Around the middle of 2018, I stopped eating breakfast, and what’s happened to my body since then has surprised me. Like many people, I spent my entire life hearing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I believed it, of course. Why wouldn’t I? It was an opinion echoed unanimously by everyone who should know—medical professionals, nutrition experts, and so on. But my recent experience has shown the opposite is true: eating breakfast is actively bad for my body.
Here’s the short version:
- I am unqualified to write this article and it is not medical advice.
- Eating breakfast doesn’t prevent my hunger, it amplifies it.
- For decades I didn’t know the difference between hunger and appetite.
- Every measurable vital sign and lab test has improved since I stopped eating breakfast.
- My metabolism is not decreased and I am not starving or depriving myself.
- The reasons why all this works are logical and sensible: I’ve gotten off the insulin/sugar merry-go-round.
- The key is to have periods of fasting, when my body isn’t processing food and can reach equilibrium.
Read on for the long version.
The Large Breakfast Treadmill
I used to eat a large breakfast because I was trying to stave off hunger before lunch. I even wrote a blog post about it. But eventually I found it impossible to ignore that it wasn’t working. By late morning I was hungry, irritable, distracted. I’d eat a snack to tide me over till lunch. When I got home from work in the evening, I was always too hungry to cook, and I needed a snack before I started preparing a proper meal.
I stopped eating breakfast, and after about two weeks the most remarkable change took place. I wasn’t hungry at 10:30am anymore, and going till noon without eating was no problem. And my pre-dinner cravings were gone, too. Breakfast was making me more hungry, not less!
I still eat just as much as I did, but now I eat it during a shorter interval of time during the day. I just eat bigger lunches and dinners than I used to.
Hunger and Appetite
Even more unexpected than my decreased hunger was the new, strange feeling that replaced it: appetite.
What I’m calling “hunger” is a gnawing craving for food, accompanied by moodiness. What I’m calling “appetite” is a totally different sensation: it’s my body’s readiness—but not a demand—to eat. It’s a sensation of having reached equilibrium, a neutral feeling like my body is “finished” with the last meal. It’s a rested, quiet feeling. It’s pleasant. It feels optional: just an awareness, a fact, an FYI that my body is giving me.
The hunger I used to experience, on the other hand, was an insistent request, not an FYI. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure that I have never in my life experienced the difference until last year. In fact, I can think back to my childhood, when I worked on a farm all day every day (I was homeschooled), and I know even then there was no breakfast big enough to keep me from becoming ravenous before lunch. You might say, that’s different—as a child you’d expect me to be hungry a lot, and that’s true. But in hindsight, again, that was the wrong kind of hunger; a sign of something I was doing wrong, not a sign that I was a growing, active kid who needed food.
Now that I don’t eat breakfast anymore, I can skip lunch too, and the “FYI, I’m done digesting” feeling stays the same. I sometimes extend my fast until dinnertime or the next day, and the sensation slowly grows, but never turns into desperation. I have the feeling I could fast for many days and I’d be aware of my readiness to eat the entire time, but it wouldn’t be a problem. (I doubt this is true, but the contrast of this appetite to the hunger I formerly knew is so remarkable that I get this impression.)
When I do eat, the sensation of my body digesting food is likewise very noticeable. It’s familiar: it was the 24x7 state of my body for my first several decades. I never was aware of it before because it was a constant, but now that I sense it only while I’m processing a meal, it’s distinctive to me. I wake up in the morning and I can tell I’m still processing last night’s supper. By midmorning, I’ve completed digestion, and the warm, busy digestion sensation—which permeates my entire body, not just my abdomen—fades over the course of a couple of hours. Then I encounter a state of stillness and quiet, followed after a time by the aforementioned readiness for more food, should I choose to eat it.
Insulin and Sugar, Food, Fasting, Sleep
I know what’s happening—it’s not a mystery to me. This all works because of the intricate, interconnected machinery of insulin, blood sugar, and other stuff that happens when I eat food. I’ve delved into a handful of books to learn more about it, and I can’t do it justice in this article, because there is quite a spiderweb of causes and effects. It’s a lot more complicated than just insulin and sugar, but as a gross oversimplification, the interplay between those two substances is one of the more obvious things going on.
The short, oversimplified version is that when you eat, your blood sugar spikes, and your body produces insulin to deal with it in the short term, then has other processes to put that back into equilibrium later. There’s a complex dynamic of several processes getting activated, some of which are causing others to activate, and so on. After a while it all settles down.
Unless you keep adding more food in before everything’s had a chance to complete, that is. And this is the key insight: my body isn’t supposed to process food all day every day. It needs to have periods of fasting.
