Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal?
Nutrition Real Food Recipes
Breakfast has long been touted as the most important meal of the day.
(Do you think this has made lunch and dinner jealous!?)
It’s been said to jumpstart metabolism and has been shown time and again to not only aid weight loss but also help maintaining that weight loss.
Yet about 10% of the US population skips out on breakfast.
And recently the practice of intermittent fasting — and the very positive results some individuals are seeing from it — has been challenging whether or not breakfast is even as beneficial as we’ve been told!
To understand the benefits of eating breakfast, it’s helpful to take a look at what happens when we don’t eat breakfast…
When we skip breakfast, the body increases cortisol production.
It does this in order to stimulate glycolysis or gluconeogenesis, which in turn raises your blood sugar levels so that your body has energy for you to go about your business. But this excess cortisol production and increase in blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on blood sugar balance for the rest of the day, promoting crazy cravings, “hanger”, brain fog, and that afternoon slump.
High cortisol levels also affect the body beyond blood sugar levels. Managing and maintaining normal cortisol levels is key for regulating inflammation, boosting the immune system, maintaining hormonal balance, and regulating energy and mood. As the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol can easily get kicked into overdrive — not just from mental stressors like a stressful job or relationship, but also from physical stressors like an undiagnosed food intolerance or lack of sleep. I’d also include skipping breakfast in this “physical stressors” category. And so as much as possible, it’s important to reduce or eliminate these stressors to maintain normal cortisol levels.
So how is it that some people do well intermittent fasting and skipping breakfast?
If you haven’t heard of it before, intermittent fasting is exactly what is sounds like: fasting intermittently. While some intermittent fasters fast for 1 complete day out of the week, it’s more common to skip one meal each day. Often, this skipped meal is breakfast. Another approach is to simply constrain your eating within a 8-12 hour window (which I do — I usually stop eating for the day around 7 pm in order to give my digestion a break and allow my body to focus on detoxification rather than digestion while I’m sleeping, and resume eating around 7 am).
Many people have great results with intermittent fasting, including increased energy, fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity, and a boosted immune system. They feel fantastic.
But intermittent fasting is not for everyone— we’re all biologically unique individuals and what works great for some doesn’t work as well for others. And specifically when it comes to skipping breakfast as part of intermittent fasting, I’d argue that it’s only best for individuals who are already in good health, have normal cortisol levels (so really don’t have many mental or physical stressors), and good insulin-sensitivity. For these individuals, the rise in cortisol is not extreme and the body adapts extremely well. On the other hand, for those who don’t have normal cortisol levels or optimal insulin sensitivity, this rise in cortisol in the morning can wreak havoc throughout the day and long-term on their health. It’s also important to note that women are prone to an exaggerated cortisol response to fasting and so may see less benefit.
I don’t suggest skipping breakfast as part of intermittent fasting if you experience a lot of mental stress or are dealing with some sort of physical stressor. And if you do want to try intermittent fasting and skipping breakfast, I would suggest keeping a close eye on your energy and sleep patterns while you experiement — if you feel lethargic, “wired and tired”, or have trouble sleeping, it’s probably not the best option for you and breakfast should always be on the menu. You could alternatively try intermittent fasting by skipping out on dinner or with the approach I take (which is really very doable — honestly until recently, I hadn’t even considered it to be “intermittent fasting”, just not snacking after eating dinner).
Of course, what we eat for breakfast is just as important to consider.
Like skipping breakfast altogether, starting your day with a Standard American Diet breakfast high in carbohydrates (especially from breakfast cereals, bread, sweetened low-fat yogurt, and pastries) will raise your blood sugar levels and send your body off on the blood sugar roller coaster all day long.
So it’s best to start the day with a meal rich in protein and healthy fats to keep you satiated and blood sugar levels balanced.
And if you’re one of those “Oh I don’t have time for breakfast!” types, I encourage you to look for ways to prep breakfast ahead of time so you can grab it on the go. Of course, try to take a deep breath and slow down for a bit while you’re eating — since digestion is a parasympathetic (the body’s “rest and digest” mode) process, eating while stressed or on the run impedes digestion.
