The necessity of an early breakfast is vastly overstated. Intermittent fasting flies dead in the face of conventional wisdom fed to the public at large since childhood:
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”
“To lose weight, eat six small meals a day, and don’t eat two hours before bed!”
“Skipping breakfast will ruin your metabolism, causing you to gain fat!”
I suspect this status quo was spawned from commercial interests and constant repetition. Think about it this way: if cereal marketing firms can successfully convince consumers that eating breakfast is critical for health/weight control/fat loss, the entire sector stands to benefit from increased sales.
Working adults likely do not have the time to cook and eat a healthy meal every morning before work, so they turn to cereal as a quick fix. There’s little counterbalancing commercial incentive to counter the claims by convincing the population that everything would be just peachy if they skipped breakfast. I’m not about to take out a commercial on daytime television informing the public about the health benefits of intermittent fasting, and neither is Kellogg’s.
Once an idea has successfully become ingrained in the public opinion, it becomes relatively difficult to change.
Despite all that, you dietary counter-culture rebels are still with me. In this article, let’s look at what intermittent fasting is, if it’s effective, the pros/cons of intermittent fasting, and how to start. Let’s go!
What is Intermittent Fasting, anyway?
Intermittent fasting is the consumption of your daily calories within a compressed window. Most of those who practice intermittent fasting skip a traditional breakfast, eating their food in an 8-hour window from 12pm-8pm. Outside of that window, no food or drink (other than water, tea, or black cofee) can be consumed. Eight hours is not set in stone: some choose a 6 hour window (myself included), while others only eat in a 4 hour window.
When I bring this up for the first time, I’m immediately barraged with the usual responses:
You need to begin your days with a healthy breakfast to get your metabolism firing first thing in the morning!
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!
Calories eaten at night turn right into fat!
In due time, dearest reader. Before we go busting up conventional opinions, let’s discuss the basics.
How does Intermittent Fasting Work?
“So, I just eat less calories from skipping breakfast, and that’s what leads to the weight loss?”
Sort of. Eliminating breakfast allows you to consume more calories in your other meals while still maintaining a caloric deficit and feeling satiated.
That is not the only factor, however. Intermittent fasting results in a few noteworthy physiological effects such as hormonal optimization, increased rates of fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity, among other benefits.(source)
The key idea to understand about intermittent fasting is that your metabolism operates differently in a fed state versus a fasted state.
As soon as you eat, your body spends a few hours digesting the food and burning it’s energy. During this “fed” period, your body chooses to tap into the energy stored in your blood stream (especially if you consumed carbohydrates) rather than your previously stored energy supplies — fat cells. During the “fasted” state, your body does not have the readily accessible energy (glucose) in your bloodstream, so it is forced to burn the only available fuel: your bodyfat.
To maximize the amount of time that your body spends burning those fat cells for energy, simply cut out the first meal of the day to increase your time spent in the “fasted” state. This results in naturally easier caloric restriction in addition to the previously mentioned metabolic benefits.
Why does conventional wisdom recommend the opposite of intermittent fasting?
In short, because studies are constantly misinterpreted. Time to engage in a quick smackdown of the common “gotchas” against intermittent fasting:
Myth #1 – “Skipping breakfast makes you fat.”
Skipping breakfast is associated with higher weight in the overall population. Let’s put on our critical thinking hats on. It’s possible that in the general population, those who skip breakfast are just grabbing a baked good from Starbucks or a bagel from home to eat on the commute to work. Avoid drawing conclusions from headlines, and consider what the actual study had to say:
“These groups appear to represent people on the run, eating only candy or soda, or grabbing a glass of milk or a piece of cheese. Their higher BMI would appear to support the notion that dysregulated eating patterns are associated with obesity, instead of or in addition to total energy intake.”
It’s also possible that those who are skipping breakfast are already trying to lose weight, so individuals displaying the behavior are already heavier than the general population. I could perform a study on caloric intake vs. weight, and I guarantee you that those who are currently at a caloric deficit weigh more than the general population, due to both overweight dieters and those who go to the gym & methodically cycle their caloric intake. However, it would be absurd to use my study’s findings to imply that a caloric deficit makes you overweight.
