Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Breakfast Myth


That breakfast is the most important meal of the day is a common saying in the western world. Over at the Fitness Nerd, Denis deconstructs the topic, first coming clean that the slogan originated from someone’s marketing department but also extolling the virtues of eating first thing in the morning. It’s an important read for inquiring minds. So if the title of this post caught you eye, read it first, and then come back for my addendum. I’ll wait.

Is Breakfast for Champions?

There is one flaw in Denis’ piece. The part where he says that I don’t eat breakfast. I do. When I need to. This leads to part II of the topic; times you might want to consider skipping breakfast.

I’m seconding Denis’ post in saying that most people should eat in the morning. If you’re following a sensible nutrition plan you probably ate lightly at dinner and didn’t eat for a few hours prior to going to sleep. This means it’s been 10 or 12 hours since you’ve eaten a meal that hopefully wasn’t carb heavy. And although your body doesn’t burn calories rapidly when its asleep it’s busy repairing all the damage you did to it the previous day. By morning the light dinner is probably pretty well used up. Breakfast allows you to top off your body’s glycogen storage, which is used for physical activity but also brain function, so you’re ready to face the day with a full compartment of nutrients. Sounds pretty smart.

When I have an active day, like a long day out climbing or a race I always eat in the morning, mainly to ensure that my limited glycogen stores (we can only store enough for 1-1.5 hours of hard activity) are topped up. So when I need my body to perform to its maximum I eat breakfast and, in general, follow most of what we recommend in our Beachbody diet guides. However, on my work days I don’t eat breakfast. And here’s why.

I have to begin the previous evening, because I tend to eat close to bed time. This isn’t optimal but it can work (almost any diet can be made to work within the parameters of your lifestyle, which is why Beachbody’s diet philosophy is that there is no one diet that’s perfect for everyone). I eat late because I exercise after I’m finished with work, which is usually later in the afternoon or early evening. If I finish training at, say, dark, then eat (especially if dinner is slow and social), it’s pretty late. My dinner is also, by far, my largest meal of the day. Generally more than half of my calories (again, unless I’m active all day when I eat constantly). So I go to bed still digesting and wake up with a fully tapped glycogen, meaning breakfast simply is not necessary.

Furthermore, going long periods of time without eating teaches your body to be more efficient as using fat for fuel (Denis points this out). As an endurance athlete this function is vital, so I train it pretty much every work day. Furthermore, there is some hormonal advantage to what’s called intermittent fasting. A lot of bodybuilder types are championing this as scripture but the advantages are technically small. Still, it’s more ammo for not eating.

So, anyway, on a work day I don’t eat breakfast. And it gets worse. I get up pretty early, drink some water—usually two or three glasses—and try to do some short activity to awaken movement patterns; easy yoga is my preference. Then I make some coffee (or tea), drink more water with some supplements (no cals but this isn’t a supplement post so not going into it), then sit down with my coffee and get to work. So I have replenished some nutrients, just not calories because I want to keep training the fat mobilization process.

I work until I start to run out of steam, usually a four to seven hour stretch. Then take the dog out for his “morning” exercise. This is usually an easy hike with ball throwing when I also do a functional warm-up (like the warm-up of P90X2) and, depending on the day, some running drills. While this is warming up for the day it’s also further training fat mobilization. I follow this with breakfast, even though it’s “lunch time”. And, yes, your math is right. I often fast for more than 12 hours daily.

I then go back to work until I’m finished, which varies according to deadlines and the training schedule. I do generally have a pre-workout snack, like Shakeology, an hour or two before my training session. And that is my daily eating regimen on work days.

Of course it’s not set in stone. It varies all the time, especially since my job requires that I experiment with various diet, exercise, and supplement protocols. But it’s important to note that there are many paths to success. I’ve been eating like this for most of my life. I’m 50, have a resting heart rate in the low 40s, can push my heart to over 200 bpm, and can score over 100% on the most rigorous military fit test. My strange protocol works and you can certainly find something unconventional that will work for you, too.

My point in passing on this information is for you to question dogma and, more importantly, eliminate excuses. In training, life, and nutrition absolutes simple do not exist other than the rather holistic eat well, sleep well, and get some exercise. Everything else can be adjusted for your personal lifestyle.

13 comments:

Angelina said...

