Too often clients tell me that breakfast is a rarity or it’s the unhealthiest, most convenience based meal of the day. At the other end of the scale, lots of people skip breakfast completely in an attempt to ‘get in shape’. Either way, you need to reassess what you’re doing.
Where to start?
Many people are often confused about what breakfast choices are healthier and support their physical goals. With so much misinformation out there it can be frustrating reading contradictory statements about what to eat, what not to eat, and whether to eat at all.
Lets try and create some clarity for you.
First we’ll present the scientific rationale behind breakfast, and next week we’ll look at some of the practical applications.
Do we need to have breakfast at all?
It can be argued that when you eat is just as important as what you eat when it comes to realising physical transformation goals. This highlights the importance of what we term nutrient timing.
“Nutrient timing is the delivery of appropriate macronutrients during the time in which the body is primed to use them most effectively” (1)
When we discuss the importance of breakfast, we are simply arguing about the importance of taking on certain nutrients upon waking.
What happens when we sleep?
To decide if breakfast is as important as we think it is, it is first useful to understand what happens to our body when we sleep.
Our bodies still need to maintain critical physiological and metabolic functions while we sleep. It doesn’t all grind to a halt! Our body has to repair and grow, returning the body to a state of homeostasis. If you’re trying to achieve any sort of body composition goal, this is even more critical.
When we first go to sleep, blood glucose and liver glycogen are sufficient to support the energy requirements of the body. During this period, growth hormone peaks and protein synthesis is elevated (2). However, we have a limited supply of liver glycogen and by the early hours of the morning, liver glycogen stores are running low. Blood glucose, insulin and growth hormone levels are now on the decline.
To compensate for this, the body releases a hormone called cortisol which causes the breakdown of muscle protein and fat. Amino acid’s generated from this protein breakdown are then transported to the liver where they are converted into glucose and released into the blood stream. This acts a buffer. Thus, blood glucose levels are maintained at a level the body is happy with. Hurrah!
What does this have to do with breakfast?
Well when we wake up, cortisol levels are at their highest. Breakfast immediately lowers the blood level of cortisol, and until we eat, it remains elevated (2,3).
Why should you worry about prolonged elevated levels of cortisol?
Unfortunately, prolonged elevated levels of cortisol are bad news for lots of reasons;
- It causes a prolonged breakdown of muscle protein (not good for any body composition goals).
- It will promote fat storage, particualry in the abdominal area. (4)
- Cortisol has also been associated with increased energy intake and leptin resistant states. (5)
- Chronically elevated cortisol levels are directly associated with increased risk of obesity and a number of medical condisitons associated with the metabilic syndrome such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. (4,6)
It is also useful to point out that cortisol is also increased by exposure to psychological stress (7). Therefore we cant simply blame a lack of breakfast for chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Likewise, cortisol is not the enemy. It plays a crucial role in maintaining blood glucose levels. It becomes a problem when we rely on it too much.
Main take home point: Breakfast appears to be a critical piece of the jigsaw in preventing chronically elevated levels of cortisol, which in turn will help protect us from abdominal fat and possibly other health disorders.
From a training perspective…
Nutrient timing can significantly impact exercise performance, recovery and training adaptation. Pretty important stuff in the battle of the bulge, but absolutely essential for an athlete or anyone engaged in a physical training programme.
Breakfast is a critical meal for any training goals because;
- It will immediately raise the body’s energy level, raising blood glucose level to normal over an overnight fast (the clue is in the name!).
- It raises the liver and muscle glycogen stores (liver glycogen especially depletes over night as the body attempts to maintain blood glucose levels whilst you sleep). Considering carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for muscle and the nervous system, this is pretty useful!
- This also means that perfomrance in any training sessions will be improved. Low carbohydrate levels result in poor perfromance and rapid fatigue during training and other physical activities (8,9), and your perceived exertion during that training session will also be elevated in this state, making a training session even more of a challenge. (9,10)
The bottom line is that if you are trying to achieve a body composition goal, you will be undergoing physical training. Without the correct breakfast, performance during the session will be hugely compromised.
The problem arises when a client wants to train first thing in the morning. There’s not enough time to digest breakfast and train, so they will often train in a fasted state (i.e before breakfast). This also has a reputation for burning more body fat. Win win right?
