To Breakfast or Not to Breakfast
For years, fitness professionals have been saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and directing us to “Eat small meals every 2 hours.” But now the latest craze is telling us not to eat until midday. Again with the freakin’ conflicting nutrition guidance out there!!!!! What’s the deal here? What’s the right answer? Do we eat immediately upon waking or not, Shayna?! Tell us! Let’s start by breaking some things down.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Basically, IF is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way of eating in which you cycle between periods of eating and, well… not eating. If you think about what the word “breakfast” actually means, it’s quite clear: the breaking of the fast. It’s eating for the first time after fasting all night. Hence, fasting is quite natural for all of us. IF delivers no guidelines about the actual food you are eating, but rather it’s all about when you should be eating them.
As I just mentioned, most people already “fast” every single day: when they sleep. The simplest way to explain IF and also to start incorporating it into your lifestyle is just to extend that fast a little longer.
There are several different IF methods, all of which split the day or week into eating periods and fasting periods. The most popular method is called the 16/8 method, where you eat your first meal at let’s say noon and your last meal at 8pm. This means you have a 16-hour fasting window and an 8-hour feeding window.
Why the IF Craze?
The first argument is that our bodies are meant to do it. Humans have been fasting for thousands of years. Considering that a big trend in the nutrition world is returning to the “traditional” ways of existence, it makes sense that we’re trying to mimic what our ancestors did. Perhaps way back when, one day your father would bring home a feast-worthy amount of food, and then you wouldn’t find food again for 3 days. The human body is meant to endure this. Many people also choose to experience quite extreme fasts for religious reasons. Clearly, there is nothing unnatural about fasting, and our bodies are quite well-equipped for it.
The remainder of the arguments pro-IF are all about the benefits it can bring the body. When you fast, human growth hormone levels go up and insulin levels go down. Your body’s cells also change the expression of genes and initiate important cellular repair processes. A further breakdown of benefits include:
Burn more stored fat
Regulate blood glucose and insulin
Control blood lipids
Lower blood pressure
Increased cellular turnover and repair
Improved appetite control
Improved cardiovascular function
Learning that hunger is not an emergency!
It’s important to note that current research shows that some of these benefits may only be realized after longer periods of fasting – around 20-24 hours, depending on your activity levels. For example, if you’re fairly sedentary during the fast, you may need the full 20-24 hours without food to realize the benefits. However, if you’re very active, or you do fasted AM workouts, for example, you may be able to enjoy the same benefits after only 16-20 hours without food.
It’s also important to note that the research promoting IF is quite new and not definitive. In comparing study participants using IF strategies to those on the typical American diet without fasting, we are actually kind of unfairly “stacking the deck” in favour of IF. How so? To start, the standard North American diet typically consists of someone taking in far more energy than he burns, which as we know, leads to weight gain. Since IF protocols often lead to a negative energy balance – burning more than we eat – the comparison isn’t exactly fasting vs. non-fasting. It’s more like a comparison between undereating and overeating. And that limits what such studies can actually tell us about IF.
Anyway. If IF is so great, where did the whole, “Eat every 2 hours” thing come from?
If you ask me, the promotion of eating every few hours (also known as “grazing”) really just came from health professionals trying to help weight-loss individuals avoid binges. The typical diet culture is insanely restrictive. People cut entire food groups out cold turkey and expect this to be successful. Eating more frequently throughout the day can help you to avoid binge eating and/or food cravings because your body is constantly being fueled at more frequent intervals. This perhaps allows you to feel less hungry, despite possibly eating fewer calories than if you were a few huge meals per day, like the average American.
Similarities between IF & “Grazing”
It’s worth noting that despite how different the two approaches may sound, there are similarities. Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition sums these similarities up quite nicely. Ultimately, he says that all successful nutrition plans share these 3 key features:
Controlling energy intake. This goes back to the law of thermodynamics that most fitness professionals preach: energy in vs. energy out. When we take in less energy (calories) than we burn, we lose weight (and, ideally, most of that is body fat). Whether you take in less energy by eating frequent small meals or infrequent larger meals is up to you. Again, one is not necessarily better than the other, but one may be more right for a particular individual.
Focusing on food quality. Fresh, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food is a must, regardless of which eating style you adopt.
Regular exercise. This is obviously part of the equation. Duh.
First of all, must reiterate what I always say: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to food. There’s just not. The bottom line is: as long as you stick to healthy foods, restricting your eating window and fasting from time to time can have some very impressive health benefits. IF isn’t for everyone, but it can be an effective way to lose fat and improve metabolic health, while kind of simplifying your life at the same time.
In the end, I sing the same tune as Berardi-- I don’t argue for or against fasting. I personally really dig it myself, as it really works with my lifestyle, and I do believe it can be a great approach to solving some of the main health and body composition-related problems I see in a lot of my clients. However, let’s be honest and say that while the research does look super promising, it’s just not conclusive enough yet. It’s equally plausible that:
eating fewer calories than you burn; and
eating a diet lower in processed foods, chemicals, and pollutants
… may offer most of the same benefits as IF. Add in a good exercise program and you might be able to match benefit for benefit. So… our answer is: consult your health and fitness professional. Figure out what works best for you, the individual. It may be IF, it may not be.