Breakfast is why you’re fat

That should be a sufficiently provocative title.

First of all, you see this glass here?  It’s full of intermittent fasting and carb backloading kool-aid.  Now you know my biases.  Evaluate accordingly.

So here’s how it works.  Insulin sensitivity — that is, the ability of cells in your body to respond to increased levels of insulin by packing in glucose from the bloodstream — varies over the course of the day.  It’s high in the morning and low in the evening.

Most of us who’ve been paying attention to the basics of nutrition at the hormonal level tend to think of high insulin sensitivity as a good thing.  Ain’t so, cupcake: High insulin sensitivity is just a thing.  For someone who’s diabetic, increasing insulin sensitivity is great (as Peter says, getting fat is only bad when you stop — more on this later).  Someone with low body fat eating a low-carb diet will also have low insulin sensitivity, and that’s a good thing — any glucose in that fellow’s bloodstream should be going directly to the brain, not getting sucked up by random adipocytes along the way.  Think about insulin sensitivity as a gain knob on your body’s inclination to uptake glucose into cells.

So pretend you’re J. Random Standard American Diet Eater.  You wake up in the morning, make yourself a pot of coffee, and because you’ve been told by well-meaning health journalists and government officials that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you pour yourself a big ol’ bowl of Corn Flakes and cover it with skim milk.  Between the processed carbs in the Corn Flakes and the lactose and protein in the milk, you trigger an insulin avalanche pretty much as soon as the first spoonsful of your breakfast candy hit your stomach.  Your fat cells, at their most insulin-sensitive point in the day, slurp up all that glucose you’ve been shovelling into your bloodstream like Ted Kennedy at a distillery.  Then you proceed to sit on your ass for the next ten hours of commuting, working, and commuting back home.

Meanwhile, all those calories you’re shoving into your gullet at regular intervals are cranking up the various mTOR pathways.  If you’re a strength nerd like me, you might think of mTOR as the gatekeeper of gainz, but its anabolic effects are a lot more general than just packing on muscle mass.  mTOR regulates cell growth in general, including fat cells — and cancer cells.  By keeping mTOR pathways constantly cranking away, you’re not just super-sizing your adipocytes: You’re also inhibiting autophagy and AMPK activity, which serve (among other things) a sort of general housekeeping role, getting rid of damaged and degraded cellular components and warding off a host of diseases.

“But what about those studies?” you cry.  Welcome to the land of the epidemiological correlation study, my friend.  Most — probably all, but I can’t prove that — of the people who reported skipping breakfast didn’t do it because they were following a principled intermittent-fasting programme, they did it because they had dysregulated eating behaviours.  “Shit, no time to eat breakfast, I’ll pick up some drive-thru on the way to work or grab a Snickers from the candy machine.”  Unsurprisingly, that kind of approach to food correlates pretty highly with things like “Shit, no time to make dinner, I’ll call out for pizza” and “Shit, it’s ten in the morning and I’m already hungry, I’ll grab a couple donuts to tide me over until lunch”.  Conversely, people with the minimal forethought and fortitude to make twenty minutes of time in the morning for their breakfast candy ritual also tend to have the minimal forethought and fortitude necessary to pack a sandwich to work most days and make half-assed reasonable food choices for most of their meals.  Not great, but not horrible either.  So what do you think is going to sell more papers and get more grant money — “Habitual breakfast eating is inversely correlated with horribly dysregulated eating behaviour” or “Scientists prove that skipping breakfast makes you fat”?  Yeah, you betcha.

So, as the kids on reddit say, what do?  If you lift heavy I presume you’ve already got your nutritional shit more or less together, so try Cheat Mode or Leangains.  If you don’t lift heavy, either (a) start or (b) give something like Eat Stop Eat a try.  (Despite the quack-looking “CLINICAL STUDIES PROVE!!!1!!11one” webshite I just linked you to, ESE is pretty reputable.)  Either way, quit trying to tell me that your breakfast candy is good for you; I don’t care how much it cost at Trader Joe’s.

7 Responses to “Breakfast is why you’re fat”

  1. September 17, 2012 at 11:18

    So… what’s your actual dietary recommendation here, then?

    • September 17, 2012 at 19:02

      Intermittent fasting is pretty easy to implement:

      1. Don’t eat breakfast
      2. Eat lunch when you usually do; later is probably marginally better
      3. Eat something between lunch and dinner, ideally about the same size as breakfast would have been
      4. Eat dinner when you usually do, taking care to…
      5. Stop eating food about sixteen hours before tomorrow’s lunch

      If you want to take advantage of the changes in insulin sensitivity over the day, shift your dairy and carb consumption — especially simple carbs — to the evening. Steak and martinis for lunch, sandwich and beers for dinner. I’m not convinced that this is a big huge deal, and probably won’t make as much of a difference as better food choices, but it’s not nothing.

      As far as food choices go, I’ve written about it in more detail elsewhere but I basically lean paleo. Meat (eggs count), leaves, and berries. Dairy and tubers aren’t the devil, but most of the time they’re not optimal either. Get it right 80% of the time and you’re doing fine; compliance any better than that probably isn’t worth the effort if it stresses you out.

      • September 18, 2012 at 09:41

        Is the insulin sensitivity related to cortisol levels?

        • September 18, 2012 at 19:48

          I know the next best thing to fuck-all about cortisol in particular, or stress adaptations in general.

          Still, I’m willing to speculate a bit. Martin Berkhan has a post up talking about how breakfast interacts with a cortisol response to waking up. Taking his article as gospel for a minute, it looks like an acute cortisol response boosts both insulin sensitivity and insulin production in response to food (“oh fuck, shit just got real, shovel as much glucose into cells as possible”). So in that case, yeah. I’m fairly convinced that muscle cells get much more insulin-sensitive after heavy lifting and maybe sprinting (which is why the carb feast after a workout in Cheat Mode works), and the cortisol response probably helps explain that.

          If you’re constantly stressed out and your cortisol levels are chronically elevated, though, all that probably goes out the window. I’m speculating wildly on no data, but I’d be willing to bet that when cortisol stays high for long enough it no longer provokes any kind of changes in insulin response or sensitivity. Endocrine system cries wolf long enough, the rest of the body just ignores it.

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