Skipping breakfast as part of intermittent fasting? Here’s why it’s not a good idea.
As if there isn’t enough whiplash-inducing nutrition advice out there, now skipping breakfast is being touted by some as a good thing. Here’s why it may not be a good idea.
Breakfast has become a casualty of a popular diet called intermittent fasting, which recommends going extended periods of time without eating. The diet is such a big trend that, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, Google searches for “intermittent fasting” have increased tenfold over the past three years, to rival the number of searches for the words “weight loss.”
It’s a diet that has been embraced by celebrities, Silicon Valley CEOs and many health experts. There are many iterations of the plan, with extreme versions requiring going days without food, but the more common and accessible variation, known as time-restricted eating, simply limits the time window in which eating is allowed each day, typically eight to 10 hours.
The restricted eating window resulted in skipping breakfast, which is not necessarily a good thing for many reasons. Headlines such as “Why You Should Start Skipping Breakfast: ‘Intermittent fasting’ burns fat and makes you healthier — really,” from Esquire magazine, which imply that restricted eating and a morning meal are mutually exclusive, are rampant and unfortunately very misleading. In fact, you can have your intermittent fasting and eat breakfast, too, and there is substantial evidence you are better off that way.
Stopping eating for a long stretch of time daily, as more-moderate versions of intermittent-fasting plans demand, stands in stark contrast to the 24/7 buffet most Americans feed themselves today. A 2017 scientific statement from the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation noted that adults in the United States have moved away from the traditional three-squares-a-day and now “eat around the clock.” This constant munching affects our body’s circadian rhythms, which help regulate our metabolism, and therefore has implications for the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. In essence, our bodies function better — and we are healthier — when we press pause on eating for a stretch of time each day, which is a big reason intermittent fasting is catching on.
But, importantly, the time window we choose to fast matters - it really matters. Fasting in the evening and overnight, then eating early in the day is the pattern that has the most profound benefits. The research is clear that people who eat in the morning and afternoon have healthier blood lipid profiles and better blood sugar control and tend to weigh less than those who eat late in the day. And people who eat breakfast tend to have better overall nutrient intakes than those who skip it. Also, eating during the waking hours, when your mental and physical demands are highest, gives you the fuel to perform at your best.
Study after study, not just on children but on adults, too, shows that people who eat breakfast do better on cognitive and memory tests than those who skip it. The brain simply operates better when it is well fueled than in a fasting state. The same goes for exercise. Studies show that people who eat before working out perform better than those who don’t, and many people become lightheaded and weak if they try to exercise on an empty stomach. Aside from the performance downsides, there is mixed evidence of the metabolic effects of working out during a fast. Studies do show a fat-burning benefit to exercising on an empty stomach, but new research from the University of Bath indicates that eating breakfast before exercising may help the body metabolize carbohydrates better both during activity and later in the day.
Working every day with active people, I find that more and more of my clients are following the intermittent-fasting trend. Several of those who exercise on an empty stomach - during their fasting window- however, have suffered from fatigue during their workouts, loss of muscle mass and difficulty recovering. In my experience, people who work out during their fast may feel fine doing so at first but suffer a cumulative effect. People are trying to exercise and be productive throughout their day, and they are in effect trying to do it on fumes.
The problem with intermittent fasting is our culture tenancy to make dinner our main meal and social time. In order to stick to a time-restricted eating window, some try to do their morning workout on an empty stomach or else eat dinner prior to 5 p.m, which is unrealistic for most. Most will feel fine exercising before breakfast, but be ravenous afterward. Ultimately, the ritual of breakfast can be lost - making a cup of matcha and bowl of oatmeal and fruit, reading the paper, and having a slower start to the day, rather than rushing and scarfing down packaged food on a bench at the gym after a workout. It can take the joy out of the meal.
If you think intermittent fasting might be right for you, I encourage you to try it (with the okay of an integrative doctor, of course), but without giving up breakfast. Establishing an early eating window to provide your body fuel when it needs it most may require a social shift if your gatherings tend to revolve around an evening meal. But you could eat this way flexibly, trying to steer plans toward brunch or lunch while making exceptions for occasional dinner get-togethers. For many families, breakfast works better than dinner as the main shared meal, as everyone is running in different directions in the evenings.
Also, you can reap many of the benefits of intermittent fasting by going for a somewhat longer but more sustainable 12-hour eating window. That gets you out of the unhealthy all-night-eating trap and affords you both a realistic wrap-up of dinner at 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. and the many health benefits of a nourishing breakfast.
For more on meal timing see my previous articles on When We Eat, and Don’t Eat, May Be Important For Our Health and Intermittent Fasting.