by Stefanie Huff MD
How many times have you been told to eat your breakfast because it’s the most important meal of the day? Probably more times than you can count. Maybe, breakfast, as we know it, is not the most important meal of the day, and you will be fine and feel great for the rest of the day if you do skip breakfast...or any meal for that matter. We have been conditioned to think that eating 3 meals a day, plus snacking throughout the day, allows us to keep our metabolism burning. This concept is now being called into question with Intermittent Fasting, (IF) the practice of controlled, voluntary periods of not-eating, or strategic missing of a meal. The benefits of IF reach beyond just losing weight, such as decreased inflammation, lower blood glucose, lower blood pressure, better digestion, increased energy, etc. You may be saying to yourself, “but, I can’t fast! I can’t even miss one meal!” It may be as simple as skipping that “most important meal of the day” - breakfast.
The word breakfast actually comes from the idea of “breaking a fast”, considering that everyone is essentially fasting while sleeping. Once one wakes up and eats, the fast is broken. Historically, breakfast was not a mainstay until the mid 1500s.(1) Dinner was actually considered the main meal that would break a fast and was eaten later in the day.(1) Now, eating upon awakening has become customary. Intermittent Fasting extends the period of not eating for as long as possible to decrease the level of insulin in the blood as low as possible. (2) If you’re eating, you’re not fasting. If you’re fasting, you’re not eating; pretty simple.
The thought of consciously not eating can be very intimidating. It is socially acceptable to eat 3 meals a day with 2 snacks, and if one doesn’t, then that is considered out of the norm. Our bodies have become accustomed to eating right upon waking, and socially, we have dinner with our family or friends, so skipping these meals seems too great an obstacle. All one needs to do to incorporate IF is to extend the time that they do not eat while they are sleeping and narrow the eating window during the day. Twelve hours would be considered a minimum amount. To start seeing other benefits like weight loss, periods of 16 hours or longer are more efficacious. How one chooses to start and stop these windows can be completely personalized to the person and his or her own schedule. Examples of IF schedules are eating 3 meals within 8 hours, 2 meals within 4 hours, or just one meal within one hour. These are examples of 16:8, 20:4, 23:1 fasting:feeding windows. It might be easiest to start with missing the first meal of the day and pushing that meal back until mid-late morning, around 11am, then finish eating by 7pm. That would be considered a 16:8 fast. Dinner could be cut out first just as easily, if that works better for one’s schedule. For example, if the last meal of the day is at 3pm, the first meal can be at 7am the next day and that would be a 16 hour fast. There is no set strict schedule for fasting, and that is one of the great things about fasting - it’s flexibility.
But isn’t breakfast the most important meal of the day? Eating earlier in the day may have added benefits. New research in the Journal of Nutrition is being touted as further proof that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The study followed 50,000 Seventh-Day Adventists and their eating patterns. (3) Those who ate breakfast were found to have lower BMIs. (3) But what is also important to note is that this breakfast was part of 2 meals a day within a 5-6 hour period without snacking, like an early Time Restricted Feeding schedule in intermittent fasting. (3) Early Time Restricted Feeding (eTRF) is the idea of eating meals earlier to begin a fast earlier in the afternoon. Eating at night has shown to increase insulin spikes versus eating the same food in the morning. (2) Also, in the very early morning hours, the body’s cortisol peaks, causing blood glucose to drop, waking the body to prepare it to go out and look for food; the drive to eat may be stronger in the morning. (2) Another benefit could be any glucose eaten first thing in the morning is more likely to be utilized through daily activity rather than stored.
Back to the question, “Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?” The answer is most likely “Yes...and No.” If you are new to fasting and the idea of missing a meal gives you nightmares, start with missing the meal that impacts you the least, and if that happens to be breakfast, then skip breakfast. You will be able to do it and feel good while not eating until 11am. It’s that simple. As you become more accustomed to fasting, moving your meals forward may be a way to maximize the benefits of IF. The key is finding the schedule that fits your lifestyle and gives you the results you want to see. Personalizing the fasting schedule is what makes it sustainable, doable, and easy. So, maybe the question should actually be “Is breakfast the most important meal of the day for you?”
1. Wikipedia - History of Breakfast. retrieved November 27, 2018, including:
Albala, Ken (2002). Hunting for Breakfast in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Devon, UK.
^ "Breakfast". Etymonline.com. Retrieved February 2, 2013.
2. The Complete Guide to Fasting - Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore. Victory Belt Publishing; 1 edition (October 18, 2016)
J Nutr. 2017 Sep;147(9):1722-1728. doi: 10.3945/jn.116.244749. Epub 2017 Jul 12.
Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2.