Breakfast is the most important meal of the day... right?
There’s a good chance that you’re reading this on a Monday morning, but is it over breakfast? People frequently report they don’t eat breakfast and are inclined to say it almost under their breath for fear of retribution because breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right?
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in medieval times, only the elderly, the sick or the young were advised to eat breakfast; to eat it was a sign of low socio-economic status — those who were poor required additional energy to work for the day. Physicians recommended against it as it would interfere with digestion of the meal from the night before, and the Catholic Church viewed it as a form of gluttony, with meal frequency being just two a day, one mid-morning and the other early evening. Fast-forward a few hundred years and we have opposing arguments: some people say breakfast is a socially constructed concept sold to us by the food industry and isn’t necessary for most people. Others are adamant it is non-negotiable if you are interested in optimal health. I would say, as with many things nutrition-related, that it depends.
The pros and cons of skipping breakfast
A number of studies around breakfast point to a higher body mass index (BMI; a measure of population overweight and obesity) and a lower quality of diet overall, with lower fibre, lower calcium and lower fruit intake among breakfast-skippers compared to breakfast-eaters. These studies are observational in nature, so we cannot comment on the long-term ramifications, only what was found at that point in time. We know that fruit contains many important micronutrients, however there isn’t anything you find in fruit that you can’t find in vegetables which are consumed at other meal times. Most people don’t meet their recommended fibre intake, so skipping a meal that can deliver fibre could be a problem. While adequate dietary fibre has long been recommended due to the positive associations with heart health, there are types of fibre that are now viewed not as fuel for us, but food for our gut microbiome, so this certainly makes it something to be mindful of.
The reduced diet quality and higher BMI due to skipping breakfast is part of the eating behaviour that occurs after missing that meal: breakfast-skippers have been found to snack more and these snacks are more likely to be higher in calories and lower in overall nutrient quality, ie: something you might find in a cafe cabinet or a vending machine at 10am when you’ve become ravenous and these are the only food choices available.
Skipping breakfast could certainly set you up for poorer choices later in the day, which might make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight, but it isn’t necessarily the case. A recent review of the literature reported there is limited evidence supporting (or refuting) the daily consumption of breakfast for body weight management and better overall daily food intake. For example, one study using US data found those who skipped breakfast ate lunch around half an hour earlier and though they consumed more calories in the lunch meal on the days they didn’t eat breakfast, their overall intake of calories for that day was lower by approximately 150-220 calories. If this creates a calorie deficit on the days they don’t eat breakfast, people may better manage their weight, rather than gain it.
One of the arguments for eating breakfast is that we need fuel for our brain to function effectively in the morning. Though this may be true for a lot of people, many others report feeling cognitively clearer when they forgo the morning meal. A review of the literature doesn’t confirm this one way or another, and points to the need for more studies that compare the effects of breakfast on brain function between those who have good blood sugar management and those who don’t, as this is going to impact on the findings. If you’re someone who feels light-headed and can’t focus if you don’t eat, this may be a sign that in general you could benefit from looking more closely at your diet (not just breakfast). If you’re feeling that way when you wake up, the highs and lows created by fluctuating blood sugar levels could well be impacting on your performance and energy across the entire day, not just in the morning.
For those who do eat breakfast, the evidence is pointing towards a protein and fibre-based meal being more beneficial from a weight management perspective, and as both of these nutrients help stabilise blood sugar, energy levels will be improved. It also shows that getting a substantial number of calories earlier on in the day is also better for improved health markers. Eggs, quinoa porridge, leftover meat, vegetables, oats, nuts and seeds would all fit into this category. That said, a friend has recently discovered a few tablespoons of semolina made with rice milk and a dash of maple syrup and cinnamon is the best thing she has eaten for both weight management and cognitive function across the day — and she has tried it all. This breakfast is basically all carbohydrate, has a little added sugar, is low in protein and is low-calorie, which goes against what the literature says and what my general recommendations would be. However, who I am to tell her to change it? It really does point to the notion that we are all different and have to find what works for us. You will always know best when it comes to the impact of different meals (or no meal) on how you feel physically and mentally. So, if you are never hungry in the morning, perhaps you are one of those people who is naturally better off without it.
Through her nutrition consultation and subscription service of meal plans, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. Find out more at mikkiwilliden.com