My breakfast habits have been less than stellar. Many days, after walking my dog, I run out the door with just a coffee and banana in hand. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll manage to grab some almonds, too. But without fail, I’m hungry and exhausted come 10 AM—and lately, my hunger-quelling snack of choice has been a banana muffin from our work café.
Of course, I’d rather not load my body with refined carbs before the day is even half over—especially since it seems to awaken my inner sugar monster—so when I was listening to one of my go-to podcasts, I was intrigued to hear the host say that eating more food early in the morningcould actually help you stay more alert, avoid overeating and snacking between meals, and even lose weight. In fact, her message wasn’t just to eat more in the morning, but to eat the most in the morning, then a bit less at lunch, and then finish the day with dinner being your smallest meal.
I was apprehensive, but I’m a sucker for diet-related self-experimentation, so I was game to flip my eating habits on their head for potential physical and mental gain. Here’s what happened when I did. (Looking for more simple, smart advice? Order Prevention—and get a FREE gift when you subscribe today.)
My breakfast size doubled—and I felt like garbage.
On day one of my experiment, I went big. I toasted up a grain-free English muffin (220 calories), slathered it with peanut butter (190 calories) and jam (50 calories), and then whipped myself up three jumbo scrambled eggs (270 calories) cooked in butter (50 calories) and topped with cheese (100 calories). All in all, it was about 660 calories—triple what I normally eat—and probably too much for someone whose only exercise is walking her dog 3 to 5 miles per day (certainly not bad, but I’m no athlete).
I felt like crap until about 1 PM. And while I didn’t snack between breakfast and lunch, I’m not sure the bloating and post-Thanksgiving levels of grogginess were a good trade-off. I definitely didn’t feel sharp like I’d hoped I would. I did eat slightly less for lunch, but I consumed my normal amount for dinner.
I learned that my definition of big was way too big.
I knew continuing this way wouldn’t yield good results—at least for me—so I decided to consult some experts. (Yes, I now realize I should have done this earlier!) When I did, it became clear that my definition of “big breakfast” was supersized. “Generally speaking, I’d recommend breakfast be in the 350 to 550 calorie range, depending on activity level, appetite, and age,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Katie Shields. “Someone who likes to have a mid-morning snack would aim for the lower end of the range.”
And when I asked her if there was any merit to making breakfast your biggest meal of the day: “The research doesn’t substantiate that eating more in the morning is better compared to eating more at night, and vice versa,” says Shields. “It’s important to listen to your body and find a way of eating that works best for your lifestyle.”
After downsizing a bit, I hit my stride.
The next few days, I was more strategic, and I tried to focus more on protein than calories at breakfast. According to registered dietitian Lily Nichols, everyone’s needs are a little different, but most women should aim for 15 to 25 g of protein in their morning meal—something like full-fat Greek yogurt with berries and nuts; or Nichol’s personal favorite, 2 eggs, 2 slices of bacon, sautéed kale, and a handful of berries.
So I followed her advice and made myself a veggie and egg scramble, along with a small handful of cashews. Protein clocked in at about 18 g, and, while I didn’t count, I estimate that calories were just under 400—still more than I had been eating, but much more manageable than day one’s breakfast. I was full, but not stuffed, and was free of uncomfortable hunger pains and energy dips throughout the morning.
I started skipping lunch and focusing better.
Continuing with the strategy above, I found that I still wanted my mid-morning snack, even though I wasn’t terribly hungry. I know, snacking while staring at a computer goes against all those mindful eating tips I’ve doled out in the past, but I oddly enjoy my ritual of eating baby carrots and peanut butter while I answer e-mails. I imagine I could do far worse things. At least I’m mindful about my mindlessness, right?
Over the next few days, I realized that my bigger breakfast and filling mid-morning snack meant I didn’t want a normal lunch. So I skipped it. And instead, I started making a point to pack another snack containing some protein and healthy carbs (e.g. hardboiled egg and an a piece of fruit) to eat around 3 PM. This did wonders for my focus and alertness at times when I’d normally hit a lull. Then, around 7PM, I’d eat my normal dinner.
This “hourglass” approach to eating—as opposed to front-loading my calories like I’d originally intended, or eating three square meals a day—seemed to fit my body best.
I realized there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
My goal in writing this isn’t that you replicate my habits, but that you take the time to do a little experimentation of your own. While I realized that starting the day with a protein-rich, substantial-but-not-huge breakfast helped set a healthy tone for the rest of my day, you might discover something totally different. And the experts agree. “There’s research to show both eating breakfast or occasionally skipping it—such as an intermittent fasting approach can work well,” says Nichols.