I’m part of a generation who was at one time, bombarded with the virtues of breakfast being the holy grail of all meals. How many of you were convinced that if you didn’t start your day with a big ‘ol bowl whole-grain cereal accompanied by a side of OJ you’d be destined to fall asleep in glass or (gasp) your metabolism would slow down?
The issue of whether or not you should have breakfast is a huge source of conflict. You’ve got your conventional eat-within-two-hours-of-waking-up wisdom, dysfunctional metabolic conditioning that tells you to ignore your hunger cues — and starve yourself until you can’t take it any longer, and newer studies that say that it doesn’t matter when you eat as long as you just eat less.12
Breakfast is When You Break Your Fast
Historically, breakfast was a term used to describe your first meal of the day, no matter when that meal took place. Sometime around the 15th century, it became synonymous with the meal you consume shortly after waking up. And now, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people thriving with intermittent fasting, breakfast is returning to its first-meal-of-your-day roots.
Simply put, breakfast is how you break your fast.
Whether you have a planned eating window or your fast is just the hours that you’re asleep, the meal that answers the day’s first call of hunger is arguably the most important. Let me repeat that: your first hunger of the day is the most important. It’s your body’s first polite request for you to deliver substantial, supportive, and sustainable fuel to your body.
Somewhere between parental advice and diet culture influence, many of my own health coaching clients have been taught to answer their first hunger with a banana and piece of toast. Or an energy bar. Or a single hard-boiled egg. The problem is, when you start your day with one of these unsatisfying breakfasts, you’re doing yourself and your body a disservice, well, unless you’re cool with the rollercoaster of snack attacks, constant hunger, or needing to eat again in about an hour.
The Metabolic Benefits of Eating Breakfast
Breakfast is whenever you break your fast – it doesn’t have to be 6:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. or even noon. But there are metabolic benefits to consuming a significant meal earlier in the day. In this study, 93 overweight women between the ages of 30 and 57 were put into two isocaloric weight loss groups: one had their largest meal of the day at breakfast; the other had their largest meal at dinner. Over the course of 12 weeks, the group who consumed the most calories at breakfast lost two and a half times more weight than those who had a light breakfast — or skipped it altogether. They also had significantly reduced fasting glucose, insulin, ghrelin, and triglyceride levels. Apply this approach to your own life and within a few days you’ll start to notice:
Your cravings disappear
You’re not thinking about food 24/7
You have more sustained energy
You stop snacking all day
You sleep better at night
You’re not spiraling into guilt or shame because you binged once the sun went down
So having a satisfying, satiating, nutrient-dense, and calorically dense breakfast could be the key to optimal metabolic health. But how do you get out of the biggest-meal-of-the-day-at-night routine?
Breaking the Late-Night Eating Cycle
Often times, my clients will tell me they don’t feel hungry when they wake up. If that’s the case with you, I’d argue that you’ve trained yourself not to be hungry. Years of waking up, rushing to get ready for work, and not making time for a solid, sit-down breakfast has resulted in the belief that you don’t need to eat. (Side note: if you don’t eat ‘til dinner time and feel awesome, that’s great! This is for folks looking to make a change in their health, their hunger levels, and their relationship with food, and who feel like, perhaps, their meal timing could be their ace in the hole.)
To break the cycle, I typically have my clients eat a morning meal loaded with protein and fat — whether they’re hungry or not.3 I’m all for listening to your body’s cues, but most people are so disconnected from what their bodies are telling them already, and this is a great opportunity to retrain the mind and body to actually want a meal in the morning. Somewhat forcing the issue of breakfast is a means to an end; a tool to help bring hunger signaling back online. That, and, if you have an epic break fast meal, there is a greater chance that you will eat less as the day goes on. Pretty soon, once we’ve flipped that eating schedule on its head, many people do start feeling a slight grumble of hunger in the morning.
Remember there’s a difference between skipping (or skimping on) breakfast because you’re following conventional wisdom or you’re still feeling full from the previous night, and “skipping” it because your first meal falls a little later in the day.
How to Break Your Fast Epically
In my opinion, food isn’t just fuel. It should satiate hunger. It should be delicious and enjoyable. And it should support your metabolic needs for energy and vitality. If you want to break your fast in an epic way, you probably already know what to do, you just might need a nudge in the right direction.
Respect yourself enough to make time. I don’t love “grab-n-go” breakfasts, and I even question their necessity at times. When people tell me they’re too busy to make a nutrient-dense, supportive meal for themselves, all I hear is “I don’t value myself.”If you’ve decided that getting out the door is more important than appropriately feeding yourself, this is your chance to show yourself how much you respect the miracle that your body is. Not only that, consider the extra time you spend scouring the cabinets for snacks or thinking about what you’re going to eat (or not eat) next. What if you took that 15 or so minutes and tacked that on to the beginning of your day?
Prioritize protein and fat. Want to set yourself up for sustained energy between meals without fatigue, mood swings, and cravings? Break your fast with a combo of protein and good-for-you fats. And I’m not talking about a single egg and half a piece of bacon. You can do better than that. Filling your plate with a healthy portion of these miraculous macronutrients regulates the hunger hormone ghrelin, so you feel fuller for longer and keep cravings at bay. So, slide a pan of bacon into the oven, fry up a few eggs, and top it all off with some colorful veggies slathered in butter.
Reset your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm affects everything — both cognitively and metabolically. When you have the habit of eating later at night and consequently, not eating during the day, you disrupt your natural body clock, which can lead to increased production of insulin, among other things.4 There are two ways to reset your rhythm: a) eat a smaller meal at night so that you’re hungrier in the morning, or b) eat a larger meal for your first hunger of the day and you’ll naturally want less food at night.
Know that breakfast doesn’t have to look like breakfast. Eating “breakfast food” for breakfast is a construct that’s been spearheaded by cereal manufactures, created to make you believe your morning meal has to look, smell, and taste a certain way. There’s absolutely zero reason you can’t have leftover ribeye and asparagus or a Big Ass Salad for your first meal of the day. You’ve got your protein, your healthy fats, and vital nutrients to support your body for the long haul. What else do you need?
How Important is Breakfast?
Whether you consider it self-care or just taking ownership of the miraculous organism your body is, breakfast — the meal you break your fast with — is the most important meal of the day. There’s no better way to take the reins back from hunger, cravings, and chronic energy dips than by making time to front load your day with an epic protein and fat-forward meal.
What about you? Are you a breakfast eater? How do you answer your first hunger of the day?
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.