There’s a good chance any diet advice you grew up hearing probably caused you more harm than good (I’m talking to you, low-fat craze, calorie counting, juice cleansing, etcetera etcetera etcetera). But there’s one tip drilled into your head that may have some merit to it. “Don’t skip breakfast, it’s the most important meal of the day!”

As someone who is always thinking about my next delicious meal, I NEVER thought I’d be the kind of person who “forgets” to eat. But hello 30’s where mornings consist of feeding 4 little mouths (one from my boob), pumping, making sure homework is done, permission slips are signed, library books are packed, and backpacks are ready, getting out the door with a little makeup and dry shampoo is all I can hope for some days. Oh, and coffee, that’s a given.

But it never fails on days I skip breakfast, around 10 am I feel mentally foggy, and sometimes a little nauseated. I might get a dull headache. And I’m HUNGRY. Not hungry for lunch, hungry for CRAP. Crackers, chips, pastries, a sandwich. Yes, I said sandwich for a morning snack.

You may think skipping breakfast is a great way to cut calories. Maybe you’re fine to go without and don’t experience the 10 AM hangry session I do. But our bodies actually thrive on receiving nourishment in the morning. Besides the fact that counting calories is flawed, there are other reasons skipping breakfast doesn’t promote weight loss. The research on this topic is mixed, but I feel the “pro breakfast” camp has much better arguments.

One theory is the role of cortisol. An entire book could be written on cortisol and its role in our metabolic health. But for the scope of this post, I will cover some basics.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands and is a necessary biological response to stress. It causes your blood pressure and heart rate to go up, blood sugar to rise, and other factors that prepare you for the “fight or flight” needed for survival. This is important, say, if you’re being chased down by a tiger, have to lift a car off of someone, or if your body goes into shock. It’s also present when someone cuts you off while driving, after an argument with a coworker, and other more subtle forms of stress.

Cortisol gets a bad rap but the truth is stress is a part of life and cortisol is our body’s way of responding with mental clarity, strength, and other necessary physiologic responses. It’s a good thing! The problem is chronically elevated cortisol levels are correlated with chronic inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and a whole host of metabolic dysfunctions.

Remember the movie Limitless where Bradley Cooper took that wonder drug that made him insanely smart and hyper-productive, but he found out over time it would kill him? I kind of imagine that going on inside the body when I think of cortisol.

Cortisol levels peak in the morning, signaling your body to wake and consume energy for the day. After eating, when your body senses glucose it needs for energy, cortisol levels start to decline. This is normal. When you skip breakfast, however, cortisol levels remain elevated in an attempt to find energy. It does this by promoting hunger, or if necessary signals the liver to make glucose. Remember my 10 AM hangry session? This is cortisol driving up hunger hormones in search of quick, fast energy- i.e. crappy food.

Studies show people who skip breakfast have higher serum cortisol levels, and chronically elevated cortisol levels make it almost impossible to lose weight. Remember, if you’re being chased by a tiger, the last thing your body wants is to lose energy. It’s going to hold onto that fat for dear life!

Anything that promotes chronically elevated cortisol levels, whether it’s from persistent emotional stress or skipping breakfast, will not only thwart weight loss attempts but also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. You may not be able to eliminate all stress from your life, but one tangible thing you can do is prioritize eating breakfast.

What should I eat?

Make sure your breakfast isn’t a carb fest. It’s unfortunate our go-to breakfast meals are typically processed grains like toast, pastries, cereals, bagels, and other foods that cause a quick surge in blood sugar and insulin levels (high insulin levels promote fat storage and chronically elevated levels lead to insulin resistance and diabetes). Some of us have been eating those foods every morning for years! While these breakfast classics aren’t inherently bad on occasion, they’re providing a quick burst of energy followed by a hard crash.

Protein and fat, on the other hand, don’t cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and instead provide more sustained energy and promote satiety.

Try to incorporate protein and healthy fats in your morning meal. Don’t shy away from cream or whole milk in your coffee. Choose less processed grains such as steel-cut oats or whole wheat toast and add peanut butter for protein. Eggs are a great source of protein and probably my favorite food to recommend for breakfast- you can hard boil ahead of time for something easy to grab. Full-fat yogurts are quick and something I grab often and throw in my work bag. I’ve started keeping protein bars at work for those days I forget to eat.

Austen eating scrambled eggs and Finn eating his favorite, lime greek yogurt with “crunchies” (homemade granola)

Don’t forget, this information applies to kids too, who eat an overwhelming percentage of their recommended daily sugar intake for breakfast. They are not immune from the health implications of a highly processed, high sugar diet, and it’s just as important for them to have mental clarity and sustained energy throughout their day, especially during school. If you have picky eaters that are unwilling to give up on their favorite breakfast, try some of these options:

  1. Whole grain pancakes or waffles (make extra and freeze them, then throw them in the toaster). You can typically find high protein batter mixes in stores now.
  1. Instead of cereal, make your own granola with steel cut oats, a higher proportion of nuts and seeds, and go easy on the honey
  1. Let them make their own omelet

For quick on-the-go breakfast ideas, see this popular post I wrote a while back.

Whether your goal is more energy, better overall health, or weight loss, a healthy breakfast is an easy place to start.