If you’re unfamiliar with intermittent fasting (IF), skipping breakfast might seem like a bad thing. After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? Wrong. Not only might it be unnecessary, depending on what you eat, it could be detrimental.
In this blog post, I’ll outline the health benefits of intermittent fasting, as well as the possible drawbacks of eating the wrong kind of breakfast if you do eat it.
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What is Intermittent Fasting?
To fast means to go without food (or calorie-containing beverages).
Fasting is not new, although the awareness and research support of its health benefits is. Almost every religion incorporates fasting into their faith in some way and has for thousands of years.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Matthew 4:1-4 (NIV)
Fasting practices in religions vary from fasting only during daylight, such as Muslims do during the month of Ramadan, to fasting for multiple days in a row.
For those who follow intermittent fasting lifestyles, the purpose isn’t spiritual so much as it’s metabolic.
Variations of Intermittent Fasting
Alternate-day fasting is one form of intermittent fasting. You eat whatever you want one day (feast), and then avoid food the next (fast).
Some people fast two days per week, like on a Wednesday and a Saturday instead, and eat on the other five days.
Yet another form of IF, which I follow, and which seems to be the most popular, is called time-restricted feeding (TRF). You can still eat each day; it’s just within a shortened window of time. The most common approach is to fast for 16 hours and then eat within an 8-hour window.
About five years ago, I accidentally got into the habit of skipping breakfast, and only drinking black coffee. I worked through the morning and then went to the gym at lunchtime. After my workout, I’d eat my first meal.
It wasn’t for the health benefits at the time. I just wanted to get to work right away in the morning and not waste time making breakfast.
In a short time, I was skipping breakfast every day.
I was more productive, not only because I didn’t have the distraction of making breakfast, but my brain functioned better.
The longer I went without breakfast, the more I appreciated the benefits. Though I wasn’t trying to get leaner, my body fat dropped a bit as well.
In some cases, fasting might include going without water as well. However, when it comes to health-related fasting, non-caloric beverages like water, tea, coffee, or diet drinks are permissible.
Five years later, I’m still sticking with it. Aside from an occasional splurge for gluten-free donuts, or going to a highly-rated breakfast restaurant, I do not eat breakfast.
Two meals per day, no snacks, carbs saved for dinner. That’s pretty much it.
If I can stay healthy and lean, and perform well physically and mentally, by just eating a couple of times per day (of course, it’s high in protein and gluten-free), why would I make it more complicated than that?
Mental Advantages of Intermittent Fasting
With most diets, you face a mental battle between what you’d like to eat and what you know you should eat. That requires an enormous amount of willpower, which is why few people stick with them.
With intermittent fasting, you don’t have to deal with such a decision. You just don’t eat.
Not surprisingly, people stick with intermittent fasting better than alternative diets.
Try it tomorrow morning. When you walk into your kitchen at your usual breakfast time, instead of asking, “What should I eat for breakfast?” simply say out loud, “I don’t eat breakfast.”
It’s like when I went out with some co-workers in the past. After dinner and a few drinks, some of the guys would suggest going to a strip club. I always said, “I don’t go to strip clubs,” and I’d head back to my hotel.
Eliminate the opportunity to be tempted, and you save yourself from making a poor decision. That’s what makes intermittent fasting so simple.
Instead of facing the temptation to eat a bad breakfast, you don’t eat breakfast.
Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
If intermittent fasting were equally effective as other diets, I’d still recommend people try it, since it’s easier to stick with. However, a growing number of studies show that it could be superior.
1. Weight loss / Fat loss
Most people who have struggled to lose weight are already frustrated with trying to “stick to a diet.” It’s difficult to go through the mental battle of choosing the right foods to eat multiple times every day.
With intermittent fasting, you eat fewer meals, so you don’t have to deal with as many willpower-draining decisions. IF supports weight loss a few other ways as well.
First, if you eat fewer meals, you eat fewer calories. Most people do not make up for missed meals by eating excessive amounts during the meals they eat. You create calorie restriction without feeling restricted.
Second, the longer you go without food, the more of your day you’ll derive energy from your body fat stores.
Since you don’t eat, you don’t raise blood sugar and insulin, which would shut down your ability to burn fat.
Third, some studies have shown that even when people eat an equivalent number of calories, but consume them within a shorter time frame, they get leaner.
The only way this could happen is if intermittent fasting causes unique metabolic changes.
One theory is that intermittent fasting increases adiponectin, which increases metabolic rate. Another possibility is that the fasting stimulates epinephrine secretion, which would also raise resting metabolic rate, but this has not been proven yet.
For overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes, a time-restricted fasting protocol for just two weeks caused a significant reduction in body weight, fasting glucose and post-meal increases in blood sugar, which leads me to the metabolic health benefits of intermittent fasting.
2. Metabolic health
During a period of fasting, your blood sugar remains steady. Without ingesting carbohydrates or protein, your blood sugar does not rise, and insulin levels remain low.
This could be an especially-appealing dietary choice for those with insulin resistance or diabetes, which affects about two-thirds of the population.
Some doctors believe that type 2 diabetes is a “disease” and can never be “cured.” I very much disagree. You can easily remove the cause of insulin resistance and diabetes through nutrition and lifestyle choices, which means it’s not a disease. It’s a condition caused by personal choices. And the condition can be “cured” by dealing with the cause.
Just a few months of intermittent fasting can dramatically improve one’s insulin sensitivity.
Intermittent fasting also decreases blood pressure and improves cholesterol levels. LDL cholesterol particle size may increase, which is considered beneficial, and HDL cholesterol count may increase. You could also expect a drop in triglyceride levels.
Inflammation levels can drop as well. Body fat, especially belly fat of visceral fat, increases inflammation. Since intermittent fasting can reduce body fat levels, inflammation levels may fall with it.
Because intermittent fasting improves glucose and insulin function and may help normalize other hormones, it could reduce polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms. I did not find studies that have proved it out yet, but some researchers speculate this would be the case.
In pregnant women, Ramadan fasting increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and decreases hemoglobin A1c, insulin, insulin resistance, blood pressure, and visceral fat.
3. Exercise Performance
As I already mentioned, fasting keeps blood sugar levels steady, and insulin levels low. This is a perfect setup for your body to use maximal fat stores for energy and be especially helpful for endurance activity.
Endurance athletes are often encouraged to consume carbohydrates regularly, even before and during training sessions, as a way to keep glycogen stores full. Yet, if they just trained in a fasted state consistently, the body would conserve glycogen stores on its own. By consuming carbs around training, they prevent their body from becoming better adapted to using fat for fuel.
Not only does intermittent fasting help an athlete use more fat for fuel and conserve glycogen stores, but the fasting has been shown to increase glycogen storage when they do eat.
As exercise intensity increases, you reach a point where you transition from using mainly fat to using less fat and more glycogen for fuel. This point is called your anaerobic threshold.
Fasting raises this threshold, meaning you can train at a higher heart rate while still burning mainly fat.
If an individual can train at a higher intensity while still burning fat, they burn more calories, allowing them to work harder, while still conserving glycogen for even higher intensities.
For speed, power, or strength training, fasting probably won’t improve performance, but it also will not reduce it. However, if intermittent fasting decreases body fat levels, you enhance overall performance without negatively affecting strength, speed, or power. You have the same physical abilities, but you can perform them without lugging around as much bodyweight.
When measuring athletes’ performance levels during and outside of Ramadan, athletic performance remained unchanged.
If intermittent fasting is an easy and effective way to manage body fat levels, while continuing to improve physical health, strength, and performance, I think it’s worth experimenting with for a few months.
However, if you’re an athlete who’s peaking for the next Olympic games, or if you’re on steroids, which increases your need for frequent and higher intakes of protein, intermittent fasting might not be for you.
Personally, I’ve found that I can be more liberal with what I eat, without gaining extra body fat, compared to when I regularly ate breakfast.
4. Cognitive Health
Not only might intermittent fasting reduce systemic inflammation, animal studies show that it can also decrease inflammation in damaged brain tissue.
Mice exposed to ischemic stroke were limited to an 8-hour eating window and experienced a reduction in inflammation and tissue damage in the brain.
Interestingly, another study showed that when researchers caused brain damage in mice, the mice that were allowed to eat whenever they wanted to experienced twice the rate of brain cell death as the mice that ate on an intermittent fasting schedule.
Intermittent fasting also appears to increase the rate of neurogenesis or the growth of new brain cells.
Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are strongly linked to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In theory, if intermittent fasting helps reduce insulin resistance and restore insulin sensitivity and decrease systemic inflammation, it might also decrease the risk of dementia and other cognitive diseases, or at least slow their progression.
Risks or Side Effects of Intermittent Fasting
If I were to write this article as a news story, I’d probably lead with the drawbacks or risks. This stuff tends to get sensationalized.
Overall, IF offers numerous health benefits. But to be fair, I want to address some of the potential drawbacks. I say “potential” because the issues outlined below were found in the same studies where people experienced all the health benefits above.
So, in my opinion, even if someone experienced some of the changes below, it would be worth it to experience the health benefits above.
