A year without breakfast

No, it’s not the most important meal of the day.

About a year ago, I gave up breakfast. The truth is, I’ve never liked breakfast. When I wake up, I’m not hungry. Why should I eat? However, breakfast is important, right? Everybody knows, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Not eating breakfast is associated with all sorts of ills.1 It will make you fat. It will give you heart disease. Why would anybody in their right mind not have breakfast?

Well, two things happened about a year ago that made me change my mind. First, I learned about the recent trend of intermittent fasting, which basically amounts to not eating for extended periods of time on a somewhat regular schedule. One of the most popular schedules for intermittent fasting is 16 / 8, which means that every day you fast for 16 hours and then you have an 8 hour window in which you’re allowed to eat. If you do the math, if you skip breakfast, have lunch at noon, and finish dinner before 8pm, you’re on a 16 / 8 intermittent fasting schedule. So 16 / 8 intermittent fasting is really just a fancy term for “skipping breakfast.” Second, and more importantly, I read this life-changing article: “Why does breakfast make me hungry?”2 This article, written by one of the leading intermittent fasting proponents, explains in detail the hormonal reasons that cause some people to get really hungry shortly after breakfast. In fact, I had always noticed that I got really hungry about an hour or so after having had breakfast. And it didn’t seem to matter much what I ate, or how much I ate, for breakfast. I would be reliably hungry around 10am–11am. (I’m not an early riser.) So clearly, what was written in this article held true for me.

Now, between having a solid scientific explanation for why breakfast seemed to make me more not less hungry and a cool name for my new habit of not eating breakfast, I decided to take the plunge with 16 / 8 intermittent fasting. I haven’t had more than maybe 5–10 breakfasts, total, over the last year. Well, technically, my break fast is the first meal I eat after fasting, regardless of the time. So to be more precise, I haven’t eaten before noon more than maybe 5–10 times, total, over the last year. When I started out, I would have coffee with some cream in the morning, so I had a small caloric intake shortly after waking up. But lately I’ve given that up as well. I now take my coffee black.

What has been the outcome of this experiment? If you google “intermittent fasting,” you can read about all sorts of demonstrated or plausible health benefits, such as increased insulin sensitivity, improved body composition, or neuroprotection. But I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, I want to talk about how it has affected me, personally, in my day-to-day life.

Most importantly, my dependency on regular feeding has gone way down. Do you ever have the sense of “I’m starving; my brain is going to stop functioning unless I get food right now?” I used to have these sensations all the time. But if you think about it, it can’t be true. Unless you’re anorexic, if you live in the civilized world you’re not about to starve. You’re not about to starve if you haven’t had food for a day. Realistically, you’re not about to starve if you haven’t had food for a week. You’re certainly not about to starve if you haven’t had food for a few hours. So why would your body tell you so? Because after years of around-the-clock feeding, after rarely if ever experiencing more than a few hours in the non-fed state, your body has forgotten how to make effective use of its energy reserves. The required genes are not turned on. You can’t burn the layer of fat on your belly, even though it’s there. So your body screams for food. I know mine used to. Now, after a year of intermittent fasting, I don’t usually have this issue anymore. I’m certainly not hungry during my regular fasting window. And even if I have to fast longer, for example because I really have to get something done and can’t eat at my regular lunch hour, it doesn’t really matter to me. I just keep going, and I eat when I can. I also don’t usually snack anymore. Why should I need a snack if I’ve just eaten a few hours earlier? My body isn’t even done digesting yet.

The other huge benefit is all the extra time I now have that I’m not spending on thinking about getting food, procuring food, preparing food, eating food. After getting out of bed, I usually have at least six waking hours before I first seriously think about eating. That’s a lot of productive time. Once you start cutting meals, you start realizing how much time and effort they require. Now mind you, I like to eat, and I like to prepare food. But once or twice a day is plenty.

I also don’t really experience afternoon slumps anymore. I feel overall much more awake. I have to add the caveat, though, that concomitantly with intermittent fasting I’ve also reduced my carb intake, a lot. Metabolically, the fasted state and the state on a low-carb, high-fat diet are very similar, so it’s hard to distinguish which intervention has caused what.

But intermittent fasting is not all unicorns and rainbows. There are a few clear downsides that need to be mentioned. First, it took me probably 6 months to get really comfortable with extended fasts (16+ hours). Initially, there were days when I felt quite hungry, when I was literally looking at the clock waiting for my feeding window to open up. Second, on an intermittent fasting protocol, when you eat, you need to EAT. I usually have two meals a day; hence, each meal needs to be around 1100 Cals or so. (I don’t really keep track, but I estimate that I eat around 2200 Cals a day. Definitely not less, maybe more.) I rarely worry about excess calories when I eat, but I frequently worry about not getting sufficiently many calories. As a regular faster, when you go out to eat with your friends and family, you may find that they think you’ve gone nuts. While they barely finish their chicken breast, you order a couple of appetizers, extra butter for your steak, and some extra sides. And still you leave the restaurant hungry. Third, if you have business or social meal events during your fasting window, you have to decide whether you want to be weird and watch your company eating or rather break your fast. I’ve gotten quite good with just having a black coffee during breakfast events, but depending on your job and social demands, it could be difficult.

So, has skipping breakfast made me fat and given me heart disease? Well, I have to admit that I’ve gained about eight pounds over the last year. And I’ve also lost about an inch around my waist. That’s what they mean when they say “improved body composition.” As to heart disease, so far I’m alive and kicking. Of course I can’t promise you that I won’t drop dead from a heart attack tomorrow. I’ll take my chances, though.

  1. That’s the kind of nonsense that frequently passes for science in the field of nutrition. Not eating breakfast is associated with all sorts of ills, mostly because both skipping breakfast and the associated ills are indicators of a stressful lifestyle and of poor eating habits. There’s absolutely no evidence that skipping breakfast in the context of a well-formulated diet and otherwise healthy lifestyle is harmful. Controlled studies generally find the opposite. For example, skipping breakfast is a simple method to control overall caloric intake.↩︎

  2. The author of this article is quite a character. But the science is solid.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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