Mornings can be R O U G H.
For some of us, they start with slapping the snooze about a bazillion times, followed by rolling over to grab our phones and start scrolling through overnight emails and social media posts before finally begrudgingly grabbing a cup of coffee and heading for the shower.
For others, mornings are a whirlwind of chaos – filled with a flurry of bobby pins and backpacks and permission slips and cereal bowls – as we struggle to juggle to get everyone else’s day rolling before our own day officially even begins.
In either case, it’s no surprise that breakfast, aka “the most important meal of the day,” gets lost in the shuffle. In fact, it is the MOST SKIPPED (or “FORGOTTEN” 😱) meal of the day among the women I coach.
But have you ever considered the impact of skipping meals, especially breakfast, on your health?
Whether you skip it on purpose because you don’t feel hungry in the morning, or you intentionally skip it thinking it will help you save calories and lose weight, or you just tend to forget to eat until lunch, many studies have shown that meal skipping – especially for women – can have negative consequences for our bodies and our health.
So we’ve rounded up and reviewed the research on the effects of skipping meals to share with you the importance of healthy eating patterns that include regular meals, especially breakfast, so you can be at your best and thrive.
How Skipping Meals Affects Body Composition
If your goals include gaining or maintaining muscle while minimizing fat gain, listen up!
A 2020 meta-analysis found that skipping breakfast increases your risk of being overweight or obese — not exactly what you’re going for when you forgo or forget that morning meal, is it?
Another systematic review found that meal skipping was associated with an increase in total body fat, abdominal fat, and a decrease in muscle mass.
It seems that this is because, when you skip a meal, you’re more likely to compensate by eating more calories later in the day. Here’s how I often see that play out: Client has crazy mornings so she only has coffee for breakfast, she gets immersed her tasks, and then by 2PM she’s eating anything that isn’t nailed down and claiming she’s “addicted” to sugar and fatty foods.
(Spoiler alert: no she isn’t — Client’s body is just screaming for high-energy food sources because it hasn’t been fed in hours and it’s making these wishes very difficult for Client to ignore.)
Another reason that skipping meals can wreak havoc on your body composition is that you’re not timing out your protein intake to maximize muscle tissue retention.
Protein is non-negotiable when it comes to gaining or maintaining muscle mass, recovery and tissue repair, immune health, and basic human functions. Protein makes up the tissues, organs, muscles, and cells of our bodies and those proteins are constantly being broken down to be replaced with new proteins. If protein breakdown outpaces protein consumption, we don’t have enough protein to replace what is being broken down and the tissues weaken, immune function suffers, and we start to lose muscle mass.
To avoid this, we need adequate, frequent “deposits” of protein coming in through our food. What is considered adequate and frequent?
There are several studies that have answered this for us and the general consensus is that the most optimal intake for protein synthesis was 21-42 grams of complete protein every 3-6 hours (Areta et al., 2013).
So, if you want to keep your muscle mass (and your other tissues healthy and functioning well), you shouldn’t go long stretches – except when you’re sleeping obviously – without protein coming in. Protein early in the morning for breakfast is so important for this reason. Your body was in a fasted state overnight and getting some protein soon after waking will help restore the available amino acids in your bloodstream to keep muscle loss minimal.
How Skipping Meals Affects Your Hormones
A 2015 study done on all women aged 18–45 years old suggests that breakfast skippers have prolonged daily elevations in cortisol (a key stress hormone). They further suggested that if this breakfast skipping along with altered cortisol activity persists, development of chronic disease is possible (Megan Witbracht, et al., 2015).
More recent studies have shown that skipping meals can disrupt kisspeptin production in women. Kisspeptin is a substance that plays a role in regulating blood glucose levels, appetite, and body composition. When kisspeptin production is disrupted, your appetite goes up and your insulin sensitivity goes down (Wahab Fazal, et al., 2018).
The situation worsens for women who skip breakfast and exercise fasted — cortisol levels rise even more, thyroid activity is depressed, and your body will start to store more belly fat.
Another study even showed that any repeated within-day calorie deficits, like those that happen when you skip meals, have been shown to have some pretty widespread negative effects — like increasing cortisol, disrupting endocrine function and hormonal balance, depressing thyroid activity and immune function, reducing recovery, decreasing gains in muscle strength and endurance, and increasing visceral fat (the more dangerous form of fat that accumulates around your internal organs).
As more and more studies are now being done on women, it’s becoming even more clear that women should be eating regular meals.
How Skipping Meals Affects Your Performance
It is well-documented that fasted exercise is associated with decreased performance, increased fatigue, reduced skill, impaired concentration, and an increased perception of effort (feels harder than it should). If you’re tired and not performing well, exercise and training can quickly become a drag, which may make you less likely to do it. Life’s too short to be miserable all the time, am I right?
