We’ve all experienced those early mornings where we’re simply not hungry. The day gets going, and in the busy a.m., all we feel like having is a hot cup of coffee. Coffee is an appetite suppressor, so many of us are comfortable without even a snack until lunch. We’ve all heard that this isn’t the best habit, because “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But is it also true that we should be hungry in the morning, and it’s bad if we’re not?
In a viral video on Instagram, online nutrition and wellness coach Marisa Hope argues that yes, it’s bad. “Not having an appetite in the morning or for hours upon waking is NOT a positive thing,” she writes in the caption. “It’s often times a sign of elevated cortisol [and] blood sugar imbalances … Having an appetite, especially in the morning, is a GOOD thing … Our liver can only hold so much stored glucose until it needs to tap into other sources for fuel (cue elevated cortisol to break down our own tissues).”
So, is all of this true? We reached out to a nutritionist and a dietitian for answers.
Experts think you don’t have to be hungry in the morning.
According to Kristi Ruth, RD, LDN, and owner of CarrotsandCookies.com, you’re not alone if you have no morning appetite. “It is pretty common to wake up not feeling hungry,” she says. “This is thought to be caused by a combination of hormones and how much someone ate the day or night before.”
In other words, eating a big meal late at night can reduce your hunger levels the next morning. As for hormone fluctuations, research shows that epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and estrogen may suppress appetite. Progesterone and testosterone, on the other hand, may increase appetite. So, hormonal changes may explain why you wake up hungry one day and not the next.
“It is not necessarily bad to not feel hungry when you wake up,” adds Tara Tomaino, RD and Nutrition Director at The Park. In response to Hope’s Instagram caption about elevated cortisol and blood sugar imbalances, she adds, “Cortisol is naturally elevated in the morning. Higher levels of cortisol in the morning help us wake up and get up to start our day. Blood sugar is low after sleeping because you haven’t eaten in several hours. This is normal.
“The liver works while we sleep to make sure that our blood sugar levels remain at a healthy level to keep us functioning,” she continues. “Also, blood sugar can be lower in the a.m. if the last meal that you ate in the evening was high in carbohydrates or refined sugars.”
There are a few instances where you should be concerned.
While it’s probably okay to not have a morning appetite, a lack of hunger could be a sign of another health issue. “If you are chronically under-eating (i.e. on a starvation diet and consuming fewer than 1500 calories) you may lose your innate hunger cues as a result of feeling hungry all the time,” says Tomaino. “This may also be the case for someone whose macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) are not balanced.”
Indeed, Hope states on her Instagram page that one of her primary goals is to “help women ditch starvation diets.” In this context, her video makes more sense — she is encouraging women who don’t eat enough calories to jumpstart their day with breakfast, because it will help those natural hunger cues come back.
A lack of hunger in the morning could also be a sign of:
- Anxiety or depression. “Some people react to anxiety or depression by not eating (others respond by overeating),” Tomaino says. “If this is the case, the underlying cause of the anxiety or depression should be addressed with the help of a professional.”
- Sickness. If you have an infection, the immune system will kick into gear and send out cytokines, or messenger molecules that alert the rest of the body to an invader. Cytokines also suppress appetite.
- Side effects from medication. Certain drugs may cause you to lose your appetite, including antibiotics, blood pressure medication, and ibuprofen.
- Thyroid issues. Hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, may cause a loss of appetite.
- A chronic condition. Health issues and diseases that can lead to a lack of hunger include heart failure, liver disease, cancer and its treatment, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Many factors influence morning hunger.
Ruth notes that it’s difficult to say whether lack of morning hunger is serious or not, because so many factors are involved. “Hunger can be affected by how we are feeling,” she says. “Here’s what I also think is at play — we often wake up with a lot on our minds, whether it’s needing to get the kids up and off to school, getting ready for work, an important meeting, or even traveling later in the day. Our minds get preoccupied, our mornings get busy, and we aren’t as in tune with what our body actually needs.”
The bottom line? It’s okay to not feel hungry in the morning, but if you don’t have an appetite and you’re experiencing other symptoms, talk to your doctor.
And while you don’t have to force yourself to eat breakfast, you should try to make this meal a routine. “Start by eating something small and high in protein and healthy fats,” says Tomaino. “This will help you start to fuel your body without feeling overly full. A few breakfast ‘snacks’ could be a handful of nuts, a Greek yogurt cup, or a hard-boiled egg.”
Plus, breakfast is all the more important if you exercise. “For active females, it’s particularly important to eat something in the a.m. before a morning workout,” she adds. “Something small with carbs and a little protein can be beneficial. A protein shake, a simple mix of almond milk and protein powder, whole grain toast with nut butter and jam, or a handful of nuts and dried fruit would all suffice. Again, seek the guidance of a nutrition professional for specific recommendations for you.”