Very nice blog, Steve. I eat breakfast, big lunch and big dinner and no snacking for the most part unless I'm really hungry. I just don't like snacking. Then, I read a holistic approach to nutrition, gastroenterology, natural hygiene written by a professor teaching in a chiropractic school in Georgia. It says the Western fitness approach to 5 little meals a day doesn't allow the body to rest. Thus, it gets inefficiency and slows the metabolism. That's exactly what you said about intermittent fasting. He recommends fasting once in a while for system resting, but you have to rest completely. The length of fasting depends on individual.

BarbellManiac said...

As a bodybuilder I'm inclined to disagree when I look at it from the point of only gaining mass and can show studies to back up the old argument, but health wise your absolutely correct. I eat before bed regularly, has helped my recovery, my general lack of sleep due to AP classes, but health wise It's not the best. I was much healthier at 135 back when I solely trained for climbing, now at 185 it's not the same. Not that I mind, but what confuses me is how does one eat at night and their glycogen stores are close to full at night? No matter how much I eat before bed, when I wake up, I'm starving. Is that my body's general lack of producing it's own glucose or just it requiring more calories?

Travis said...

So, for you, the eat ever 2 to 3 hourse that we've been hearing these days is no good?

Mike Edenfield said...

Great blog my friend...even though I don't agree with some of it I do with the most part! I agree we all can make any lifestyle (I hate the word DIET) work my lifestyle simply works best for me if I eat a good healthy breakfast each day..a routine of somewhere around 400 to 500 calories and generally 30 to 40 grams of protein..I find that this kind of breakfast with the right carbs mixed in keeps me full and tons of energy for 4 to 5 hours..If I do snack its generally a protein bar or shake! I agree on race days ( I have ran 68 events in the last year and a half) I eat but I eat light...a little cereal or oatmeal..I can perform better with a small amount of carbs and three to four cups of coffee! LOL...Anything besides a race day I am all about protein and water for breakfast..I feel the body is craving protein and water when you arise and by feeding it those two things it gives me strength and energy to work and workout at the best of my ability! As you stated in the beginning though we can make anything work for us! I happen to be fortunate enough to be able to workout daily in the afternoon hours so our lifestyles would probably have to be different and I understand that! Thank you for the thought and research you put into the blog! Very interesting!!

bill said...

I have a digestive disorder, have done P90X 9 times and have only eaten dinner for past 3 years. It may be abnormal, but i have been able to function pretty well. As a society, we are gluttons. Less is sometimes more...

Aaron said...

I can't say I agree or disagree. Like you said, no one diet is perfect for everyone (or something close to that!) and so I go with what I know works for me. I just appreciate the continuous info you give us and allow us to explore different avenues of exercise and nutrition that will allow us to live long, healthy lives. No matter the regiment we follow! Thanks Steve!

How Body said...

Nice info

Josh said...

You lose much sleep knowing that you and everyone else involved in fitness and nutrition councelling would be out of work if people weren't stupid? I mean, eat small healthy meals and exercise stacks. Problem solved.

Of course, people are kinda dumb, so . . . I see your point.

The only thing I'd add to the breakfast debate is that one should consider getting their coffee up on it's feet.

J

Anonymous said...

Eat rice, vegetables and fish, plus get off yer duffs and live life and you won't be such fat pigs.


Luc Kong Dong

Mary E. Clark said...

I do this - get up early, walk to work, work quite efficiently for not having a constant glycogen drip, walk home. I eat a preworkout snack (third of daily calories) around four to five, workout 6:30-8, finish dinner before nine. My muscles don't have to eat themselves even though I fast 3/4 of the day. I like to see other athletes who don't follow the graze-like-a-cow craze; thank you for posting!

Anonymous said...

If had my druthers, I'd rather be a pig than a dong... just sayin..

Azure1203 said...

Personally I think most of our 'energy' needs, and thinking if we don't eat we won't be able to preform properly are all head games. Sure, if you have a big athletic event, obviously you should eat, but for the run of the mill day where you might just be really active, I hardly ever eat a big breakfast. My problem is around 10AM I feel like I need food. So I eat a light snack. Once hockey season starts, things will be different though.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the big take away here is that everyone is different. I believe you should only eat when you are actually hungry. If I eat breakfast, I feel hungry all day long and that is all I can think about, then I end up eating twice as much. So I don't usually eat breakfast. I drink coffee and water and take a vitamin. Everyone's schedule is different, everyone's exercise patterns are different, what everyone eats is different. The idea that there is a one size fits all for everyone is absurd. Listen to your body and let it be your guide.