I am one of the people who have tried many different ways of eating. I have personal experience – and long-term, mind you – of skipping breakfast, eating breakfast and what breakfast should include – whether I should cut out carbohydrates or include them. I have worked with many people and I have made some observations about which methods are the most effective ones and how people can find a balance in their way of eating. For nearly two years I skipped breakfast and practiced what is known as fasting – you can read more about it here. Nevertheless, I think that what works long-term and especially in women is to have breakfast. In this post I will name 5 of the most important reasons why breakfast is so crucial. The cliché is no accident: “Eat breakfast like a champion.”
But before I begin, I’d like to point out that this post does not apply to the people who consciously adhere to a fasting protocol, doing it right. It does apply to those who fast, but experience some of the symptoms described below. Neither does it apply to those who work out in the fasted state and have breakfast afterwards. The post is intended for the people who simply neglect breakfast and eat their first meal at lunchtime or reach for chocolates and cookies at the office.
1.What we eat in the morning determines our appetite throughout the day
What we choose to eat in the morning determines the hormonal environment in the body. You know that different hormones peak at different times of the day or night. In the morning cortisol reaches its peak levels. The purpose is for us to wake up and get out of the drowsy state we are in. Also, body temperature is lower in the morning. The right breakfast helps lower cortisol levels and provide the body with the energy it needs to get through the more active part of the day. This changes the hormonal environment in the body and helps us avoid the uncontrollable feeling of hunger we would otherwise get between 10 and 11 am.
Most people focus on what they eat, not on when they eat it. And I don’t mean to say you should eat at exact times and obsess over whether your breakfast or evening meal contains 20 grams more of carbohydrates. I am talking about approximate times when food should be consumed, so that eating can coincide with specific physiological processes and facilitate their course. The literature that deals with circadian rhythms (I wrote more about this in my first book: The IFS Gene: A Vision for Health) puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that the time point at which we choose to eat can affect various physiological processes such as the sleep-wake cycles, body temperature, activity and concentration. Scientists have gone so far as to introduce a term – chrono nutrition – which refers to coordinating the time of eating with the body’s everyday rhythms.
The circadian clock is involved in metabolism and virtually controls the expression of certain genes that have to do with the metabolic processes. Also, feeding periods and fasting periods are some of the important factors in the environment that send signals to our biological clock and this leads to the secretion of hormones that prepare us for what lies ahead of us. Periods of light and more activity (i.e. daytime) are associated with a greater supply of food. When the time we eat is not synchronized with our sleep-wake cycles, the connection with the natural process and the body’s functions is broken. When the breakfast meal contains enough protein, good fat and some carbohydrates (the carbohydrate amount can be smaller, but then the fat amount should be larger), this creates the right hormonal environment in the body.
When the body is functioning correctly, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and so are ghrelin levels (ghrelin is also known as the hunger hormone). When we eat, cortisol and ghrelin levels drop, but they do so only if we have breakfast. If we don’t, their levels remain high and we experience increased cravings for carbohydrates. As a matter of fact ghrelin also increases the levels of NPY (neuropeptide Y) which also contributes to an increased appetite and carbohydrates cravings. On the other hand, leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases neuropeptide Y levels which leads to a natural decrease in appetite. Leptin is secreted by fat cells and reaches a balanced level when we satisfy the body’s energy needs (unless, of course, we are talking leptin resistance, but this is a topic for another post). You need to know that if you are leptin resistant, breakfast is a must.
But if we fail to create the right environment in the body, we become victims of our choices and act rather reactively, i.e. we skip breakfast and then for the rest of the day our choices respond to the body’s biological urge to achieve homeostasis.
2.It drastically reduces the need for coffee
You have no idea how much having breakfast reduces your need to have coffee and add milk, sugar, honey, cream, coconut milk or whatever else you choose. I am presently working with a woman who used to have 6 cups of coffee with milk – every day. She didn’t eat breakfast and her overall way of eating was not healthy. The very next week after we had introduced breakfast she cut back her coffee intake to one cup a day. She could not believe that was possible, because she had thought she was addicted. I have been there myself and have seen this in many of the people I coach. The bodies of people who don’t have breakfast experience a lack of energy that they unconsciously get through coffee and what they add to it. When we eat enough, this lack of energy does not exist and the coffee with all the stuff added to it becomes redundant. I have observed the same phenomenon in people who restrict carbohydrates too much – when they reintroduce them, the need for coffee goes down.
3.Your desire to be active in the first half of the day increases
As I wrote earlier, body temperature is lower in the morning and the body on the whole is not in its active phase. The body is more active when body temperature peaks – in the late afternoon hours. But food is one of the tools we can use to, so to speak, set the body in motion and activate it. People who don’t have breakfast usually inadvertently try to conserve their energy and move less. And I am not talking about working out – I also mean non-exercise activity such as walking, taking the stairs, etc.
An exception to this rule are the people who have some kind of eating disorder and, despite the lack of energy, use a lot of willpower to burn more calories. Eating and movement are like the chicken and the egg – it is unclear which comes first. But just like it is true that more physical activity increases the need for food, so does food increase the need for movement (especially in healthy people). You know that a healthy body always strives to achieve homeostasis (balance). When we eat, it immediately urges us to move too. So people who have breakfast increase their non-exercise activity during the first half of the day.
4.What we choose in the morning affects our moods and behavior
Many people underestimate the role of food in how they feel and how they act. My second book: #SayNOtoHunger: Repair Your Metabolism after Dieting is entirely dedicated to how each and every thought and emotion basically originate at a biochemical level. How thought and emotions are the result of a certain hormonal cocktail and how, by choosing our food right (as well as our amount of physical activity and sleep), we directly influence the way we feel and think. What most of us call emotional eating or bingeing is simply the result of our choices earlier in the day or on the previous days. If you choose to have breakfast and choose the right breakfast food, you will avoid going through the moods that force you to make choices that are not right for you and make you eat a lot of pastry and carbohydrate-dense foods.
5.The day starts with a ritual emphasizing self-care
This is a fringe benefit of the habit to make breakfast. They say you can tell what the day will be like by looking at the morning. This is not always true, but no person ever took the time to make their breakfast and give their body what it needed, and then regretted it. If we start our day with healthy food and a demonstration of respect for our own self, this will probably set us up for continuing the same way for the rest of the day. One good choice leads to more good choices.