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The Case for Not Eating Breakfast

Habits

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or a health professional of any kind. Don’t take anything in this post as official advice: I’m just documenting an experiment I’ve been trying.

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? For years I assumed it was. When I was a kid, I vividly remember a public service announcement starring Bill Cosby in which he illustrated how, if you don’t start the day with a good breakfast, you “run out of gas.” (Sadly, YouTube has failed me in finding that clip. Maybe my memory has glitched and it wasn’t Bill Cosby. Someone else on the Internet thinks it was O.J. Simpson.) Also, it just seems like common sense: food is fuel, and if you don’t fuel up at the start of the day, you won’t have any energy.

Except that I’ve been skipping breakfast most days for weeks now, and if anything I’m more energized–and freakishly, less hungry!–in the mornings. What gives?

Tempting ourselves because we’re not hungry?
About six weeks ago, I tweeted about  an article called “The Breakfast Myth” in which J. Stanton makes some thought-provoking points about breakfast. One that particularly struck me is how much breakfast often resembles dessert or snacks: it features sugary, starchy, and fatty foods like sweet cereals, pastries, sweetened yogurt, pancakes or waffles or french toast with syrup, toast with butter, bagels, granola, or even sweetened “protein bars.” True, there’s always the traditional fat-and-protein breakfast of eggs and bacon or the like, but at least here in the U.S., the snack/dessert breakfast seems to predominate.

There are a lot of different conclusions we could try to make from this information, but Stanton’s struck a chord with me: the reason we’re eating these treat-like foods for breakfast could be that we’re not really hungry in the morning, and so especially tempting foods are the only thing that can get us interested in eating. Sure, we’re used to having a meal at that time, and out of habit (both mental and physical) we expect to munch on something soon after we get up, but are our bodies really clamoring for food?

I can’t speak for anyone else’s body, but it appears that my body isn’t. In the past six weeks, I decided I would only eat breakfast in the morning if I were actually hungry. As a result, I find I eat breakfast, on average, maybe twice a week. I seem to be more likely to be hungry in the morning if I’ve had an intense workout the night before or (interestingly) if I’ve had a lot of sugar the night before–something I try to avoid.

I do sometimes feel mildly queasy for short periods during the morning, but this hasn’t felt like much of a problem. I’ve also found that sometimes when I feel as though I might be hungry, I’m actually thirsty, and some water hits the spot wonderfully.

The history of breakfast
Ever wonder where that saying “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” came from? Stanton answers that question (I was also able to find some evidence to support his conclusion), and the answer isn’t some nutritional authority or medical association. Did you ever read Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis” (“Die Verwandlung“), in which a young man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover he’s turned into a giant cockroach? It appears to come from that story. The earliest appearance of that statement appears to be this passage:

The washing up from breakfast lay on the table; there was so much of it because, for Gregor’s father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day and he would stretch it out for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers.

Gregor’s father is not especially demonstrating good nutrition or productive habits. He’s not making a general statement about human physiology. He’s not even an actual person! So let’s throw that one away right along with “It takes 21 days to form a habit” (it doesn’t: see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).

Stanton suggests that humans didn’t evolve to eat breakfast because early humans wouldn’t have had anything lying around to eat when they woke up. That seems like a bit of a stretch to me: why not have a few berries or a root or some smoked antelope haunch sitting by, as long as you have a fire to keep the predators away? Whether I have an evolutionary explanation or not, though, I’ll go with my gut–literally. Generally speaking, it says it doesn’t want breakfast.

Other problems that didn’t come up
Some problems you might expect to see with leaving out breakfast haven’t materialized for me. As I mentioned, I have at least as much energy as when I ate breakfast, and possibly more. This may have to do with how we metabolize sugars (and starches, which break down into sugars): they can cause insulin spikes in our bodies that clean out all the sugars and can lead to a sugar crash, not to mention the mid-morning munchies (which I also haven’t had when skipping breakfast). I haven’t been eating more later in the day, either: so far, I have yet to find any ill effects at all. There have been studies, too, to try to determine whether people who miss breakfast make up the calories by eating more later in the day. As a rule, it turns out, they really don’t.

I should mention that by hungry I don’t necessarily mean I want something to eat–I mean that my body is actually asking me for nutrition. If some morning I start hankering after, say, toasted maple bread with marmalade, I just ask myself “Would you still want something to eat if it were some beans, or baked chicken breast?” Usually, the answer is no. Apparently, in those situations, my mouth just wants something entertaining to munch on. I generally don’t oblige it. Taste bud boredom is not the same thing as hunger.

But what if I like breakfast?
Of course, there’s no reason to give up on breakfast if it’s working out perfectly well in your life. If you’re happy with your nutrition and your morning routine, especially if breakfast gives you a little quality time with the family or something like that, then I say hey, bring on the English muffins.