Healthy, resistance-trained men experienced a reduction in triiodothyronine (T3), a sign that thyroid hormones dropped. Triiodothyronine is the body’s most potent regulator of metabolic rate. However, they also lost body fat, suggesting the lower T3 did not reduce metabolic rate. Perhaps, the fasting just made the men more sensitive to T3, so they needed less.
In a few studies, testosterone levels and IGF-1 (a marker for growth hormone) also decreased slightly, yet it did not translate into a reduction in lean mass or any other related symptom. It’s possible that the study wasn’t long enough for the body to return to normal levels, or there could be another cause.
Physical performance remained the same or improved, suggesting that the slightly lower testosterone and IGF-1 did not cause a problem.
From my own experience, I’ve been intermittent fasting regularly for about five years. When I had my labs checked twice in the past year, my testosterone was over 1200 mg/dL, the highest it’s ever been. And no, that’s not through using anything pharmaceutical; just good nutrition, exercise, lifestyle choices, supplements, and essential oils.
Another possible drawback of fasting could be a reduction in libido. A small study of men participating in Ramadan fasting showed a decline in sexual desire and frequency of sex.
Here’s my assumption about the reduction in libido: After going without food all day, I would assume both the men and women eat more substantial meals in the short window of time between sunset and bedtime. I don’t know about you, but I don’t frequently feel too frisky on a full stomach.
So, the reduction in sexual frequency might have nothing to do with hormones or physiological changes, and it could be just the logistics that change during this month-long fasting period. I also wouldn’t expect the same thing to happen in a breakfast-skipping form of intermittent fasting, as it is not as disruptive to morning and evening routines.
Why Breakfast Skipping?
By now, you should understand the behaviors and health benefits of intermittent fasting. Perhaps, the idea of eating within an eight-hour window is intriguing to you.
But, why skip breakfast? Why not eat breakfast and lunch, and then skip dinner. You’d still fast for the same length of time, right?
You get three significant benefits of skipping breakfast.
First, you eliminate the chance of eating junk food during one of the most common times for eating it.
Most breakfast foods aren’t that different from the nutrition found in candy bars and potato chips. They are high in sugar and total carbs, moderate-to-high in fat, and low in protein.
Most breakfasts are blood sugar bombs.
You drop that breakfast into your digestive system, and it causes a blast in blood sugar, followed by another explosion of insulin. The collateral damage includes a drop in energy levels, an increase in cravings and free radicals, and a shutdown of your ability to burn fat for the rest of the day.
Second, you prolong the period your body uses fat for fuel.
Without food, your blood sugar remains steady, and insulin levels stay low, creating the perfect metabolic environment to release and burn fat.
To tap into the fat on your triceps, or make use of the fat in your muffin top, you need blood sugar and insulin to stay low. Avoiding food for part of your day allows you to do that.
Third, you will very likely improve your productivity. Your brain thrives on ketones.
When you fast, you produce more ketones for your brain to use, allowing it to function more efficiently. Plus, you don’t have to waste time preparing and eating breakfast. You can just sip on your cup of coffee or tea and get stuff done.
Breakfast is not the “most important meal of the day”
Lenna Cooper deserves the credit for giving breakfast its reputation as “the most important meal of the day.”
In a 1917 issue of Good Health, she wrote, “…breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it is the meal that gets the day started.” How’s that for scientific evidence?
Who was an editor for Good Health? None other than Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the co-inventor of flaked cereal.
He must have realized that if he could convince people breakfast was important and had a product to sell for a quick and easy breakfast, it would become a big business. Today, the breakfast cereal industry is a $40 billion industry. It’s all based on marketing, not science.
Intermittent Fasting Frequently Asked Questions
I realize I won’t answer all the questions you might have, but here are some of the most common ones.
Please remember: If you have a disease, check with your doctor before making any significant changes to your nutrition or lifestyle. Do not EVER change your medication without doing so with your doctor, even if an article suggests you might be able to do so.
I need to eat before my workout, but I’d like to try intermittent fasting. What can I do?
You do not need to eat before exercise.
You might feel like eating. You might be hungry before your workout. You might have convinced yourself that you need to eat based on misinformation about sports nutrition, but you don’t need to eat unless a doctor requires it of you, or you’re using steroids.
If you use steroids, you assimilate protein and other nutrients at an increased rate. You’d need to eat higher amounts of protein more often to keep up with your body’s demand.
I don’t condone the use of anabolic steroids. I just bring this up because if you use them and believe intermittent fasting is a bad idea, it might be because you’re viewing the world from your point of view alone.
Again, if you don’t have a disease that requires you to eat, and you’re not using steroids, you don’t need to eat breakfast before exercise.
