In Part 1 of "The Breakfast Myth", we discussed why the modern “breakfast” is really just snacks and dessert—and why eating it at all might be evolutionarily discordant. Here in Part 2, we explore the scientific evidence for and against breakfast—and what we should do in response.
But first, a short and entertaining detour!
The Shocking Origins Of Breakfast Cereal
We’ve already established that breakfast cereals are the nutritional equivalent of candy—but how were we bamboozled into eating expensive empty calories? Surprisingly, cereal wasn’t originally a cynical marketing ploy to sell sugar to children. Felicity Lawrence, a British journalist, investigates:
“Prepackaged and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals began with the American temperance movement in the 19th century. In the 1830s, the Reverend Sylvester Graham preached the virtues of a vegetarian diet to his congregation, and in particular the importance of wholemeal flour. Meat-eating, he said, excited the carnal passions.“
“After Jackson’s invention, the Seventh-Day Adventists took up the mission. […] John Harvey Kellogg…set about devising cures for what he believed were the common ills of the day, in particular constipation and masturbation. In Kellogg’s mind, the two were closely linked, the common cause being a lack of fibre, both dietary and moral.
Kellogg experimented in the sanitarium kitchen to produce an easily digested form of cereal. Together with his wife and his younger brother, William Keith, he came up with his own highly profitable Granula, but was promptly sued by Jackson, the original maker of Granula, and had to change the name to Granola.”
-“Drop That Spoon” (The Guardian, 23 November 2010)
That’s right: breakfast cereal, including “granola”, is a cynical marketing ploy by religious fundamentalists to destroy your sex drive. And if you’ve got a strong stomach, you can click here to see what John Harvey Kellogg did to children (and adults) at the Kellogg sanitarium. (Warning: absolutely disgusting.)
Meanwhile, I strongly recommend you read Lawrence’s entire article, because it’s fascinating.
And there is hope yet: “Sales of ready-to-eat cereals fell 2.55% in the 52 weeks ending April 17 to $6.41 billion…Sales and units shipped have been lackluster since at least 2007, predating the Global Recession and the recent rise in grain prices. […] Much to the horror of nutritionists, the popularity of egg-based breakfast sandwiches is surging.” -Breakfast Cereals Americans No Longer Love
Our Bodies Already Feed Us In The Morning
Fasting is a high-fat meal…of your own adipose tissue. Remember, every diet is a high-fat diet, because if you’re losing weight, you’re burning your own fat. And fat-burning is most intense in the morning, because we haven’t eaten all night. So when we wake up, we’re already eating a steady diet…of fat.
Furthermore, our bodies give us a shot of cortisol in the morning, as we wake up. Cortisol increases gluconeogenesis (the process by which our liver creates glucose), so that we can maintain normal blood sugar when we’re not eating any. First, it seems unlikely that we’d evolve this metabolic pattern if we usually had access to food right after waking up.
Most importantly, morning cortisol explains why we’re not hungry immediately upon waking: not only are we already burning our own fat for energy, our liver has already gone to work making glucose for us!
Here’s the problem: most of us are in a rush to get to school or work, and we can’t just wait around the house for a few hours until we finally get hungry. But we’re told over and over that breakfast is the most important meal of the day! We’re supposed to eat something…
And that’s why modern “breakfast food” is snacks and sugary junk: it’s all we can force ourselves to eat when we’re not hungry.
Consider “heart-healthy” oatmeal for a moment: do you eat it plain? No, you put sugar in it, and usually fruit.
In other words, it’s a bowl of liquid cookies. Would you eat oatmeal cookies for breakfast?
The Science Of Breakfast: Programming Our Metabolism For The Day
Yes, this is a mouse study…but its conclusions are very, very interesting, and they are consonant with human studies.
Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 November; 34(11): 1589–1598.
Time-of-Day-Dependent Dietary Fat Consumption Influences Multiple Cardiometabolic Syndrome Parameters in Mice
Molly S. Bray, Ju-Yun Tsai, Carolina Villegas-Montoya, Brandon B. Boland, Zackary Blasier, Oluwaseun Egbejimi, Michael Kueht, and Martin E. Young
“We report that mice fed either low- or high-fat diets in a contiguous manner during the 12 h awake/active period adjust both food intake and energy expenditure appropriately, such that metabolic parameters are maintained within a normal physiologic range.”
In other words, when we feed mice the same diet all day (actually all night…mice are nocturnal), they’re fine.
