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Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?

By Michelle May, M.D.

Should I eat breakfast if I'm not hungry?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.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more that you might find helpful:

In charge or in control: which are you?

End emotional eating by decoding your triggers.

How to deconstruct overeating.

This article is significantly updated from a previously published version.

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

15 Comments

  1. Great, thoughtful post, Michelle. Very balanced. Keep up the good work.

  2. Gert says:

    But you haven’t really answered the question. For me even the thought of food in the morning makes me nauseous. I usually have to wait at least two hours before I can eat anything, and isn’t that one of the cardinal rules of a good diet, ‘Do not eat if you aren’t hungry’?

  3. Gert, you’ve touched an important issue – “cardinal rules.” In order to make sustainable changes, this must be an internalized process, not rule-driven. If eating too early in the morning makes you sick, don’t do it. Just take food with you to work so you can eat as soon as you get hungry. That is not the same thing as skipping breakfast. You can also experiment with different types of foods. Also use increased awareness to notice whether other factors, like drinking a lot of coffee in the morning or eating something the night before or an underlying case of reflux, could be contributing to the nausea.

  4. Gert says:

    Thanks for your reply, but it isn’t a recent thing. It is a life long thing (I am 57). It is usually 8-10 hours between eating and waking in the morning so it isn’t from overeating the night before. I also only have one cup of coffee in the morning, I have also tried different foods (toast, yogurt, cereal, etc.) but even if I wake up hungry (very rare) I am just not able to eat more than a small amount. The reason for my post was that I am seeing more and more articles on the ‘importance of eating breakfast’ and wanted an opinion on the whole arguement.Thanks again for your reply.

    • Sarah says:

      Gert,

      Morning nausea has been a lifelong problem for me as well. If you feel nauseous, then certainly don’t eat. Food doesn’t do you any good if it comes back up! That being said, though, I think Michelle’s advice was good – if you can’t eat right away (I so know how you feel!), then bring something that is easy on your stomach with you on the go, and eat when you’re ready.

      Something else to consider, is that dehydration can cause feelings of nausea, and first thing in the morning is probably also the longest you go all day without drinking anything. I’m not going to suggest you chug a liter of water right before bed, but making an effort to stay hydrated all day and maybe keeping a bottle of water next to your bed to take a few sips at night could help, or drinking something hydrating first thing in the morning BEFORE the coffee (coffee is a diuretic and does not help with hydration) could help the nauseous feeling go away a little faster. Herbal tea or some light juice could be good if plain water is hard to take when you’re feeling queasy.

  5. Debi says:

    Thanks Michelle! You hit the nail on the head with me almost the entire way through this article. I am currently working on figuring out “why” I eat what I do and “why” I eat when I do (I am a big night-time eater – 3 a.m.).

  6. This is a wonderful post. No rules, just sound information from which we can make wise decisions. That’s what we all need.

  7. Dellbert56 says:

    I’m with Gert on this: you have not answered the question for those of us who are NOT overweight (never have been), don’t eat huge meals late at night, and have almost never been hungry in the morning for our entire lives. As soon as I was old enough to make my own choices about breakfast, I stopped eating breakfast (about 40 years ago). On those rare occasions when I do eat breakfast, I am much more hungry at lunch and I find that I eat more and start gaining weight in my belly area very quickly. This usually happens when I travel and stay at a hotel with free breakfast and I meet with other members of my company to discuss our day over breakfast.
    The question I want answered is should I be eating when I am not hungry (to be more healthy), or should I simply stay hydrated all day and only eat when I am hungry? As almost all the research seems to show, eating less than average people not only helps to control weight, but it results in a longer life, not just for humans but for all animals studied to date. This seems to say that a slow metabolism is BETTER than a fast metabolism, unless you are fat and trying to lose weight. So I should NOT eat breakfast if I am not hungry, right?

  8. Thanks for your comment Dellbert56. This blog is primarily for people who are struggling with food, weight, and yoyo dieting so you are probably right – I may not have answered it for you.
    However, I would say that based on how you describe yourself (never overweight), keep doing what you are doing! For people with food issues, my key messages include learning to listen to the information their body provides (like hungry) and trust themselves again. In your case, you are already doing that. If it’s not broken, why try to fix it?

  9. “…for any lifestyle change to stick, you need to become an expert in yourself – not just a good rule-follower.” What a great statement!
    Many people don’t realize that caffeine suppresses their appetite, and since they START their day with coffee, they just don’t feel hungry for breakfast after. Perhaps if they had their coffee WITH breakfast, or drank it after eating, they may be more inclined to want to eat breakfast (& before those mid-morning hunger pangs).
    Also, I’ve heard many times from clients how they feel too sick in the morning to eat, but have found that after trying to eat breakfast for a week (not really forcing it, but nibbling on what they can, and eventually increasing the amount to a regular, healthy breakfast), their bodies get used to it, begin to expect it, and then eventually is hungry in the morning. It’s kind of “getting over the hump”.
    And since there are more benefits to eating breakfast than just weight loss/maintenance, it might be worth a shot–breakfast is the perfect time to fit in extra fiber, antioxidants & fluids.
    Thanks, Michelle!
    –Melanie
    http://www.FreshStartNutrition.com

  10. Great suggestions Melanie – thanks!

  11. Sasha says:

    I dont eat breakfast as im never hungry and it makes me sick if i do and im also extremely fit. not overweight one bit. and i know ppl that DO eat breakfast and are fat as hell so????

  12. Lori says:

    Very helpful! I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. I was drinking 2 cups of coffee w/ lots of milk & sugar to help me wake up, then waiting an hour for it to kick in before exercising 1-1.5 hrs. (found something I really like doing). I didn’t eat bfast until noon or later, then overate from 4-6pm. Gradually I cut down to 1 cup coffee, and now I’m getting hungry around 9:30-10am when I finish my routine. Yay!
    What I need to understand now is, once I eliminate the caffeine altogether, should I eat before or after intense exercise? You mentioned in your book about telling your husband he shouldn’t eat a granola bar or similar before exercise, but I couldn’t find why that was, or when you did want him to eat it instead. I’ve been looking online about pre- and post-workout meals, but all I can find about that pertains to bodybuilders and athletes. I’m neither of those, with 50 pounds left to lose!
    I guess I should wait and see what my body asks for then, instead of worrying about it now? 🙂

  13. Hi Lori,
    I don’t remember writing that he shouldn’t eat before exercise; let me know where that is in the book if you find it again! I think you should wait and see how your body responds. Personally, I’m not hungry yet when I get up early to hike but I’m usually pretty hungry within an hour or so afterward. I know I need to eat an hour or two before yoga though (typically in the afternoon). If you feel shaky and weak during exercise, you’ll want to plan to have something.

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