When to eat breakfast
(and it’s not when you get up)
We’ve long been told not to miss breakfast; it’s the most important meal of the day. Well, it is important, but not necessarily first thing in the morning. Surprisingly, eating breakfast when you get up will actually make you hungrier than if you hadn’t eaten — and within as little as half an hour of eating.
Although it might seem like the right thing to do after an overnight sleep — refuel the body to begin a new day and all the associated activities it brings — it turns out eating first thing in the morning coincides with what’s called your circadian cortisol peak, the time of day when your cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise and reach their peak. This peak leads to a rapid and significant release of insulin, and a corresponding drop in blood sugar levels — more than at any other time of the day. If you’re healthy, your blood sugar levels won’t drop to a dangerously low level — as can happen with hypoglycemia — but they can drop low enough to make you feel hungry, even if you've just eaten.
As it takes around six to eight hours for the body to metabolise its glycogen stores, only then do you begin to shift to burning fat. For those of us trying to keep an eye on our weight — and that’s a lot of us these days — it’s when you burn up stored fat that you shed the kilos. However, if you're replenishing your glycogen by eating at least every eight hours, you’re making it harder for your body to use your fat stores as fuel. Leaving more than eight and up to 16 hours between the evening meal and breakfast allows us to begin burning stored fat. If we eat our evening meal between 6-8pm, adding 16 hours will mean eating breakfast between 10am and noon the next day. As a lot of us these days eat our evening meal late — say 9pm, especially in summer — it’s best not to eat breakfast first thing anyway; a little fast in the morning can help you keep the weight in check. (If you’re not worried about weight gain and don’t have excess kilos, you can happily ignore this advice.)
Quite a few years ago, I intuitively began eating breakfast later and later, to the point now where I don’t eat before midday; my evening meal is usually between 6-7pm. Surprisingly, not eating first thing hasn’t impeded my physical and mental activity. Provided I drink enough liquid to meet my thirst in the morning, I've had no trouble functioning well until later in the morning. It might take some getting used to initially, and in fact, it might be best to make a gradual transition to later breakfasts. The warmer months are often a good time to start making the shift. You still have breakfast, just later; it is, after all, a meal that breaks the overnight fast.
And leaving eight to 16 hours does make some sense from an anthropological viewpoint: our ancestors would not have been able to eat around the clock as we can today, so we would have evolved to manage with intermittent fasting.
NOTE In the 1950s, renowned French-American nutritionist, Jean Mayer developed the ‘glucostatic theory’, in which he proposed that low blood sugar served as the primary hunger-trigger that prompts us to feed. Later studies have shown that appetite regulation is far more complex than that, but there’s clearly a role for blood glucose in this equation.
ABOVE The Goop
You still have breakfast, just later; it is, after all, a meal that breaks the overnight fast.
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