Note that both the low-fat and the high-fat diets contained 20% protein, which puts them well ahead of our typical “breakfast snack” of cereal, oatmeal, or a bagel. The difference was that calories were swapped between carbohydrate in the form of sucrose (table sugar) and cornstarch, and fat in the form of lard.
Also note that even the “high-fat” diet was 35% carbs, of which fully half was sucrose (table sugar)…not exactly a healthy diet.
“In contrast, fluctuation in dietary composition during the active period (as occurs in human beings) markedly influences whole body metabolic homeostasis. Mice fed a high-fat meal at the beginning of the active period retain metabolic flexibility in response to dietary challenges later in the active period (as revealed by indirect calorimetry).
Conversely, consumption of high-fat meal at the end of the active phase leads to increased weight gain, adiposity, glucose intolerance, hyperinsulinemia, hypertriglyceridemia, and hyperleptinemia (that is cardiometabolic syndrome) in mice. The latter perturbations in energy/metabolic homeostasis are independent of daily total or fat-derived calories.”
To summarize: if the mice ate a high-fat breakfast, it doesn’t matter what they ate for the rest of the day. But if they ate a low-fat breakfast and a high-fat dinner, they were in massive metabolic trouble.
Does this pattern sound familiar to anyone? Low-fat breakfast and high-fat dinner? A quick “heart-healthy” breakfast of oatmeal, Nuts-N-Twigs cereal in skim milk, or a bagel with fat-free cream cheese—and a rich, delicious, long-awaited dinner out, followed by potato chips or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the couch?
I’ll quote senior author Martin Young here, from the press release: “This study suggests that if you ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast it would promote carbohydrate utilization throughout the rest of the day, whereas, if you have a fat-rich breakfast, you have metabolic plasticity to transfer your energy utilization between carbohydrate and fat.”
Remember my article about metabolic flexibility and the respiratory exchange ratio (RER)? The RER graphs from Young et. al. show that mice fed a high-fat breakfast maintained the flexibility to switch back to fat-burning after eating a high-carb, low-fat dinner…whereas mice fed a high-carb, low-fat breakfast were stuck burning carbs all day, even during the fasting period between breakfast and dinner.
The conclusion is clear: how you break your fast programs your metabolism for the rest of the day. If you start your day eating like a predator, you’ll be a predator all day. If you start your day snacking like prey, you’ll be prey all day.
Still feel like eating those “heart-healthy whole grains” for breakfast?
Young et. al. explains how dedicated low-fat dieters manage to lose weight, so long as they keep grazing on low-fat prey foods all day. But for most of us, that low-fat willpower only lasts until dinner…which makes us obese and diabetic.
Better to eat like predators—complete protein and rich, delicious, nutritious animal fat—at every meal.
“But That’s Mice,” You Say.
The authors admit that they need to follow up with the human version of this study—but we can see similar results here.
Nutr Res Vol 30, Issue 2, pp. 96-103 (Feb 2010)
Consuming eggs for breakfast influences plasma glucose and ghrelin, while reducing energy intake during the next 24 hours in adult men.
Joseph Ratliff, Jose O. Leitea, Ryan de Ogburn, Michael J. Puglisi, Jaci VanHeest, Maria Luz Fernandez
“Subjects consumed fewer kilocalories after the EGG breakfast compared with the BAGEL breakfast (P< .01). In addition, subjects consumed more kilocalories in the 24-hour period after the BAGEL compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .05). Based on VAS, subjects were hungrier and less satisfied 3 hours after the BAGEL breakfast compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .01). Participants had higher plasma glucose area under the curve (P < .05) as well as an increased ghrelin and insulin area under the curve with BAGEL (P < .05). These findings suggest that consumption of eggs for breakfast results in less variation of plasma glucose and insulin, a suppressed ghrelin response, and reduced energy intake."
We also see similar results in the exhaustively instrumented study I reference in my previous article How “Heart-Healthy Whole Grains” Make Us Fat. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that the results in Bray et. al. won’t apply to humans…but the evidence so far is that it’s extremely unlikely.
Breakfast Skipping: Should I Eat Breakfast At All?
So we’ve established that it’s much better for weight maintenance, and for our health, to eat a complete, high-fat breakfast than a sugary, low-fat “breakfast snack”. But what about skipping breakfast entirely?