So, if your goal is to enjoy yourself while improving your activity level or fitness, working out on an empty stomach isn’t the way to do it. You’d have to heavily modify your training or workout intensity because you don’t have enough gas in the tank. This means that you won’t improve and most of us are working out to improve our lives and function, not just to suffer through it and not see any significant performance benefits.
Also, chronic exercise sessions commencing in a low-glycogen state (working out when your blood sugar is low) may enhance the risk for overtraining syndrome, which in turn may result in reduced training capacity (Knuiman, Hopman & Mensick, 2015). Overtraining is something we’re all trying to avoid because it can have catastrophic effects.
Your brain needs a steady stream of carbs in order to function correctly, and that’s where breakfast comes in. By skipping breakfast, you may be setting yourself up for brain fog and hindering your cognitive ability.
Additionally, women in a fasted state tend to experience more anxiety, brain fog, more depression symptoms, sleep disturbances, and persistently-elevated heart rates — reflecting significant long-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system which creates a ripple effect that can lead to or further perpetuate hormone imbalance and thyroid dysfunction.
And if you’re not already convinced that eating breakfast and regular meals, one study even showed that daily breakfast leads to greater physical activity during the morning, whereas morning fasting results in eating much more (dietary compensation) later in the day (Enhad A Chowdhury, et al., 2016). So stop trying to save those calories — it’s likely to back-fire.
How Skipping Meals Affects Blood Sugar Regulation
For morning exercisers who skip the pre-workout meal or snack, by exercising on an empty stomach, there’s the potential you could send your blood sugar too low since both fasting and exercise lower blood glucose.
But even for those who don’t exercise fasted, there are additional risks. A 2013 study found that irregular breakfast consumption was associated with a higher type 2 diabetes risk in women. Another study published in 2016 noted that insulin sensitivity was higher in those who ate breakfast than those who skipped it.
We know that there are benefits to fasting for humans — and we all should should abstain from consuming food and/or beverages for the entire overnight period while we sleep. This overnight fasting period is important because it allows our bodies time to reset, repair, and do general internal maintenance on themselves without the added workload of trying to digest food at the same time.
A fasted overnight period requires that our bodies use up glucose and fatty acids circulating in our blood and tap into energy stores. This overnight period essentially trains our bodies to get better at processing energy as well as other molecules and hormones circulating in our blood and stored away in our bodies.
We were meant to take “breaks” from eating when we are sleeping and reasonable fasting periods when paired with low activity or reduced activity do provide benefits to humans.
But skipping meals during the day or exercising while fasted does not increase the benefits and in many cases can actually create blood sugar regulation issues which sets off a chain reaction of undesirable outcomes throughout the body.
How Skipping Meals Affects Cardiovascular Health
Skipping meals has been shown to have a negative impact on cardiovascular health.
A large prospective study of U.S. adults 40 to 75 years of age, found that skipping breakfast was significantly associated with an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease (Rong S, et al., 2019). Another study found that eating breakfast regularly may promote cardiovascular health and decrease all cause mortality (Hanze Chen, et al., 2020).
We’re not sure yet why this occurs but there are a few theories.
- As mentioned above several studies have found that skipping breakfast was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, even after adjusting for other lifestyle factors such as smoking and physical inactivity. This increased risk may be due to the fact that skipping breakfast can lead to higher fasting blood sugar levels, which can put a strain on the cardiovascular system over time.
- Other researchers have suggested that skipping meals may disrupt your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock), which can affect metabolism, blood pressure, and increase other cardiovascular risk factors.
More research is needed to determine why this occurs but one thing is clear, our heart health improves when we eat regularly.
Here’s the Bottom Line (TLDR)
The research is clear: breakfast and other meals are essential components of our day that should be regular and well-balanced. Skipping meals, particularly breakfast, can have negative consequences for our bodies, our ability to perform in train and life, and can lead to long-term adverse health outcomes.
I hear it all the time… “I just can’t eat first thing in the morning.” “I’m not hungry until 10AM.”
If eating something first thing in the morning is new to you, you might need to work up to this amount over time. You have to train your digestion to support you the same way you train your body … progressively. Start with 15-20g of carbs initially and work your way up from there. What you eat to break that fast doesn’t have to be huge; it just should be something.
Eating breakfasts and regular meals is a skill you can and should train yourself to do. The bulk of the research out there supports breaking the overnight fast to feel good and function well during your day and especially for morning workouts.
If you’re a morning exerciser and need more ideas for how to fuel your training sessions and workouts, grab a copy of our Fuel Your Awesome digital nutrition guide. It’s a 200-page, full-color downloadable pdf that’s chock full of ideas and information that will have you fulled up to crush your performance goals.
Are you a breakfaster skipper? Did we change your mind? Let us know in the comments.
Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W., Broad, E. M., Coffey, V. G. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(Pt 9), 2319–2331. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897.
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