While intermittent fasting (IF) might be a new word in your vocabulary (and most people’s, for that matter), it is something that has actually been around for many, many years. In it’s simplest form, consider the word “breakfast,” which means exactly what the word implies: to break the fast. Even if the idea of fasting (IF or otherwise) is new to you, you are already doing it every night when you turn out the lights and go to sleep.
We’ve all heard since childhood that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, from both our mothers and doctors. Now that we are adults trying to make best dietary decisions for our health, energy, and longevity, I strongly recommend taking a closer look at the science behind this culturally ingrained myth. Because while official USDA nutrition guidelines tell us that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain, exciting research tells a different story.
Breakfast proponents say skipping breakfast will cause weight gain, but will it? My life experience with fasting tells a different story. Through both research and personal trials with fasting, skipping breakfast is ironically the tool most of us are missing in our attempts to lose weight.
There are a plethora of studies done to answer the riddle about skipping breakfast and weight loss.
No, it doesn’t slow your metabolism.
No, it doesn’t wreak havoc on your thyroid.
And no, it actually doesn’t cause you to eat more later.
Fascinating, I know! For example, a 2014 study with over 300 obese adult participants concluded that eating or skipping breakfast had no connection to obesity. Other studies have suggested that skipping breakfast can actually be an effective weight loss tool for certain people.
If the breakfast debate seems confusing, you’re not alone!. While some studies claim that breakfast eaters are leaner and healthier than their non-breakfast-eating counterparts, other studies point out that those who eat breakfast tend to practice other healthier lifestyle and diet habits, in particular, a higher fiber and nutrient intake, and increased exercise.
Last but certainly not least, consider a few interesting (and amusing) tidbits on the history of our morning meal. Breakfast was really not a tradition at all until the mid-1600s when Europe was introduced to chocolate. This led to a cultural consensus that “liquid doesn’t break the fast,” which spiraled into breakfast becoming a tradition (that started with hot chocolate of course!) and also deemed “necessary” for health.
The Industrial Revolution and its massive shift to the notorious “9 to 5” schedule brought on the “3-square-meals-a-day” tradition that is still largely revered today in the US as the proper way to begin the day.
As time changes, science evolves and so must we. Perhaps eating a morning meal is not the only way to begin the day. And perhaps breaking the fast with sugary carbohydrates isn’t what our biology responds best to.
The truth of the matter is this: fasting has been used historically for thousands of years for medical, religious and cultural reasons. Even our founding father, Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s eloquently and simply stated: “the best of all medicines are resting and fasting.”
Fasting has been used as a medicinal tool to treat chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders such as obesity for hundreds of years.
Across religions, humans have been fasting for centuries. Jewish people fast once per year for 24 hours on Yom Kippur to focus on prayer, meditation and a cleansing of sins. Fascinating studies have been conducted on Muslim people who undergo fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Their fasting tradition involves a daily fast from sunrise to sunset, and brings with it reduced markers of inflammation and heart disease along with spiritual renewal.
Interestingly, research looking at the effects of fasting during Ramadan was by default (lucky for us!) perfect for modern-day practices of IF, which, instead of on-going, daily calorie restriction (CR), breaks fasting into manageable chunks of avoiding food, combined with periods of unrestricted eating. This is also known as time-restricted feeding, or (TRF). (Stay tuned for a future article to learn all the technical information surrounding the world of fasting).
In an article in The Atlantic, the author makes an interesting observation that culturally, Europeans of the Middle Ages shunned breakfast based on food’s connection to self-regimentation, and indulging in breakfast was seen as a form of gluttony. Interesting at the very least, right?
Looking at the animal world, it’s actually just as common for most animals to fast than it is to feed. In fact, all animals and humans alike are built to deal with some level of food scarcity. Just think of animals such as squirrels and chipmunks that store food in their own bodies for winter by filling up on nuts and roots.
Or bears and other hibernating animals that withstand long periods of time with no food intake whatsoever. In this state, the animal’s metabolism comes to a screeching halt, to the point where their heart rate is nearly imperceptible, and their body weight drastically drops until they begin feeding. It is thought that their long slumber renews their health and prepares them for the type of high intensity living that animals must endure. While my personal goals don’t go as far as living like animals do in the wild, I’d love to visit the doctor’s office as little as they do and enjoy the fresh forest air as much as they do!
Knowing that the conventional knowledge of eating first thing in the morning might not actually apply to you after reading this, when is the right time to eat to break your nighttime fast?
IF can be done in different ways, but research has shown that the major metabolic benefits truly come into play after 12-36 hours of fasting, depending on the liver glycogen stores at the beginning of a fast. The “switch” that we’re talking about is the point when the body switches over from using glucose to using fatty acids and ketones for its primary fuel source, which growing research clearly shows to be the brain and body’s preferred source of fuel.
This means that for some, the popular IF 16/8 method will work perfectly, as you can easily achieve these metabolic benefits by finishing dinner at 6 pm and breaking your fast 16 hours later at 10 am the following day (for example). Or you might prefer the 5:2 approach, which gives you five days per week of unrestricted eating, and two days per week of either total fasting or very restricted calorie intake. It’s really a personal decision each of us can make based on our personal health goals and current medical status.
Like many dietary questions, there is no one-size-fits-all-approach to fasting. If and when you should eat breakfast is really up to you. Part of the answer boils down to your own, unique biochemistry, but another part might simply be based on habit and a lifelong belief that breakfast is best. Whatever you choose and wherever your dietary decisions take you, I am confident that as long as you stay open to possibility and maintain a sense of adventure with your health, you will definitely find what works for you! For me, I have been fasting for over 2 decades and as the research pours out about the positive impact Intermittent Fasting has on our health, I plan on maintaining it. Stay with me – soon I’ll share what I’ve learned about the best ways to start and maintain a long-term fasting schedule. And yes, “ways” is plural, because there are so many ways to achieve success with fasting!).
In health and adventure,