My unusual take on why breakfast is the most important meal of the day

I really don't like fasting first thing in the morning.

It's not because I'm hungry or fatigued. The main reason that I avoid skipping breakfast is because it completely disrupts my digestive system. Ie, if I change my routine, I don't poop.

For me, this is a huge turn off for fasted cardio, intermittent fasting (IF) in the first half of the day, or even just delaying breakfast. I've tried all of these things, but it just didn't feel like it suited my body's schedule. For all the talk about fasting, you don't often hear people talking about this side of things. And it should be talked about. Because if your digestive system isn't doing it's thing, your body isn't properly absorbing the nutrients that it needs and eliminating the things that it doesn't. That's a lose lose.

I could tell that if I didn't eat first thing in the morning, my gut didn't like it. I just didn't really understand the reasons for that. Is my digestive system really that stubborn and a creature of habit?

I did some investigating. I started to think about my sleep patterns (not fantastic), my hormones (slightly chaotic) and my biological rhythms. And after looking at the bigger picture, it all started to fall into place. That morning meal matters because of food's role in the body as a zeitgeber. 

A zeitgeber?! Let me explain.

A zeitgeber is any environmental cue that sets or resets our biological clock. It helps to synchronise the body's circadian rhythms (the biological processes that our bodies exhibit across the 24 hour day) and keep us functioning on schedule. 

Zeitgebers are nature's alarm clocks. These are the things that tell our body that it's time to get going. They include:

  • Light

  • Food, eating patterns and meal times

  • Temperature

  • Exercise and physical activity

  • Our daily schedules

  • Social interaction

  • Drugs

Dr Satchin Panda, author of 'The Circadian Code', explains that our organs have separate, unique circadian clocks - they aren't tied to the brain's master clock to schedule things. Food resets the liver's circadian clock. In fact, your first bite of the day resets many organ clocks in the body, and it's so strong that it can even trump the master clock's signal that responds to light.

Eoin Lacey, sports nutritionist and functional medicine educator, says that if you have poor sleep habits, IF first thing in the morning isn't a smart idea. If you're not sleeping properly, your circadian rhythms are already compromised. Eating in the morning is an opportunity to reset and promote your natural daily rhythms. And it helps your bowels get moving, too. Eating triggers the muscles in the large intestines to contract and move things along to literally ‘make room’ for the food you have just eaten (called the gastrocolic reflex). Skipping breakfast can bypass this reflex.

Does the kind of foods you eat first thing in the morning matter?

Just eating food is enough to get things going. But again, if you look at the bigger picture, you can select your foods to support your body's rhythms. How? Certain foods are better suited to promote your natural hormonal cycles. For example, eating a breakfast high in simple carbohydrates has a suppressing effect on cortisol - not ideal for the person that doesn't bounce out of bed due to a flat cortisol awakening response. If your adrenals are taxed and your cortisol doesn't spike in the morning like it should, then eating lots of oats, toast or cereal might not offer the helping hand that your hormones need. On the other hand, a morning meal that is higher in satiating fats and proteins, and even a cup of coffee, could be ideal for that person. That certainly does the trick for me.

Here's what works for me

  • Eat breakfast at about the same time each day, within an hour after waking. After trial and error, I've realised that my body likes to eat a full meal first thing. If you consistently eat around the same time, this trains the body to anticipate food so that it's ready to process it. If you eat earlier than normal, the body has to cut its usual cleaning activities short and it disrupts your organ clocks. If you're trying to reset your breakfast time to change your schedule, realise that it may take your gut about 3 to 4 days to catch up and reconfigure.

  • Focus on protein and fats. I like a meal higher in animal protein and fats in the morning. I usually have eggs, beef and sauteed vegetables (tomato, onion, mushroom, spinach) cooked in organic butter or coconut oil.

  • Boost food volume. I actually have quite a decent meal in the morning. I find that the volume of food helps to move things along. If I just eat nuts and a couple of eggs, that isn't as effective for digestion, at least for me.

  • Drink water first. I drink about 600 - 750 ml of water each morning before I eat. Drinking liquid also helps to trigger the gastrocolic reflex. I also add a squeeze of fresh lime or lemon juice.

  • Coffee. I drink a black espresso each morning. Caffeine stimulates movement of the colonic muscles and promotes peristalsis.

  • Rest and digest. I like my morning routine. I take my mornings at a leisurely pace. It sets me up mentally for the day ahead, but it's also integral to my digestion. If eat too fast, rush my morning or feel stressed, this predictably disrupts things. This makes sense because one of the effects of the sympathetic response is to inhibit peristalsis (the rhythmic contractions of the GI tract that causes a bowel movement), decreasing the motility of the large intestine and reducing the secretion of gastric juices and enzymes. Resist the daily grind and remain calm and collected in the morning. Ideally, sit at the table to eat, take three deep breaths before eating and don't inhale your food!

And if I can't do that, here's my favourite 'bio hacks' for my AM digestive routine

Sometimes, it's inevitable that you'll need to break your morning routine. For example, you might need to wake up obscenely early for a flight, or maybe you're travelling and you don't have access to a kitchen, or you'd like to delay eating because you have plans to meet friends at a cafe for breakfast. In these instances, I have trialled these bio hacks that are effective tools to keep things moving.

  1. Keep as many things as possible the same, aside from the food. For example, wake at the same time if you can, take the morning at a steady pace, take deep breaths, etc.

  2. Drink water. I keep this in even if I'm not about to eat my usual meal. I also add 1/2 tsp of salt to my water to replace the salt that I'd normally have on my food. I find that the combination of salt in water is effective because salt helps to contract muscles in the digestive tract that push things along and out through the large intestine.

  3. Coffee. I stick to my usual coffee. Again, I'm just attempting to mimic a normal morning to maintain my body's usual digestive patterns because I already know that coffee suits my body.

  4. A spoon of fats. Here's my favourite hack. The water, salt and coffee alone works. But it's even more effective if you add a small amount of concentrated fats. Just 1 tsp of coconut butter and 4 - 6 almonds or other nuts does the trick for me. My favourite choice is a creamed coconut butter, made of the creamed white meat of organic coconuts. It's palatable to eat by the spoon (stop at one spoon though!) and a delicious coating for the almonds.

  5. Chill out. Give your body that rest and digest time.

Find what works for you

There's no absolute rule here. If you can happily skip breakfast, feel great and poop daily, you don't need to change something that's working. But if your body is out of sync and your belly isn't happy, try developing a routine. Digestion is a cyclical process, and you'll benefit if you can find a routine that you body likes. If that's you, using food first thing in the morning could be the prompt that your body needs to get going.

What works for one person might not work for another person - for example, meals that are too large or high in fat or coffee may trigger an exaggerated gastrocolic reflex and IBS symptoms in some people. For others, coffee can cause diarrhoea or even constipation, because caffeine can act as a diuretic (increases urine production) and also stimulates adrenal hormones, diverting the body's blood supply to the heart and muscles instead of the intestines. In this sense, coffee could actually disrupt digestion for people that are particularly sensitive to it. Find what works for your body, and after you find it, try to keep things consistent - similar fibre, similar food quantities, similar food choices, etc. to suit you and your belly.