Evolutionary biohacking - Could skipping breakfast be the key to productivity?

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or is it?

We're raised to believe skipping breakfast is a dietary travesty.

Scientific studies and brands say breakfast contains essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and fibre. This is true, but that breakfast burrito in your hand isn't exactly nutritious.

In the 19th century, Kellogg's cereal majorly influenced the way westerners eat breakfast through aggressive marketing campaigns, claiming to be "backed by expert opinions" like;

"Cereal is the best food to eat first thing in the morning."

"Breakfast is necessary for controlling weight."

"Skipping breakfast is a productivity killer."

On the contrary, scientific circles believe that in the mornings, people are meant to be on the move, expending energy (hunting and gathering). When night comes, people should relax, eat and recuperate. Some say this is the human's natural biorhythm.

Breakfast as we know it is based on a multi-billion dollar industry dating back to the 1800s, marketing to humans that they need a meal first thing in the morning to boost cognitive function and metabolism.

Yet 2.5 million years ago humans didn't have access to their Corn Flakes but performed optimally when hunting and gathering.

These evolutionary ways, in the modern world, are referred to as, "The Caveman Diet" or "Intermittent Fasting."

If you find yourself feeling sluggish not long after eating breakfast, this could be the biohack you've been searching for.

morning coffee while working on laptop in the outdoors
Credit: Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

If humans were meant to graze, we’d be cows

There's often debate whether humans should eat frequently or occasionally.

In the natural world, omnivorous and wild animals feed less frequently than three times per day.

Herbivores (cows and sheep) on the other hand, require constant grazing on low-calorie dense foods like grass.

Carnivores (lions and wolves) will only eat a few times a week or month due to scarce food. Because catching a zebra isn't as easy as grabbing a bag of chips.

Mammals have a natural adaptation to survive with an intermittent food supply. You've seen documentaries with lions sleeping in the African sun when a herd of zebras stroll by. You instantly cringe thinking you're about to see a blood bath but, the lions aren't hungry; therefore, the zebras are safe for now.

The body of a lion has a way of storing food for energy so they can eat once a week, and their physical and mental capacity isn't impaired during fasts. They consume large meals and store much of the calories in their bodies to survive.

Believe it or not, the same goes for humans. When we eat, we're putting food energy into storage, glycogen (stored sugar) in the liver, triglycerides in fat tissue. When you fast, you are extracting energy from these stores to survive.

It's interesting that mammals are designed with this food energy storage system, yet, we're still told to eat regularly.

Now, think about these wild animals and hunter-gatherer societies. Do they face health problems like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease? No...

Even societies like Kitavans and Okinawans experienced no problems with obesity, and they consumed carbohydrate-based diets like fruits, vegetables and oils.

These diseases are a modern problem due to our diets containing refined grains and sugary foods. Changes to human diets only began around 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, leading to greater reliability of food. Even then, obesity wasn't declared an epidemic until the 1990s.

Human bodies can consume meat or carbohydrates and experience little diabesity. The issue is that we're told to focus on the fat and carbohydrate macronutrients like they're the devil.

It's the human bodies insulin response that matters. Toxicity lies within the process in which foods are made, not the food source itself.

Highly refined and processed grains, sugars and vegetable oils are the problems... not carbs and fats originating from wholefoods.

With all of this in mind, let's talk about fasting and how this comes into play.

Skipping breakfast and intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting isn't a diet, rather a dieting pattern. It's about making conscious decisions to postpone breakfast, and consume your whole daily food intake in a shorter window, over fewer meals.

It's known to decrease the rates of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's disease.

Another study also suggests it can improve memory retention through a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

The most common form of fasting is the 8-hour feed window, followed by a 16 hour fast. For example, only eating from noon to 8 pm. Restricting to this window allows your body and brain to self-repair. In a way, it's throwing out the trash.

The main reason for this is because our bodies are in a "feeding" state for 12 hours after eating. Meaning, your body operates differently when it's "feasting" to when it's "fasting."

