Here is another one your mom got right: “Eat your breakfast.”
Unfortunately many people, especially young people, are not hungry when they first rise in the morning. AND when they finally do eat something, because of the long wait from yesterday’s last meal, often the food choices are not exactly what you would consider ideal. There are good reasons why no one should miss breakfast, but even more reasons for athletes.
This quick course on breakfast will help explain the loss of appetite.
The name breakfast says it all: “Break the overnight fast,” and this is accomplished by eating something. When the body has had no food for a certain amount of hours, it goes into a fasting or semi-starvation state in which the metabolism slows down, the fuel mix switches to increasing the use of fat for energy because glycogen (sugar/energy) stores are depleted. The switch to fat as your primary energy source decreases your appetite so you don’t wake up and chew your arm off. This also explains why traditional breakfast foods are primarily fast-digesting carbohydrates (short- and long-chain sugar foods) such as cereals, breads, etc. Your body is looking for what it wants to quickly fill the depleted glycogen, but for some people it takes a while for true hunger to set in, especially if the available food is not sweet tasting.
Always eat before you exercise, no matter the goal or when you train
Unfortunately, the old saying that “a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous” is spot on when it comes to how the above information is often interpreted. Because the popular press (non-scientific media sources such as fitness magazines, newspapers, etc.) does a great job of taking information out of context, exercisers with the goal of weight or body fat reduction often follow bad advice such as, “Don’t eat before you go to the gym,” or, “Do your cardio on an empty stomach and you will burn more fat.” Boy, how wrong can you be! As we have discussed many times in previous articles, it’s how many calories in versus out that determines how much fat you lose or gain, not the time of day you consume the calories. In fact, eating before you workout will allow you to burn MORE calories during your activity. And who cares where the calories come from, because at the end of the day, the difference between your calories in and out is how much fat will be taken from your stores – PERIOD.
Don’t forget, I did not say anything about adding food calories to your day. All you are doing is spreading them out further, which has additional benefits such as using more calories to digest each meal and giving your body a steady stream of nutrition (enhancing recovery and energy).
More on breakfast and weight control
Data from the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) and other studies clearly shows an association between skipping breakfast and being overweight. Although the actual mechanisms aren’t clear, missing breakfast generally leads to a greater appetite when finally confronted with your first meal, causing poor choices and overeating in order to compensate for 12-18 hours with no food.
By the way, a fancy coffee drink is not breakfast. In fact, popular coffee concoctions have more calories than an average breakfast, but do little to fill you up—so now you’ve had 500 calories and will be very hungry soon. Basically it’s a double whammy: lots of calories, little satiety, leading to lots more calories.
Eating before you work out is mandatory for performance athletes in order to enhance each training bout, recovery and the final outcome. Therefore, it should be intuitive that anyone would ingest part of their energy requirements before they train (even if you go straight from the bed to the workout or game) for the following reasons:
- Filling energy stores before a workout (not adding daily calories, just redistributing them) so you can perform better and longer
- Breaking the fast to bump the metabolism back up and continue a constant flow of nutrients
- Increasing workout performance which will use more calories and allow for a higher intensity workout that will also burn two to three times more fat throughout the day following exercise
- Enhancing recovery to improve maintenance or growth of muscle which also adds to the metabolic rate; and finally
- Increasing daily activity so you are never in a fasting thus “lazy” state beyond rising in the morning, causing the body to naturally move more and drive the desire to train
So, eat before you train. Common sense tells you to consume fuel if you have not eaten for the last 6-12 hours and you are about to perform an activity that requires more energy than anything else you do all day. It takes calories to burn more calories and fill energy systems to perform optimally.
Breakfast and your brain
As we have discussed, especially during your growth years, you do NOT want to miss meals. You need a steady flow of nutrition daily to maximize all the growth potential within your body and the brain is no exception. There are windows of opportunity for intellectual and physical growth from infancy through adolescence. A person whose diet is not nutritionally complete during these critical periods will not be able to compensate for the loss at another time.
Studies strongly suggest that omitting breakfast interferes with cognition and learning. An extended fast (missing breakfast) is perceived by your body as a stress event, and therefore your body releases adrenal corticosteroid and catecholamine, two well-known stress hormones, in order to maintain brain nutrition. This may lead to irrational or less-controlled thinking (hmmm that sounds familiar – that is, “getting a little moody when hungry”). To be sure, cognitive test scores are higher in adolescent breakfast eaters than non-breakfast eaters. At the very least, chronic breakfast skipping may have a negative impact on one’s overall nutritional status based on years of omitting valuable breakfast-type nutrients and the fact that the body/brain is continually going undernourished for extended periods of time.
There you have it – don’t miss breakfast under any circumstances. Always be prepared one way or another. Follow your dotFIT athletic meal plans that have your meal times set around your activities, including what to eat if you go straight from waking up to the workout or event (also see previous article, The Basics of Performance Nutrition).
- Force yourself to eat breakfast regardless of appetite or time constraints – you will eventually adjust to both
- Consume a full meal when possible as shown in your menu plans and previous articles
- Little to no preparation breakfast ideas that are easy to consume:
- Milk with favorite healthy carbohydrate (bread, bagel, cereal, etc.)
- Nutrition bars/shake high in carbohydrates, moderate protein and low in fat
Early morning workout/event and no time for full meal
- Eat your pre-workout/game meal as late as possible the night before
- Consume an appropriate nutrition bar or workout shake ASAP upon rising or 30 minutes before event
One of my favorite comments I get after I have convinced a non-breakfast eater to begin consuming this important meal: “I can’t believe the difference in my workouts and entire day.”
If after reading this you STILL miss breakfast, you probably always will. But hey, you will also never know what you missed, except the meal.