Is Human Biology Optimized for Early AM Feeding?

Are you one of the 25% of Americans that skip breakfast daily [1]? This may not be such a bad thing. In fact, this is the month that millions of folks around the world engage in a religious practice that only permits consumption of food and water after sunset. Actually, many cultures practice and enjoy the benefit of similar behaviors that we are incredibly well adapted for.

We’re often told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But according to the authors of an editorial published in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, our biology may not be optimized for feeding during waking hours. When we rise every morning, we have this surge in catabolic signaling that occurs from the release of hormones we call glucocorticoids. One you’ve likely heard of called cortisol or “the stress hormone.” Now, cortisol isn’t as bad as it’s often made out to be. In fact, you would be dead without it. Two of its most critical functions in your body is to release stored energy and help keep your inflammation in check. That’s right, cortisol helps pull fat off your ass!

The circadian rhythms of other signaling molecules support the idea that humans may be more nocturnal eaters. The authors state that levels of ghrelin, a hormone driving hunger, reach their peak around 8pm, regardless of how you eat or what your other behaviors are! In addition levels of leptin, a hormone that tells your brain you have enough energy, reaches its lowest point in the late afternoon.

Despite these findings, there certainly is no denying the existence of a large body of research that demonstrates a relationship between breakfast skipping and increased fat mass. But that’s just an association. Does skipping breakfast make people fat? Not necessarily. In fact, issues with this area of research have been brought to light.

“…2 major issues with observational studies of meal frequency and weight gain: post hoc changes in meal frequency after weight gain and misreporting of energy intake.” [2]

Basically, people who are not eating breakfast are likely using breakfast skipping to lose extra weight. It’s not that skipping breakfast made they overweight. They were already overweight!

Misreporting energy intake is another issue that plagues nutritional epidemiology. Oftentimes people underestimate what they are actually eating. In an interesting study looking at intermittent fasting, investigators used a cell phone app to capture data on what people were actually eating. As opposed to the 3 square meals a day that folks were reporting, they found that feeding events ranged from 4 – 15 times per day [3]!!! Apparently there’s a lack of congruency between what people say and what they do when it comes to nutrition. This same study showed that you can benefit by restricting the window of time in which you eat your food to 10-12 hours a day, regardless of WHAT was being eaten.

A buddy of mine, Guillermo Ruiz ( 3030strong.com ), says eating is one of the most oxidative things we do. And he’s right. The miracle of stripping electrons off of food in our bodies generates a lot of harmful byproducts. You’ve heard of free radicals! Every time you eat and generate energy from that food this happens. It’s unavoidable. But you can give your defense systems against these free radicals a break!

So now you’re all ready to shun breakfast, right? Not so fast! PLEASE UNDERSTAND that a morning without food can be a MAJOR STRESSOR on the body of someone who is a habitual breakfast eater. The “straw that breaks the camel’s back” so to speak. Moreso to those not engaging in the best behavior! Donuts, bagels, cereal, sugary coffee anyone? So what can you do instead? First improving quality and then taking baby steps. By baby steps we mean gradually having your breakfast later each week until your first meal of the day is around 16 hours away from dinner the previous night. Opt for good sources of protein along with better sources of carbohydrate and fat. Protein shakes are helpful if you’re in a hurry. Otherwise things you would eat for dinner (ideally a protein source, with fibrous vegetables and a bit of starch) are excellent breakfast options. Leftovers work very well here! It might seem a little strange at first, but if the result is you having more time, endless energy and improved body composition, why not?

[1] Buckner, Samuel L., Paul D. Loprinzi, and Jeremy P. Loenneke. “Why don’t more people eat breakfast? A biological perspective.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 103.6 (2016): 1555-1556.

[2] Tinsley, Grant M., Joshua G. Gann, and Paul M. La Bounty. “Intermittent Fasting Programs and Their Effects on Body Composition: Implications for Weight-Restricted Sports.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 37.5 (2015): 60-71.

[3] Gill, Shubhroz, and Satchidananda Panda. “A smartphone app reveals erratic diurnal eating patterns in humans that can be modulated for health benefits.” Cell metabolism 22.5 (2015): 789-798

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