So let's talk about what goes on in our bodies when the fasting state is initiated.

what happens to your body when you fast
Credit: Graphic by Renegade Pharmacist

Immediately after eating - Blood sugar levels rise

Once you eat a meal, your body begins the digestion process immediately. Carbohydrates are being processed and released into the bloodstream as glucose (sugar), increasing your bodies glucose levels. Resulting in increased blood sugar levels and in turn, your body starts to produce insulin, containing two critical functions;

  1. It stimulates the absorption of glucose into the tissues for a quick supply of energy, immediately after eating.
  2. It stores energy because your body doesn't need all of the power supplied by the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar. It is for this reason that insulin stimulates the conversion of glucose into its storage form, glycogen.

Glycogen is then stored into your liver and muscles to be released when energy is needed again.

3 hours after eating - Blood sugar levels drop

Insulin begins to transport glucose from the blood to cells and tissues. As a result, the level of glucose in the blood will drop; therefore, blood sugar levels drop too.

While insulin is in circulation, cells are poised to absorb energy. As long as glucose is in your blood, and glycogen is in your muscles or liver, fat is not used as the primary source of energy. Your body switches to energy production from fat once glucose in the blood has been depleted, and glycogen reserves are used up.

9 hours after eating - Blood sugar levels settle

Your body has completed the digestion of your last meal and discontinued producing insulin. Now your organs are in a brief resting period.

This state doesn't last long though, your organs, muscles and cognitive processes are continuously consuming energy, and a new player enters... glucagon.

As soon as your body experiences a drop in blood sugar levels, it needs to react. Glucagon's task is to release stored glycogen back into the bloodstream. Blood sugar levels remain constant, and the energy supply is ensured.

11 hours after eating - Fat burning

Your body is now starving for energy, and previously stored glycogen is exhausted.

Your body falls back onto a much larger source, fat reserves. The average calorie supply of an adult person in the form of fat reserves amounts to 80,000 calories. So, to tap into these calories, your body produces fat-burning hormones, utilising an impressive 6 hormones;

  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
  • IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor)
  • Glucagon
  • Testosterone
  • Adrenalin
  • T3 (Triiodothyronine)

12 hour after eating - Ketosis

Your body has sent an army of hormones to work and provide you with new energy. Now, Ketone bodies are produced as a by-product of fat burning.

Ketones are fatty acid molecules that are formed when fat reserves are broken down. They're known to provide energy to the heart, brain and other vital organs.

Ketones activate the nerve cells, intellectual capacity and develop new cells from brain stem cells. These guys are the reason why you will begin to experience better concentration and improved productivity during a fast.

14 hours after eating - The Autophagy

It's been a hot minute since your bodies last meal. But, don't give up yet, we're going to give it what it's screaming for very soon!

The prolonged abstinence from food and the conversion to fat metabolism activates yet another mechanism at the 12-14 hour mark. The autophagy (pronounced "aw-to-fuh-jee") is activated.

Translated from the ancient Greek autóphagos, meaning "to consume oneself." Yep... kind of gross.

But, this is precisely what's happening, your cells begin to process themselves. Old cell components and proteins are recycled during this phase. Not only can they be recycled, but cells can be completely renewed.

In a way, your body is going through a massive cleanout and tidy up. This not only makes your cells more efficient, but it also prolongs the life of the cells.

16 hours after eating - Break the fast

Now it's time to eat! But, the meal you chose to break your fast with is critical, and you will need to ease your way back in.

Your meal shouldn't exceed more than 500 calories and try avoiding raw foods as they can irritate your digestive tract. Some nutritionists suggest eggs, avocados, nuts or chicken for essential amino acids to help rebuild the body. Others suggest soft-cooked foods like vegetables, broths or soups as they're easier to digest.

Lastly, a simple piece of advice, chew your food thoroughly. I know, you're going to want to scoff down that meal like it's your last meal ever but, this also helps to make sure your food will digest easily.

Of course, many benefits of fasting come from its simplicity. Eating just one less meal a day also means fewer dishes, fewer restaurant visits and money saved.

intermittent fasting meals to eat to break the fast
Credit: Photo by bodybuilding.com

The effects of fasting on cognitive function

Fasting has some phenomenal advantages when it comes to brain function. The most significant stage (which we've talked about) is the autophagy activation, 12-14 hours after a meal.

Both humans and mammals alike respond similarly when deprived of calories, with the shrinkage of major organs, except for the brain and testicles. It's said this is to protect the survival of species.

Autophagy plays a crucial role in regenerating and detoxifying your body and can reduce inflammation, optimise brain function, increase neuroplasticity, cognitive functions, improve brain structure and even slow down the aging process (winning).

