Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on August 17, 2022
Last updated on August 22, 2022

It’s commonly said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and we should never skip it. Despite this, many of us skip having breakfast entirely and go on to start our day with a cup of coffee in hand. Is this habit bad for us or does it actually help our metabolism?

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day

More and more people decide to forego breakfast in favor of a cup of coffee or their preferred drink, and some take nothing but a few glasses of water in the morning. A study found that over a 40-year period among Americans found that their meal and snack eating behaviors have changed. (1)

This idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been oft-repeated. But where did it actually come from? Is it really true? Can it help me with losing weight or improving my athletic performance? Is skipping breakfast bad for me? These are some of the questions we’ll tackle. We’ll go through various pieces of research and studies performed and published in scientific journals so we don’t have to rely on hearsay, broscience, or outdated medical knowledge.

The earliest known mention of breakfast as the most important meal of the day is in “Good Health” a Magazine published in 1917 which stated that “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” As well as that it shouldn’t be eaten hurriedly, and all the family should partake of it together. Unfortunately, the article didn’t cite any scientific sources for its assertions. The magazine, which purported itself to be the “Oldest Health Magazine in the World – Established in 1866” was edited by Dr. John Harvey Kellog, the inventor of corn flakes.

Of course, the argument for eating breakfast is to provide your body with the nutrients and energy you need to get your day started and provide energy for the rest of the day.

Breakfast, for all intents and purposes, is the first meal of the day that you take. But this classic definition isn’t really helpful if you consider that many people “skip” breakfast and take their first meal much later. So just in order to make things clear, let’s consider breakfast as the first meal that you take in the day within 2-3 hours of waking up in the morning.

A 2004 Study by Betts et al., found that there were no significant differences between people who took breakfast and people who skipped breakfast in terms of their resting metabolic rate, which is the rate by which the body burns calories when at rest. However, in general, breakfast eaters burned more calories on average compared to those that skipped breakfast. (2)

Many people eat breakfast for the reason that it can help jump-start their metabolism. While these people do have some basis as far as the thermic effect of food is concerned, that is, when we eat and digest food, our body burns calories. However, what matters for metabolism is the total amount of calories from the food you consume throughout an entire day, and not necessarily when you take it. So it does not make much of a difference when and how often you eat, what matters ultimately is how much you eat.

Does Skipping Breakfast Affect Weight Loss?

A 2014 study (3) that tested for the relative effectiveness of skipping breakfast to weight loss found that between the 309 participants over the course of 16 weeks that there was no discernible effect on weight between breakfast-skippers and those who ate breakfast, it did, however, become effective at changing self-reported breakfast eating habits among those that started skipping breakfast.

In a way, skipping breakfast does lower the calories you take in, provided you do not overeat and “make up” with additional food consumption later on during the day. A study conducted on males after eating breakfast found that energy and fat balance were reduced by skipping breakfast. (4)

A study conducted in 2014 compared the effect of consuming a high-fiber breakfast, a non-fiber breakfast, and no breakfast at all and found that those who skipped breakfast over 4 weeks lost more body weight, however, it also found that it also resulted in an increase in cholesterol concentration compared with either eating oatmeal or cornflakes for breakfast. (5)

Skipping breakfast has been part of many Intermittent Fasting diets. For many, it is part of a 16/8 fasting split where you only have an 8-hour window during which you can eat your meals.

Does Skipping Breakfast Affect Athletic Performance?

A study that compared breakfast intake with sports performance found that physical performance was impaired in the morning compared with the evening. In the morning, insulin, cortisol, and total and free testosterone was higher in the morning than in the evening for breakfast eaters. Morning exercises were performed with a less favorable metabolic system, with elevated insulin and cortisol as well as reduced glucose levels. Though no significant difference was found between morning and evening exercise response, as well as the recovery from the exercise. (6)

In another study, research was done to see if skipping breakfast affects exercise performance. The study had 10 male participants and it found that among subjects who skipped breakfast, there was an overall lower exercise performance even after they workout after eating lunch. (7)

At best, some studies that have studied athletes who compete even while fasting have shown that there is no benefit to athletic performance when training while fasted which is the same state that your body would be in if you choose to skip breakfast. (8)

One study also found that when athletes skipped breakfast, their cognitive function was inhibited, and their mental fatigue increased even if a post-workout snack was consumed. It also suggested that having breakfast prior to exercise may positively improve mood. (9)

Does Skipping Your Morning Meal Will Make You Overeat Later in the Day?

A lot of the comments made against skipping breakfast say that even if you do skip breakfast, most people would tend to overeat later in the day anyway to make up for the hunger from missing breakfast.

Yes, skipping breakfast does cause people to take in more calories with other meals later in the day, however, it was not enough to offset the caloric deficit from skipping breakfast. In the same study from 2004, breakfast skippers who skipped a 700-calorie breakfast only overate throughout the day by 161 calories for the remainder of their meals. So the breakfast skippers still ended up logging fewer calories eaten by 539 calories on average, compared to those that had the full breakfast. Despite this, because breakfast-skippers burn fewer calories throughout the rest of the day, the study found no difference in weight change between the groups that ate breakfast and the ones that skipped it. (10)

If You Do Not Eat Breakfast, Will It Affect Your General Health?

