Why It's Okay to Skip Breakfast

11/30/2015 10:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Do you want to turn your body into a fat-burning machine? Skipping breakfast could be the answer.

While our physiology is largely geared to a feast-and-famine pattern of energy intake, characteristic of our hunter-gatherer homo sapiens ancestors, we live in a modern world where food is abundant and schedules dictate our eating patterns. This dilemma between our modern society and our ancient physiology is not new. But rather than ignore our physiology, we ought to understand what makes it function optimally and try to incorporate this into our modern lifestyle.

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

Breakfast is touted as the most important meal of the day, and breakfast is often recommended during a weight loss regime.

So where does this idea stem from? At one point, a link was established between skipping breakfast and obesity, because statistically obese people tend to skip breakfast. However, there is no scientific research confirming a direct cause-and-effect relationship between skipping breakfast and gaining weight. Confused? Don't worry. What it means is that we don't know if skipping breakfast causes obesity.

In fact, new research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2014) showed no effect from either eating or skipping breakfast on weight loss.

Should we eat when we are not hungry?

I don't know about you, but I actually don't feel hungry in the mornings. For so many years I felt like I had to eat breakfast, because "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" -- at least that is what we are being told.

Why we don't feel hungry in the morning

The circadian system keeps us in sync with the 24-hour day and responds to light and darkness. This system can affect certain hormones, body temperature and digestion.

The circadian system regulates hunger and appetite and causes a reduced sense of hunger in the mornings and a peak in hunger in the evenings -- possibly in preparation for the overnight fast. This could be one of the reasons why, despite an extended overnight fast, paradoxically, people typically are not very hungry in the morning.

Why we are not burning fat

Eating five to six meals a day prevents the body from burning fat. The body prefers to rely on glycogen (carbohydrates) for energy as it's the easiest fuel to burn, but we need to re-educate the body to become a fat burning-machine. To achieve this, you must go long enough without consuming food, which forces the body to use fat as fuel. Postponing the first meal of the day is a way of achieving this and is one way of doing intermittent fasting.

Why we feel like we need to eat every 3-4 hours

Some people complain that if they don't eat regularly they feel dizzy, out of sorts and sometimes "hangry" (hungry and angry). For a person who doesn't have blood sugar issues or diabetes these symptoms are not normal and are a consequence of eating foods that cause blood sugar imbalances, such as too many carbohydrates, and possibly the absence of adequate fat and protein.

Fasting by skipping breakfast

The form of intermittent fasting that I practice from time to time is a 14- to 16-hour fast. Women can do 14 hours and men can do 16 hours.

For example, if your last meal was at 8 p.m., you will have your first meal at 10 a.m. (women) and 12 p.m. (men). This is very achievable as the majority of the fast has already taken place in your sleep, and most people tend to not feel terribly hungry in the mornings.

The benefits of intermittent fasting

The benefits of intermittent fasting go beyond losing weight or preventing obesity. It is a very promising tool in preventing many diseases and increasing life-span.

How to get started

Make sure you have been on a healthy diet for some time, so that you don't experience low blood sugar issues. Start slow. Aim to fast for about 12 hours the first day. So if your last meal at night was at 8 p.m., you eat breakfast at 8 a.m. Subsequently you can increase the fast by one hour every two days until you are at 14 hours (female) and 16 hours (male).

Make sure the evening meal the night before contains adequate fats and protein to ensure stable blood sugar levels.

If you are having a special evening with wine and/or dessert, it's probably not a good idea to fast the next day, as you may be suffering from low blood sugar -- especially if you are new to intermittent fasting.

You can do this type of fasting as often as you like. I like to fast this way about three times per week or whatever fits in with my schedule. Some people do it every day. Others only use it as a weight loss tool.

Does a fast have to be 14-16 hours long? No. Some people go longer, and others choose a shorter span. The right length of time is entirely dependent on your last meal, your activity level and how long you have been healthy for, and if you are eating food to stabilize your blood sugar balance.

When doing a 14- to 16-hour fast you may find that you end up eating three meals and no snacks in a day or two meals and one snack, whichever works for you. I eat brunch around 10, then a meal or a snack around 3 in the afternoon and then dinner around 7:30-8 p.m. How often you eat isn't important, as long as you fast for the 14 to 16 hours.

Why being cautious?

It's a myth that if we don't eat frequently, our body goes into starvation mode and we lose muscle. Most humans are well equipped to handle periods of fasting, let alone miss a meal from time to time. Having said this, I have chosen the least extreme form of intermittent fasting, because at this stage in scientific research, we are not entirely sure where the tipping point is between achieving a healthy prolonged lifespan from intermittent fasting and causing a decline in metabolism, or even harm to the body. This form of fasting enables you to reap the benefits of fasting without jeopardizing your health.

As with anything new go slowly, experiment, and listen to your body.

Who shouldn't fast?

Diabetics, those who are breastfeeding, pregnant women and people with blood sugar issues should not fast. People on medication should consult with their physician before fasting.

No junk

Of course you can indulge once in a while, but intermittent fasting is not your ticket to junk food heaven. On the contrary, it's important to maintain a good diet so as to stabilize blood sugar levels while in the non-fasting state and fill yourself with fuel that will enhance your overall health.