To Eat Breakfast, or to Skip Breakfast?? And why breakfast can make some people hungrier.
“You can’t skip breakfast!!. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. We hear it all the time. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that proves a wide range of benefits for eating breakfast every day. Conventional wisdom tells us it can help to jump start our metabolism (what does that actually mean?!!) and help us lose weight. It has become another nutritional ‘given’ that is accepted as common knowledge, like the “saturated fat causes heart disease” mantra. The average person who has a vague interest in their health or weight will generally gather advice from the usual suspects of sources such as popular magazines, newspapers and mainstream nutritional “experts”. Just replace “mainstream” with “dinosaur” and that will give you an indication of where their research comes from.

What about people who don’t actually want breakfast?

And then the other side of the coin is reality. The reality that I am constantly exposed to in clinical practice. And it sounds like this: “But breakfast actually makes me hungrier”….and “I just don’t feel hungry in the morning”, and “I’m not ready for breakfast until later”. A lot of these people also experience cravings shortly (30mins – 2 hrs or so) after eating breakfast. It’s as if they never ate. If this is you, you are definitely not alone. This is something that I have always been able to relate to myself. Ever since I was a child, I have struggled to eat breakfast. After 4 years of nutrition training, I managed to force myself to eat smoothies and superfood breakfasts but it always felt like I was responding to something I had been told by ‘experts’ rather than responding to what my body required. I literally had to force it down. What I have also found to be even more paradoxical over the years is the fitter I have become, the less able I am to eat breakfast. And the fact of the matter was, I was meeting more people who struggled to eat breakfast than those who didn’t. These people had much more stable blood sugar levels throughout the day if they skipped breakfast. A paradox indeed, it seemed, after all I had learnt. It didn’t make sense. So I spent a very long time trawling through the good and the bad research to try and understand the biochemical mechanisms behind this phenomenon. There had to be a reason for it.

An important point to note here is that this is not an issue of food selection. We know that generally, cereal is a bad choice for breakfast and this will usually cause post-breakfast hunger or cravings between 30mins-2 hours afterwards. But the situation I am referring to is not food specific. So people like myself have tried the protein only approach and still it does not work well for them. Why is this?

It’s about hormones again!

Well it’s to do with the hormones cortisol and insulin and your Circadian rhythm. The word Circadian comes from the Latin Circa (around) and Dies (day). It’s your natural, internal body clock that corresponds with your biological processes and is influenced by your environment (eg daylight). Cortisol (which is a stress hormone) levels in a healthy person are at their peak upon waking and then gradually decline throughout the day until they reach a low plateau around 6pm onwards. The morning peak in Cortsol on arising is termed the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR). It continues to rise as you stumble out of bed, head downstairs or into the shower and try to remember what day of the week it is. It usually reaches its peak about 30-45mins after rising which probably coincides with breakfast. The morning cortisol response is designed to jump start your cellular activity from a state of rest and repair to a state of alertness and rapid response. Cortisol increases sensory perception, wakefulness, pain tolerance, improves muscle and glucose metabolism and is our potent natural anti-inflammatory hormone.

What is significant is the morning Cortisol peak has an impact on your insulin levels as well, making them rise more than at any other time of the day. And this is the key. Insulin controls your blood sugar level which in turn affects your hunger patterns. When you eat breakfast at the same time as your daily Cortisol peak, your insulin then rises even further as it does in response to any meal. You may know a little bit about insulin and the connection with overweight individuals. Overweight individuals tend to have some degree of ‘insulin resistance’ – put simply, overeating has led to their cells becoming less sensitive to the hormone insulin and this can then lead to obesity and diabetes. Conversely, there are people who are lean who can be “insulin sensitive”. But we don’t hear much about “insulin-sensitivity” because it doesn’t pose a health risk or cause obesity. In fact, it’s good to be sensitive to insulin. You don’t need to be lean, however, to be sensitive to the effects of insulin from your morning cortisol peak.

So if an individual is “insulin-sensitive”, they are more likely to have problems eating breakfast because the circadian cortisol peak increases insulin levels to a point which, for an insulin-sensitive person, will make them feel like they have eaten a meal even if they haven’t. And because a good night’s sleep helps to normalise your grehlin levels (your hunger hormone) this can also contribute to feeling like breakfast just simply isn’t required. You can read my blog “Hormonal Barriers to Weight Loss” to learn more about hunger hormones and how they work. High levels of insulin (in response to the CAR and then breakfast) can then cause a rapid drop in blood sugar 30mins-2hrs later which will leave an individual feeling hungrier than if they didn’t have breakfast at all. And this is especially true for the fitter individual because exercise makes you more sensitive to the effects of insulin. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.

So this is another illustration of why it is so important to understand that everyone is biochemically different and general advice on nutrition always needs to be put into context.

Naturally as I became fitter, I began to eat less and less at breakfast until I reached a point where now I will have no more than a piece of fruit and a few nuts and nothing on non-training days (even the fruit and nuts I don’t always feel like eating). This sees me through until lunch about 5 hours later and then dinner is another 5-6hours later. So I only ever eat two meals a day. When I studied nutrition, I was educated that eating 4-6 small meals regularly (or three meals and two snacks) throughout the day is the only way to ensure a healthy metabolism and to balance blood sugar. When I followed that advice, I can honestly say I spent all day starving hungry, eating every 3 hours and thinking about food. It was ridiculous. For some, it just doesn’t work. The idea that eating 4-6 small, regular meals raises metabolism is simply a myth. Some of the newest studies have compared eating many smaller vs. fewer larger meals and concluded that there is no significant effect on metabolic rate or total amount of fat lost. Similarly, the myth that eating two large meals a day causes rapid rises and falls in blood sugar is not supported by science. And recent successes with intermittent fasting support that this is the case.

So should you eat breakfast?

There is no black and white answer to this and the only person who really knows is you. But you need to tune-in to your body and understand what it is telling you. Go slowly with changes and listen to your body’s messages. There is certainly good evidence that exists to suggest that eating a high protein breakfast is beneficial for weight loss, and in the right individual I have seen this in my clients. But I would hazard an educational guess that this is true of those who have issues with insulin resistance to some degree in the first place. I also suggest that any weight loss approach must be phased so whilst a high protein breakfast can work for a while, it needs to be revisited once that individual reaches the inevitable plateau. It may be that at this point, insulin sensitivity has been stabilised and skipping breakfast may be the next stage in the programme. Leaving 5-6 hours between meals is also important for certain types but it can’t be done overnight – your body has to adapt to its new eating patterns gradually. For more information on this you can read my blog on Intermittent Fasting as it is closely related.

In Summary:

1) Breakfast is not necessarily the most important meal of the day

2) For some people, eating breakfast will make you hungrier for the rest of the day

3) Eating small regular meals (every 3 hours) does not do anything for your metabolism and can make some people hungrier

4) The fitter you are, the more sensitive to insulin you are and hence your morning Cortisol peak and subsequent insulin increase

5) Certain body types are more sensitive to insulin even if they are neither fit or lean

6) If you are NOT sensitive to insulin or have insulin-resistance, a high protein breakfast is a good place to start for weight loss and blood sugar balance.

7) Leaving long gaps between meals can be beneficial for a lot of body types

8) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. It talks. :o)