Your Most Important Meal? Here’s The Truth About Breakfast.
You wake up, and the thought of food just makes you want to gag.
Or, you wake up, and you’re starving. You can’t wait to toss down a couple of eggs and some toast.
I find that my clients are in one of either of those camps, but not matter which group you land in, there’s always the question: should you be eating breakfast? Is it ‘the most important meal of the day’? Will your metabolism slow to a crawl if you wait until 11am to eat anything?
Let’s try to settle this once and for all!
What the research says (or doesn’t say)
First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: the results of nutrition studies are notorious for their correlations, not causations. Sure, some studies may show that breakfast eaters tend to be less obese than breakfast skippers. But are the breakfast eaters also biking to work, eating more vegetables, and less genetically predisposed to becoming overweight? Did the study forget to mention (or measure) these things? This article says there’s an association between skipping breakfast and drug use. What? Incredibly misleading, since skipping breakfast probably has nothing to do with drug use, but people who abuse drugs may be more likely to skip breakfast.
This is how results get confounded. Of course, the media tends to only pick up on the main message, which is usually ‘breakfast eaters are less obese than non breakfast eaters!’. And that’s why we need to take a step back when believing the headlines. But that’s another blog entirely.
We also know that when people self-report their food intake (which is what many nutrition studies are based on. Unless you’re going to feed them exactly what you want for the duration of the study in what we call a randomized control trial, you’re stuck with self-reporting), they’re notoriously poor historians. I don’t blame them; I can’t even remember what I ate for dinner last night. But my point is that when looking at nutrition studies, you have to keep that in mind.
Yet another issue is that many of the studies favouring breakfast have been paid for by companies who – surprise! – sell breakfast food. Kellogg’s, Quaker, McDonald’s, General Mills, Kraft, and even Dunkin’ Donuts have been involved in studies that (shocker) find **great advantages** to eating breakfast. So while I’m sure many industry-funded studies are legit – and I know that many studies wouldn’t get done without industry support – I really don’t like seeing that study authors received gifts, grants, and fees from companies that may bias the study’s outcome. Call me crazy, but stuff like that just adds another layer of hmmm for me.
Anyhow. this all applies when we’re trying to find quality research as proof that breakfast is necessary or not.
So, working with what we have, I found some better studies that can help answer the following burning questions:
Does skipping breakfast slow your metabolism?
While dietitians and other healthcare professionals just love to tell people that not eating breakfast slows their metabolism, this study found that this is just not true. This summary of RCTs (see citations at the bottom) further corroborates that idea.
There is some indication that people who eat breakfast may be more likely to exercise (more energy, perhaps?), and have increased insulin sensitivity – both positive outcomes. Exercise does increase metabolic rate, so indirectly, breakfast may increase metabolism – if you haul your butt to the gym after eating it.
We also need to consider the fairly new trend of intermittent fasting. Even though I couldn’t hack it, there’s some positive research associated with eating for fewer hours out of the day. Skipping breakfast can fall into the ‘time-restricted eating’ plan. It’s not for everyone, though.
Do people who skip breakfast end up eating more overall?
Maybe, but studies suggest that the increased energy at lunch to make up for a skipped breakfast doesn’t overcompensate (and here) for the missed meal. I’m not suggesting that you all just go and drop your breakfasts so your caloric consumption is lower. It’s always important to remember that we’re all different.
Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?
This cliched quote was first written in 1917 in a magazine that was published by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. That’s right, Mr. Cornflakes himself! Maybe a wee bit of a conflict of interest there! That, along with the fact that people in 1917 knew a lot less about the body and science than they do now. So to answer your question, I think breakfast is just as important as lunch and supper – but this quote from ages ago really should have nothing to do with whether you choose to eat a morning meal or not.
If you DO eat breakfast, what should you be eating?
What you actually EAT for breakfast matters, and research says it should be higher in protein.
A protein-rich breakfast can help increase the thermic effect of food (ie how many calories it takes your body to digest and metabolize the food) and reduce hunger for longer, which isn’t a surprise – we already know that your body works harder to break down protein than any other macronutrient, and that protein is satiating. Eating a high protein breakfast may even reduce nighttime snacking.
Of course, most of these studies used a 35-gram protein meal as the ‘high protein’ breakfast, but I believe that for most healthy people, a breakfast (or any meal, actually) that approaches 20-25 grams of protein can be far more satiating than your normal toast with butter.
What’s my final say on the breakfast debate?
If you can’t face food in the morning and are currently skipping breakfast, there seems to be very little reason to start eating it now. Just be careful to eat once you become hungry, because overshooting that time and waiting until you’re starving can theoretically increase your overall intake.
Anecdotally, I do find that many of my clients who forgo breakfast do tend to eat more at night, and have less energy throughout the day than their breakfast-eating counterparts. If you don’t find that to be an issue for you, then it might not be.
If you’re already a breakfast-eater, I always recommend choosing a protein – Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, tofu, eggs, or even lean meat or fish – and building your meal around it.
Some of my favorite higher-protein breakfast recipes are: