There are some people in this world who eat breakfast on autopilot. It’s part of their morning regime – as normal as brushing their teeth or taking a shower.
That’s not the case for me. Why? Because my stomach isn’t always receptive to food in the morning. Put simply, I won’t be hungry – not for at least a couple of hours after getting up (and sometimes longer). So sometimes I’ll skip breakfast and wait until my stomach is in a better mood before I start munching.
“But breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” I hear you exclaim. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom tells us. But if you’ve learned anything from being a Healthy Enough reader, it should be that conventional wisdom exists to be challenged. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do in this article. I’m going to show you why skipping breakfast – and other meals – can in fact be good for you and lead to sustainable weight loss.
Welcome to the world of intermittent fasting.
Exploring Conventional Wisdom
Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.
~ Adelle Davis
Let’s start by talking a little about what most people say you should do when it comes to mealtime.
You’ve probably heard the above quote before, and with good reason – a huge proportion of dieters live by it. The concept is intuitive:
- Eat a big breakfast to kick-start your metabolism and provide your body with a healthy proportion of the energy it needs to get through the day.
- Top up your calorific needs with a good-sized lunch.
- Eat a modest dinner, as the day is nearly over and you don’t need a lot of food to keep you going.
Sounds suspiciously sensible, doesn’t it? Which is exactly why so many dieters live and die by it.
Let’s consider another popular approach to eating in the dieting world: the ‘little and often’ rule. There’s a whole bunch of people out there who are ready to tell you that eating food periodically in small doses is the best way to go.
Grazing was the way our body was designed to eat. Large meals burden the digestive system, often causing bloating and lowered energy while the body struggles to digest them. By eating smaller meals you prevent this, and the body functions more efficiently throughout the day.
~ Antony Haynes, nutritionist
The regular influx of food with a little-and-often approach keeps your energy level stable and makes it easier for you to cope with everything you have to do in a day.
~ Natalie Savona, nutritionist
Again, this appeals to our intuition. Keep the digestive system ticking (rather than overloading it) and maintain stable energy levels through the day. It’s the best way to lose or maintain weight.
Or perhaps not.
Quashing Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom seems to make a lot of sense, but it is not without its problems.
Let’s start by introducing the human element: conventional wisdom’s recommended approaches to eating are tough for many of us. Our bodies can reject the notion of food in the morning and crave it (in quantity) in the evening. Furthermore, the sheer lack of practicality in making multiple meals and eating them at regular intervals throughout the day can be a deal breaker when it comes to living by the ‘little and often’ rule.
But the issues are not related to convenience and cravings alone. There is a lot of evidence available to quash the notion that one should be eating big in the morning or eating regularly throughout the day.
Let’s start with the consideration that breakfast, as we know it, hasn’t existed for large parts of history. For example, the Romans ate just once per day at noon and breakfast was a big no-no. Here’s what food historian Caroline Yeldham has to say on the subject:
The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day. They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1700s that breakfast began to emerge as a formal meal. Before then, it was often ignored.
If we cast our minds back even further and consider prehistoric humans, one could reasonably postulate that they didn’t start their day with a bowl of cornflakes. Perhaps they had leftovers from the previous day’s kill, or some roots and shoots they had scavenged, or maybe they had nothing. Breakfast wasn’t a given – it was a possibility.
But what about the supposed health benefits of eating little and often? Well, ‘supposed’ is the right word to use, as the ‘little and often’ rule is not without its detractors in the world of nutrition.
A 2010 article published in the New York Times put ‘little and often’ in its place:
Some studies have found modest health benefits to eating smaller meals, but often the research involved extremes, like comparing the effects of two or three large daily meals with those of a dozen or more snacks. Six meals, according to some weight-loss books and fad diets, is a more realistic approach.
But don’t count on it. As long as total caloric and nutrient intake stays the same, then metabolism, at the end of the day, should stay the same as well. One study that carefully demonstrated this, published in 2009 in The British Journal of Nutrition, involved groups of overweight men and women who were randomly assigned to very strict low-calorie diets and followed for eight weeks. Each subject consumed the same number of calories per day, but one group took in three meals a day and the other six.
Both groups lost significant and equivalent amounts of weight. There was no difference between them in fat loss, appetite control or measurements of hormones that signal hunger and satiety. Other studies have had similar results.
If that wasn’t enough, the 2009 study mentioned above draws a couple of compelling conclusions that weren’t mentioned in the NYT article (with thanks to LeanGains):
…the premise underlying the present study was that increasing meal frequency would lead to better short-term appetite regulation and increased dietary compliance…[and] greater weight loss. Under the conditions described in the present study, all three hypotheses were rejected.
…we had postulated that increasing meal frequency would enhance the compliance to the energy restricted diet thus leading to greater weight loss, an effect possibly mediated by increased fullness. The present results do not support this hypothesis.
The whole ‘little and often’ approach doesn’t quite seem so compelling now, does it?
The takeaway from all of this is simple: it’s not about when you eat, it’s about what you eat. The human body is remarkably adaptable; as long as you satisfy its calorific and nutritional requirements, it will sort everything else out.
There are two things you should take away from the above:
- Worry less about the times that you eat and more about what you’re putting in your mouth.
- Don’t eat because you think you should – eat because you want to.
If you’re not a fan of breakfast (or if you simply don’t feel like it on any given day), skip it. The same goes for any other meal, or even more than one meal in a row.
Introducing Intermittent Fasting
It may sound fancy, but intermittent fasting is nothing other than skipping meals.
It’s what the Romans did (although they didn’t know it at the time) by consuming just one large meal in the middle of the day. As long as you’re getting the right number of calories, your body will be able to dole them out as necessary – regardless of when you ingest them. Furthermore, if energy (in the form of recently consumed food) isn’t available, the body will be encouraged into drawing from your fat reserves.
Intermittent fasting typically takes one of two forms:
- Regularly skipping a meal (typically breakfast)
- Occasionally skipping two meals in a row (typically breakfast and lunch)
When it comes to weight loss, the benefits are pretty obvious: by skipping a meal you consume fewer calories. While that is often true, that is not the only benefit of intermittent fasting.
By skipping meals you are encouraging your body to switch between two separate ‘modes’:
- If you have eaten, the body will busy itself making use of the readily available energy.
- If you have skipped a meal, the body will draw from your fat reserves to meet your energy needs.
The simple takeaway is this: if you don’t feel like having breakfast, skip it. You’ll be doing your body a favour. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, don’t be afraid to occasionally skip two meals in row. Your body will happily draw from your fat reserves, as it has evolved to do so efficiently.
But What About the Body’s ‘Starvation Mode’?
When it comes to arguing against the concept of intermittent fasting, the ‘starvation mode’ theory is the most common culprit.
The theory is as follows: food abstinence leads the body to believe that food is scarce, and as such it seeks to lower metabolism, conserve fat stores, and instead draw energy from lean tissue. Thus, by fasting, one loses muscle rather than fat.
That’s enough to scare anyone away from fasting, right? It’s a good thing that the theory is almost entirely invalid – at least, for our purposes.
The simple fact is this: the body’s eagerness to enter starvation mode is often wildly overestimated.
A study was carried out in 1991 to study the effect of a “very-low-calorie diet” (VLCD) on body composition and resting metabolic rate on obese men and women. A VLCD is defined as 800 calories (or less) per day, so we’re talking about severe food restriction – i.e. the ideal circumstances for the body’s supposed ‘starvation mode’ to kick in.
The study’s key findings were as follows:
Seventeen subjects lost a mean of 24.2 kg. A mean of 75.5% of the weight loss was adipose tissue [i.e. fat]…Resting metabolic rate, as measured by oxygen consumption, dropped 23.8% during the 12 weeks of the VLCD. The findings indicate that a VLCD can provide a rapid weight loss of more than 75% fat and a concomitant decrease in waist:hip and waist:thigh ratios…Finally, it appears that the decrease in resting metabolic rate that occurs during treatment with VLCD does not correlate with changes in lean body mass.
So, the subjects lost a lot of weight, of which over 75% was fat. While the subjects’ metabolic rates did drop, this drop did not correlate with any changes in lean body mass.
It is widely and reliably acknowledged that just about any diet will encourage the body to slow metabolism to an extent, but the above study demonstrates that a loss of lean tissue does not automatically accompany a slowing metabolism.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Intermittent fasting (i.e. 16–24 hour periods of no food consumption) has been shown to affect the body’s metabolism, but in the opposite manner to what you might expect.