If you feel like you need to eat breakfast, it’s only because you’ve trained your body to expect it. Give it up for a couple of weeks, and you’ll find that you not only survive, but you might even experience better workouts.
Can I drink a protein shake during my fast?
You can drink a protein shake. But then you’re not fasting.
If you believe you’ll “lose muscle” if you don’t get protein in every few hours, let that thought go. It isn’t true.
Can I drink Bulletproof™ Coffee during my fast?
If, by Bulletproof™ Coffee, you mean black coffee, yes.
If you mean Bulletproof™ coffee that includes heavy cream and coconut oil or MCT oil, then no. You wouldn’t be fasting anymore.
However, if you’re following a ketogenic diet, it might be helpful. But, again, you’re not fasting if you’re consuming calories.
What if I have to eat breakfast sometimes?
One thing that drives me bonkers about nutrition is how rigid some people and programs can get. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was that way at one time too.
In my opinion, intermittent fasting is a lifestyle, not a diet. Sometimes, other factors in your life interfere with your eating pattern.
For example, if we’re in a new city, we might seek out the hottest breakfast spot and eat something unique. Or, if it’s a special occasion, like National Donut Day, I’ll probably eat some gluten-free donuts from Angel Food Bakery.
However, if you fast only when it’s convenient, you’re going to get crappy results. Eating well and becoming healthy does require some level of suckituptitude.
That said, if you stick with your intermittent fasting program regularly, and eat breakfast with friends once in a while, or indulge in a gluten-free donut (or half dozen), relax. You’ll be back on track the next day.
If I don’t eat every few hours, won’t I lose muscle and slow my metabolic rate?
Every snack food, energy bar, and sports nutrition company would love you to believe this. It is not true.
In fact, some studies have shown metabolic rate increases during a fast for up to 72 hours! Not everyone would respond that way, but as long as you’re eating sufficient amounts of protein when you do eat, you won’t lose muscle, and you won’t slow your metabolic rate.
Is intermittent fasting as helpful for women as it is for men?
There isn’t really a distinction in health benefits between women and men.
However, I do think that women are more prone to stress-related health challenges. Sometimes, the introduction of a new eating pattern can be one more stress that becomes too much.
Is there anyone who should avoid intermittent fasting?
My opinion: If you have adrenal fatigue, I’d recommend dealing that before experimenting with intermittent fasting, and make sure you’re following a higher-protein diet to support your recovery needs.
Olympic, collegiate, and professional athletes, outside of endurance athletes, probably shouldn’t delve into intermittent fasting. With the hours they invest in training and the high levels of energy they burn, they need to eat more often than intermittent fasting would allow.
Physique competitors in the last several weeks leading up to a show would also be better off eating more frequently. Due to their extreme dieting, they can be in a relatively catabolic state.
Young adults probably don’t need to think about intermittent fasting either. Our son asked about me intermittent fasting. He’s a 21-year old, healthy, fit young man. My response to him was:
I don’t think it would be that beneficial for you. At your age and with your health, your hormones are primed for making use of protein as often as you eat it. If you wanted to do it as a personal challenge once in a while, that would be fine, but I wouldn’t recommend it more than once a month.
However, if you’re a grown adult, or a weekend warrior, who is relatively sedentary outside of workouts, you could benefit from intermittent fasting. I put myself in this group.
One other group that should be cautious is those who have Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes. If this is you, and you’d like to give intermittent fasting a try, be sure to loop in your doctor so you can manage your blood sugar levels.
I do believe intermittent fasting can be beneficial for those with Type 2 diabetes. You just need to be smart about how you approach it.
While I want you (and me) to live longer and experience excellent quality-of-life late in life, I also want you to enjoy life here and now.
That’s why I try to keep nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle choices as simple as possible. If you want to give it a try, start with just skipping breakfast.
As time has gone on, I’ve tweaked things a little for myself.
For example, my first meal is very low in carbs, moderate-to-higher in fat, high in protein, and includes a ton of vegetables. Dinner is higher in carbs and protein, and lower in fat (not low fat).
But don’t get hung up on stuff like that. Just take it a step at a time.
You might be addicted to breakfast right now. Skipping it will be enough of a challenge of its own that you don’t need to worry about anything else.
If you’re still not convinced to give intermittent fasting a try, and you’re hellbent on eating breakfast, do your body a favor: Get rid of the carb-rich junk—cereal, toast, pancakes, waffles, fruit juice, etc.
Eat a higher-protein, low-carb breakfast instead, like meat and nuts, an omelet, or a low-carb protein shake.
Just don’t knock the intermittent fasting unless you’ve really tried it.