Is three square meals a day the ideal number of meals needed to overcome fatigue?
Mom always said you need to eat three meals a day, and never skip the most important: breakfast.
But is that actually true? Where is the information to support that claim? Are three meals a day necessary? Could breakfast really be that important?
What if Mom was wrong?!?
Read on to learn why I think we’ve got this whole meal timing thing all wrong – and why skipping breakfast may actually be the best way to beat fatigue and increase your energy!
Blood sugar and fatigue
If your diet is like the average North American’s, you get the majority of your calories by eating refined carbohydrates: foods like bread, pasta, wraps, rice, chips, cereal, and of course treats like cookies and donuts. However, these refined carbohydrate sources have a dramatic – and negative – effect on your blood sugar readings.
Refined carbohydrates have a high GI index – the 100 point scale used to measure the effect a carbohydrate has on your blood sugar. The higher the rating, the higher your blood sugar will be after eating that food.
Foods with a high GI index are rated above 70, for example breakfast cereals, bread, and white rice. Moderate foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread rate between 56 and 69. Foods like beans, seeds, nuts, vegetables are rated below 55 and considered low.
The more a food affects your blood sugar the greater the effect it will have on fatigue and energy levels. Foods with a high GI index cause your blood sugar to spike shortly after being consumed. To combat these high levels of blood sugar, your body releases insulin. Insulin transports the sugar from your blood and into your cells. The higher your blood sugar, the more insulin is required to bring your blood sugar back into a healthy range.
If you continually have high blood sugar your body has to produce more insulin. Over time your cells become desensitized to insulin. This is the early stage of diabetes also known as pre-diabetes. Should this continue, the development of type II diabetes is probable. In type II diabetics, insulin is no longer effective at transporting sugar from your blood and into your cells. The effect is chronically elevated blood sugar.
How does blood sugar imbalance tie into fatigue?
Cortisol, insulin, and fatigue
One potential pathway that your blood sugar ties into fatigue is through the cortisol-insulin connection. Cortisol helps to raise blood sugar. Insulin helps to lower it. When your blood sugar is elevated, large amounts of insulin are excreted to lower it. Sometimes, these high doses of insulin cause something called rebound or postprandial hypoglycemia.
Rebound hypoglycemia is that feeling of exhaustion, hunger, and even lightheadedness shortly after eating. It’s caused by the release of too much insulin which lowered your blood sugar to uncomfortable levels. To combat this, your body releases cortisol. Cortisol helps pull sugar out of your cells and back into your blood.
This yo-yo effect is a potential cause of fatigue. Fatigue develops when your brain decides that this continued cortisol secretion is very stressful. At this point, your brain signals to your adrenal glands to decrease cortisol production. What then results is adrenal fatigue or hypocortisolism (low cortisol). If you have low cortisol levels, you’re going to experience fatigue.
To overcome fatigue, it is essential that your blood sugar is balanced! Unbalanced blood sugar results in fatigue.
Won’t skipping breakfast cause fatigue?
One of the best ways to quickly raise your blood sugar is by consuming a typical modern day breakfast. Pancakes and syrup, cereal, muffins, bagels, toast, sugary yogurt, coffee, and fruit are all loaded with simple sugars.
Eating foods like this will cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels followed by a corresponding drop – leaving you hangry by lunch. That coffee and a muffin for breakfast may make you feel more fatigued than if you elected not to eat it!
In response to this stress, your body secretes cortisol. Over time, this develops into hypocortisolism or adrenal fatigue.
However, if you’ve been consuming sugary breakfast cereals for years, your body has become accustomed to this regular sugar hit. Suddenly skipping breakfast will leave you feeling even more fatigued. The key here is to balance your blood sugar levels.
Instead of those refined carbohydrates, eat a breakfast made up of high fat and moderate proteins. Think of bacon and eggs. Or a Denver omelet. These types of breakfasts will bring about a stabilizing effect on your blood sugar.
Stable blood sugar = stable energy.
To beat fatigue, how often should you eat?
Our culture says three square meals each day is best – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While that number may hold true for some, others will do better with more meals each day, others, less. Much like skipping breakfast, the ideal number of meals per day will be dependent on your blood sugar readings.
If you start feeling fatigued shortly after breakfast, you’re probably trending towards a low blood sugar reading. The number of meals you should have each day has more to do with your own, unique blood sugar readings than anything else. Those who tend towards high blood sugar will improve fatigue levels by eating fewer meals each day (so long as the meals are high fat, not high carb). Those with low blood sugar readings will improve fatigue levels by eating more often each day.
To get a baseline reading of your blood sugar, purchase a glucometer from any pharmacy. These can be purchased without a prescription. Take your first blood sugar reading 12 hours after finishing dinner. Make sure you don’t eat at all between dinner and when you test. This is called a fasting blood sugar reading. You will have one of three results:
- A reading between 4.0 – 5.0 mmol/L (75-90mg/dL) is a standard result
- A reading below 4.0 mmol/L (75 mg/dL), means you’re trending towards low blood sugar. You will want to consider eating more than three times a day.
- If your reading is above 5.0 mmol/L (90 mg/dL) you’re trending towards insulin resistance or high blood sugar. You should eat less than three times a day.
After doing three days of fasting blood sugar readings, I want you to do another three days of something called post-prandial blood sugar readings. To do this, take your blood sugar reading two hours after eating breakfast. If your blood sugar:
- Is above 6 mmol/L two hours after eating, your breakfast is causing fatigue. Your energy levels are affected by this high blood sugar reading.
- Is below 4 mmol/L two hours after eating, your breakfast is causing fatigue. Your energy levels are affected by your body struggling to maintain a high enough blood sugar reading.
Meal timing for high blood sugar
If your blood sugar is trending above normal, skipping meals will increase your energy levels. I recommend having a bulletproof coffee as your breakfast. Nothing more. This high fat ”breakfast” will help to stabilize your blood sugar.
For lunch and dinner, opt for fats over carbohydrates. The carbohydrates you do eat should come from above the dirt – no veggies grown in the dirt. Avoid foods like potatoes, beets, carrots, and yams.
Your fruit intake should consist solely of berries. No tropical fruits as they are very high in sugar. When you do eat fruit, try to consume it with a protein or a fat. This will help to stabilize your blood sugar.
Most important, absolutely no snacking after dinner. The time between dinner and your bulletproof coffee is essential to avoid any other food intake.
Meal timing for low blood sugar
If your blood sugar is trending below normal, skipping meals will be one of the worst things you can do. In fact, three meals a day probably won’t be enough! If you have low blood sugar, you’re going to need to eat often to ensure your blood sugar always stays within the healthy range.
Start your day with a high protein breakfast. I recommend something like bacon or sausage and eggs. Avoid fruit juices, sugary yogurts, and breakfast cereals as they will exacerbate your low blood sugar symptoms.
Between breakfast, lunch, and dinner have a mini-meal or snack to keep your blood sugar up. These snacks should be high protein/fat snacks. Opt for foods like beef jerky, cheese, nuts, and seeds. Avoid sugary granola bars, fruits, and grain products.
Ok, now you know that skipping meals is sometimes the best thing to overcome fatigue. And at other times, skipping meals can make your fatigue much worse. There are no hard rules. Instead, it is based on your unique blood sugar readings. Personalization is key to improving your levels of fatigue!
Also published on Medium.