I know because I’ve been studying everything I can about all the factors involved, which include non-food things like stress, cortisol, and sleep. And I’ve run a bunch of experiments. For example, I’ve eaten a few breakfasts once in a while; and I paid attention to how I ate during holiday feasts with my family, and what happened as a result. That’s why I know that if I were to resume my old habit of eating at 8:00am, 10:30am, 12:00pm, 5:00pm, and 6:00pm again, in a matter of a few days I’d revert to the old dynamics pre-summer. During the holidays and my other experiments, I both measured it and felt it happen. I’m attuned to how my body feels now, so I notice the effects quickly and clearly.
I’m also attuned now to the effects of how well I sleep. I paid a lot of attention to this because sleep has a profound and immediate impact on cortisol and insulin resistance, which triggers hunger, and inflammation, and so on. You might have noticed that I reviewed a variety of sleep-tracking smartwatches and other devices on this blog last year. It wasn’t just a hobby: I was building spreadsheets of biometrics such as my weight, active and resting pulse, what I ate, how hungry I felt, how much energy I had, and how I slept. It didn’t take long before I could see the patterns. For example, once I stayed up late cleaning up some damage from a sudden storm that struck around bedtime. The next morning, and the following few days, the effects of a four-hour night of sleep were easily measurable. Likewise, I was able to easily correlate the effects of travel—I traveled a lot last year—with sleep disruption, meals, and subjective and objective observations.
Exercise, Metabolism, Weight, and Lab Tests
When I stopped eating breakfast, there was an immediate and positive change in some of my vital signs over a period of a month or so. Some of the other biometrics that I track over longer timescales have improved, too. Here’s a chart of my semi-anonymized weight over the course of 2018. For the first part of the year it tracked what’s been my “normal” weight for more than 20 years.
The slow rise during the first part of the year was muscle gain from working out, and probably some fat gain from stress (hiring a CEO). The midyear change when I stopped eating breakfast is obvious, but that also coincided with renewed traveling and workout changes. Later in the year, after I finished my frequent traveling, I regained some of the muscle weight I’d lost due to not being able to exercise as intensely as I could at home. This screenshot is from a Withings scale, which also estimates body fat, water, bone, and muscle. If I showed you those charts, you’d see that they have gradually improved as well.
What happened to my body midyear to make me lose weight so sharply, more sharply than at almost any time in my life? I wasn’t overweight and I didn’t think I had much fat to lose, to tell you the truth. I have good reason to believe I lost internal “visceral” fat, because externally I have no less subcutaneous or other visible fat. And again, all the measurements support this theory—they point to lower total body fat percentage, for example. Likewise, nothing in all the statistics that my doctors and I track—hemoglobin A1C, lipids, etc—has done anything but improve either. They were fine before, but now they’re better than fine.
In fact, everything I have been able to measure about my body substantiates my theory that introducing a few more hours of fasting every day (so-called “intermittent fasting”) has broken the insulin/sugar feedback loop, and allowed my body’s “governor” to reset to the natural weight I should have.
Nothing else has changed, at least as far as I can see from my (ridiculously meticulous) daily notes and measurements. I still exercise every single day, almost always an intense 4-10 minute workout based on movements I learned in CrossFit, which has been the case for years. I still periodically do longer, heavy, highly taxing workouts as well. I still rise and sleep at the same times of day. I still drink the same amount of caffeine and alcohol. I still have the same diet, self-care routines, amount of stress, job, commute, and on and on. The only obvious change is skipping breakfast.
Here Come The Dire Warnings
I’ve expected other people to react with shock to this, and I haven’t been disappointed. Anytime we find out the world doesn’t work the way we thought, we’re surprised.
As expected, I’ve gotten dire warnings about “your body is entering starvation mode” and “you’ve just slowed down your metabolism” and so forth. It’s not happening, and after extensive research, I know why: it doesn’t work that way.
As one example, someone tweeted at me, paraphrased, “I ate brunch and late dinner until I noticed memory problems, loss of physical stamina… You literally starve your brain.” That is scientifically incorrect—your brain is literally impossible to starve.1 Your brain’s energy sources are so high priority and so redundant that it’s a medical marvel. Your brain will kill other vital organs to ensure its own survival. I’m not gonna give this person advice, but in my nonscientific opinion it is more plausible that his memory problems were due to his late meals interfering with his sleep.
Another example: one of the books I have, which was written by a practicing physician, uses italics to emphasize that whatever you do, you must not skip breakfast. It will slow down your metabolism and reduce calorie burn, he writes.2 That is undoubtedly true and well-documented for people trying “starvation diets” to lose weight. But I’m not starving, I’m not dieting, and I’m not trying to lose weight. Based on my own experience, compressing the eating/sugar/insulin activity in my day to allow a quiet period does good things, not bad things. Based on the relevant medical science, those outcomes are much more sensible and expected than this doctor’s predictions about metabolic shutdown.