On the other hand, maybe you’d like to lose some weight, or your mornings are very hectic and tied up in large part with making, eating, and cleaning up after breakfast. Alternatively, maybe you just want to see how you feel if you don’t eat breakfast. In that case, you might consider giving a no-breakfast-unless-you’re-actually-hungry approach a try.

Better breakfasts
Another alternative to consider is healthier breakfasts, especially ones that don’t have much in the way of sugars and starches and instead emphasize protein and fiber, perhaps with a modest amount of healthy fat. This rules out most of the traditional breakfasts and instead suggests things we’d be more likely to think of as dinners: meat, fish, poultry, other kinds of protein (like soy and seitan), some dairy, beans, and vegetables. Eggs are still in, and nuts work to some extent, although they have a lot more fat for the amount of protein they offer than some other protein sources and therefore are something that’s best eaten in moderation.

I started eating these kinds of “dinner” breakfasts when I tried Tim Ferriss’ “slow carb” approach to eating (which gave me some new nutritional tricks, but which overall I can’t really recommend), and I’ve certainly found I’ve been more satisfied by them and more energetic throughout the day than with sugar-and-starch-heavy breakfasts. Beans especially are great to have at multiple meals (though don’t eat the liquid they’re cook in, so as not to have to experience the traditional complications) because they offer vitamins, minerals, and plenty of protein and fiber to help keep hunger away for a good long while.

I have to admit, I rarely felt hungry in advance for a breakfast of, say, fish, kale, and lentils–but I almost always found once I started to dig in that I really enjoyed the food. On reflection, it doesn’t surprise me that I wasn’t hungry for them, since it appears I’m not especially hungry at all in the mornings; I had been used to the “treats for breakfast” mentality. Perhaps if I’d been raised in Japan, my stomach might think differently.

A Japanese breakfast

I’ve said already that I don’t have any credentials as a nutritionist or physician, and I’ll repeat that now just for emphasis. Who knows? Skipping breakfast may be the quickest route to some terrible disease. However, I’m betting the opposite, that listening to my body and not eating in the morning if I’m not hungry is going to be the most healthful approach I can take. For you, I wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, but here’s to whatever your healthiest breakfast turns out to be, whether that’s a traditional one, protein and vegetables, or nothing at all.

UPDATE: After a couple of months of experimentation, it seems that for me, at least, skipping breakfast results in plenty of energy and low hunger, but overall to conflict with even minor weight loss. It might be due to other factors, but when I tried to lose five pounds while skipping breakfast, I found the scale just didn’t budge. Please don’t take that as some kind of final determination in either direction, but it’s a bit of extra grist for the mill. These days I skip or eat breakfast as it suits me, and I don’t have the anxiety about skipping it that I used to when I do skip.

Top photo by lesleychoa
Japanese breakfast photo by herrolm 

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Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople

Resources

A screenshot of part of the Nutrition Tracker tool at SparkPeople

Ever since I started seriously working on my own fitness back in 2005, I have kept track of what I eat, my weight, and how much I exercise in little notebooks that I carry around with me, at least most of the time. Recently, though, a friend showed me SparkPeople, a free nutrition and fitness site. SparkPeople allows users to track what they eat, how much they exercise, and what kind of exercise they do (including both cardio and strength training categories), weight, measurements, and other fitness metrics. It’s well-suited both to weight loss and to other fitness goals and offers charts and totals of helpful values like calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals, calories burned in exercise, and more. There are other features I haven’t used extensively, including recipes, forums, goal-setting, and tracking how much water you drink. All of these features are free; to the best of my knowledge there are no paid membership options on the site. SparkPeople is supported by noticeable but well-behaved advertising.

Personally the most useful feature for me is the Nutrition Tracker, where I can tap into a very large database of foods and record exactly what I’m eating in as precise amounts as I can figure out. This allows me to receive detailed nutritional reporting. The tracking on this site takes me a little longer than my notebook method because I previously counted only calories, and I had memorized the calorie counts of most foods I ate, but it has several benefits. One is that it gives me much more information than I had on my own, protein and cholesterol totals being especially useful to me. Another is that, interestingly, I feel compelled to track everything every day–even on the days when I exceed my calorie goal, when the total is less appealing–because if I track a partial day, it feels like I’m being misleading: it would appear that I had only eaten however many things I tracked instead of that I stopped tracking. Using my paper system, there were days that I didn’t track. I like this slight extra incentive to be consistent.

A third benefit is that I’m forced to write down the specific foods I eat rather than, for instance, writing “omelette” and estimating total calories: my numbers are more precise using this system.

