by Anthony Roberts
For decades we’ve been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. To support this claim, study after study has been foisted on us, showing that people who eat breakfast have lower cholesterol, live longer, are less likely to develop diabetes, and more likely to win the lottery. Or whatever. On the one hand, breakfast is pretty awesome – it’s basically the only meal where something that would normally be considered dessert is acceptable fare.
Think about it – if you ask someone what they had for breakfast and they answer “a doughnut” or some other kind of pastry, it’s totally acceptable. A stack of fried bread with syrup (pancakes)? Awesome. Did you know you can actually get a doughnut filled with Oreo cream and crumbled Oreo cookie on top?
Now imagine taking that same line of questioning, but apply it to dinner, as in “what did you have for dinner tonight” – it’s unacceptable for someone to tell you they had cake or pie or cookies for dinner. So before we get into the science behind breakfast, let’s define it – because as it stands, the definition of breakfast is necessarily the first meal of the day (i.e. the one where you break the fast from the previous night). So unless you don’t eat at all, the first meal you eat is going to be breakfast, no matter what time you consume it. I think that most of the time when we talk about breakfast, and at least in the studies we’ll be looking at, we’re talking about a meal eaten in fairly close proximity to the time you awaken – or more broadly defined, perhaps this is just a meal eaten prior to work or school on weekdays. Our working definition will therefore be “breakfast: a meal eaten prior to beginning the day’s activities, taken within the first two hours of awakening.”
In these instances, where we are talking about a meal eaten prior to the execution of tasks (common to what one would find at either work or school), there is a decided advantage to breakfast and we find that numerous studies support the benefits of breakfast on performance.
So while I accept that breakfast is a pretty awesome meal, and that it can help us perform better, I contest that it is the most important meal of the day. I submit that we’ve been lied to…and that we’ve been the victims of misrepresented science.
But what about all of those studies showing that people who eat breakfast are generally healthier? See what I did there? I said that the studies show that people who eat breakfast are “generally healthier” – because generally, when we look at the habits of people who take the time to fix themselves a decent breakfast, or to prepare something for their kids that doesn’t include a ftoy in the box, we’re going to find that those people have other healthy habits as well. It’s not the breakfast, it’s the fact that eating breakfast correlates highly with other good habits.
I’m not the first person to notice this – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” (which later became “you are what you eat”). In this case, telling me that you eat breakfast enables me to tell you a lot about your other (probable) dietary habits.
In 1997, the British Journal of Nutrition published a review of breakfast and its associations with general dietary intake, including: “It is concluded that breakfast consumption is a marker for an appropriate dietary pattern in terms of both macro- and micronutrients…”(1)
This observation continues throughout the literature until present day. A Korean study published in 2011 showed that when compared to habitual breakfast eaters, rare breakfast eaters consumed less rice, potatoes, kimchi, vegetables, fish and shellfish, milk and dairy products, and ate more cookies, cakes, and meat for dinner (2). In other words, people who ate breakfast were more likely to eat a good dinner as well. So was it the breakfast or the dinner that makes these people healthier? Probably both. A Swiss study from earlier this year showed that while kids who ate breakfast regularly performed better on a variety of tests, they also had generally better eating habits (3). Once again, we find that breakfast is highly correlated with factors that ought to be considered contributory to all of the positive effects generally attributed to breakfast alone.
So while I’m not exactly arguing that eating breakfast isn’t a good thing, I am making the case that it’s not the sole cause behind the multitude of benefits that we see it credited with.
Back here in the United States, in a long-term survey was conducted from 1999-2006, where 20% of children and 31.5% of adolescents were found to be breakfast skippers, while 35.9% of children and 25.4% of adolescents consumed Ready to Eat (RTE) cereal; yes, we’re talking about the kind of cereal that probably comes with a toy.
