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Should I eat breakfast if I’m not hungry?

By Michelle May, M.D.

bowl of cereal and blueberriesWe’ve all heard that “breakfast is that most important meal of the day” so 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?” I’m always glad when the breakfast question comes up because it’s a great example of how this whole hunger-fullness thing works.

As you probably know, eating breakfast is a great habit. Studies have shown that breakfast-skippers are more likely to be overweight. But most studies don’t fully explain why. In Am I Hungry?, we don’t focus on weight anyway and we don’t give people rules like “you have to eat breakfast.” Instead we help them understand why they do what they do because ultimately, for any lifestyle change to stick, you need to become an expert in yourself – not just a good rule-follower.

So here are some of the reasons skipping breakfast may create problems for you. Hopefully these will give you some insights about your own choices and help you make decisions from the “inside out” about eating breakfast!

  • It may affect your metabolism. When you skip breakfast, you’re not just skipping a meal. For example, if you ate dinner at 6 pm and didn’t eat again until lunch, that’s 18 hours. Imagine what your body is thinking: I’m starving!
  • When you go too long without eating, you’ll get overly hungry and that can lead to overeating. The reason is that hunger is a physical sign that your blood sugar is low and your body needs fuel. When you ignore it for too long, you may develop more extreme symptoms of hunger, including difficulty making decisions about what and how much too eat. You may also eat too fast to not notice how full you are until it is too late.
  • Some people who don’t eat breakfast aren’t hungry when they get up because they ate a lot at night. That is the issue that needs to be addressed.
  • Some people who eat a lot at night wake up feeling guilty and regretful so they skip breakfast to make up for it. When you finally start eating in the afternoon or evening, you’re again overly hungry, so you overeat and feel like you failed (again), so the whole cycle repeats itself.
  • Some people wake up and immediately jump into their day – racing around taking care of other people, stressed out, rushing to work, slamming down caffeine, etc., never taking the time to notice, much less take care of, their own needs, including hunger. No wonder the donuts that show up in the breakroom at 10am are so hard to resist!
  • Some people feel that once they start eating, they can’t stop so they avoid eating until the symptoms are really strong. We use a Hunger and Fullness scale to help you recognize how hungry you are (see chapter 2 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat).
  • Some people say that when they eat breakfast, they are hungry all day. In actuality that can be a good thing because it may mean your metabolism is revving up.
  • But some people tried to eat breakfast in the past but felt hungry all day because they ate carbs with no protein.

That’s enough for now but my point is, breakfast is the most important meal of the day – but don’t just follow a rule and miss the opportunity to explore what is really going on. Take a hard look at why you do what you do so you can make permanent changes and break free from your eat-repent-repeat cycle.

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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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