Back to school season always resurrects my favourite good-for-you topic: breakfast habits. People know breakfast is good for them and yet every morning many walk out the door without it. Why?
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, shines some light on the answers when he talks about the cycle of the “Habit Loop.” Three factors comprise the loop: cue, routine and reward. The cue is a hint for the brain to decide which pattern or behaviour to use—aka the routine. Often the cue is sensory—visual, audible, or maybe a smell. And the reward may be food, alcohol or cigarettes, which reduces or satisfies the underlying issue—the craving. Habits are so powerful because they often create neurological cravings. These cravings may be a welcome distraction or could relieve an underlying emotion, such as anxiety or fear.
Here is how the Habit Loop applies to the morning’s mad rush that often accompanies back to school time:
The cue is the clock: You’re running late. The routine is: ‘no breakfast’. So what is the reward? Is it the reduction in anxiety you crave by getting out of the house ‘on time’ to get to school or work ‘on time’?
The answer is there is no reward. If you skip breakfast you start the day by punishing yourself and damaging your body.
Physiologically, in the starvation state, the body secretes a large amount of cortisol, which is your stress response hormone. Cortisol is often called the “flight or fight” hormone. This triggers two immediate physical responses, increased blood pressure and heart rate, which slowly pounds all your major organs—heart, kidneys, eyes, brain—and wears them out. In turn this leads to premature hardening of the arteries and vascular disease, which increases dementia rates and the chances of suffering a heart attack, among other possibilities.
But, hey, you’ve got to get to work on time and that’s good. Or is it? Without food, your brain shuts down because the rate at which the synapses fire slows. You can’t retrieve memories as easily nor can you perform high level brain functions (calculations, attention, memory recall) as accurately or efficiently.
There are no wins for skipping breakfast. It’s wonderful to keep a habit of being on time, but not at the cost of damaging your body or impairing your ability to think at work or school.
Here’s how to break the ‘skip breakfast’ routine:
Change the cue: add 15 minutes to your alarm clock. Change the routine: the night before prepare a breakfast that’s ready to heat up. Or have a protein shake; throw a few frozen berries, cow/soy/almond milk and a scoop of protein powder into your blender and, voila, you can drink your balanced breakfast.
Dr. Elaine Chin is founder of the Executive Health Centre.