On Breakfast and Fasting

girl and boy looking at a computerThere was an interesting article in the New York Times on Tuesday (August 22, 2017) titled The Case for a Breakfast Feast by Roni Caryn Rabin. Its a good article, but like most nutrition articles it can be misleading if you just skim it. Articles like this are why so many people get frustrated with changing nutrition science.

I want you to understand how to read these articles and understand what the science really is.

The article brings up two hot topics in nutrition: timing of our meals and intermittent fasting.

Breakfast

The Case for a Breakfast Feast seems to say that we will be healthier and thinner if we eat most of our calories at breakfast. Except it really doesn’t, and the research on this topic doesn’t say that either.

The strongest evidence for front-loading our calories, so to speak, comes from a good study of the dietary patterns of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, CA. This community is what we sometimes call a Blue Zone, where people live significantly longer, healthier lives. We all want to live longer, healthier lives, so its a good idea to study people who are actually doing it. The people in this study who ate a big breakfast, smaller lunch and even smaller dinner were thinner than those who ate a smaller (or no) breakfast and a larger dinner.

This group eats a mostly vegetarian diet, rarely drinks alcohol, doesn’t smoke, and gets more physical exercise than the general population. So we can’t just assume that someone who does not have these healthy habits will respond the same way to a large breakfast.

In fact, they don’t. There are other studies showing that people who eat a breakfast high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fat (pancakes, sweetened cereals, sausage, muffins, etc.) actually end up heavier and with higher cholesterol and blood sugar. So there’s that.

What we eat is more important than when we eat. If what we eat is great, and we still want to make some changes, then we can talk about when we eat.

One of the challenges here is that a large breakfast and small dinner sound great in theory, but most of us have our family meal together time at dinner. And this is very good for our mental health. Not to mention most of us have work schedules that make cooking a large breakfast impractical.

I’ve long been a proponent of eating a healthy breakfast. Starting our day with a good dose of nutrients is smart and gives our cells what they need to stay healthy.  If it works for your schedule to make it your biggest meal of the day, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too. Try to even out the calories throughout the day as best you can.

This recipe for cook once, eat all week oatmeal can help. So can these recipes for overnight oats. Don’t forget, breakfast doesn’t have to be sweet or even traditional to be healthy and delicious.

Fasting

The author also brings up the concept of intermittent fasting as a possible way to health. Many animals benefit from long periods of fasting, but we are not those animals. The Seventh Day Adventists who finished breakfast and lunch by early afternoon and did not eat again until the next morning were the thinnest. That’s not a surprise. Skipping the typical afternoon snack, dinner, and an evening snack or dessert would most likely result in a low body weight. We often call this pattern disordered eating, and its very possible those people are malnourished.

Eating all day, or grazing, usually leads to weight gain. Snacks are often promoted as a way to “fire up our metabolism” and “burn more fat.” Unfortunately the small uptick in calories burned from eating is greatly offset by the calories ingested.

I am not saying you should not eat a healthy snack when you are hungry – far from it. Just don’t force yourself to eat snacks thinking it will help you lose weight. It won’t. Our bodies are designed for meals separated by hours of not eating, or what researchers call fasting. When researchers say fasting, they often mean the normal time between meals, not skipping meals.

“It seems our bodies are designed to feast and fast. It needs some regular cycling between having food intake and fasting. This seems to be hardwired.”  Dr. Hana Kahleova, Loma Linda University School of Public Health. 

Between meals our bodies use the nutrients we consumed to rebuild and repair tissue. There is a balance between using what we eat to repair and build versus storing what we eat for use later. When we are constantly eating we spend too much time in storage mode, and our bodies don’t really have a chance to rest and repair.

We also find it hard to recognize signals of true hunger and fullness when eating throughout the day. This leaves us more susceptible to marketing messages telling us to eat. When we know we are not hungry yet, we can resist unhealthy snacks. When we know what it feels like to be satisfied we don’t need to overstuff ourselves.

The problem with long periods of fasting, or intermittent fasting, is its hard to get all of the nutrients we need in just one or two meals a day. Taking a pill isn’t the answer, we need much more than that.

There is some research that shows intermittent fasting, or drastically cutting back how much we eat for 2-3 days a week, can extend our lifespan. The studies in humans are small and observational. We need more research into the benefits vs. the risks of this dietary pattern before we can say its good or bad.

If you are frustrated by the nutrition advice in the media, I don’t blame you. Articles can be more confusing than enlightening. The key is to look for what the research actually says, not the commentary by the journalist or the opinion of the researchers.

What’s the bottom line here? Eat a healthy breakfast, and if possible don’t eat the majority of your calories at dinner. Snack only when you are truly hungry. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied.

Stay tuned! I will fill you in when these issues are settled with more good research.

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