Myth #2 – “Eat many small meals throughout the day to keep your metabolism healthy.”
This myth originates from a misunderstanding of “TEF” – Thermal Effect of Food. Your body expends energy to break down food, absorbing the energy stored within to receive a net energy surplus. Those who advocate for frequent eating assume that constantly digesting food results in greater TEF, thus a higher resting metabolism.
TEF, however, is not effected by meal frequency. You cannot trick your body into burning extra calories by eating more often to “stoke the metabolic fire”. TEF is measured in direct relation to the amount of calories consumed, not to the timing in which those calories were consumed. Consider the findings of this conclusive review of meal frequency’s effect on TEF:
“Using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure, there was no difference found between nibbling and gorging caloric intake.”
Alternatively, you may be worried about the so called starvation mode: will your metabolism plummet from eating in a condensed window? This was my greatest concern, but after reviewing the studies, negative effects on resting metabolism do not occur until 60-96 hours have passed without caloric intake.
In fact, your metabolism actually benefits from periods of intermittent fasting. After short to moderate periods of fasting, epinephrine secretion encourages heightened brain activity, prompting our body to move around — spurring ancestral humans to seek out and hunt food. This effect results in additional metabolic expenditure from intermittent fasting, not less. Your body has evolved to raise your metabolism while fasting to ensure peak hunting performance, while multiple days of fasting encourages your body to begin slowing down your metabolism to conserve energy for survival.
Myth #3 – “Eat small meals frequently for appetite control.”
Eating frequently throughout the day does not help curb hunger. After eating a large amount of food in one sitting, your body secretes leptin: a hormone telling your brain that you are full and can stop eating. When you graze throughout the day in place of larger meals, your stomach is never full, and leptin secretion will be low. This naturally leads to overeating.
This recent study found that fewer meals led to greater satiety and appetite control when compared to six smaller meals (holding calories equal). Useful side note: the study also found that increased levels of satiety were associated with higher protein intake intake (1.4g protein per kg of bodyweight) when compared to moderate protein intake (0.8g protein per kg of bodyweight). However, our key takeaway from this study:
“This data strengthens the current literature indicating that increased dietary protein leads to increased satiety, and refutes the long-standing assumption that increased eating frequency has beneficial effects.”
Myth #4 – “Blood sugar levels are best controlled with frequent small meals.”
The glucose in your bloodstream is regulated by your body subject to entrained meal patterns. Will your blood sugar be lower if you skip breakfast one day? Yes, it will. However, if you skip breakfast regularly your body becomes entrained to not expect food at 7am like clockwork every day, through ghrelin and other metabolic processes.
Blood sugar levels are directly tied to the meal pattern you choose. There is no need to fear long-term blood sugar issues & daily hunger problems from regular periods of fasting. Your body will fully adapt to the new schedule after a week or two.
Myth #5 – “You won’t be able to focus if you skip breakfast.”
Your mental clarity is not a glass butterfly that shatters upon not eating for 4 hours. Your stomach may growl for the first week, but your distraction will subside once you’re used to the new eating pattern. The epinephrine mentioned earlier promotes increased mental clarity.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When humans needed to hunt or search for food, their body adapted to expend additional energy, ensuring their thinking was as sharp as possible. The human species would not have lasted very long if we lost our ability to think critically any time we missed a meal. Once you are fed, your immediate needs are satisfied, and your focus can relax somewhat. Anecdotally, those who try intermittent fasting often report increased levels of productivity in their morning fasted state. It’s the perfect time to get any creative work done, especially with a steaming cup of tea or black coffee.
Myth #6 – “You won’t build muscle as effectively if you fast.”
I’ve already written extensively on how to build muscle while intermittent fasting, so let’s keep this section brief. I train fasted, which is not mandatory, but can be beneficial.
- Myth #6.1 – “You should eat protein every 2-3 hours”/”You can only absorb 30g of protein per meal”
- A boldfaced lie, cherrypicked from misinterpreted studies to sell protein powders. Would human beings who could only absorb 30 grams of protein at a time last very long in the wild? Nope. If that’s not enough to convince you, here’s a study showing that after a meal, protein is still being absorbed at a rate of ~30g/h after 5+ hours. 30 grams per hour * 5 hours = at least 150 grams of protein absorbed per meal. This is a non-issue.
