It's 10 a.m., and between walking the dog, getting the kids off to school, putting a phone call in to your mom and sending out the first batch of e-mails, you haven't had time for breakfast. Sure, you've been up since 7 and maybe even squeezed in a workout, but who needs a square meal? It's only two more hours until lunch, so what's the difference?
This used to be me—minus the dog and kids part. I was a serial offender in the skipping breakfast department. We've all had the "most important meal of the day" line used on us before, but is breakfast really all that important? My answer to you is: Yes!
Here are the three crucial things you need to remember every time you think about skipping breakfast. They helped me see the error of my ways—I now eat breakfast every day, even if it's just a handful of nuts or a yogurt on the go. You'll be munching and crunching every morning in no time.
Think about the word "breakfast." All night long (save those rare occasions when you raid the fridge at 3 a.m. to pick at leftovers), you go without food. This fasting lasts from dinner until breakfast and causes your metabolism to go into hibernation and slow down.
There are several biological reasons you would want your metabolism to slow down while you're spending some quality time with your pillow. It helps you to relax and fall asleep, and it allows your body to devote the majority of its energy to reparative work while you're sleeping. This is why eating right before bed is not a great idea. It forces your body to expend energy digesting this new food rather than storing it up for when you have to do the daily household chores.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that your metabolism will not "turn on" and move back up to full speed until it knows you are awake. When you break the fast by eating your favorite morning meal—or even just a piece of whole wheat toast or fruit—you're letting your body know to get that metabolism up and running. To jump-start your metabolism and burn the most calories over the course of the day, eat as soon as you get up.
Your metabolism is responsible for processing energy and burning calories you have stored in your body. But how does that energy get stored in the first place?
Unless you're eating for emotional reasons—such as when you use food to quell boredom or sadness, or even celebrate something good happening—you eat because you're hungry. This sensation is your body's way of telling you it needs more fuel. A series of complex chemical reactions govern how your body asks for and receives food for fuel, but the ones that are particularly important for breakfast-skippers have to do with blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar levels play an important role in governing how your body uses and stores energy. You may have heard about the blood sugar spike that happens when you eat something with a lot of processed sugar like a candy bar, or something made of refined white flour like a bagel. Take the bagel as an example: It's made almost entirely of white flour. White flour is manufactured by using a machine to strip away the fibrous shell that would normally encase the sugary kernel interior in a grain of wheat, then the remaining kernel is ground up.
When you eat something made from white flour, your body doesn't have to do much work at all to access the sugars (energy) that the food provides. As soon as it hits your stomach and intestines, the sugar molecules are absorbed across the skin membrane as glucose into the blood, leading to a huge blood sugar spike. Because it's experienced a flood of blood sugar, your body goes into overdrive, releasing huge amounts of insulin. The hormone insulin converts the glucose into glycogen, which can be stored in the muscle and fat tissues for use the next time you need energy.
Because the body released so much insulin, however, the blood sugar levels are quickly depleted. Your body's natural response is to ask you to send it more sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates to replenish blood glucose levels. This is what we know as the vicious cycle of carb-begets-carb. If you start your day with a simple carbohydrate meal, not only will you send your body's internal regulating mechanisms into a tizzy, you will be hungry again within hours and will crave another sugar fix.
However, in complex carbohydrates the external fiber is still intact, making it more difficult for your body to access the sugar on the inside. Your body will actually have to expend energy to get energy, and it will absorb a little bit of sugar at a time as it chips away at the fiber shell on every grain. This slow and steady flow of sugar into your bloodstream through your stomach and intestinal walls during digestion means you won't experience the blood sugar spike a bagel would have caused. Your body only releases a little bit of insulin and converts glucose to glycogen more slowly. It won't ask you to eat something more to replenish blood sugar levels as soon, and the fiber content itself will help you to feel full for longer.
