By Michael Grothaus
Photo: Flickr user Marco Verch
I haven’t eaten breakfast in years.
Since I work from home, I usually just get up and out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and then start working until mid-afternoon when I eat lunch. I know this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” However, despite this claim being passed down from generation to generation, scientists have yet to come to a conclusion that this advice is true. Matter of fact, a recent study found that there were no discernible health benefits between people who ate breakfast and people who did not. Further, the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” anecdote seems to have been hijacked for commercial gain by lobbyists who had cereal to sell in the late 19th century.
So is the importance of breakfast just a myth? “The jury is still out on that,” says nutritionist, hypnotherapist and life coach Kimi Sokhi. “There are no conclusive long-term studies in adults that prove that breakfast is ‘the most important meal of the day’. However, there are many studies that show that children and teens benefit greatly from a good, healthy breakfast. Kids that eat single or double (one at home and one at school) breakfasts daily have higher IQ and perform better at school.”
So maybe mom’s conventional wisdom isn’t wrong. If eating breakfast won’t make you healthier, maybe it will at least make you more productive. In order to find out, I spent two weeks eating breakfast every day (after abstaining for almost five years) to see if I’d get any kind of productivity boost. For my unscientific study, I continued to drink my normal morning cup of coffee, but I added typical breakfast foods like eggs, toast, fruits, and sometimes even sugary cereal. Here’s what happened:
I INSTANTLY FELT MORE READY TO START THE DAY
Sure, my usual cup of coffee always gives me a kick in the morning that wakes me up and helps me focus on all the work I need to get done, but when I added food, my morning jump-start felt less like a “kick” and more like an energy steadily growing in me.
“That’s not surprising,” Sokhi told me when I relayed my experiences. “Our brains need fuel to work. When you eat, you give your body and brain the fuel they need to operate.” And this food fuel is vastly different than the caffeine kick coffee gives us. “Coffee and black tea do contain caffeine, which stimulates our body into being more alert. However, the more you rely on coffee in the morning or throughout the day, the more you’re putting your body in a state of ‘fight or flight’ instead of its natural state of ‘rest and digest’.”
The fight-or-flight hormones that coffee stimulates are great if we need to outrun a bear, but not so great for normal all-day professional work. Sokhi says that if you want to get an even bigger breakfast boost, swap out your coffee for a large glass of warm lemon water with a teaspoon of turmeric. “Lemon juice is a great way to flush your system first thing in the morning. It also helps detoxify the liver.”
NOT ALL BREAKFAST FOODS ARE CREATED EQUAL
On days I had a bowl of cereal (my favorite is Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs) I did feel really alert when I sat down and started working. However, I then usually found myself hungry again in a few hours and also felt tired and run down around the same time, which led to me constantly looking at the clock to see when I could bolt for lunch.
“That’s not surprising either,” Sokhi says. “Having sugar and refined carbohydrates does boost our blood sugar levels very high, but only to fall quickly, sending us into a sugar low. That leads us to have hunger cravings for more sugar and carbs. The same applies for any snack or meal. Ever notice how you feel sleepy after a very heavy pasta lunch? It’s the same principle.”
Matter of fact, Sokhi says if you aren’t going to eat a nutritious breakfast, you may be better off skipping it entirely. “Whether or not eating breakfast helps you is also largely dependent on what you eat for breakfast. Skipping breakfast would be preferred than having a bagel or a donut. A sugary breakfast full of refined carbohydrates is not the fuel your body needs first thing in the morning.”
THE BEST “PRODUCTIVITY” BREAKFAST FOODS ARE PROTEINS AND COMPLEX CARBS
When I switched from those delicious sugary cereals to more nutritious foods like fruit, oatmeal, or eggs and whole wheat toast I didn’t get that “awake kick” I got when eating cereal, but I still felt more ready to start work. I also noticed I didn’t get that sluggish feeling or get hungry again until well in the afternoon, which enabled me to concentrate more on my work.
“That makes complete sense,” says Sokhi. Having a healthy, balanced meal with fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats will keep you full for a lot longer and give you sustained energy for several hours instead of a sharp sugar spike.” As for what to eat, Sokhi says a combination of proteins and complex carbohydrates is ideal for breakfast. That includes things like eggs, Greek yogurt, fruit, oatmeal, and green smoothies. Just avoid the cereals with cartoon mascots. “A sugary breakfast with frosted flakes will spike your blood sugar levels and will likely lead to a sugar crash mid-morning, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish.”
I FELT LESS STRESSED
Perhaps the biggest change I noticed to my productivity when I started eating breakfast was that I felt both less stressed and overwhelmed at the tasks that laid before me each day. I still had the same amount of tasks to complete as I normally did, but the internal chaotic mad dash to finish them didn’t materialize in my mind. Sokhi says this is the most interesting of my observations–yet no surprise once you understand the science behind how food fuels our brain and affects our mental state of mind.
“Food can greatly impact our moods and mental health. When our body and brain are starved, we can start of feel low in energy, foggy, and easily overwhelmed,” she notes. “Our brains need glucose to survive, and when you skip a meal (such as breakfast) and your body goes into starvation mode your cognitive function along with attention and memory take a nose-dive. Our mood is also affected when we skip meals. Ever felt ‘hangry’ when you haven’t eaten all day? Our neurotransmitters that impact mood are affected when meals are skipped, so it’s not surprising that having a healthy breakfast leads you to feel more in control and less overwhelmed in related to your tasks at hand.”
So, after two weeks of eating breakfast again, I’m a believer in its positive effects on my productivity–as long as I’m eating nutritious breakfast foods. But as I found, eating a nutritious breakfast can take no more time to prepare than that bad bowl of sugary cereal does.
“Breakfast doesn’t need to be a culinary production,” Sokhi says. “You can soak oats the night before, or make a smoothie in a few minutes in the morning. Hard-boiled eggs can be stored for up to a week. There are many ways to quickly grab breakfast in the morning without spending too much time in the kitchen.”
So there you have it. No more excuses. Start eating the right kind of breakfast if you want to be more productive because, while science may not have proven it’s the most important meal of the day, it’s an essential one if you want to get off to a productive start.
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