Breakfast – the least important meal

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – Professor Emeritus, scientist, lecturer and writer. Read more of Stig Bengmark’s columns here.

It’s a big burden on the body’s organs, having to receive excessive amounts of food

For several million years, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. They ate with the seasons, and while they stayed in Africa, their diet was usually plentiful and varied. They mostly ate flowers and leaves, and roots. After people started ‘burning food’, the quality of the food deteriorated somewhat from a health point of view, but it was only after starting with agriculture that the food deteriorated dramatically – it became more accessible and thus easier to misuse, and it also became significantly more one-dimensional. Excessive consumption of wheat with gluten led to humans becoming about 15 cm shorter during the first centuries/millennia, and disease becoming more common. The possibility of overeating increased markedly, and its disadvantages were clear – gluttony came to be described as a mortal sin, and even back in the Old Testament times, moderation was emphasised as a virtue. Early on, people learned to limit their eating to just twice a day – and some people still do. Fasting became an important element of the ecclesiastical year and its benefits were considered an important part of life.

Acute diseases, including strokes and heart attacks, often occur due to large meals and on major holidays. On major holidays such as Christmas, New Year and Easter, morbidity and mortality shoot up and hospital emergency rooms are packed out. It is a great burden on the body’s organs to take in large amounts of sugar, sugary foods and fats – our bodies are simply not made for it.

Lots of benefits to fasting

A daily period of fasting actually has a number of benefits – it gives our bodies an opportunity to rest and recover – leading to:

  • Fat levels in the body and especially in the bloodstream and liver drop sharply
  • The degree of inflammation in the body decreases
  • Damage to the body’s proteins (including DNA) and beneficial membrane fats are reduced
  • The tissues have time to repair
  • Sensitivity to the hormones, insulin and leptin, is improved – important for the prevention of diabetes

Experiments on animals show how important it is to have ‘structured eating’. In one study, two groups of mice received exactly the same number of calories, but one group was allowed to eat their food whenever they wanted, and the other group was only allowed to eat during a period of less than half the day (see picture). The animals that had free access to food around the clock became fatter and fatter and sicker and sicker, their livers, which were never allowed to rest, became especially unwell. The mice had difficulty handling sugar (glucose intolerance increased), and their muscle function (motor coordination) as well as the fullness hormone leptin were weakened (leptin resistance). The other group of animals – those with a daily fasting period – on the other hand, became thinner and thinner and healthier and healthier, even though they ate exactly the same amount of calories.

Nutrition is stored in three different ways in the body;

  1. As sugars in the liver and muscles – known as glycogen. At most, 800 calories can be stored in this way.
  2. As abdominal fat (usually widespread among men). Our ancestors stored between 250 and 500 calories here, but today extreme obesity has been measured with up to 6 kg of belly fat, corresponding to 54,000 calories. This fat is intended to be easy to mobilise in an emergency situation and to initiate defence reactions if such a situation occurs. There is a strong risk of disaster if you mobilise more than perhaps double the normal layer of belly fat (about 800-1000 calories).
  3. Like subcutaneous fat. With an obese person who may weigh 120 kg, the subcutaneous fat could be up to 60 kg (approximately 540,000 calories). This fat is not as dangerous as belly fat but is still associated with ill health; risk of deterioration of joints but also chronic diseases. This fat accumulates a lot of junk – toxins, hormones, pharmaceutical residues, bacterial parts and bacterial toxins – and should therefore be metabolised.

The Fat Switch fulfils an important function

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the metabolism of body fat doesn’t start until sugar/glycogen has run out. Just for fun, let’s do a little calculation example:

Let’s assume that you eat your last meal at 6 pm and you’ve then replenished your glycogen so it’s at 800. During light physical work (reading or sitting in front of the TV), you consume about 85 calories per hour, which means that when you go to bed at 22.30-23.00, you’ve consumed about half the calories. When you then sleep, your metabolism goes down to about 65 calories per hour, which means that your sugar supply is completely depleted at five o’clock in the morning. Only now the ‘fat switch’ goes from ‘sugar mode’ to ‘fat mode’ and the body starts burning fat instead of calories. From this point on, about 6 hours without calorie intake are needed in order for the body to have time to metabolise and burn at least 5-600 fat calories.

This is the reason why we should question the importance of breakfast – a meal whose significance actually has little support from research. I often come back to the subject of the Hunza people of Northern Pakistan. The Hunza people go out into the fields on an empty stomach at 5 AM and come in for their main meal at lunchtime, and then go out into the fields again. The interesting thing is that these people manage on far fewer calories than the authorities in the western world recommend, they rarely get sick and in fact have among the highest concentrations of 100-year-olds on earth.

New times – new lifestyle

One alternative to 6/18 (6 hours of eating and 18 hours of rest), is what’s known as calorie restriction (CR).  It’s an eating principle based on the fact that you should never eat until full but always content yourself with only eating two thirds of what you really want. CR has exactly the same health effects and amazing results as 6/18.

My wife and I prefer the latter method and have done for many years. We start the day with liquids (mostly tea), and eat our main meal at lunchtime – a meal most akin to what was been named 80/10/10, intended to resemble what our ancestors ate – 80% green, 10% vegetable fat (like avocado and olive oil) and 10% plant protein (mostly beans, peas, lentils, quinoa, nuts, almonds and seeds), often supplemented with some deep-sea fish prepared at low temperature. We eat our evening meal at six o’clock and it will be either a salad or a smoothie made according to the same principle.

In my opinion, old models like the food pyramid and the plate model have long been obsolete. It’s high time for new educational models, maybe something like 80/10/10? This is how humans ate for several million years and it’s what our genes were adapted to, that is, until agriculture was introduced a few thousand years ago. With our lifestyles, we’re all unconsciously choosing whether we want to be healthy or sick – and it’s time for everyone to become aware of what matters. The number of chronically ill people will triple on average by the year 2050 and no healthcare system in the world will be able to cope with it. In the United States, for example, Obamacare is under a grave threat – those who are actively working on being healthy (and that is in fact in the majority) no longer want to pay for those who are ‘abusing’ it. We must learn to take personal responsibility for our health, once and for all.

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