While I find some of the tools a little cumbersome–speaking as a techie, for instance, I’d love to see the tool for adding foods integrated into the Nutrition Tracker page as an iFrame–all in all they have been fairly easy to use and quite useful. Of course you have to have access to the Internet to update the system, but they have a good mobile phone interface that I’ve barely used but that might do the trick for people who don’t always have access to a computer.

Speaking about motivation specifically, notice that this site provides some key pieces: one is supporting detailed tracking and regular review of tracked information, which is a rudimentary feedback loop (a more sophisticated feedback loop would just add free-form discussion or journaling about what led to good and bad outcomes and how to change or stick with behaviors for best results in future). Another is the community that’s available there for encouragement and cameraderie. Yet another is focusing attention on nutrition and exercise issues, since more attention often translates to more and better motivation.

Since there are a lot of features on this extensive site that I haven’t used, I hope other SparkPeople users will post their impressions and tips in comments.

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Where Hunger Comes From

Strategies and goals

hungryHunger is a widely misunderstood feeling: we tend to think that it’s our stomachs that are mainly responsible for making us feel hungry; that hunger is a signal that something’s wrong in the body and needs to be fixed; that hunger is painful; and that hunger means the body needs food. All of these can be true in some situations, but all can also be misleading or false.

In this article and its follow-up (“24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry”), I’ll be focusing on causes of and solutions to hunger, for those readers interested in improving health and promoting fitness.

Where hunger starts
The thing we call “hunger” is actually a variety of interrelated sensations and physiological processes. These include:

  • The familiar signals from an empty stomach
  • Low blood sugar levels, which can cause sugar cravings. Ironically, these can be caused by eating sugary foods (see the follow-up article on anti-hunger techniques for more on this)
  • Physiology, especially the hormone leptin, which appears to have more to do with hunger than either stomach signals or blood sugar levels
  • Emotions: habits of using food to distract ourselves from negative emotions (including eating “comfort foods”) and other kinds of emotional eating can cause us to desire food even when there are no signals in our bodies calling for it
  • Circadian rhythms: Our bodies are accustomed to eating at specific times during the day. If we eat at a particular time consistently for even a short while, our bodies will start reminding us each day of that being “feeding time”
  • Social factors: In many situations, it’s polite to eat when other people are eating, for instance when meeting someone at a restaurant. Often we eat during these times even if we have no need for food
  • Habits and unexamined reactions, for example eating a piece of cake whenever someone puts cake out at the office, eating snacks at parties (even if it’s not expected socially, as it often is), or snacking whenever sitting down to watch TV or a movie

The evolution of hunger
It can help put hunger in perspective to realize that throughout the great majority of human development, almost all of our diet was made up of fresh plant foods, meat, fish, and poultry. The occasional honeycomb or small harvest of wild grain would provide an unusual burst of carbs, but staples of our diet in modern times, like bread (especially white bread), soda, candy, pastries, ice cream, and so on are so far out of the norm of what the first humans of our kind had available to eat, it’s hard to imagine what they would even think of them. Add to this the comparative ease with which most of us can get our hands on as much food as we want (or at least much more than we need), and it’s not entirely surprising that we have so many problems around the world with obesity: the foods we tend to eat are very different from what we evolved to eat.

What do you mean, “hunger isn’t painful”?
While we’re used to thinking of hunger as physically painful, it generally isn’t. We do tend to think negatively about hunger sensations, but only in extreme circumstances does hunger actually result in actual pain signals. Hunger’s usual feelings are more like mild physical discomfort, which can become a stronger psychological discomfort when we tell ourselves that we need some food. Yet when we reflect on the many causes of hunger, it immediately becomes clear that hunger is not a direct signal telling us our body needs nutrition.

Separating hunger from a decision to eat
In order for a person to change long-standing eating habits, it’s necessary to separate feelings of hunger from a decision to eat. Regardless of hunger, it’s essential to get regular nutrition with protein, fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and even some fat. Provided we have the minimum amounts of those we need–which we can achieve without excessive calories by eating highly nutritious foods–any other food we eat is unlikely to help us and fairly likely to harm our goals, if we’re pursuing weight loss.

In changing eating habits, it helps to lay down some rules. Tracking everything you eat is an excellent one to adopt, for reasons explained in this article. Another might be to eat only at designated times, and not at all after a certain time in the evening. Rules can be more helpful here than simple guidelines or intentions (see How Making Rules Can Improve Willpower). Another helpful mindset change is to try to think of eating in terms of the question “What food does my body need?” instead of the question “What can I get away with eating?”.

The follow-up article to this one lists 24 ways to stop feeling hungry, based on research and the real-life experience of successful weight controllers.

Photo by Gilmoth

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