There are several observational studies showing that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be obese. Unfortunately, people usually skip breakfast because they have to be at school or at work very early in the morning and didn’t get enough sleep, not because they’re trying to lose weight…so that doesn’t tell us much other than stress is related to obesity, which we already know. And I know of only one controlled study on breakfast skipping—and it’s calorie-restricted, so it doesn’t tell us much either. (Though it does tell us that obese women who previously ate breakfast but started skipping it lost the most weight…so, if anything, it supports the concept.)
Here’s a recent study that actually provides useful data:
Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:5 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-10-5
Impact of breakfast on daily energy intake – an analysis of absolute versus relative breakfast calories
Volker Schusdziarra, Margit Hausmann, Claudia Wittke, Johanna Mittermeier, Marietta Kellner, Aline Naumann, Stefan Wagenpfeil, and Johannes Erdmann
“Reduced breakfast energy intake is associated with lower total daily intake. The influence of the ratio of breakfast to overall energy intake largely depends on the post-breakfast rather than breakfast intake pattern. Therefore, overweight and obese subjects should consider the reduction of breakfast calories as a simple option to improve their daily energy balance.”
In summary: the more you eat for breakfast, the less you’ll eat over the rest of the day…but not enough less to compensate for the calories you ate at breakfast.
There are some other interesting scraps of information hidden in this paper. Obese people were no more likely than normal-weight people to skip breakfast. Calorie intake from beverages remained relatively constant regardless of breakfast size, suggesting that calories from liquids have little or no effect on satiety. And, unsurprisingly, the foods most strongly associated with an increase in breakfast calories were bread and cake.
Figure 2 shows graphs of calories consumed per day, plotted against calories consumed for breakfast, for obese subjects.
We can see that for every 100 additional calories eaten at breakfast by an obese person, daily calorie consumption goes up by about 65 calories.
Figure 4 shows the same graphs, for normal-weight people:
And we can see that for every 100 additional calories eaten at breakfast by a normal-weight person, daily calorie consumption goes up by about 80 calories!
At this point, I can’t resist the urge to interject “If you’re trying to minimize calorie intake, it’s clear that zero is an excellent number of breakfast calories.”
Finally, here’s some breaking news for type 2 diabetics: skipping breakfast helps normalize blood glucose levels. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because fasting increases metabolic flexibility:
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jun;65(6):761-3. Epub 2011 Feb 23.
Do all patients with type 2 diabetes need breakfast?
Parkner T, Nielsen JK, Sandahl TD, Bibby BM, Jensen BS, Christiansen JS.
Objectives: To evaluate if an improved daily glycemic profile could be achieved in patients with type 2 diabetes by withholding breakfast, but maintaining the same total daily intake of calorie and the same composition of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Results: The standard deviation based on plasma glucose was 32% higher after the breakfast diet compared with the non-breakfast diet (P<0.0001) Conclusions: Not all patients with type 2 diabetes may need breakfast. Moreover, a non-breakfast diet reduces glycemic variability.
Is Breakfast A Myth? My Conclusion
The evidence is clear. Whenever we finally do break our fast for the day, we should eat like predators: a complete meal, full of complete protein and delicious, nutritious animal fat. (Coconut oil is fine too.) If we start our day like prey—by grazing on carb-heavy snacks like cereal, bagels, donuts, and oatmeal—we’ll either be stuck eating low-fat snack food all day, or we’ll be doing ourselves terrible metabolic damage.
But should we eat breakfast at all, or skip it and wait for lunch? This is less clear, but it seems silly to stuff yourself with calories when you’re not hungry. My conclusion: unless you know you’re going to be doing lots of manual labor (or aerobic exercise) that day and can’t stop to eat, don’t eat until hunger starts to distract you from your tasks.
Yes, it will seem strange at first to swim against the tide of received wisdom—but as we’ve seen, our body chemistry is primed to start the day without food. And as one of my commenters replied to Part 1:
“I think I asked myself honestly if I was hungry for the first time ever when I woke up this morning. The answer being a resounding no.” -Josh
Here’s a tip: if you feel like you’re hungry but the idea of eating any specific food has no appeal, you may simply be thirsty. Try drinking a glass of water, as we’re usually somewhat dehydrated when we wake up.
Yes, it’s OK if you’re genuinely hungry soon after you wake! When I started weight training, I found myself ravenous when I woke up. (Not that this should be a surprise…my body is trying to build muscle fibers.) And those new to eating like a predator sometimes find that after many years of grain-based malnutrition, they crave real food several times a day in order to refill their nutrient stores and rebuild their bodies.
The Logistics Of A Late Breakfast
The problem with not eating when we wake up is that we’re stuck eating out of vending machines at school or at work—and one excellent dietary rule is to never eat anything that comes out of a vending machine.