- Myth #6.2 -“Fasting will cause you to metabolize your muscle tissue”
- Why on earth would your body burn valuable muscle tissue before stored body fat? This makes no logical sense, but I still hear it every once in awhile. To calm your nerves, this study shows that regular fasting positively benefits body composition. My choice of fasted training is a bit more controversial than simply intermittent fasting, but that is a topic for another day.
- Myth #6.3 – “You won’t be able to train as hard fasted”
Should I start Intermittent Fasting?
Only you can decide whether or not to give it a go. Don’t blindly follow advice from anyone, including myself: personally, I recommend that you give intermittent fasting a try. I also recommend that you assume I’m full of crap, and to look for well-articulated views on the contrary.
As for what the public thinks, one thing that I’ve noticed in my years on this earth: the most successful in life are often the individuals who shrug off public opinion in favor of their gut instinct.
That said, there a few primary reasons that I gave intermittent fasting a try for the first time around two years ago. I’ve stuck with it ever since, so perhaps you may find my reasoning useful.
It’s simple. Avoid unnecessary complication in your life. Too many people get hung up on analyzing every little detail, planning, re-planning, re-re-planning, all while no progress is being made. Intermittent fasting is a simple tool for a simple goal: eat your calories in a condensed timeframe to lose fat. Straightforward and effective. No pills, no snake oil.
It allows you to focus on what’s important. It’s liberating to be unconcerned when you are next going to eat. Busy with something interesting? You can skip breakfast or lunch without a problem, you’re ready for it.
Many people are constantly thinking of what they are next going to eat. Sometimes they finish breakfast, only to begin pondering what they will have for lunch. This is a distraction, and you have better things to think about.
It works. Intermittent fasting naturally leads to the caloric restriction necessary for fat loss. Additionally, you also reap the various physiological benefits discussed earlier.
There’s also a psychological effect I have not yet mentioned: tiny meals scattered throughout the day are lame. It simply feels right to sit down to a massive meal to break your fast — especially if you just finished a workout. This is the way your body evolved to function. You were not designed to wake up in a hurry, quickly shovel some FruitFlakes down your throat, and grab an energy bar on your way out the door to greet rush hour traffic.
It saves time & money. Congratulations, you now have an extra half hour of time in the morning now that you no longer need to cook or eat breakfast. Also, no more wasting money on high-margin junk food in airports, coffee shops, or convenience stores.
Easier to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. Intermittent fasting (paired with resistance training) makes it easier to put on muscle and burn fat at the same time. Studies have repeatedly shown that intermittent fasting increases the rates of muscle growth and fat loss, holding training routine and caloric intake constant.
How do I start?
Simply condense your eating window. That’s really the only step. Here’s some quick advice to get you started.
- Choose a certain time window to eat. Noon until 8pm works best for those new to intermittent fasting. Aim to start eating at roughly the same time each day, since this makes getting used to the fast easier.
- Hunger hormone (ghrelin) becomes entrained to release at certain times of the day. If you break your fast at noon each day, your body will learn to release ghrelin to become hungry at that time.
- An 8 hour window works best for those just starting out, but no need to freak out over the timing: an 8.5 hour window one day won’t be the end of the world.
- The only acceptable things to consume during the fasting window are water, zero-calorie tea, and black coffee.
- Consuming fat, protein, or fibrous vegetables for your last meal can all help to reduce hunger the following day. An especially useful trick if you’re in a caloric deficit.
- Assuming that you’re not making other dietary changes, eventually your natural rate of fat loss will plateau. No need to be afraid of this, unless you desperately wanted to weigh negative sixty pounds after a few years.
- When this happens, I recommend you give this article a read if you’re averse to counting calories, but want to kick-start the fat loss once more.
- If you workout: do so fasted, and break your fast with a pile of carbohydrates & protein post-workout for the best results.
- A longer eating window helps to get your daily calories in without rushing to shovel food down your throat. Personally, I aim for a feeding window of 6-8 hours while bulking.
- A shorter feeding window works best to feel more satisfied on a caloric deficit. I aim for a feeding window of 4-6 hours while cutting weight.