For our whole lives we’ve heard that “breakfast is that most important meal of the day.” Then along comes mindful eating and the answer to the question, “Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?” isn’t so clear cut!
The old adage stems from the very word “breakfast,” which refers to “breaking the fast.”
Typically, the explanation is that skipping breakfast adversely affects your metabolism because when you skip breakfast, you’re not just skipping a meal: if you eat dinner and don’t eat again until lunch the next day, that’s an 18 hour fast. The concern is that your body is thinking, I’m starving! and will conserve energy.
What does the research say about eating breakfast?
A recent review of the research calls some of the purported benefits of eating breakfast into question.
It turns out that although we’ve been told that eating breakfast is an important habit, that was primarily based on observational studies. That means that although there appears to be a correlation between eating breakfast and certain outcomes, there is no way to know whether eating breakfast is the cause.
What else might explain a correlation between breakfast and better health? Well, perhaps people who eat breakfast are also those who get up early to exercise or meditate. Maybe they don’t eat late at night so they are hungry in the morning. Perhaps they sleep well and/or don’t drink alcohol at night. Maybe they consume more fiber and calcium. Maybe they eat a balanced diet throughout the day. Maybe they aren’t working long hours in a stressful job. You get the idea…
In other words, it may not be the breakfast itself, but other associated behaviors and factors (or more likely, a combination of behaviors and factors) that make it appear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but there is no way to say that breakfast itself is beneficial.
And of course, the popularity of intermittent fasting has turned the old advice to eat breakfast on its head! One form of intermittent fasting recommends skipping breakfast and eating all of your meals in an 8 or 10 hour window. So much for the most important meal!
Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?
One of the most common questions I’m asked about using hunger to help guide eating is, “Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?”
In Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs, we don’t give people rules like “you have to eat breakfast.”
Instead, we guide them to recognize their patterns and try to understand why they do what they do so they can make decisions for themselves.
Mindful eating is an inside-out approach that teaches you to become an expert in yourself, rather trying to be a good rule-follower.
Mindful Eating and Breakfast
I’m always glad when the breakfast question comes up because it’s a great example of how this whole hunger-fullness thing works.
So, instead of following an old rule to eat breakfast, or a new rule to skip breakfast, let’s tap into your wisdom!
Wisdom = Knowledge + Experience
Here are some things to consider when learning to use hunger to guide your decisions about breakfast. Hopefully these will give you some insights about your own choices and help you make decisions from the “inside out” about eating!
Some people just aren’t hungry in the morning, and that’s ok!
You don’t have to eat breakfast the minute your feet hit the floor – or even within an hour of getting up. If you aren’t hungry right away, keep checking in so you notice you’re hungry before you are starving – a common trigger for overeating.
(Try our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app. It has a timer you can set to remind you to do a Body-Mind-Heart scan.)
Are you inhibiting hunger?
Some people don’t feel hungry when they wake up because they immediately jump into their day, racing around taking care of other people, stressing out, rushing to work, slamming down several cups of coffee, etc., so their hunger is suppressed by the adrenaline and caffeine.
If that might be you, can you create a little space to pause, take a few deep breaths, and check in? (Again our app can help with that.)
Do you have time to eat?
Along the same lines, other people are hungry but haven’t figured out how to make time to eat in the morning. If this sounds like you, here are some questions to help you pinpoint the challenge and come up with a solution:
- Do you need to prioritize your needs so you make time for breakfast, just like you make time for brushing your teeth and getting dressed?
- Do you need to get up a little earlier (and perhaps go to bed a little earlier to make that possible)?
- Do you need to prep something to eat for breakfast the night before?
- What are some quick, easy options you could have available?
- Could you take something to work with you so you can eat after your commute?
Are you afraid of feeling “hungry all day”?
Some people skip breakfast because they say, “When I eat breakfast, I’m hungry all day.” If you’ve noticed that, pay attention to what you are eating. Could it be that your meals and snacks are mostly carbs? Experiment with adding fat and protein to see if that gives you more sustained satiety.
Are you eating or bingeing at night?
Is it possible that the reason you aren’t hungry when you get up is because you eat late or a lot at night? Instead of skipping breakfast, it will be more helpful to explore why you are eating at night, especially if you are binge eating.
Are you trying to compensate for eating the day before?
Do you sometimes wake up feeling guilty about what you ate the day before and skip breakfast to make up for it? This often backfires because you may become overly hungry, overeat, and feel like you failed (again), so the whole cycle repeats itself.
As you learn from reading Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, guilt just feeds your eat-repent-repeat cycle so try to let it go!
Are you setting yourself up with restriction and deprivation?
Some people feel that once they start eating, they can’t stop, so they avoid eating until the symptoms are really strong. Often the real issue is that they are restricting their eating so when they finally “give in” and eat, the feelings of deprivation make it difficult to stop.
Take our Eating Cycle Assessment to see if your pattern might be driving restricting and overeating.
Don’t miss the lesson!
If you decide to skip breakfast for whatever reason, pay attention to how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally over the next few hours. This feedback will help you make decisions in the future.
- Are you aware of symptoms that your stomach is empty and your body and brain need fuel?
- Is your stomach growling or empty?
- Do you feel irritable?
- Are you having difficulty concentrating and being productive?
- When you finally eat, do you have difficulty making decisions about what and how much too eat?
- Do you eat too fast to notice how full you are until you’re overly full?
Despite the old adage that “breakfast is the most important meal,” and the new fad to skip breakfast altogether, you have an opportunity to explore what works for you. Since hunger doesn’t follow a clock, paying attention to your body’s signals will help you tune in to your own hunger rhythms and begin to trust yourself to make decisions without following rules.
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This article is significantly updated from a previously published version.