It’s been quite a ride these past 40 years. We’ve certainly had our moments! Remember that time that you introduced me to Huevos Rancheros in Mexico? Or the first time we enjoyed Ada’s Diner? Ya, those were great times. But the thing is, I feel like we’re moving in different directions and maybe it’s time for a break. You know, try other options. You know I still love you, I’m just not sure that we work together anymore. Is there someone else? Seriously? I’m not even going to dignify that with a response! Okay, well there is this one meal. His name is lunch. He’s a lot like you, only a little later in the day. He’s also a bit more of a soup, salad, and sandwich meal than an eggs and smoothies meal. But it turns out he doesn’t mind providing eggs and bacon or even an omelet now and then. I think I need to try life without you for a while. I hope you will one day understand. It’s not you; it’s me.
You guessed it: I stopped eating breakfast. Or at least I’m taking a break from breakfast. How crazy is that???? I mean, I LOVE breakfast. In fact I have used doesn’t like breakfast as grounds to not date someone. I mean seriously, who doesn’t love breakfast foods? And hello – it’s a meal that’s served with coffee. Mmm…coffee. Don’t worry – this insanity does not involve giving up coffee.
So what on earth is this madness about?
It’s about experimenting with a relatively new concept in nutrition called Intermittent Fasting and my interest in how cortisol affects us from a weight loss and fat storage perspective.
Intermittent fasting has been of interest to me as a valid nutrition option for some time as well. I have been reading about this with varied interest for a couple o f years now, with little nuggets popping up here and there. One day I was chatting with a close friend who happened to mention that she doesn’t like eating breakfast, and that she’s noticed that her kids don’t either. She said she eats breakfast, and gets her kids to because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but she was questioning it. Interestingly she hadn’t heard of intermittent fasting (IF). But this made me really think that IF is a great option – for some people. In fact I added “are you hungry in the morning” to my nutrition questionnaire. Then Dr. John Berardi wrote this great report about IF, and I became even more interested. I have great faith in what Dr. Berardi says regarding nutrition. He tends to be thoughtful and one who truly chases truth rather than tries to defend his beliefs.Dr Berardi’s report furthered my believe that IF is a great nutritional option, but only for those who weren’t really hungry in the morning. Which meant it wasn’t an option for someone like me who is always hungry, and who gets a little cranky when I don’t eat (I know right – hard to imagine that I could be cranky).
Switching topics, cortisol as an important factor in weight management has been an interest of mine for about a year. Ever since listening to a presenter talk at the Perform Better summit in 2011, when he noted that he lost 20 pounds the day after he had hip replacement surgery. 20 pounds! He suggested it was related to cortisol that was rampant in his body in response to the pain he was enduring as a result of necrosis of his femoral head. A lightbulb went off for me as he said this. How many people do you know who suffer from chronic pain syndromes are overweight? Ya, a lot.
So what do cortisol and intermittent fasting have to do with each other? According to Martin Berkhan, a lot! I just happened upon his LeanGains.com site because I wanted to send it to a client, whom I thought might benefit from IF. Conveniently, the front page article at the time was about how eating breakfast may make you hungry. I read it with great interest.
Here’s the Coles Notes version (Cliff Notes if you’re American. Are there other terms around the globe?):
- When we wake up, our cortisol levels (fight or flight hormone) are very high
- For fit people who have good insulin sensitivity, food = more insulin generated by your body = blood sugar is transported to where it needs to go and drops off overall. Dumbed down: food makes things good in a fit body.
- BUT…cortisol accelerates this process, and there’s more cortisol around breakfast time. So now you have more insulin, which means even lower blood sugar. Does this mean more good? Maybe not. Maybe it pushes the body into a concerned state that thinks me want fooooood because it is concerned about starvation. So you get hungry.
- Conclusion: if you have good insulin sensitivity as a fit individual, then your hormonal response to eating breakfast may make you more hungry than if you didn’t eat until later.
Obviously this was a very interesting post for me. It addresses my thought process that cortisol is probably in weight management. It piques my interest by talking about intermittent fasting; and even suggests that IF might work for someone like me, especially because I do feel hungry post-breakfast.
I did some quick reading on cortisol to make sure that the basis for Berkhan’s theory was sound, which it seems to be. Here’s a graph of typical cortisol level changes throughout the day:
As it turns out, I read this at a time when I want to drop a few pounds. Until recently, I’ve been completely uninterested in losing any weight. I still don’t want a six pack, as I know that for me, it will be accompanied by an A-cup bra. My girls are pretty small anyhow, but I’m relatively happy with them. Given the choice between 6 pack and maintaining my breast size, I chose breast size. But over the past few months I’ve put on a few pounds which has lead to a drop in my pullup ability. And so, I would like to return those few pounds, but couldn’t seem to decide how to go about it. Normally I would cut back on portion size (that’s always been my challenge in the food department) and exercise more, but honestly, I love food, so the notion of cutting back on portion sizes long term didn’t thrill me. I also think my exercise level is pretty good, although I have skipped a few workouts recently because I’ve been busy – I will certainly get back to my normal workout levels.
All this to say, it’s like the stars have all aligned for me to try out intermittent fasting. And so I did. Or at least my version of it. If you read Dr. Berardi’s report (which I encourage you to do), or read Martin Berkhan’s writing (I also encourage this), then you’ll see that there are a few different options for intermittent fasting. One of which involves basically only eating between 2pm and 10pm. I know many of you are thinking what is this blasphemy? First you’re saying no to breakfast, and now you’re saying eat after 8pm? Here’s a thought to keep in mind as you consider these radical notions: Everything you’ve ever learned about nutrition is theory, not fact. And that means there may be better theories out there. Intermittent fasting and cortisol’s effect on post-breakfast may be those better theories.
I started my experiment with skipping breakfast 13 days ago. I started on a Saturday so that if I actually turned into crank-zilla, then I could abort the mission before my Monday morning clients. After almost 2 weeks, I can honestly say, that this may become my long term nutritional approach! I actually don’t feel any hungrier in the morning from skipping breakfast than I did when I ate breakfast. I still start my morning with coffee, but I have it black. I then have my first meal between 1130 and 130, depending on when I get home from my morning clients. There are actually two things I love about this so far:
- It gives me more wiggle room with what I eat later in the day. I can have bigger meals and it’s okay.
- It takes me less time to get going in the morning since I don’t have to make and eat breakfast.
I’ve even worked out a couple of times now before my first meal, a couple of bike rides and a couple of gym workouts, and have not noticed any ill-effects.
I don’t actually weigh myself regularly, so I don’t have specific numbers in terms of whether I’ve lost those pounds. THis may sound silly and very unscientific, but the measure that I use for myself is how my stomach looks when I’m lying on my back. I like it to be concave (that is lower than my pelvic bones and ribcage). It had become slightly convex over the past few months. I’m happy to say that we’re back to concave in less than 2 weeks.
What do you think? Does this blow your mind? Is it something you’d consider? Have you tried it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Here are the two resources I mentioned in the post:
Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Ontario.