The traditional wisdom, earnestly purveyed by perky dieticians on morning TV health segments, is that you should eat a hearty breakfast. The mantra is that "breakfast is the most important meal" and that it sets the tone for optimal metabolism throughout the day.
Indeed there is science to back this up. Studies show that, if you eat a breakfast of sugary cereal, or refined pastry, or white toast with jam, your blood sugar will skyrocket, generating a compensatory burst of insulin. Within a couple of hours, your blood sugar will crash, and you'll be famished. Hypoglycemia will send your appetite and mood swinging for the rest of the day.
In fact, a new study demonstrates that a protein-rich breakfast helps prevent unhealthy snacking later at night. Another study showed that adolescents who ate poor breakfasts were at higher risk of metabolic syndrome 27 years later, when compared to healthy breakfast eaters.
When I tell patients this, many of them agree, saying that a good breakfast "anchors" them for the rest of the day, and prevents indiscriminate eating later on. Others insist that, if they eat breakfast, it kindles their appetites, and they're off to the races with their food cravings. The latter group often says: "I'm fine until I eat, then it's downhill for the rest of the day."
Recently, some counter-think has been introduced into the breakfast debate. With the popularity of Intermittent Fasting, some argue that the longer we go without eating, the better it is for us. During the long period between an early dinner and a late brunch—sometimes up to 18 hours—the digestive apparatus rests, and ketosis is induced; ketosis is a metabolic state in which the body cannibalizes its own fat stores. Restricting eating to a narrow window of say, eight hours per day is a modified and do-able form of fasting.
Advocates of Intermittent Fasting say it reduces insulin resistance, combats inflammation, and even helps mood and memory because blood sugar is stabilized and the brain fuels itself with short chain fatty acids instead of glucose.
What about the timing of breakfast around morning exercise?
There's a lot of misinformation out there. Some seemingly authoritative sports web sites claim, with little substantiation, that it's important to consume some carbohydrates before morning exercise "to allow the body to burn fat more readily." But when this theory was recently put to the test in a Belgian study, it came up short.
Researchers recruited 28 healthy active men, and divided them into three groups: One group got a special high-octane breakfast without exercise; another consumed breakfast before exercising; and a third group ate after completing their exercise.
As might be expected, after several weeks, the non-exercisers gained a lot of weight—six pounds, on average. The group that ate a big breakfast before exercising also gained weight, but only half as much. By contrast, the group that consumed a meal after their workout didn't gain weight, and showed none of the signs of insulin resistance that the other hearty breakfast-eaters exhibited.
So then is it a good idea to skip eating until lunchtime?
Maybe, if you're an Intermittent Faster, taking the day off from working out, it's fine to miss breakfast. But if you're a morning exerciser, it's been demonstrated that proper intake of food within an hour of completing exercise—especially of protein and healthy fats, along with some quality low-glycemic index carbs—facilitates muscle recovery and strength consolidation.
So what are you? A breakfast person? Or a late-starter? Clearly it's different strokes for different folks, but here's a clue: if you skip breakfast, or start the day with a skimpy carbohydrate snack, and you find yourself irresistibly putting on the feed bag too close to bed time, try a substantial protein-rich breakfast. Your first meal may help stabilize your blood sugar, keeping you off the appetite roller coaster.
On the other hand, if you feel lousy after your morning meal, make sure that refined sugars, allergens or chemicals in your breakfast aren't triggering symptoms. Eliminating gluten, dairy, preservatives and/or artificial food colorings may relieve your post-breakfast blahs.
Solid food is best for breakfast; juices or blenderized drinks transit quickly through your stomach and dump sugar rapidly into your bloodstream, triggering reactive hypoglycemia.
If you opt for a smoothie, add a couple of scoops of protein powder to your fresh or frozen fruit; add healthy fat with a tablespoon or two of extra virgin coconut oil, half an avocado or some crushed walnuts—fat slows gastric emptying which helps the smoothie "stick to your ribs" longer; and consider sources of fiber like chia, hemp, or flax seeds—which also act to "time-release" the carbs in the smoothie.
Make sure you eat right for your breakfast type!