My opinion on the subject: if bacteria won’t eat it, we shouldn’t either.
Here are some ideas I have for eating a complete breakfast at work. Please contribute your own in the comments, and I’ll add the best ones to this list!
Remember: a stack of Takealongs or other microwave-safe containers will make your life much easier.
- Hard-boiled eggs are the classic portable breakfast.
- Bacon! Fry up a pound all at once, keep it in the refrigerator, and bring it with you in a Takealong or other airtight, microwave-safe container.
- Roast beef, or meat of any kind. Put it in an airtight container. It won’t go bad in the few hours between leaving your house and eating it.
- You can cook a fresh egg in a bowl in the microwave. Just scramble it and nuke it until it’s done.
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. Mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, home fries, even hash browns warm up just fine in the microwave.
- My paleo scramble recipe tastes great re-heated.
- So do most leftovers. Just cook some extra dinner, and nuke it for breakfast!
- Bring a small electric skillet to work. Warning: delicious cooking smells may distract co-workers.
And, of course, there’s the easiest option: suck it up until 11 AM, when most restaurants and cafeterias open for lunch. As a bonus, they’re usually empty then—so you’ll spend less time waiting in line, and more time eating and relaxing.
Since you’re breaking a very long habit and embarking on a new, unfamiliar way of eating, It’ll most likely take some experimentation to settle into a routine that works for you. But I guarantee you’ll be healthier, sleeker, and more powerful once you ditch the candy and desserts, and start eating like a predator.
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Postscript: My Readers Speak
I asked about the breakfast habits of my readers in Part 1, and received many classic responses which I feel compelled to share.
My Readers, On The Subject Of Breakfast
“As a general rule we should be suspicious of any food that goes well with chocolate and/or sugar.” -Asclepius
“As a former sugar/carb-aholic breakfast was the hardest to change, but I beat those sugars into submission with bacon and eggs.” -Nax
“Nothin’ says “breakfast” like a hard-boiled egg encased in spicy pork sausage and rolled in almond flour.” -Jan
“That expensive breakfast cereal… I used to eat it for pudding before I wised up to cream, nuts and strawberries… and Scotch.” -kem
“I had homemade granola for breakfast for 30+ years, one of the hardest addictions I had to overcome.” -Bill DeWitt
“My hungry mornings are peaceful and productive – my favorite time of day. Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. Before I discovered the Paleo diet I was an impatient witch in the mornings!” -Peggy
“That might be also a reason for the French paradox. All people here I knew enough to know what breakfast they had, usually had only coffee and a cigarette. […] As for the African breakfast, I can also attest that on Comoros it is only leftovers from the evening.” -gallier2
“Reminds me of that pivotal moment several years ago when I was working to convince my wife that the kids were better off without breakfast if it wasn’t something we cooked, like bacon and eggs. If we were short on time the usual breakfast was pop-tarts.
One morning my wife came in to find them all eating Snickers bars. She was appalled. I said it was breakfast, and then pointed out the nutrition information compared to a pop-tart. Identical calories, but the Snickers was higher in protein.
Now it’s a protein/fat breakfast or none at all.” -Bill Strahan
My Readers, On The Subject Of Not Eating Breakfast
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – the most important to skip.” -Walter
“Through the week I have a dingo’s breakfast … a scratch, a piss and a look around. Then I get dressed for work and don’t eat until lunchtime.” -Paul Halliday
“It simply makes no sense to believe that a healthy human should be eating when he’s not hungry. We’d be the dumbest animals alive.” -Fmgd
“I think I asked myself honestly if I was hungry for the first time ever when I woke up this morning. The answer being a resounding no.” -Josh
“A few years ago, my mother starting dating and then living with a man who had been single for a while and had never felt hungry in the morning so always skipped breakfast and eaten whatever and whenever he felt like. He was lean when they met, then she started nagging him into ‘healthy’ behaviours such as eating “the most important meal of the day” and “low-fat” foods such as margerine and skim milk.
When I saw them recently, I noticed that he is getting a significant spare tyre around the middle.” -Emma
I’ll close this article with an interesting observation: men are far more likely to skip breakfast entirely, whereas women are most likely to eat a normal or late breakfast. I’ll resist the urge to engage in half-baked evolutionary speculation—but it’s a robust trend, at least among my commenters.
Got some suggestions for a solid breakfast away from home? Want to argue that we’re doing it wrong? Leave a comment, and use the buttons below to tell your friends!