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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or so we’re told. The saying is a little silly – and probably originated with cereal marketing – but there is a kernel of truth in there. While personally, I think all meals are equally important, eating breakfast has some major benefits. After going a long period of time without eating overnight, breakfast literally breaks the fast. Correlational studies link eating breakfast with a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease (although to be fair, it may be due to the fact that breakfast skippers have higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, and lower levels of physical activity vs. breakfast itself lowering the risk of chronic disease). Breakfast eaters tend to have better overall dietary quality, which makes sense. It’s an opportunity to work in more nutrients, and when you’re not ravenously hungry from skipping breakfast, you’re less likely to make impulsive food choices later on. And contrary to some persistent diet culture myths, eating breakfast is not associated weight weight gain, not that there is anything wrong with gaining weight. In fact, eating breakfast is associated with lower overall caloric intake, which makes sense given the tendency to binge or overeat after skipping a meal. Also, because our digestive system and circadian rhythm are linked, skipping breakfast can impact digestion (I find skipping breakfast is a major trigger for my clients with IBS) and even impact sleep.
Phew, that’s a lot!
For my clients in eating disorder recovery, eating breakfast is essential. It makes a huge difference regulating hunger and fullness cues and improving mood and energy levels. The hunger and low blood sugar caused by skipping breakfast makes them anxious and ramps up eating disorder thoughts and urges, creating a vulnerability for more eating disorder behaviors. Skipping breakfast often leads to impulsive eating or even binging, and even if it doesn’t, the intense hunger that builds up from skipping a meal can make eating feel really intense and chaotic, even if the actual eating behaviors are controlled, rigid and restrictive.
Despite the benefits of breakfast, it’s the most commonly skipped meal. There’s a lot of reasons for that. For starters, if you’re like me and a chronic snooze button hitter, you might find yourself without time to make breakfast. Even if you’re not sleeping in, mornings can be rushed. That’s especially true for parents who have to get their kids off to school or daycare, or for people who work from home, since home life can easily blend into work life. Sometimes people just struggle to find a breakfast food they like (p.s. if that’s you, non-breakfast foods are allowed!).
However, the biggest barrier I encounter with clients is not having an appetite in the morning. There’s many reasons you might not experience hunger in the morning, even if your body needs fuel:
If you are stuck in a pattern of skipping breakfast and binging at night, you might still feel full in the morning.
Shifts in hormones can cause you to not feel hungry. Levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, tend to be lower in the morning and leptin, the fullness hormone, are higher. Sleep disruption, medications, and health conditions can amplify this natural tendency.
Anxiety, depression, and stress can impact appetite. In particular, I find my clients with anxiety tend to struggle with a lack of appetite in the morning, especially if their anxiety is focused on work. My clients with depression may feel hunger, but struggle to work up the energy to eat, or may sleep past breakfast time.
If you wake up super early, or are a shift worker, you might be waking up outside of the natural shifts in huger and fullness hormones.
Coffee is an appetite suppressant, so if you’re drinking coffee first thing after waking up, it may be masking your hunger cues.
Nausea, which can be a side effect of anxiety, depression, stress, IBS, pregnancy, or certain medications, can impact appetite.
Most of my clients recognize that eating breakfast makes a big difference in how they feel. They know from experience eating breakfast helps them feel more grounded and comfortable around food. They also know that part of intuitive eating is listening to hunger cues. When they have no appetite in the morning, it can feel like a dilemma. So how do we navigate it? Here’s some ideas…
What to Do When You Have No Appetite in the Morning
As a general rule of thumb, I encourage clients to eat something within about an hour of waking. However, that’s a guideline, not a rule, and may not be what feels best for you. It’s OK to wait a little longer, just try not to push it too long.
Drink ginger tea.
If you struggle with nausea in the morning, ginger tea can be helpful. Ginger is widely studied for nausea, and if you wake up feeling a bit queasy, it may be a nice way to start your day. I find it’s especially helpful for clients in recovery from binge eating disorder, who might not feel hungry after a late night binge, but want to start the next day off on the right foot, as ginger can help stimulate gastric emptying.