And I’m pretty sure that I know my metabolism really well now, much better than I ever used to. I’m just so much more conscious of, and quantitative about, what’s going on with my body. I’ve spent a lot of time learning what I can measure about my body over the past two years. For example, I’ve bought a glucose meter and pricked my finger ten times a day, and I’ve done a bunch of other stuff like going to the doctor several times between physicals to get specialized, unusual lab tests done. The outcomes are clear. I’m not conserving energy and getting cold extremities, I’m not entering “ketosis,” I’m not experiencing headaches, weakness, brittle fingernails—anything abnormal. My metabolism is really fast, as fast as it’s ever been. My body is working great. It just is. This is how it’s supposed to work.
What The Research Says, What The Doctor Says
Much of what I’ve learned is significantly at odds with conventional medical wisdom. I think the medical wisdom that disagrees about eating breakfast is largely anecdotal and wrong—as evidenced by the doctor I quoted in the previous section. I think medical science is far ahead of medical practice, and interestingly, medical science doesn’t argue against what I’ve written in this article. I know this because I am highly engaged with medical professionals, and I observe that what’s practiced in the doctor’s office is very different at times from what’s been in published research for years, even decades.
Also, when I write “science” and “research” in this article, those aren’t euphemisms for content marketing and conspiracy theories. When a blogger says they’ve done research, it usually means they Googled and then read a bunch of blog posts from some charismatic dude with chiseled abs and a big social media following. Not me. Over the past several years I’ve read literally hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles from leading research publications, such as the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Neurology, and the like. I haven’t read blogs or articles about the research, I haven’t Googled, I haven’t watched YouTube: I’ve read the papers themselves. I’ve even gotten the data from some of the studies and examined it.
Obviously most of us can’t do that, so books can be helpful. I’m not endorsing any particular book or other source—I endorse only a direct engagement with the research itself—but of all the books I’ve read, the following two have the highest density of thought-provoking material:
- The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss by Dr. Jason Fung
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker PhD
Both of those books are heavily researched and their sources are cited, so whether they’re right or wrong, anyone can use them as a starting point for their own exploration. I spent a lot of time following the citations and reading the research, then reading responses from other research, finding more related research and reading that, and so on. So should you.
If you triangulate the subject matter of those two books with regards to sleep, insulin, stress hormones, and a dozen other topics, then everything I’ve experienced over the last six months, and indeed the decades before that, makes perfect sense.
Our Obesity and Insulin Crises
Part of the reason I wrote about this topic is to raise awareness. We are in the beginning stages of staggering public health crises related to malnutrition, obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and a myriad of other problems.
At the same time, medical science is advancing at an astonishing rate, and we have more and better answers now by far than we did a scant few years ago. Yet there’s also a stunning volume of misinformation newly available, especially on the Internet. There are all kinds of untested, unregulated, unresearched alternative products and programs available, many of them with mainstream popularity yet still snake oil, while celebrity doctors appear as guests on celebrity TV shows and promote them.
Meanwhile, your doctor probably got no more than a few days of instruction on nutrition in medical school, and might be unprepared to help guide you through the rapidly changing landscape of the nutritional challenges you face everyday, not to mention staying up to date with the latest research.
The combination of factors mentioned in this section leaves everyone in a difficult position. We’re suffering from serious problems that need expert help from qualified people, but reliable information is harder and harder to pick out of the sea of falsehoods, so we’re extremely sick and getting sicker fast.
Disclaimers: I am not a doctor and this article is not medical advice; links in this article aren’t endorsements. I am neither a trained journalist nor a scientist, and I have no professional qualifications to write an article like this one. Among the reasons you shouldn’t trust me, for example, is that I will not lose my license to practice, or get fired, for lying to you.
I know a lot of people struggle with medical conditions, eating disorders, life circumstances, and other things that make my experiences irrelevant to theirs, and in no way do I want to pass any judgments about anyone’s situation, or imply that I think what’s easy for me will be easy for others. If I were 100 pounds overweight, lived in a food desert, worked two jobs, had a genetic predisposition towards diabetes, and insulin resistant, I doubt skipping breakfast would be a miracle cure. I simply hope that by sharing my experiences, I am being helpful.
I have been wanting to write this article for a long time, but what pushed me past the tipping point was my annual physical exam earlier this week. The doctor reviewed all of my lab results, examined me, and then congratulated me. “Whatever you’re doing is working great, so keep it up!” she said.
I handed her a printout of my daily meal spreadsheet to ask if she had any suggestions about my diet. As I mentioned previously, I kept notes about what I ate at each meal for several months, and I’d brought it in for her. She paged through it. “This is great,” she said. “You’re eating really well. I love what I’m seeing here—” and she named a few foods and praised me. “But I want you to eat breakfast more often,” she said.
References and Further Reading
- Effect of breakfast on weight and energy intake: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials | The BMJ
- Tim Spector: Breakfast—the most important meal of the day? - The BMJ
- What is a problem for the brain is the effects of living with high blood sugar. [return]
- A few paragraphs later when discussing his own daily routine, this same doctor writes, “With remarkable predictability, my stomach tells me it’s 10:30am… It’s time for my secret weapon—those peeled, tiny, ready-to-eat carrots… [they] tide me over till lunch.” [return]