This is an article in itself. But looking at it from our current perspective in terms of cortisol levels, if you wake with cortisol levels at their highest, then add more physical stress to that state, causing an even further rise in cortisol levels, is this a good state to be putting your body into?
We will cover fasted cardio in 2 weeks time, and give some advice about how to maximise fat loss from your morning cardio sessions.
What about breakfasts’ effect on later that day?
Eating breakfast has been shown to;
Lower appetite and reduce daily caloric intake (11,12,13)
Improve your chances of losing weight and keeping that weight off (14,15,16,17,18)
It is likely that cortisol alters the manner in which the body processes and stores food. We have already mentioned that sustained elevation of blood cortisol increases abdominal fat storage. Well the research suggests that breakfast is critical in reducing cortisol in the morning, helping the body lose fat and keep it off.
Is breakfast the cure for obesity? No. Despite what many will lead you to believe, there is no secret or magic pill that will transform your body. It’s a combination of many factors that when combined, will allow your body to change and adapt, given time and consistency.
Breakfast is simply one of those factors that you have to get right.
Next week in part 2, we will look at what you should be eating for breakfast, and what you should avoid.
- Ivy J, Portman R. Nutrient Timing, the Future of Sports Nutrition. North Bergen, NJ: Basic Health Publications, Inc. 2004.
- Takahashi Y, Kipnis DM, Daughaday WH Growth hormone secretion during sleep. J Clin Invest 1968;47:2079-2090.
- Weitzman ED, Fukushima D, Nogeire C, Roffwarg H, Gallagher TF, Hellman L. Twenty-four hour pattern of the episodic secretion of cortisol in normal subjects. J Clin Endocriol Metab 1971;33:14-22.
- Anagnostis P, Athyros VG, Tziomalos K, Karagiannis A, Mikhailidis DP. The pathogenetic role of cortisol in the metabolic syndrome: a hypothesis. J Clin Endocriol Metab 2009;94:2692-2701.
- Bjorntorp P. Do stress reactions cause abdominal obesity and comorbidities? Obes Rev 2001; 2:73-86
- Rosmond, R, Dallman MF, Björntorp. Stress-related cortisol secretion in men: Relationships with abdominal obesity and endocrine, metabolic and hemodynamic abnormalities. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1998;83:1853-1859.
- Bjorntorp P. Neuroendocrine pertubations as a cause of insulin resistance. Diabetes Metab Res Rev 1999; 15: 427-441
- Bergström J, Hermansen L, Hultman E, Saltin B. Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance. Acta Physiol Scand 1967;71:140-150.
- Hermansen L, Hultman E, Saltin B Muscle glycogen during prolonged severe exercise. Acta Physiol Scand 1967;71:334-346.
- Ahlborg B, Bergstrom J, Ekelund LG, Hultman E. Muscle glycogen and muscle electrolytes during prolonged physical exercise. Acta Physiol Scand 1967;70:129-142.
- Leidy, HJ, Ortinau LC, Douglas SM, Hoertel HA. Beneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, “breakfast-skipping,” late-adolescent girls. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:677-688.
- Speedhly DP, Buffenstein R. Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males. Appetite 1999;33:285-297.
- Speedhly DP, Rogers GG, Guffenstein R. Acute appetite reduction associated with an increased frequency of eating in obese males. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1999;23:1151-1159.
- Van der Heijden A|AWA, Hu FB, Rimm EB, van Dam RM. A prospective study of breakfast consumption and weight gain among U.S. Men. Obesity 2007;15:2463-2469.
- Ma Y, Bertone ER, Stanek EJ 3rd, et al. Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free-living US adult population. Am J Epidemiol. 2003;158:85–92.
- Berg C, Lappas G, Wolk A, Strandhagen E, Toren K, Rosengren A, Thelle D, Lissner L. Eating patterns and portion size associated with obesity in a Swedish population. Appetite 2009;52:21-26.
- Ortega RM, Requejo AM, Lopez-Sobaler AM, et al. Difference in the breakfast habits of overweight/obese and normal weight schoolchildren. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 1998;68:125–32.
- Wyatt HR, Grunwald GK, Mosca CL, Klem ML, Wing RR, Hill JO. Long-term weight loss and breakfast in subjects in the National Weight Control Registry. Obesity 2002;10:78-82.