My 17-year-old son is finally showing a glimmer of interest in healthy eating. And just because he's male doesn't mean he's immune to the diet mentality. Given our society's obsession with weight, the potential is great for the diet mentality to lurk behind even the most innocent-seeming question about what or how we eat. So when he asks questions like the one above, I always look at it from a dieter's perspective.
If you look at it from a dietitian's perspective, it's clear. Studies show breakfast is an important meal; it gives us energy to get through the morning, and we're not distracted by hunger. Ever try to really focus on something when your stomach is calling? It's almost impossible.
But from a real-life perspective, eating breakfast depends on two things: 1) Are we hungry? and 2) Can we tell if we're hungry (and if we can, do we care)?
Using Hunger as a Guide
The real life of a 17-year-old male is worth exploring in answering whether we're hungry. (No, I won't go into the details. :-)). I'm talking about the fact that many teenagers stay awake into the wee hours, and get up past noon. My son is definitely one of those. So when he goes to bed at 2 am, and isn't hungry when he has to get up early the next day, I don't push it. He probably ate within a few hours of going to sleep, and he really isn't ready for another meal yet. I am confident about this because I know he is clear when he is hungry and needs food. I'm also confident that he usually eats when he is hungry, unless it's not possible at the moment. If he's going to be in a situation where he won't have access to food, I might push him to take something with him.
With the diet mentality, though, whether we eat breakfast or not usually isn't about hunger. Indeed, many weight strugglers can no longer even tell when they're hungry and when they're not. Instead, dieters are all about trying to eat as little as they can, regardless of hunger. The different complications of this approach to eating are numerous, but have a common outcome. We end up with distorted eating patterns and behaviors that don't get us where we want to go.
So bottom line re breakfast: If the reason we're not eating it is to control our weight, we're probably better off trying to get something down within a few hours of waking.
The rest of us can rely on our hunger cues. They really are trustworthy. And we can trust that they'll generally drive us to get something down within a few hours of waking, whether we wake at 6 am or the middle of the afternoon.
What about you? Do you rely on your hunger cues, and eat breakfast when they tell you to, or does a schedule for eating breakfast — and other meals — work best for you? If the latter is true, why do you think that is so?