I Started Eating Breakfast... and Got Abs.

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York based writer who has a deep affinity for weight-lifting, living mindfully, and the em-dash. She has been published at Women’s Health Magazine where she worked on the online editorial team, Feather Magazine where she was a contributing health writer, and ICE NYC where she works as the social media editor. In her free time she can be found reading self-help books, making soup, and practicing hygge.

My breakfast habits have always been less than stellar: a venti iced Starbucks coffee (with caramel and soy milk) and an apple, and I’d be on the subway on my way to work.

When I joined the workforce last June, my habitual breakfast skipping held steady. Wake up early to make an omelette or sleep in an extra thirty minutes? Spend time scrolling pinterest for the perfect overnight oatmeal recipe to prepare for the next morning? Put my stomach through the cruel and unusual punishment of two-ingredient pancakes? No thanks. I’ll stick to my coffee and granny smith.

I’m nothing if not stubborn in my routines and while (surprise, surprise) 11am would come around and I’d be caffeinated but hungry AF and waiting for the clock to tell me it’s 12:30 so that I could finally take my lunch break (aka check my Instagram while shoving my face with a kale chicken caesar), my body looked how I wanted it to look and it (I) could perform the way I wanted and needed it to.

I remained stubborn (and lazy) in my breakfast “refusal” through my first job, a 9-5 (more like 9-7, but yanno, details), but when a career switch turned my schedule on its head, my entire workout and eating routine had to change: I now don’t sit down at my desk until 1pm in the afternoon, and don’t shut off the lights and lock up shop until just after 10pm.

“I don’t have to change my routine”, I thought. I’ll just push everything off 4 hours! I’ll have my wimpy breakfast at 1pm instead of 9am, my lunch at 5pm instead of 1pm, my dinner at 11pm instead 7pm, and I’ll keep working out after work… at midnight! I’ll become a night owl! Ha!

For the first week at my new job I did just that… and while this new plan lasted 5 full days, I knew it wasn’t maintainable after the first day (if not earlier…).

While I generally enjoy trying new recipes, making soups and stews, and beautiful well-balanced salads, ringing in the new day with dinner (yes, I was still eating dinner at midnight) off-set my body clock: I couldn’t fall asleep after eating because I was forcing my digestive system to do work late at night. So, after a week of sticking of eating a small breakfast, medium sized lunch, and massive dinner (and resultantly sleeping poorly and waking sluggish) something had to change.

For the sake of my sanity (and tbh, journalistic curiosity) I began eating a medium-sized breakfast, large lunch, small 6pm snack, and a small night-time meal, “dinner”, when I got home from work.

New Schedule:

7:00am: Wake up
7:15am: Eat small breakfast (usually an apple or banana)
8:00am: CrossFit
9:00-9:30am: Additional workout (typically bicep curls and shoulder presses)
10:00am: Eat big breakfast that I meal-prepped the night before
10:00am-1:00pm: Write article, read, and drink coffee
1:00pm: Start work
2:30pm: Eat lunch at work. Sometimes I meal-prep a salad or grain bowl the night before or purchase a salad from Whole Foods.
5:00pm or 6:00pm: Eat snack (I start with an apple and if I am still hungry eat an Rx bar)
9:00pm-10:00pm: Leave work, read on the subway home (Note: If I know I am going to get home before 9:30pm, I will not workout after my morning CrossFit class and will save that half hour of work for when I get home. There is a simple home-gym in my apartment building which is perfect for a few sets of accessory work).
10:30pm: Return home and immediately heat up the small dinner I have meal prepped (typically a protein-source like ground chicken in pesto sauce) and put together a small arugula salad with cucumbers, half an avocado, tomatoes, and ginger dressing.
11:30pm: Finish eating, clean dishes, prepare to go to bed
11:45pm: Sleep

Currently, there are two breakfasts that I prep ahead of time and bring with me to the gym to store in the fridge while I workout: overnight oats and chia-seed pudding. However, chia-seed pudding makes me bloaty (a common side-effect of eating too many chia seeds), so I often stick to steel-cut oats.  

One cup of oats packs 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber, which helps regulate my body sugar, keeps my hunger in check, and keeps me (ahem) regular. Studies also link increased dietary fiber intake with lower body weight, cholesterol levels, and risk of type 2 diabetes. While the health and nutritional benefits of oatmeal are undeniable, I don’t love the taste of plain oats (one word: glue). So I began adding ½ tablespoon of chia seeds, 1 tablespoon of Justin’s honey almond butter, a “sprinkling” of chopped walnuts, and a banana. Occasionally, I’ll also add in half a diced apple or chopped figs. I add peanut butter and walnuts for taste, but also for the extra protein, which my body craves after a workout.  

One study found that breakfasts rich in protein can make you feel more full and even reduce snacking later on in the day. And other research has revealed that a protein-rich breakfast can help reduce the “hunger hormone” (ghrelin) and increase cholecystokinin which alerts our brains that it’s time to stop eating.  

Once I add water and microwave (so the banana gets mushy and warm), the mixture I described above fills a full mason jar. I prefer the taste of my oatmeal cooked with water instead of almond milk, and because I get protein from nuts and nut-butter I do not need the protein of regular dairy milk (plus dairy doesn’t sit well in my stomach).

The oatmeal I have been eating for breakfast is packed with more calories and nutrients than a cup of coffee and an apple (lol, obviously) and since switching up the schedule of my meals, I am actually eating more calories each day….Which is why when I looked in the mirror I was shocked what I saw… abs. While I have always had a relatively flat stomach, I have never had abs (as in real V lines, 6 pack abs!). I took a photo and sent it to my friend “I’m confused, do I have abs??”.

It turns out that I ate my way to abs. And that that isn’t uncommon. I followed all the recommended steps for a more visible six-pack, without even realizing it:

I ate more frequently. According to Sarah Gottlieb, R.D., a dietitian at Chicago’s East Bank Club “When you go too long without food, your body kicks into starvation mode and holds calories,”. Gottlieb says that by replenishing your body every 3-4 hours a day, your metabolism gets revved up, which means that you are burning more calories.

I started BIG and ended small. By reversing my eating schedule so that breakfast was my biggest meal of the day, and dinner was my smallest meal, I allowed my metabolism to work when I was awake, and sleep when I was asleep, which is when the metabolism naturally slows down.

I exercised. While most health magazines preach the importance of healthy eating due to the seemingly arbitrary formula: 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise, sweating is still vital. Not only do I exercise, but my exercise routine combines a combination of strength training and cardio. Both forms of training burn fat, but the strength-training and CrossFit programs that I do have ensured that beneath the extra layer, a six-pack exists!

While how defined and visible my stomach muscles are depends on time of day, what I’ve eaten, how much I’ve eaten, and where in my menstrual cycle I am, since I began eating breakfast every morning, my stomach is more consistently carved into six, well-defined sections.

Having a toned midsection is a common goal but sometimes, even if a woman eats well, exercises, and follows the three step I listed above, washboard abs just aren’t in the cards (maybe because of body composition, genetics, or any hard-to-control health issues you might be dealing with). Getting toned abs (much less a six-pack) can be hard, and for some women LITERALLY impossible. And that's fine! Because ~spoiler alert~having visible stomach muscles is not a required to be or feel sexy, fit, or healthy. Even when I’m bloated, or my stomach isn’t touting abs, I still am and feel healthy and fit because of how I am nourishing and moving my body.

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