Quick, what’s the most important meal of the day? If you’ve watched American TV over the last 70 years, chances are you know the answer. The only problem? The answer might be wrong.
Breakfast has long been celebrated for its nutritional impact. It has been bolstered by seemingly convincing arguments that eating soon after we open our eyes will give us a shot of needed energy. Yet like many other cultural institutions in 2022, breakfast is being reevaluated. So what does the science suggest––will skipping breakfast make you fit or fat?
Origins of a Belief
The idea of sitting down to a hearty breakfast seems like a uniquely human endeavor, but many societies didn’t eat their first meal until midday. It wasn’t until cereal was first promoted as part of healthy living in the late 1800s that people started filling their bellies as the sun rose. The notion that this first meal was the most important arose as part of a campaign to sell more bacon in the 1940s. By then, cereals fortified with vitamins were competing for children’s attention even as World War II sent many of their mothers into the workforce. By the next decade, breakfast was hugely popular as sugary pops and flakes became a staple of TV commercials and the diets of many young and old.
That’s the first problem. Starting your day with simple carbs loaded with added sugar will not be doing your body any favors. For children, the risks are even more significant. Breakfast isn’t the only reason there are two to three times as many overweight young people today as there were in 1992. You can’t just blame Super Sugar Flakey Pops for why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20% of children are considered obese. Yet diet is an important component of weight gain. Everything from portion sizes to not eating sufficient fruits and vegetables contributes to an obesity epidemic putting much of the population at heightened risk for everything from Type 2 diabetes to COVID-19 fatalities.
If you skip breakfast and find yourself loading up on vending machine “treats” or fast food, you may want to rethink your morning routine. One study suggested that breakfast skippers had more insulin resistance which can lead to diabetes and is associated with weight gain. Instead of starting the day with a bowl of flakes, opt for steel-cut oatmeal, plain yogurt with honey and banana, or eggs and lean meat. These all have low glycemic index ratios. This is “…used to classify foods that contain carbohydrates, their potential for raising blood sugar and how quickly they raise your blood sugar,” explains endocrinologist Alexander Williams, M.D. The reason for this index is that some foods take longer to digest––reducing those midday sugar crashes and leaving you feeling full longer. This can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy body mass index. “The glycemic index is based on the understanding that not every carb is created equal. Say someone said that you could have 100 grams of carbs a day,” points out Dr. Williams. “If you had that all in soda, intuitively you would understand that’s not the optimal way to get your carbs…”
Does that mean eating a meal before you start your day is the best way to get fit? Not at all. Recent studies suggest midday eaters can also lose weight.
Fasting Isn’t a Fad
It’s hard not to notice all the attention paid to intermittent fasting. From going without food for one day out of seven to abstaining for 16 hours every day, many have embraced a form of eating that was once almost solely part of religious or cultural observances. The best known form of the fast is sometimes called the Leangains Protocol, after one of the earliest programs to gain popularity—over ten years ago. Advocates often eat less food because they are spending less time eating.
This form of intermittent fasting only allows for eight hours a day of food consumption. The rest is spent in a fasting state. Although people on non-standard hours may break this fast at different times, most people stop eating in the early evening and don’t eat again until the midday meal. Besides skipping breakfast, the program limits beverages to water, coffee, and other non-caloric beverages. Going from three to two meals seems to reduce overall calorie intake which usually signals weight loss. However as anyone who has tried a diet or two can tell you, the body adjusts. Humans evolved from a state of feast or famine and going without food can just signal your body to store fat. That may be why this form of fasting seems to work––eating at a set time overcomes this tendency.
Studies have shown that participants who went on a 16/8 fast and lifted weights consistently had a decrease in fat while maintaining muscle mass. People who fast under this program improve their insulin sensitivity and have fewer glucose spikes. It isn’t perfect. In one study, men benefited from fasting while women struggled to maintain their blood sugar.
The truth is, we are all individuals. If you’re trying to lose weight and are eating breakfast every day, ease into an intermittent-fasting program. Try going 12 hours without food, then 13. However, if you’re a breakfast skipper who has a hard time controlling your afternoon eating, it may be time to start the day with a meal.
Written by John Bankston
- Childhood and Adolescent Obesity in the United States: A Public Health Concern
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- What Is the Glycemic Index?
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- Impact of Fasting on Growth Hormone Signaling and Action in Muscle and Fat
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- Five 5 questions about intermittent fasting