Be warned: It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The thought of breakfast has always made me queasy, to the point where my a.m. visits to the kitchen feel more like a perp walk. I sometimes wonder if my gut flora and digestive enzymes are carrying microscopic anti-breakfast picket signs—because that’s exactly what my insides feel like as I drag myself to the fridge every morning.
Lately, I’ve been less accepting of the whole skipping breakfast thing. While I’m a big believer in listening to your body and simply eating when you’re hungry, chronic anxiety has rendered my hunger cues defective (as in, I barely experience any), and the potential health perks that can stem from this particular meal—including cardiac, metabolic, and hormonal benefits—are ones that I’d rather not be missing out on.
When’s best to eat breakfast, exactly, is unclear (breakfast is typically defined as being eaten within the first two hours after waking, according to a review by the American Heart Association), but within the first hour might be best if you have blood sugar or hormonal imbalances—both of which run in my family.
The idea behind eating within the first hour of waking for blood sugar and hormonal imbalances is that your body is primed and ready to receive nutrients at that time—it’s been a while since you last ate, after all—and balancing both out from the jump can lead to an uptick in energy.
“Cortisol (the stress hormone) can get out of whack with weird eating patterns, which can lead to unstable blood sugar and cause stress on the body,” says Washington-based registered dietitian Sharyn Saftler, RDN. By leveling things out right away, your body doesn’t have to work overtime to stay calibrated (and wear down your battery in the process).
It can also lead to better eating habits overall: “Eating breakfast within a reasonable window of time helps to prevent overeating and poorer food choices later on, when you suddenly realize how hungry you are, and you grab whatever’s available,” says New York-based registered dietitian Rachel Daniels, RD, senior director of nutrition at Virtual Health Partners. (One day, this phenomenon will be an entire chapter in my autobiography.)
To find out how much of a difference breaking up with my erratic breakfast behaviors could make to my health, I decided to eat within one hour of waking for two weeks (gulp!) and report back on my findings. Here’s what I learned:
It’s Way Harder Than It Sounds
The first hour of my day is usually spent trying to remember my name, what day it is, and how many fingers I’m holding up, so this particular mountain was a steep one to climb. Food was the last thing I wanted to look at so early in the day, and I actually found myself getting upset at the thought of having to eat.
“If someone has never eaten breakfast in their life, it would be absurd to expect them to start with a massive meal and immediately feel great,” says Saftler. “There’s going to be variation in what ‘breaking your fast’ looks like, depending on a whole host of things, like your work and family demands, health conditions, and personal preferences.”
And in my case, the picket line marching around my digestive system. For the first several days—roughly 55 minutes into the first hour—I managed to gag down tiny eats, like toast and almond butter, an apple and some walnuts, and yogurt with blueberries. I did feel better afterwards (my body felt less anxious and my mind less foggy), but the way my morning nausea peer pressured me psychologically proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.
Baby Steps Are Key
Scrapping the traditional definition of breakfast was paramount in getting past the psychological roadblocks put into place by my a.m. queasiness. Your first meal of the day doesn’t have to be a giant, fatty, breakfast sandwich—now, or ever—and this simple shift in thinking is what kept me going.
Your breakfast can be as simple as a smoothie or a slice of avocado toast (or, really, any foods you can stand to look at first thing). “Starting slow and increasing the amount you eat in the morning will prevent the nausea,” says Daniels. “Your body will get used to the meal and will start to rely on it for fuel.” In other words, as your body adjusts to your newly minted breakfast habits, your hunger cues will eventually follow suit. (By the end of week two, I still didn’t feel hungry, but the level of nausea I experienced in the morning was much less severe.)
Consistency Trumps Timing
Even as my nausea started to dissipate at the close of week one, I still found it incredibly difficult to eat within the one-hour window. Because I didn’t want to run the risk of grabbing convenience foods for the sake of meeting the cutoff, I decided to extend my breakfast window to the full two hours. “The more you can find a good rhythm for your schedule, the more your body will respond in ways that enhance your health and wellbeing,” says Saftler.
Leading up to this tweak, I did notice hints of improvements to my wellbeing—my energy level no longer tanked by mid-morning, and I wasn’t experiencing as many junk food cravings—but opening my breakfast window a little wider was when the bigger changes started to take shape. The consistency that having breakfast brought to my mornings, and the flexibility of eating whenever I felt up to it, made me feel more in control of my day as a whole. Going into my workday feeling less anxious led to being more productive, and being more productive freed up both the time and energy necessary to maintain more consistent eating habits throughout the rest of the day, too.
The Verdict: Make Your Breakfast Fit You
This experiment helped me realize that I’ve spent most of my life trying to fit breakfast, instead of making breakfast fit me. Even once my morning nausea became more manageable, I found squeezing a morning meal into the first hour of my day to be unnecessarily stressful, and I started disliking breakfast for a whole new set of reasons.
But when I took away the deadline and gave myself the opportunity to eat breakfast within the two-hour recommended window instead, I was not only more willing to eat in general, but make something beyond a smoothie or parfait, such as an omelet or baked oatmeal. “When you get into a good breakfast groove, it’s something else to look forward to as you start your day,” says Daniels. I’m especially looking forward to the abandoned picket line.