In the seemingly endless nutrition wars, one of the latest battlegrounds over the last few years has been breakfast. This has been fueled by the concept of intermittent fasting, a trend that has grown immensely popular since the paleo and primal blueprint diets have entered into the popular consciousness. On the one hand, we have those who are vehemently against the concept that you “need” any particular meal. On the other hand, we have the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” crowd.
Who is right?
Interestingly, both of them are.
Wait, how does that work? They’re both saying the exact opposite of each other!?
Human beings are multifaceted creatures and so the answer depends entirely upon which facet we’re looking at. The best way to get to the bottom of this issue is actually to refine our questioning to make it useful. When people say to a dietician or a friend “should I eat breakfast?” they’re usually asking one (or both) of the below questions:
- Does my body need me to eat breakfast?
- Will skipping breakfast help me lose weight?
Depending on which of those questions you’re asking, the answer differs radically. Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, gets to the crux of the issue with this question:
Are you technically skipping breakfast, only to grab a Frappucino on the way to work and eat a couple stale donuts in your office at 10 AM? Are you skipping breakfast intuitively, simply because you’re not hungry? Or are you skipping breakfast while mustering up all the willpower you have and ignoring your body’s cries for sustenance? These are very different physiological states.
Does my body need me to eat breakfast?
The short answer to this is clearly no, your body doesn’t need you to eat breakfast. For the vast majority of our species’ existence — we’re talking 2 million years, discounting only the last 10,000 years or so, we’ve lived in tribes. That meant we had to go out and find or hunt food every single day. Some days would be lean, some days would be plentiful. One thing is certain: we didn’t have a fridge or cupboard nearby with a hearty breakfast.
If there was anything to eat, it would’ve been leftovers from whatever was gathered or hunted the day before. Our bodies have evolved, like many animals, to go without food, which is what intermittent fasting is intended to mimic. There are a host of benefits to fasting which I’m not going to explore here, but suffice to say that not eating all the time is actually very good for you in all facets of health.
Now, here’s where things change. Your body doesn’t need you to eat breakfast, but you aren’t a nomadic tribesman whose only imperative is to find food either. If you’re working construction or a physical job six days a week, going without breakfast could really give you issues with regards to your energy levels and mental alertness. That could apply even if you’re an office worker.
If you’re an athlete or someone who is very physically active on a regular basis, odds are you’re very hungry in the morning. I know I am. In this case, I wouldn’t be skipping breakfast. Your body is hungry because it needs food to continue performing at a certain level — don’t deny it what it’s asking for just to be part of a trend.
But some people can get by on just a cup of coffee. If that’s the case, have at it. If you can get through your mornings until your first proper meal without feeling overly hungry or drowsy, then there’s absolutely no reason why you need to eat breakfast first thing in the morning.
If you’re trying to get by on just a cup of coffee that has a giant stick of butter in it, well, you’re an idiot.*
Real world examples of skipping breakfast
Pavel Tsatsouline, the famous Russian kettlebell guru and special forces fitness instructor only eats dinner each day.
Wim Hof, the iceman, is the same. He consumes only dinner each day.
Dom D’Agostino, the cancer researcher, eats only 2 meals a day. He once deadlifted 500lbs for 10 reps after fasting for 7 days.
Soldiers in special operations units are renowned for having to skip meals and living almost akin to hunter gatherer tribes in terms of how often they eat, because the mission comes first.
These are just a few, but I chose them because they aren’t celebrities pushing a fad diet, these are people with some serious credentials and physical feats to their name who have adopted the practice.
Will skipping breakfast help me lose weight?
The short answer to this is probably, but so will cutting off your arm. That doesn’t make it a good or sustainable solution. This is where we get into psychology and the hard reality that a lot of people just don’t have their act together in life and are looking for an easy out.
The bottom line is that if you skip breakfast and if the rest of your eating for the day is disciplined then yes, the calorie deficit from not eating breakfast will aid in weight loss. That is a very big IF.
The reality is more likely one of the below:
- You may find yourself extremely hungry 30–60 minutes after you normally would have eaten breakfast, so you stop off on your way to work and buy something that has more calories than your normal breakfast would have.
- You eat more late at night because you don’t want to be really hungry the next morning. That means you have trouble getting to sleep and because you’re still metabolising the food, your sleep quality sucks. That’s going to make you more tired and hungry the next day.