If you consider the cavemen where food was scarce during the winter months and if it were "normal" for brain function to slow, it would be impossible for them to function optimally and hunt for food. But, it's been proven time and time again that cognitive function elevates during fasting periods.

Another example is in Ancient Greece, fasting was common for ‘The Great Thinkers’ to enhance mental agility. Even then, starvation was highly regarded to sharpen the mind and increase cognitive ability.

Despite representing only 2% of the bodies mass, the brain consumes anywhere from a third to half of the energy we get from food. It’s the last part to suffer when you don’t eat enough. The body is clever about keeping the brain alive and healthy when resources are short.

Digestion requires energy, energy you could use for work

Digestive organs require a substantial amount of energy to work effectively and function properly.

After a large meal, your body goes crazy trying to digest and process hundreds of calories. Your brain diverts most of your body's energy and focuses towards the digestion process, sending red blood cells to aid in the break down of the food and carry the nutrients throughout the rest of the body.

As your intestines work overtime to metabolise, the rest of your body slows down and relaxes. This is why people can feel fatigued only after eating breakfast. Your body is exhausting all of its energy trying to digest a meal.

If you time it right, at 9 am you've been fasting since 8 pm the night before. That means you will be in the autophagy phase, also known as the phase for sharp focus. You will be starting your day off with your brain fired up.

Eliminate food as a distraction

Have you ever found yourself in a moment of thought, wanting to snack on something despite not feeling hungry?

I used to be a hefty morning snacker. Eggs, nuts, fruit, not that these are bad foods, but I would "procrastination eat".

When intermittent fasting, people choose to fast overnight up until noon the following day. This allows you to get into the autophagy phase when you first start working and eliminate snacking on unnecessary glucose before lunch.

Meaning, less time spent eating and more time spent working.

Improved mental clarity over time

Fasting is like an exercise for your brain, improving the plasticity of your synapses, the maker of learning and memory.

Fasting is putting stress on your brain but it's important to talk about how stress can be both bad and good. Good stress is a tension that doesn't last for a long time but actually sharpens biological functions. It's a primal response to challenges or dangers we might face. When put under "good" stress, your brain increases the production of molecules like glucocorticoids, catecholamines, and glucose levels. These prepare your tissues for responsiveness when challenges or danger strikes, as a means of survival. One of the effects of this response is sharpened senses and heightened awareness.

According to the journal Neuroscience"Individuals whose brains functioned best during periods of resource scarcity would be the most successful in meeting challenges. From an evolutionary perspective, intermittent running or involuntary fasting have been the most common energetic challenges our brains and bodies experience."

In addition to mental clarity, fasting can provide a boost in mood. Researchers linked fasting to "an increased level of vigilance, mood improvement and a subjective feeling of well-being. Sometimes of euphoria."

So, while your body is in a state of ketosis, the ketone bodies can improve mental clarity and mood. Meaning you are a much happier, focused colleague to be around.

girl focused working on computer in public park
Credit: Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash

My experience with fasting

Personally, my experience with intermittent fasting has been on and off. Only in the last month have I nailed a plan of attack. The first few days were bumpy, mood swings (hangry) for the most part. But positive results came quickly.

In a few days, I felt more focused, lighter in my body and squeezing my daily calorie intake into two meals a day became easier. I now actually look forward to cooking my food.

I am in no way a nutritionist, scientist or doctor. I'm just a dedicated individual who thrives off of challenging my body when it comes to health and fitness. I believe our bodies are phenomenal tools, that can and should be pushed to all sorts of limits. Be it, 100kg deadlifts, learning something I have no idea about or fasting for 16 hours.

Call it crazy but, results don't happen in the comfort zone.

Introducing intermittent fasting isn't a natural process for our bodies today. We've revolutionised the way we eat, when we eat and what we eat in the 21st century. Sure, the caveman didn't purposely fast, they had no choice, but scientists have proven time and time again the benefits of overnight fasts and its impact on our mental state, plus more.

If intermittent fasting is something you want to give a go, and see some changes to your productivity, start slow with two 16 hour fasts a week and track how you're feeling in the process. You can easily do this with apps like Zero or Fastic.

So what do you think?

Are you an avid breakfast-skipper?

Tell us your story.