Is Breakfast Really The Most Important Meal Of The Day?

People didn't think much about the morning meal until the 19th century. Why are we so obsessed now?
11/01/2018 05:45am ET | Updated November 1, 2018
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Most Americans are used to being told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you skip it, as wisdom goes, a slew of ugly things will happen: You’ll overeat the rest of the day, you’ll gain weight, you won’t be able to concentrate on work or school, and you’ll get “hangry.”

While this mentality has stuck around, another ideology around breakfast has emerged in recent years. Thanks to the upswing of intermittent fasting, which in its most popular form promotes fasting for 16 hours a day, breakfast is being eaten later ― if at all. And, like breakfast, intermittent fasting is thought to have a number of benefits, from cellular repair to weight loss.

So, how important is breakfast, really? Let’s take a closer look at what the science ― and the experts ― have to say.

The Argument For Eating Breakfast

Breakfast has an interesting history. Up until the 19th century, people didn’t think much about it. They just ate what they had, and that was usually leftovers from dinner the night before. But the perfect storm of factors elevated breakfast to its “most important meal of the day” category.

Women started entering the workforce in the 20th century, which meant they needed something quick and nutritious to give their kids before they left for the day. And with the Industrial Revolution, people started worrying that standing and sitting in one place all day would lead to indigestion ― and they believed a heavy, healthy breakfast could help that. Religion also played a role. As people started to take their health into greater consideration, religious health gurus opened sanatoriums where they would introduce people to bland foods and vegetarian diets. Kellogg’s cereal was actually invented at one of these sanatoriums.

Perhaps most interesting of all, a man named Edward Bernays, who worked for the Beech-Nut company, was working on a campaign to sell more bacon. He was incredibly successful, but not without a bit of trickery. He got 5,000 doctors to sign something saying a heavy breakfast of bacon and eggs is better for you than a light breakfast. Their decision to sign that document wasn’t based on much more than Bernays’ persuasive nature, but it sure got the job of selling more bacon done.

These days, if you search “studies on breakfast,” Google will yield pages and pages of results. People have been fascinated by the first meal of the day for centuries. And, for the most part, results have found that breakfast is pretty important.

A 1999 study published in the journal Physiological Behavior found that individuals who didn’t eat breakfast were exhausted by noon and performed worse on memory tests. Similarly, a 2013 study found that kids under the age of 13 who didn’t eat breakfast performed worse on tests than kids who did.

A small study published this year found that people who ate porridge and milk in the morning digested, burned and metabolized carbohydrates better than those who skipped breakfast. And on the weight-gain front, a 2017 study found that people who ate breakfast four times a week or more had more stable BMIs over a five-year period than people who regularly skipped breakfast.

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A muffin for breakfast is probably worse than no breakfast at all.

Improved memory and BMI may not be the only benefits of a full breakfast: A study published in the journal Appetite found that going without breakfast has been linked to depression, and a 2013 study in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics found that people who eat breakfast have better overall nutrient consumption and cognitive function.

Carolyn Brown, a New York-based nutritionist, said that in general, she’s pro-breakfast. “It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be something within a few hours of waking up,” she explained. “I like clients to eat by 10 latest, and that’s my personal rule, too. Research shows that having protein early in the day can help with that mid-afternoon snack monster later.”

The Case For Eating A Later Breakfast

So, what if you like to wait until you’re settled in at your desk to eat breakfast? According to some research, that may be just fine. One recent study found that increasing the amount of time between dinner and breakfast (also known as intermittent fasting) was a successful way to lose weight. The delay in breakfast wasn’t anything crazy ― just 90 minutes later than usual ― but the study is still noteworthy. Of course, low blood sugar is no joke, and in some cases eating late can make people feel cranky or exhausted. The most important thing to do is listen to your body.

Brown added that when it comes to intermittent fasting, she typically advises people to go for an earlier dinner rather than a later breakfast. “I would rather people have a mid-morning breakfast and ‘close the kitchen’ or finish eating at an earlier time,” she said. “I think the nighttime element of IF, or not eating close to bedtime, is more important than delaying breakfast.”

The Case For Skipping Breakfast

Of course, all the research on breakfast doesn’t conclude that it’s the be-all end-all to being healthy. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who skip breakfast may burn more calories throughout the day than those who opt for breakfast, although the same study found this could lead to higher inflammation levels in the body. And if the only foods available to you are sugar or simple carb-heavy, you’re likely going to be much better off happiness-wise if you skip breakfast. Sugar consumption has been linked with depressive moods, so it’s usually best to wait until you have access to protein and healthy fats. In other words: A muffin for breakfast is probably worse than no breakfast at all.

Brown said that if you’re going to skip breakfast, you should jazz up your coffee a little bit. “I suggest adding a little MCT oil (or medium chain triglycerides) to your coffee. Most intermittent fasting camps agree that as long as you’re consuming less than 50 calories, you’re still fasting. As a nice bonus, it can give you a little energy.”

Marion Nestle, a recently retired nutrition professor at NYU, hardly ever eats breakfast. “I don’t feel hungry until about 11 a.m., and that’s when I’m interested in eating,” she said. “What I do normally is now considered to be intermittent fasting. I think eating when you are hungry makes the most sense.”

Brown agreed that whether someone needs breakfast can be highly individualized. “While it’s individualized, it also has a lot to do with how much and how late you had dinner last night. So listen to your body! And mostly: don’t caffeinate your way through hunger.”

The Ideal Breakfast

So, what should your first meal of the day ― whenever you choose to eat it ― look like for optimal energy and concentration? Brown suggested going for protein and healthy fat whenever possible. “I try to sneak in some veggies to optimize it,” she said. “My favorite breakfasts are two eggs with half an avocado and veggies, a smoothie with plant protein or collagen, full fat greek yogurt or coconut yogurt with fruit and chia seeds, avocado and lox on Ezekiel or gluten-free toast or sweet potato slices. There are a lot of delicious, healthy options!”

Nestle simply recommends making sure you’re getting your nutrients. “If you look at breakfasts throughout the world, they differ enormously,” she explained. “Any meal should provide a variety of relatively unprocessed foods of different types to take care of nutrient and energy requirements. There are lots of ways to do this with foods you like. Enjoy!”