Up until fairly recently, eating breakfast was one of the few topics which almost all the nutrition world agreed upon.
“Never skip breakfast”
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”
“Eat Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a Prince, and Dinner like a Pauper”
All popular tenets of nutrition, shared by many otherwise conflicting diet theories.
The History of Breakfast
The modern eating pattern of Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, was shaped during the industrial revolution, to fit with the working day.
In the 19th Century, if people didn’t eat breakfast, they wouldn’t have an opportunity again until lunch, and with work shifts typically being long and physically draining, it was important to have a “good meal” while you had the chance.
A “good meal”, of course, for an impoverished 19th century factory worker was probably some stale bread soaked in milk. Bacon and eggs were already popular in this time, but only with the wealthy elite.
Breakfast cereals weren’t invented until the turn of the century, when John Harvey Kellogg came up with them as a method of reducing libido – I kid you not!
The breakfast cereal industry is now worth billions. Cheap to produce, this leaves the companies with a hefty budget to promote the importance, and inconvenience, of breakfast.
Now, even pouring cereal and milk into a bowl is too much effort for the most important meal, a cereal bar will do the job just fine…
What now, Don’t Break the Fast?
Nutritionists agreeing on something? This could never last! So sure enough, around the turn of this decade, we saw the rise of Intermittent Fasting.
Like all good popular diets, the IF diet flies in the face of conventional wisdom, arguing we should do exactly the opposite of what everyone else says, by not only skipping breakfast, but probably lunch too.
While there may be some questions about the true virtues of intermittent fasting, it’s popularity and success have exposed many of the supposed benefits of breakfast to be unfounded.
The Science of Breakfast
“People who skip breakfast tend to be more overweight and have more health problems than those who eat it regularly”
This has been the finding of numerous epidemiologic studies.
These studies may show a correlation between skipping breakfast and poor health, but they are not evidence of a causal relationship.
“People who skip breakfast tend to compensate by eating more later in the day”
Though the above is true to an extent, controlled studies have found that, despite eating slightly larger lunches and dinners, total calorie consumption for the day tends to be the same or lower when people deliberately skip breakfast.
So what are we to make of all this? How can we interpret the available evidence and use it to make a decision?
Before we go any further, it’s important to try and define what we mean by “Breakfast”.
At the risk of sounding like a pedant, one could argue that it’s impossible not to eat breakfast, as the first meal you eat, whether this be as soon as you wake up, or much later in the day or evening, will always be “breaking the fast”.
When we say it’s important to eat breakfast do we mean:
- It’s important to eat as soon as we wake up?
- It’s important to eat within a certain time period, say 1-2 hours?
- It’s important to eat before a certain hour, say before 10am?
Let’s presume we’re talking about one of the above. If we then talk about “Skipping Breakfast” are we talking about doing this intentionally, simply due to lack of hunger, or unintentionally due to lack of time or organisation?
With regards to the correlation between “skipping breakfast” and weight gain/poor health, my thoughts are that in the most likely scenarios, the typical story goes something like this:
Joe Bloggs goes to bed very late, having spent too much time on facebook, and can’t sleep well due to staring at a screen late at night, and stress at work.
The next morning, he can’t wake up, until he’s forced to jump out of bed and run out the door without eating.
When he gets to work, he’s starving, so gorges himself on crisps and chocolate bars from the vending machine, followed by some doughnuts which a kindly colleague has brought to the office.
Is Joe overweight and unhealthy because he skips breakfast, or because he’s sleep deprived, stressed, and eating junk food?
The concepts of “set meal times”, such as breakfast, lunch and dinner, are cultural conventions, largely unrelated to our biological needs.
Probably the most important rule of sensible healthy eating is:
Only eat if and when you are actually hungry.
If you are hungry as soon as you wake up, eat breakfast as soon as you wake up.
If you only get hungry an hour after you’ve woken up, eat breakfast an hour after you’ve woken up.
If you don’t get hungry until lunch, don’t eat until lunch.
Don’t listen to the government, the media reports of cereal company sponsored science studies, the latest diet fad, or me – listen to your stomach.
What’s important is that you’re eating because you’re hungry, not just “because it’s time”, “out of habit”, or because “everyone knows you’re supposed to”.
The one caveat to this, is that if you are not going to breakfast at home, make sure you are prepared for when hunger strikes later in the day.
If you know you’ll be in a food desert, surrounded only by high calorie junk food, either pre-empt your hunger by eating something healthy before you leave the house, or prepare something at home and take it with you.
Coming up in Part II
So let’s say that yes, it is important to eat breakfast, it just doesn’t really matter at what time!
But what should we be eating? Clearly doughnuts and crisps are not a good choice, but what should be eat?
Cornflakes, porridge, eggs, bacon? Does it make a difference depending on your goals or genetics? Should you exercise before or afterwards?
All these questions we’ll look at in part II…