Eating breakfast is a crucial part of regulating your blood sugar levels because it is the first chance your body has to replenish the energy stores that have been depleted over night to help fuel its reparative work. Since whatever you eat for breakfast will dictate how stabilized your blood sugar is for the rest of the day, you want to make sure to have something with fiber and protein, as well as some complex carbohydrates. A scrambled egg on whole grain toast is an excellent combination, as is a thin spread of almond butter on whole grain toast, or yogurt with muesli. Each of these combinations will offer you fiber and protein to stay full, as well as complex carbohydrates that will provide a slow-release sugar to your blood stream. You'll end the sugar spikes and inevitable sugar lows that send you running for the nearest vending machine fix.
This brings me to the third and final breakfast tip. Chances are that if you've deprived yourself of a morning meal, you'll be jonesing for a snack come midmorning. In most office places, the only options to satisfy your hunger come in foil wrappers behind the glass of a vending machine box. In almost every case, these treats are chock-full of simple carbohydrates and refined, processed sugars. Even the nut packs are coated in oil, loaded with sodium and preserved with chemicals your body does not want or need.
And now that we've just been over the role blood sugar plays in regulating your hunger and cravings over the course of the day, do you really want to go and set yourself up for a sugar spike roller coaster ride by beginning the morning with a bag of doughnuts? Nope!
Instead, you're going to make sure that, for those days when you really just can't spare the time for a homemade breakfast, you have the following items on hand in your office fridge:
Whole grain toast Make sure you get whole grain, which is not the same as whole wheat. You really want to be able to see tiny grains and kernels in the bread so you know you're holding on to some of the fiber of the wheat.
Almond Butter I like to mix in ground and whole flaxseeds for added fiber and omega fats.
Cereal and Milk This is a breakfast staple and so easy to keep at the office or on hand wherever you go. Opt for high-fiber cereals made from whole grains, and stay as low-sugar as possible. When it comes to choosing milk, make sure you buy organic milk from grass-fed cows to avoid all the nasty preservatives and hormones that come along with regular, industrially produced milk. You won't be disappointed. It tastes so much better.
Plain Yogurt Try to find a variety that has live cultures in it, since this will help build up good stores of bacteria in your belly and keep digestion running smoothly. I indulge with full-fat yogurt, since this helps the protein keep me full and tastes better. I sometimes toss in a teaspoon of jam or jelly that is sweetened with fruit juice. This is a simple sugar though, so I use it as a special treat when I'm craving something sweet and not as an everyday option.
Cottage Cheese This is one of my favorite breakfasts and snacks. It is incredibly creamy and very high in protein. I add it to canned peaches (in fruit juice, not syrup!) for a sweet and filling breakfast loaded with protein and fiber.
Carrots and Celery Sticks These may not sound all that exciting, but really hit the spot when you're craving something crunchy. You can spice them up with your choice of dressing (avoid nonfat varieties—they're packed with sodium and sugar) or nut butter. I love to make a dip out of yogurt, crushed garlic, dill and a pinch of fresh sea salt.
Nuts These are my dad's all-time favorite snack food because they're rich in omega fats and protein and can travel anywhere. Make sure you refrigerate whenever possible, though, to prevent the oils from going rancid.
Soycrisps Sometimes you really just need a good chip. Rather than loading up on calories and greasy fingers, opt for the high protein and incredibly flavorful soycrisp. There are even varieties available for my gluten-free friends.
Cookies When the craving for something chewy and chocolaty strikes, sometimes it's better just to cave rather than graze around the kitchen hoping to find something else that will satisfy. Whenever possible, I try to find the healthiest cookie on hand—even if this might sound like an oxymoron. Making sure to avoid refined sugars and processed flours makes a big difference in how your body processes food, even cookies. Your body knows what to do with natural sweeteners like honey or agave, or even dehydrated cane juice. And alternative flours like spelt and whole wheat have a lower glycemic index than refined flour, meaning you won't get the blood sugar spike we spoke about. Little substitutions like this can go a long way in making sure you can indulge every now and then without doing much harm.
What are your favorite simple, easy and healthy breakfasts and office snacks? Share your ideas in the comments section below.