- You’re less disciplined with your eating throughout the day, because you skipped breakfast, so you figure you can spare the calories.
Do you notice something about the above conditions? The thing about skipping breakfast and often by extension, intermittent fasting, is that people are trying to be too clever when they instead need to stop being stupid. They figure if they can skip breakfast then they don’t really need to worry about their diet (which is usually a train wreck) and they can just continue on their way to easy weight loss.
This is what unravels people. The people that I mentioned above, such as Wim Hoff, are outliers. They aren’t special per se, but they live their life in a way that is exceedingly different from the norm. Whether they are more in tune with their body, they have greater will power, or they are just better suited to it, they can skip breakfast and do it sustainably. In physical terms, they are also far above the average person in society. But perhaps the most important point here is that they skip breakfast because it works for them — not because they’re trying to game the system.
And that’s the issue here. You’re not as smart as you think you are and you’ll achieve far better results if you focus on not doing dumb things such as skipping breakfast, or drinking soda, or eating fast food etc, rather than trying to find an easy way out. There are no easy ways out.
If you’re still tempted, ask yourself: am I as disciplined and organised as a special forces soldier? Do I have a level of nutrition knowledge rivaling that of professional researchers? Can I lift 500lbs after a 7 day fast?
If the answer to those is no, then cut the crap and eat breakfast.
When it comes to the research, the message is clear again and again and again and again and again. For the vast majority of the population, you should be eating breakfast. The bottom line is that there is a strong correlation with obesity and skipping meals. Whatever the physical mechanism, the psychological mechanism is that those people eat more calories later in the day.
Remember, you’re not as special as you think you are. The odds are higher than not that if you do what these other people have done, then you’ll get the same results.
But what if I don’t feel hungry when I wake up?
Now we’re asking real questions. No one said you have to eat breakfast the second you wake up. No one said you have to eat breakfast before you leave for work. I know plenty of people that eat breakfast when they get into the office at 8:30 or 9 am because that’s when they feel hungry. The key here is that they aren’t grabbing a muffin, banana bread or calorie laden smoothie on the way to the office. No, they have a proper breakfast, because they have it organised in the office pantry or in a container in their bag.
This is what I believe to be the crux of the breakfast issue. Too many people are skipping it because they don’t have their act together. They go to bed too late, snooze the alarm multiple times until they have almost no time to get ready, then head out the door in a rush with no time for breakfast. It’s no surprise that the rest of their day, in a nutritional sense, is as much of a train wreck as their morning is.
Breakfast begins the night before
Addressing the lack of hunger at breakfast starts with looking at the previous night. Most people aren’t hungry at breakfast because they either eat dinner too late, or they are snacking up until they go to bed. You shouldn’t be finishing dinner any less than 2 hours before bedtime and really, 3 hours is more reasonable. If you get 8 hours sleep, that means you’ve fasted for 10–12 hours.
Even with your body in a rested state, you should be feeling hungry after close to 12 hours without food.
Obviously on a weekend, things might be a bit different. You stay up a bit later, or you have a big dinner at a friend’s house, so the timetable for everything moves. Of course if you aren’t hungry in the morning, you don’t need to eat breakfast! Be sensible here. If you didn’t finish eating until 10pm because you were at a dinner party on Friday night, then absolutely skip breakfast on Saturday and just wait until lunch.
The bottom line
Don’t try and game the system. All those lectures about healthy, sustainable habits might be boring, repetitive and unsexy, but that’s because they work. You’re not going to find some magic solution to your weight problems by trying to cheat and skip breakfast. As usual, this is a case of doing what is important over doing what is easy.
If you want to give skipping breakfast a go, maybe get your eating the night before in order first and see if that changes whether you want to eat first thing. If you are going to skip, be prepared for the hunger that may follow and have a plan — either by filling up on fluids or having the right kind of food ready to eat.
That’s what it’s really about: planning. Failure to plan is what is bringing people undone every single day. Whatever time you end up eating breakfast, have the right food there ready and don’t leave it to chance.
*There is nothing inherently wrong with “Bulletproof” coffee. I call it idiotic because it’s people’s way of trying to game the system. Measure the amount of butter out that you’re putting in your coffee — does it equal what you’re normally eat for breakfast? Then just eat breakfast!