Two studies carried out by Mansell, PI, et al and Zauner C, et al are particularly compelling. Here are the two key conclusions (with thanks again to LeanGains):
Resting energy expenditure increased significantly from 3.97 +/- 0.9 kJ/min on day 1 to 4.53 +/- 0.9 kJ/min on day 3 (P < 0.05)…Resting energy expenditure increases in early starvation.
Starvation [over a 48 hour period] led to considerable alterations in basal metabolism including a significant (mean 3.6%) increase in resting metabolic rate.
That’s right – intermittent fasting can actually increase the body’s metabolic rate, potentially leading to a greater rate of fat loss.
How to Get Started
By now I’ve probably piqued your interest. Perhaps you want to give intermittent fasting a go.
While you can simply skip your next meal, a little forethought and research ahead of time will make intermittent fasting far easier to handle. Because let’s be honest – for many of us, the concept of skipping a meal is somewhat disconcerting. You probably have some reservations.
With that in mind, let’s look at how to handle intermittent fasting the right way.
The best way to ease yourself into intermittent fasting is to skip breakfast.
Going for a full 24-hour fast straight off the bat probably isn’t the best idea. In fact, you don’t ever have to fast for a whole day to benefit from intermittent fasting. Just stick to skipping one meal if that’s all you feel like doing.
Intermittent fasting is especially easy to follow if your stomach isn’t particularly receptive to food in the morning – skipping breakfast won’t seem like much of a hardship at all. However, if you’re all about breakfast and couldn’t imagine not having it, you will find the process less inviting. However, you should still give it a go – you may surprise yourself.
Your secret weapon is to keep busy. If you can pack your morning out and get to 12–1pm without knowing where all the time went, intermittent fasting will be far easier. (This is when a hectic job can actually help!)
You may well get hunger pangs, but that does not mean that you’re damaging your body. Hunger pangs are often misleading – usually we just need water. With that in mind, I recommend that you drink plenty of no/low-calorie fluids when fasting (I drink tea with a splash of milk like it’s going out of fashion in the morning). Have a diet soda if that kind of thing floats your boat.
Trust me, unless you’re like a waif, your body has plenty of fat in reserve to draw energy from while you skip breakfast.
And remember this: every hour you go without food is another hour where your body is sucking fat out of your reserves and using it to keep you ticking. That thought alone can be a huge motivator in terms of encouraging longer fasts.
Don’t Overthink It
You can easily drive yourself mad thinking about how to do intermittent fasting the ‘right’ way. But here’s the thing: there is no right way. There’s no commercialised diet plan here – it’s just a case of skipping meals and seeing how you go.
If you want to have a banana in the morning to keep the hunger pangs at bay, give it a go. Drink as much low/no calorie fluid as you like. Don’t worry about making it to exactly 16 or 24 hours fasting – it isn’t supposed to be torture.
Do not impose strict goals on yourself (then get demotivated when you fail to reach them). Instead, allow yourself to have a go at intermittent fasting without any preconceptions as to how it may turn out. Perhaps have a smaller breakfast at 11am rather than your usual big breakfast at 8am. You’ll still be fasting and consuming fewer calories, which is a big victory in my book.
Remember – we’re talking about being healthy enough here, not becoming a fasting machine.
Rely On Your Own Experience
My final piece of advice is to experiment with intermittent fasting and find out what works for you.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet regime (despite what some might say). You have a unique physiology and psyche. You need to find a form of intermittent fasting that works for you, and the only way to do that is to experiment.
Don’t worry that you must operate within the ‘rules’ of intermittent fasting – after all, there aren’t any strict rules. Eat a smaller meal or eat it later. Have a piece of fruit instead of breakfast. Do a one-off 24 hour fast for charity to give yourself extra motivation and see what the experience is like. Whatever works for you.
I once scoffed at the notion of fasting. After all, I love my food, and eating less of it is rarely an attractive notion to me.
However, I’ve never been a huge fan of breakfast and I’m not too fussed about lunch either. Dinner is where it’s at for me. So skipping these meals isn’t such a big deal.
I tend to skip breakfast most days (as and when I feel like it), and occasionally miss breakfast and lunch (often when I’ve eaten gluttonously the day before and feel less inclined to eat). It’s not a big sacrifice for me (in fact, it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice at all) and enables me to lose weight. That’s a win/win.
May be it’ll work for you too. Give intermittent fasting a go. See if it suits you. If it does, you may well have just found another powerful weapon in your dieting armoury. What’s the worst that could happen?