A study has shown that epidemiological research has consistently associated skipping breakfast with increased risk of adiposity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Though these findings have not concluded that there is a cause-and-effect relationship, they are still correlated. Furthermore, consistent breakfast eaters have tended to be nonsmokers, consume less fat and alcohol and eat more fiber and micronutrients as well as being more physically active, compared to those who are skippers. Overall, there is no cause and effect relationship established, it is notable that breakfast may be a behavioral marker for those who maintain these habits.

In obese adults, daily breakfast leads to greater physical activity in the morning while breakfast skippers tended t compensate with a greater caloric intake later in the day. Though there were no causal relationships established insulin sensitivity increased with breakfast relative to fasting. (11)

Skipping breakfast was also associated with obesity and weight gain. It was found that breakfast skippers had a worse lipid profile, higher blood pressure levels, higher insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. It has been found that in general, those who skip breakfast tend to have a lower dietary intake. The same study supported skipping breakfast as an easy marker of the risk of overweightness or obesity and metabolic diseases. (12)

That said, while there have been some correlations between breakfast skipping and certain unhealthy markers, no convincing metabolic or health effects have been documented so far. (13)

Another study that conducted an interview on 6550 participants found that skipping breakfast was associated with an increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and supported the benefit of eating breakfast in promoting cardiovascular health. (14)

So while it is not conclusive that skipping breakfast has a negative impact on your general health, particularly with respect to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, it is very useful to note that this dietary habit is correlated with other behaviors or markers that are associated with poorer health.

Is It Okay for Children or Adolescents to Skip Breakfast?

Studies have concluded that breakfast skipping is not recommended. A cross-sectional study conducted among about 848 primary school children found that those who skipped breakfast tended to have lower academic achievement which is so serious that it has been deemed a public health concern. (15) For young developing minds, breakfast is essential in order to give young adolescents the energy to do well at school, both in physical and mental tasks.

What Are Some Good Breakfast Foods?

To feel less lethargic and supply yourself with energy for the rest of the day, you will want to have a mix of proteins and complex carbs in the morning. While sugary cereals will give you a little energy boost, sugars are ultimately empty calories which don’t have much of a thermic impact on your body as well as provide no nutrients for it.

Healthy breakfast foods include whole grain carbohydrates and some good quality protein, especially if you expect to do so exercises or would want to work out.

You may want to avoid pancakes, butter, and syrup unless you are on a cheat day as it contains mostly simple carbohydrates, sugar, and fat. Foods like these are very popular but do little for your body. Most breakfast cereals these days also advertise themselves as being healthy and “complete with what you need to start your day.” They may be very convenient, easy to make, and tasty on their own, remember to check the nutrition facts and labels, make sure that they don’t have too much sugar, and give you not just vitamins and minerals but also good carbohydrates.

Instead, try oatmeal with a piece of fruit, any whole grain snack or sandwich will do the trick as well. Not all breakfasts have to be heavy but for those who want to go heavy on the protein in the morning, have some fried or scrambled eggs, grilled or steamed salmon, with some broccoli or salad on the side. If you are bulking, there may be fewer things in the world as satisfying than a good serving of steak and eggs.

For those who want more healthy alternatives, a serving of chicken breast, brown rice, and boiled sweet potato should give you a variety of macro and micronutrients to help you get through the day.

So, Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day for You?

If your morning will involve physical exercise with performance and you are prioritizing that, consuming a carbohydrate-rich breakfast is the most important meal in order to achieve performing that.

It is natural to feel a little sluggish after a heavy meal however if you are the kind of person that feels hungry or grumpy without having breakfast, a protein-rich breakfast may be good for you.

If your lifestyle and level of physical activity do not require you to do a lot of physical work during the mornings, then you can most likely skip breakfast without having many issues.

However, if it is not a high priority to train later in the day, or if fasted training works for you, you may not need to have a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast.

From a hypertrophy perspective, if your goal is to build muscle and not just to lose weight, a delay in your breakfast consumption might not be good because having more meals with at least 20 grams of protein per meal is still best for maximizing muscle protein synthesis which is essential for muscular growth. (16)

So if you are thinking about making some dietary changes for yourself, you should consider your appetite first. Do you crave food after you wake up in the morning? How about your schedule, does your morning routine accommodate time for a sit-down breakfast? Thirdly, does it help you perform physical tasks or workouts and exercise better if you take breakfast? And lastly, will eating breakfast help you adhere to your diet or help you make healthier food choices?

Regardless, whether you find that skipping breakfast works for you or if it doesn’t depend a lot on your personal factors, if you do decide to continue skipping it, make sure you do not overeat with your other meals. Likewise, if breakfast is an indispensable requirement to properly start your day, seek healthier food options so that it can live up to its title of “most important meal of the day.”

References

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