Quick and easy healthy breakfast options:
- Eggs! — So long as you don’t have an intolerance, eggs are a very healthy breakfast option. If you’re short on time in the morning, hard- or soft-boil eggs ahead of time to grab on-the-go.
- Green smoothie with healthy fat and collagen peptides for added protein
- Chia pudding with collagen peptides for added protein — I like to make my chia pudding with canned full-fat or homemade coconut milk, which are rich in healthy fats. You can add a little pure liquid stevia extract or vanilla extract for extra flavor, and top with berries. Make a bigger batch ahead of time and portion into smaller jars to grab for breakfast!
- Homemade and healthy banana pancakes — Made with just bananas, eggs, and vanilla extract!
- A bake-ahead egg breakfast casserole — Add some veggies to amp up the nutrition.
Thanks for pointing me to the book Nadia. I have Type 3 Dercum’s Disease, a rare chronic pain condition involving the lymphatic system where my body can’t effectively detoxify itself. I don’t use prescription drugs due to their toxic build-up in my system, so for years I have favored a healthy lifestyle and use natural alternatives while trying to avoid toxins as best I can. I’m often looking for ways to gently detoxify without experiencing harsh detox reactions… maybe that’s why intermittent fasting seems to work so well for me.
Hi, Linda! I’m so glad to hear you’ve had so much success with intermittent fasting! Just wondering: do you mean you fast from 6 pm to 6 am (like over the evening and when you’re sleeping)? So you eat breakfast and begin your fast in early evening?
I agree! And that smart lady sure knows what she’s talking about when it comes to hormonal health 🙂 I actually just finished reading her new book Younger – have you read it yet? (Somehow all of my own comments today are about books!)
That’s great, Debbie! Hey, if something works for you, it works for you! P.S. Have you checked out the new Autoimmune Wellness Handbook? I’ve been reading it lately and really enjoying it.
I share the same opinion as Nadia that the general population, this doesn’t work well for the long haul. My observation is that those who have always eaten this way fare better, however, many of these individuals I know also battle high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and brain fog. Unconsciously, when I don’t have to be up so early on the weekends, I do well with a huge breakfast and only a snack or lite dinner for the day which is how I used to eat when I didn’t have the work hours I have now for which I’ve struggled with my weight since. I had started to skip breakfast because eating at 4am made me nauseous, but after working with a health coach and making it a point to eat within an hour of waking made a difference in my work performance and I make more healthful food choices at my next meal when I’m not feeling hungry. Everyone is different, but this has been my observation.
Dr Sara Gottfried, M.D., recommends having breakfast (including healthy fats and protein) within one hour of waking up in order to keep cortisol in check and hormones balanced
I can’t go without breakfast. It’ my favourite meal of the day! I have a green smoothie with leafy greens, cucumber, avocado, powdered greens, chia, fruit, nuts and seeds. I’m one of the people you talk about that don’t have normal cortisol levels, so I have to eat.
Forgot to add that I have an autoimmune condition and have struggled with insomnia all my adult life. The intermittent fasting thing has only helped me function better… not sure why, it just works for me. Thanks for your articles. And I love breakfast foods too… just 4 hours later than you.
I’ve been intermittent fasting for years and don’t eat my first meal until about 4 hours after getting out of bed. I usually eat within an 8 hour window and find that my energy and blood sugar levels work best this way as well as easily maintaining a low BMI.
I’m never really hungry outside of my eating time frame either.
I have been doing 10-12 hr fasts for about 1 month along with jogging anywhere Friday m 6-17 miles per week. I have dropped 15 lbs and still dropping. I do eat breakfast. I fast from 6am- to 6pm. I have 2 slices of Alvarado Street Flax bread for 100. Alories with about a tsp. on each with black tea( all organic of coarse). I am 52 yrs old.
How soon after getting up in the morning should you eat breakfast, Is there a timeframe that is best?