Move a little.
A little bit of movement can help stimulate appetite. It doesn’t have to be a heavy duty workout class – in fact, intense cardio can suppress appetite. I’m talking something simple, like walking the dog, 5-10 minutes of yoga, or just shimmying it out to a song that wakes you up.
Wait a bit for your first cup of coffee.
Since coffee can suppress appetite, consider waiting until after breakfast for your first cup. There’s even some evidence that waiting an hour or two for coffee might enhance it’s energizing effects, so while that first hour might be tough, you might find it’s helpful for energy levels later on.
Look for other hunger cues.
Sometimes hunger can show up as a physical sensation in the stomach. Other times it can show up in different ways, like anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, or thoughts of food. Personally, I rarely feel stomach hungry in the morning. While I try to eat something within an hour of waking, occasionally I get lost in work or am dawdling while getting ready and go too long without eating. It’s not my stomach that serves as an alarm, but my anxiety! When I notice my brain starting to feel a bit angsty, it’s a sign that I need to stop and feed myself ASAP.
What to Eat When You Have No Appetite in the Morning
Here’s some ideas for what to eat when you have no appetite in the morning. All these examples contain fat, protein and carbohydrate, three nutrients that are pretty essential for a satisfying meal.
Something cold, soft, plain and/or carby.
These foods tend to settle a little better when you have no appetite in the morning. Some examples include:
Smoothies – Try to include a source of fat, protein and carb in your smoothie for a balanced breakfast. For example, add a spoonful of peanut butter, some yogurt, and a handful of oats along with frozen fruit and milk. My blueberry cheesecake smoothie fits the bill!
A bagel and cream cheese or cheese toast
Your favorite cereal and whole or soy milk, with some pumpkin seeds or slivered almonds thrown in for more fat and protein. P.S. I recommend those two milks in this situation for the protein and fat, but nbd if you like something different.
Yogurt parfait with fruit and granola
Peanut butter toast
Especially for my clients who are depressed, sometimes it’s helpful to have a really tasty breakfast planned. If you’re struggling with having the energy to prepare something extra-delicious in the morning, weekend meal prep might be helpful. A few ideas: French toast casserole, savory breakfast casserole, breakfast burritos, baked oatmeal (like this version with browned butter, dark chocolate and pears), or breakfast enchiladas.
Also, comfort food doesn’t have to be breakfast food! Leftovers from dinner make a great breakfast. Frozen meals can also be a great option for breakfast comfort food. Think frozen breakfast burritos, frozen pizza (top it with a fried egg!), or even mac and cheese.
Try a breakfast appetizer.
The breakfast appetizer is a concept I came up with for my clients when they have no appetite in the morning. Think about switching around your morning snack and breakfast, so you start your morning with something a little more snack-like in quantity. While it may not be enough to meet your morning energy needs, it can be enough to get your appetite going for a more complete breakfast later on. Some ideas:
Fruit and peanut butter
Protein or granola bar
A cup of juice or milk
If you struggle with knowing what to eat when you have no appetite in the morning, I hope this post was helpful for you in coming up with ideas for experimentation. At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong – and hey, maybe you’re just not a breakfast person (although if you are in ED recovery, and especially if you are on a meal plan and actively nutritionally rehabilitating, skipping breakfast is not something I would experiment with). One thing I’ve learned from working with clients who struggle low appetite in the morning is if you throw out preconceived notions of what you’re “supposed” to eat for breakfast, it creates space for finding something that works for you.
When we work with clients on building a healthier relationship with food, one of our goals is to help them figure out a way of eating that feels good for the unique individual that they are. If you’re struggling with your relationship with food, or confused trying to figure out how to feed yourself, we work with clients throughout the US and our of our Columbia, SC office providing intuitive eating coaching. Read more about our practice philosophy, and reach out if you’re interested in work together!