of course weight loss, but more research on human subjects is needed to back these claims.
My Personal Experiment with Intermittent Fasting:
I’ll admit- I’ve been a bit wary, BUT also very curious about how intermittent fasting would fit into my own routine, so I decided to give it a try. I’m only 12 days in as I’m writing this, but I feel like it’s been a long enough run to at least shed some light on my initial observations.
My concerns before taking the plunge:
I exercise daily, mostly in the morning, and I was worried that exercising on an empty stomach would leave me with sub-optimal energy, possibly to the point of passing out, since my workouts are fairly intense. I used to always work out on an empty stomach, but more recently I tend to eat a light breakfast beforehand.
I often share breakfast with my husband as we get the kids off to school. We take turns frying eggs, making avocado toast, or having breakfast sandwiches and sharing bites. Rarely do we sit down to enjoy it, but surely I would be highly annoyed about having to decline bites, all the while making school lunches for our kids.
The constraints of a compressed eating window seemed a little rigid and inconvenient in the midst of juggling a busy evening schedule with kids’ sports, school concerts, and the like. As much as I would like to embrace an earlier dinner, this is not always the reality for my family. I find value in family dinner whenever possible, even if it’s at 9 pm. The same thing goes for date night with my husband, when we tend to eat on the later side after our youngest is in bed.
Here’s What Happened (predominantly using the 14/10 rule):
It’s easier than I expected. While I do wake up hungry, my morning coffee (which is allowed as long as it’s black) and water quickly offset my hunger and get me through the initial hours. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone that stimulates appetite, is typically released during your normal eating hours, so you do feel hungry, but then it passes even if you don’t eat. It’s OK to feel hungry!
I have been able to work out without any problems and my running time actually improved. Perhaps I was chasing down that meal on the other side, but I was pleasantly surprised that I could make it through the same intense workouts without a problem.
Given the hard line in the sand with the eating window, I stopped nibbling at the lunch I was making for my kids in the morning, or taking mindless bites of the “shared” breakfast between my husband and me. In reality, this was just a convenient way to consume some calories before a workout, which I thought I needed, though it turns out I didn’t. I have been more intentional about what that first meal of the day looks like (around 11 am). I have, however, missed having breakfast on the weekends when we are able to enjoy a more leisurely pace and eat as a family, but this doesn’t happen often so it was bearable.
My weight and calorie consumption haven’t changed significantly. While weight loss was not a priority for me, I expected that I would naturally lose some with a more restrictive eating window. I’ve noticed that as soon as my eating window starts, I can easily compensate for those lost breakfast/nibbling calories by starting with a larger meal. By the time 2:00 rolls around, I’ve typically consumed a similar amount of calories as I would have if I had started my day with a light breakfast, post- workout snack and lunch…just in a different way.
Since sports were winding down and the school year was coming to a close as I began my experiment with intermittent fasting (and the fact that I used more of a 14/10 rule), it wasn’t that challenging to adhere to a 10 hour eating window. If I knew we’d be out with friends and possibly eating a little later, it was fairly easy to just adjust the window and simply start eating later the next morning.
So What’s the Verdict?
Will I continue intermittent fasting as a lifestyle choice? Most likely not. I’ve been more of an intuitive eater my entire life, so adhering to a compressed eating window, while not as difficult as I anticipated, has felt a little too aligned with a diet mentality in many ways. Being tied to the clock felt like one more thing I had to manage and that if I let food slip past my lips even a few minutes before my window started, I was doing something wrong. In thinking ahead to summer travel with family and friends, it would be difficult to maintain this approach and I would likely come across as ungracious if I turned down a home cooked breakfast that was offered in a gesture of hospitality.
On the other hand, I can see how this approach might be helpful for others, especially those who tend to struggle with intuitive eating or have a late night snacking habit, for example. A more intentional approach to adhering to time frame surely has benefits.
The bottom line in the Great Breakfast Debate? What works for some may not work well for others, and there’s no conclusive evidence that supports one side more than the other when looking at breakfast eaters vs. breakfast skippers. Regardless of the timing of what is consumed in a 24 hour period, the top priority should always be on real, nourishing, minimally processed food that will fuel your body and your brain. It’s important to seek out an approach that will be the most effective in relation to your own personal health goals and lifestyle.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if I can help you figure out an approach that will work for you!
Allyson Balzuweit MPH, RDN/LD