“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
This myth is pervasive in society today. Breakfast is still perceived as healthy and more important than all other meals. Even today’s official nutrition guidelines recommend that we eat breakfast. Many claim that breakfast helps us to lose weight and that skipping it can raise our risk of obesity. This is a real concern since studies show up to 25% of Americans regularly skip breakfast.
The myth is all due to an article written in 1917 by Kenna Frances Cooper. The same year that she co-founded the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), she authored an article in “Good Health” magazine that noted “in many ways breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it is the meal that gets the day started.” Good Health was published by the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a Michigan health resort run by Cooper’s mentor- John Harvey Kellogg, MD, the co-inventor of corn flakes (his brother started the cereal business that would become the famous Kellogg Company. How’s that for self promotion!)
More than a century after Cooper’s article appeared, scientists are debating whether breakfast is important at all, let alone the most important meal, at least as far as weight management is concerned. Research into the health benefits of intermittent fasting suggests breakfast is the one meal that shouldn’t be skipped. But, a recently published systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials looking at breakfast’s effect on weight and energy intake. The study concluded that skipping breakfast, rather than eating it, might help people lose weight.
The finding by Australian researchers challenges the widely held notion that skipping breakfast slows metabolism and leads to overeating later in the day.
“We are told that breakfast helps our metabolism and that skipping it will make us much hungrier, so we’ll overeat and put on weight,” Tim Spector, MB, MD, a genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London and self-described breakfast eater, wrote in an opinion piece accompanying the study. Spector noted that despite many national guidelines stressing the importance of eating breakfast, around 1/3 of people in developed countries skip it. One reason experts were misled, Spector wrote, is “because multiple observational studies have shown that obese and diabetic people skipped meals more often than thin people.”
Scientists skeptical of the research linking breakfast to weight gain point out that the problem might be what study participants ate for breakfast, not simply that they ate breakfast. Scarfing down a morning meal high in refined carbs and sugar, such as doughnuts and many breakfast cereals, isn’t likely to help people manage their weight.
Reijo Laatikainen, PhD, MBA, a registered dietitian in Helsinki, Finland, noted in a blog post that the recent meta-analysis by the Australian researchers included studies in which breakfast typically consisted of juice with cereal and/or white bread. One study, Laatikainen noted, described breakfast as “bran cereal between 7 and 8 am, and a chocolate-covered cookie between 10:30 and 11 am.” Laatikainen then asked, “Does anyone really assume that such a breakfast would benefit weight management?”
In the Philadelphia school breakfast study, those randomized to provide the meal in the classroom chose not to offer hot items such as egg sandwiches and instead provided only cold items, such as cereal and muffins.
The problem is that cereal and muffins might not be filling enough, predisposing people to overeat throughout the day, suggests a recent review article. The authors concluded that compared with skipping breakfast, breakfast meals consisting of solid food totaling at least 30g of protein and 350 calories improved appetite control and satiety response.
“Given the current evidence surrounding the consumption of increased dietary protein at breakfast, it is appropriate to recommend the consumption of protein in the morning meal to improve appetite control, eating behavior, and diet quality,” said coauthor Heather Leidy, PhD, of the Purdue University Nutrition Science Department. “In addition, higher-protein breakfasts have also improved glucose control throughout the day.”
People who skip breakfast tend to weigh more than people who eat breakfast. This may seem paradoxical, because how can not eating make you gain more weight? The idea is that skipping breakfast may cause you to become more hungry so that you overeat later in the day. This seems to make sense, but isn’t supported by the evidence. It is true that skipping breakfast causes people to be more hungry and eat more at lunch, but this is not enough to overcompensate for the breakfast that was skipped. In fact, some studies have even shown that skipping breakfast may reduce overall calorie intake by up to 400 calories per day.
This seems logical, because you are effectively removing an entire meal from your diet each day. Interestingly, the eat/skip breakfast dilemma was recently tested in a high-quality randomized controlled trial. This was a 4-month long study that compared recommendations to eat or skip breakfast in 309 overweight/obese men and women. After 4 months, there was no difference in weight between groups. It simply didn’t matter whether people ate or skipped breakfast. These results are supported by other studies on the effects of breakfast habits on weight loss. Skipping breakfast had no visible effects
The evidence is clear, there is nothing “special” about breakfast. It probably does not matter whether you eat or skip breakfast, as long as you eat healthy for the rest of the day. Breakfast does not “jump start” your metabolism and skipping it does not automatically make you overeat and gain weight. This is a myth, based on observational studies that have since been proven wrong in randomized controlled trials (real science). At the end of the day, breakfast is optional, and it all boils down to personal preference.
If you feel hungry in the morning and you like breakfast, go ahead and eat a healthy breakfast. A protein-rich breakfast is best. If you don’t feel hungry in the morning and don’t feel that you need breakfast, then don’t eat it. It’s as simple as that. At the end day, breakfast is, of course, a choice. Is it the most important meal of the day? Ultimately, how you answer that is up to you and the food choices you make.