Breakfast is often hailed as the most important meal of the day. It’s the first thing we eat after sleeping for 7+ hours, and it can often define our eating habits for the rest of the day. It literally breaks our fast and gives us that all-important energy we need to start our day. For many, breakfast is vital for a morning of focus and concentration, and starting the day without it is uncomfortable and unsatisfying. For others, breakfast is an unwelcome inconvenience they could do without.
Studies have shown that we should aim to consume between 15% and 25% of our daily energy intake at breakfast, but other studies have found some incredible benefits in delaying breakfast until later in the day as a part of intermittent fasting. So, who’s right?
Is there a correct time to eat breakfast?
Many people believe that it’s time to eat breakfast immediately after waking up, perhaps due to a common misconception that eating early kickstarts the metabolism. But the truth is that you don’t need to eat breakfast right away. However, the best time to eat breakfast is after you’ve had a drink and actually get hungry.
Most people eat breakfast when it’s time to in their routine, rather than when they’re hungry. This may be necessary for some careers which have set meal times, but if you can eat your first meal when you’re ready, don’t rush into breakfast. By delaying your breakfast, you're essentially prolonging the overnight fast.
As soon as your stomach tells you you’re hungry (not your mouth or your brain!), you should eat, but wait for that signal. Start your day, drink liquids, and eat when that first rumble finally comes along – it can do wonders for your health and weight.
What should I avoid eating and drinking at breakfast?
For many of us, coffee provides a comforting ritual that helps us begin our day. It represents that brief moment of solitude as we prepare ourselves for whatever lies ahead in our busy lives. We pour our coffee and sit for a few minutes before the rush of daily life begins. But have you ever thought about how you drink your coffee and what’s in it?
While caffeine itself is perfectly healthy in moderation, it’s the added sugars, creamers, and artificial flavorings we should watch out for. So, if you drink one or two black coffees a day, you should only see the health benefits of coffee, and you won’t see additional weight gain.
However, you need to be conscious of that caffeine - when we pair this caffeine with a high sugar breakfast, we’re far more likely to have increased cravings and hunger and even increased cortisol levels throughout the day. A Starbucks Salted Caramel Mocha and cookie for breakfast is a sure-fire way to start that rollercoaster of energy highs and lows that can cause you to crash later in the day.
What type of food should I eat for breakfast?
Regardless of your dietary and lifestyle choices, the best type of breakfast is one that is high in protein and fiber, and low in sugar. This will balance cortisol and insulin and sugar levels throughout the day, decreasing the need to eat and look for unhealthy snacks.
A balanced diet looks different to everyone – some people may opt for a plant-based breakfast like a wholemeal bagel with scrambled tofu, avocado, and a side of fruit with some nut butter. Those who want to keep their breakfasts low carb might opt for an omelet or scrambled eggs with spinach and onions, and a side of fried tomatoes. The primary goal here is to keep you satisfied for as long as possible so that you’re less likely to go searching in the cookie jar at 11 a.m. If you’re delaying your breakfast until you’re hungry, you may be able to eat brunch at around 11 or noon, and not eat again until later in the afternoon.
Are there any benefits to eating right after I wake up?
Some people eat within ten minutes of waking up while others may not eat until midday. Whether you’re an early bird or a late riser, the morning is when your body is most sensitive to insulin. Your body uses blood sugar most effectively in the morning, making it the best time to seek out fiber-filled carbohydrates. This dietary fiber can help lower your cholesterol, reducing the risk of a heart attack, diabetes, and stroke, and it helps your body to release energy from your breakfast throughout the morning, rather than in one big rush.
What can I do if I’m not used to eating first thing in the morning?
About 1/4 of Americans skip breakfast due to lack of time in the morning, rather than a lack of appetite. The best way to get around this is by planning and being organized. For example, if you enjoy oatmeal, why not prepare a quick portion of overnight oats during dinner prep? That way, all you have to do is take them out of the fridge or heat them up. Or, if you’re partial to a breakfast smoothie, why not make it the night before and store it in the fridge? You can sip it on your commute to work rather than rushing around and grabbing a high-sugar granola bar as a fast energy boost.
If you’re just getting into the habit of eating breakfast before you start your day, try waiting until later in the day to have your first meal. Listen to your body about when it’s actually hungry, and then make sure you have nutritious food around to feed it with. The last thing you want to do is wait a long time to eat and then fill your body with sugary snacks.
Breakfast is important, but it’s the act of eating that first meal that’s important, not the time in which you eat. If you tend to eat dinner late at night, delay your breakfast the next day until you actually start to feel hungry. When you tune in to what your body really needs, and not just to your cravings, you can often lose weight without proactively doing so, simply because you’re giving your body what it needs, rather than eating when you feel like it.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.