Should I eat breakfast? If you ask a dietitian this question, the answer you’ll get will probably be a resounding yes. If you then go on to ask why she recommends that you eat your first meal shortly after you get out of bed in the morning, you may be told that eating breakfast helps you maintain stable glucose levels, keeps you from binging on highly processed foods later in the day, gives your brain and body an energy boost, and helps you maintain a stable body weight.
But is this actually true?
A controversial topic
To most people, the word breakfast is synonymous with a morning meal. The fact is, however, that breakfast doesn’t have to be eaten in the morning; a meal that’s eaten later in the day can also be called breakfast, as long as it is the first meal of the day. Actually, any meal that follows a period of fasting can theoretically be called breakfast – a word created by putting the two words break and fast together. That said, to keep things simple, let’s in this article use the word breakfast as it’s generally used, to refer to a meal that is eaten in the morning.
Historically, breakfast has been viewed as a very important meal by nutritionists, dietitians, and other health practitioners involved in the field of nutrition. Lately, however, more and more people have started to challenge the dogma that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Online, you’ll find numerous blog posts and newspaper articles that speak favorably about fasting, in particular Intermittent Fasting (IF) – a type of fasting characterized by intermittent, rather than prolonged, periods of not eating.
Several types of IF programs exist, including alternate-day fasting, whole-day fasting, and time-restricted feeding. Perhaps the most popular one is time-restricted feeding. The people who adhere to this nutritional strategy typically take in all of their daily food during a 6-8 hour eating window, thereby fasting for 16-18 hours every day.
You don’t have to look far and wide to find people who believe in and adhere to IF and other similar eating plans. Some YouTubers and fitness bloggers even go as far as to say that IF was what made them ripped and lean. However, there are also a lot of people out there who are opposed to this nutritional strategy, some of which argue that IF adversely affects protein synthesis, muscle growth, and glucose homeostasis.
Personally, I think this debate is silly. IF is no magic bullet that, by itself, will make you lean and healthy, but it’s certainly not going to make you fat or sick either.
The evolutionary angle
Most of the discussions you see about fasting online are missing one key ingredient: evolutionary wisdom. We can argue forever about what the latest science shows and the limitations and strengths of various IF studies; we’re not going to make any headway until we consider the issue at hand from an evolutionary perspective.
It’s often forgotten that it’s only very recently – on an evolutionary time scale – that a morning meal of cereal and milk became a natural part of people’s life. Our hunter-gatherer forebears obviously didn’t adhere to a set meal schedule. They didn’t wake up to the sound of an alarm clock early in the morning and immediately sat down for breakfast, and they didn’t eat dinner at 5 o’clock every day. Rather, they ate when they were hungry, if they had gotten a hold of food that is.
Unless they had leftovers from the day prior, and were hungry in the morning, our hunter-gatherer forebears didn’t eat shortly after they woke up. They had to get a hold of food before they got some nutrients into their bellies. The amount of time that they spent hunting and/or gathering depended on a wide range of factors, including climate and season. Sometimes, it can take days for a hunter to bring down his prey, whereas other times, a successful hunt can be completed in as little as a few hours.
Unlike some Neolithic farmers, Paleolithic humans probably didn’t experience long periods of food shortage, at least not on a regular basis (1). However, intermittent periods of fasting was undoubtedly a part of their life. They didn’t adhere to a strict IF protocol; however, they didn’t adhere to a set meal schedule or eat breakfast every day either, a statement supported by research showing that many modern-day hunter-gatherers have to endure intermittent periods of hunger and food shortage on a regular basis (2).
This is in stark contrast to how things are like in the industrialized world. A lot of people in the western world have never gone more than 12-14 hours without food. After they wake up in the morning, they eat a meal every three-four hours, a strategy that keeps them from ever getting really hungry.
The typical westerner eats a high-carbohydrate diet; he’s not good at burning fat. Hence, he may get the feeling that his body is crashing if he doesn’t eat breakfast, due to his low blood glucose levels. The solution to overcoming this problem is not, unlike what some people seem to believe, to eat a sugar-rich breakfast, but rather to adopt a healthier diet and allow the body a chance to adjust to the new meal schedule. A lot of people find that they are no longer hungry in the morning after they’ve been skipping breakfast for some time, which indicates that the body has adjusted to the new meal pattern and that the production of hunger hormones is suppressed in the morning.
We humans are well-adapted to endure intermittent periods of fasting. Actually, I would say that we should fast every now and then.
Here’s what a 2014 paper had to say about this issue:
Unlike modern humans and domesticated animals, the eating patterns of many mammals are characterized by intermittent energy intake. Carnivores may kill and eat prey only a few times each week or even less frequently (3, 4), and hunter-gatherer anthropoids, including those living today, often eat intermittently depending upon food availability (5, 6). The ability to function at a high level, both physically and mentally, during extended periods without food may have been of fundamental importance in our evolutionary history. Many adaptations for an intermittent food supply are conserved among mammals, including organs for the uptake and storage of rapidly mobilizable glucose (liver glycogen stores) and longer-lasting energy substrates, such as fatty acids in adipose tissue. (2)
The benefits of intermittent fasting
Usually, when we adjust our lifestyle in such a way that it more closely resembles that of our ancient forebears, health benefits arise. Our eating schedule is no exception. A dietary regimen that has periods of fasting incorporated into it is more compatible with the human digestive and metabolic systems than a regimen that has you eating every three hours from the time you wake up, day in and day out.
More research is needed to make firm conclusions regarding the health effects of fasting. That said, there is evidence to suggest that IF programs, including alternate-day fasting, whole-day fasting, and time-restricted feeding, may favorably impact the blood lipid profile, improve glucose homeostasis, and reduce blood pressure, among other things (3, 4).
Everybody can benefit from incorporating periods of fasting into their daily life. Some benefit more than others. In particular those who are obese or type-2 diabetic should consider adhering to an IF program, in part because IF can improve glucose homeostasis (5, 6). Moreover, IF may help overweight individuals get control over their caloric intake and lose weight (4, 7, 8).
It’s not uncommon to unconsciously reduce ones caloric intake when transitioning from a regular meal pattern to an IF type meal schedule. This isn’t surprising. You are probably less likely to take in more calories than you need to stay in energy balance if you have an eating window of 6-8 hours than if you have an eating window of 12-16 hours, particularly if you eat a lot of low-calorie-high-fiber foods.
Not everyone do well on an IF program though. Some hard-training athletes and other people who need to eat a lot to stay in energy balance may find that If doesn’t work for them, because they are unable to take in the number of calories they need during the restricted eating windows without resorting to eating highly processed, calorie-dense food.
Personally, I’ve never really been that hungry in the morning, so I’ve never felt an urge to eat after I wake up. For most of my life, I did eat breakfast though. Not because I was hungry, but because I had been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Often, I forced myself to eat, in order to get some carbs and protein into my system, even though I didn’t feel a desire to eat.
Today, I eat when I’m hungry, not when the clock tells me it’s time to eat. I adhere to an IF type eating schedule, but not because I think skipping breakfast is the key to a long, healthy life. IF may aid towards building a strong, healthy body, but it’s no panacea; it has to be combined with a healthy diet, good sleep, exercise, and all of the other lifestyle factors I talk about on this site.