Would ditching breakfast make you healthier?
Chances are you had breakfast this morning, whether it was before you left home or after you’d arrived at work. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a major health box ticked – after all, for years experts have insisted breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
However, a new eating programme is now spinning conventional wisdom on its head and has sparked debate about whether breakfasteers have been wrong all along.
The two-meal a day diet, a concept from fitness trainer, nutritionist and author of The 2 Meal Day, Max Lowery, suggests most people would be far healthier eating just twice a day instead of three times, and breakfast is the easiest meal to ditch.
Skipping breakfast – or ‘time-restricted eating’ – he argues, prolongs your ‘fasting’ period from sleeping overnight, which will result in a host of health benefits. Research has shown intermittent fasting can help weight loss, stabilise blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease.
This was the basis of the highly popular 5:2 diet where for two days of the week you survived on a ‘fast’ of just 500 calories, but ate normally for the other five.
‘There is a lot of evidence available now to show fasting is extremely important to your health and wellbeing,’ says Max. ‘Fasting allows the body to burn fat for energy instead of being dependent on the sugars it gets from food. But this is different from the 5:2, because you can incorporate it into your daily life. Eating 500 calories for two days every week is not sustainable long-term.’
The main benefits of this way of eating, Max says, is you burn fat, have more energy and feel less hungry without going on an actual diet.
‘If you eat by 8pm the previous evening, skip breakfast and have lunch at noon, it means you have stretched your normal overnight fast to around 16 hours, at which point it has started burning body fat,’ he says.
‘The longer you are in the fasting state, the more you are likely to see the benefits over time.’
Is it time to break with breakfast tradition?
Max believes as a nation we have been conditioned to think we need breakfast every morning. ‘The truth is we don’t,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of myths about the impact of not having breakfast. One of them is that your metabolism slows down. Research has shown that during fasting it can actually increase by up to 12%.’
Unsurprisingly the eating plan has been met with scepticism in some quarters. Nutritional physiologist Rick Hay, author of The Anti Ageing Food & Fitness Plan, says that while he acknowledges the evidence-based benefits of fasting, the idea of a two-meal diet should be approached with caution.
‘For most people, I would still advocate that breakfast is important,’ he says. ‘If you have a high-powered job or just a stressful life, as many people do, not eating in the morning can cause a drop in blood sugar and you can suffer mood swings or a general lack of concentration.
‘There’s also a concern that if the body can’t get energy from food, it will get it from stress hormones, which could increase levels of visceral fat – the body fat stored around the abdominal cavity, which includes the liver, pancreas and intestines. This is associated with cardiovascular disease and conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.’
He also adds that people who have fasted all morning could be tempted to eat too much at lunchtime.
If so, says Rick, ‘there is a danger they could end up actually gaining weight. Often what we need is more nutritional knowledge, not a new eating plan.’
Consultant dietitian Helen Bond is equally wary. ‘While we know fasting is gathering momentum in terms of research, there’s a weight of evidence in favour of having breakfast. It breaks your overnight “fast” and gives you the energy and nutrients to help throughout the morning. We should be having 20% of our recommended calorie intake at breakfast.’
Helen adds there is stacked evidence to suggest people who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to have weight issues as they grow older, too.
‘They tend to be slimmer or able to lose weight in the long term and are more likely to have a nutritionally balanced diet,’ she says. ‘Long term, you can sustain your weight and weight loss better if you have three meals a day.”
While Max accepts there are some people who may struggle with skipping breakfast initially, he says it doesn’t take long for the body to adjust.
‘If you are concerned about low sugar levels, then the change needs to happen gradually,’ he explains. ‘First you start with three healthy meals a day with absolutely no snacking in between. Then, when you are comfortable with that, you can push your first meal a little bit later each day until you are eating at lunchtime.’
So should you ditch breakfast or not?
The answer may actually lie with ‘intuitive eating’, a concept championed by nutritionist and life coach, Pandora Symes.
‘If we eat intuitively, many of us would probably skip breakfast a lot of mornings anyway because we would wake up after a heavy meal the night before, for example, and recognise we’re not really hungry,’ she explains.
‘It is ingrained in us that we eat three meals a day which means many of us have lost our natural intuition when it comes to food.
‘What we need to be doing is listening to what our body needs at different times, rather than following specific diets or eating at assigned times, regardless of whether we are hungry or not. That is really the best way to have the healthiest relationship with food and find the right balance.’
Read more: The foodie’s guide to the best brunch in London