Still, even if they’re sitting down to a (likely) bowl of total garbage, it shows some kind of (bare, minimal) effort in getting kids off to a good start… and those kids had lower intakes of total fat and cholesterol than breakfast skippers, with higher levels of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber. Predictably the RTE cereal eaters had a lower prevalence of obesity and smaller waist circumference than breakfast skippers. (4)
Generally speaking, we find that dietary habits (especially in children) are much better when we compare breakfast eaters versus non-breakfast eaters (4); body composition follows. Just the fact that kids are sitting down to eat breakfast is a pretty good indicator that they’re having some regular sit-down meals and that they have some related dietary habits.
See what I’m getting at here? Eating breakfast isn’t magic – but people who care enough to get a good first meal will usually care enough to eat pretty well throughout the day. Breakfast is a predictor of other good habits – it’s highly correlated with things that will positively effect your overall health; it’s not doing anything special, per se. [Also, if you’ve got absolutely nothing going on in your life, you can post photos of your breakfast on your insipid Facebook page.]
Of course, a great deal of the research on RTE cereals is provided by the good people over at General Mills, who bring us gleaming endorsements for bowls of highly processed carbohydrates: “The consumption of ready-to-eat cereals at breakfast should be encouraged as a component of an eating pattern that promotes the maintenance of healthful body weights and nutrient intakes in children.”(5) – again, I don’t believe this kind of thing, but I can appreciate the fact that there’s a problem if you can’t even find time to pour a bowl of cereal, and that problem will probably manifest with your other food choices throughout the day.
People who don’t have 15 minutes for breakfast aren’t (usually) going to have 45 minutes for a work-out…
So while it might behoove the manufacturers of sugary children’s breakfast cereals to have us believe that they’re better than nothing – and that the relative sugar levels don’t matter (6), I’m going to put it out there that a high-protein breakfast with some healthy fat and zero to minimal sugar, is going to outperform RTE cereals (the RTE cereal companies will never fund a study comparing their product versus healthy real food). This will hold true for adults as well as children, but again: whether or not you eat breakfast isn’t a causative factor for good health, it’s a correlative factor in other habits that (added up) will make you healthy.
Don’t get me wrong. I think you should eat a healthy breakfast as often as possible – but what you do with the rest of your day is what really matters.
Br J Nutr. 1997 Aug;78(2):199-213.Breakfast: a review of associations with measures of dietary intake, physiology and biochemistry.Ruxton CH, Kirk TR. Centre for Food Research, Queen-Margaret College, Edinburgh.
Nutr Res Pract. 2011 Oct;5(5):455-63. Epub 2011 Oct 28.
Skipping breakfast is associated with diet quality and metabolic syndrome risk factors of adults.
Min C, Noh H, Kang YS, Sim HJ, Baik HW, Song WO, Yoon J, Park YH, Joung H. Department of Food and Nutrition, Seoul National University, Seoul 151-742, Korea.
J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 Apr;31(2):87-93.Swiss children consuming breakfast regularly have better motor functional skills and are less overweight than breakfast skippers.
Baldinger N, Krebs A, Müller R, Aeberli I.
SourceETH Zürich, Human Nutrition Laboratory, Schmelzbergstrasse 7, LFV E14.2, CH-8092 Zürich, SWITZERLAND.
J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jun;110(6):869-78.
The relationship of breakfast skipping and type of breakfast consumption with nutrient intake and weight status in children and adolescents: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2006.Deshmukh-Taskar PR, Nicklas TA, O’Neil CE, Keast DR, Radcliffe JD, Cho S.US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX 77030-2600, USA.
J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Dec;103(12):1613-9.Ready-to-eat cereal consumption: its relationship with BMI and nutrient intake of children aged 4 to 12 years.Albertson AM, Anderson GH, Crockett SJ, Goebel MT. Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, General Mills, Inc, Minneapolis, MN 55427, USA.
Nutr Res. 2011 Mar;31(3):229-36.
Weight indicators and nutrient intake in children and adolescents do not vary by sugar content in ready-to-eat cereal: results from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2006.
Albertson AM, Thompson DR, Franko DL, Holschuh NM.
Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, General Mills, Inc., James Ford Bell Technical Center, Minneapolis, MN 55427, USA.