Is Breakfast Really All That Important?

Is Breakfast Really All That Important?

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Rachel Sugar
Jan 10, 2017
(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

Welcome to the Great Debates, where we consider the greatest nutritional controversies of our time. Our goal isn't to tell you what to think or do, but rather to present both sides of hot-button issues, like coffee (is it good for you?) and breakfast (the most important meal of the day?). What's being said? Who's saying it? Then it's up to you to make your own decisions.

Breakfast — the cornerstone of a healthy diet, or optional morning meal? For generations, we have been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A good breakfast jump-starts your metabolism! Breakfast improves academic performance! Breakfast is the key to weight loss! Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper, the saying goes.

Except that newer research suggests … maybe none of that is true? It's not that more recent findings showed that breakfast is bad; just that maybe breakfast is fine. But can it be true that the morning meal offers no morning-meal-specific magic?

Like certain bran cereals served without milk, this unsettling revelation is hard to swallow, especially for those of us who have spent a lifetime choking down whole-grain toast at 7 a.m. And so, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, let us examine the evidence.

Breakfast Is … Meh!

Traditional wisdom is that skipping breakfast causes people to overeat or make questionable food choices for the rest of the day because, as the Atlantic explains, "their nightly fast was not properly broken."

And there are some studies that do support that idea (although at least one of those studies was funded by Kellogg). But there are also a whole lot of studies that don't.

Breakfast and Weight Loss

One study out of Cornell, for example, showed people who skipped breakfast had actually eaten less at the end of the day. Another study, this one from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found virtually no difference in weight loss between people randomly assigned to eat breakfast and people randomly assigned to skip it. Sixteen weeks later, the results were indistinguishable. Skipping breakfast didn't make anyone fat. Eating breakfast didn't make anyone thin. "Breakfast may be just another meal," lead researcher Emily Dhurandhar told the New York Times.

Breakfast and Metabolism

Just another meal? But doesn't breakfast boost metabolism, you may be wondering, if you have ever read a magazine article. Yes, it turns out. According to a tiny study from the University of Bath, that's true! Kind of. A little bit.

After six weeks of monitoring their 33 subjects — all of whom were assigned to either eat or not eat breakfast — the researchers found that the resting metabolic rates, cholesterol levels, and blood-sugar profiles in both groups were pretty much unchanged. Whether or not they ate breakfast had essentially no effect on their stats, the New York Times explains. By the end of the experiment, everyone ended up back where they began.

Almost.

There was one critical difference, though. Every day, the Bath breakfast eaters burned almost 500 more calories in light-intensity movement than their breakfast-skipping counterparts. On the other hand, they also ate an additional 500 calories each day, so it's all more or less a wash — at least in terms of total calories. Still, this is potentially the most powerful argument yet for breakfast: After all, physical activity is a good thing in general, whether or not you're trying to lose weight, so you may as well eat your morning oats/eggs/congee/kale smoothies.

Breakfast and Brainpower

As for the whole breakfast-boosts-brainpower idea, well, that's not quite so simple either. For one thing, most of the studies that look at the relationship between breakfast and cognitive performance are focused on children and adolescents. And it's true — systematic reviews do seem to find kids who eat breakfast do indeed perform better in school.

What's less clear is if and how those findings might carry over to adults. As breakfast skeptic Aaron E. Carroll writes at the New York Times, "you have to consider that much of the research is looking at the impact of school breakfast programs." Too many kids don't have enough to eat at home, and it makes sense that well-nourished kids might do better than hungry ones. But that doesn't necessarily translate to an argument that generally well-fed adults will do their jobs better if they have an unsweetened bran muffin first.

If breakfast is not a wonder meal, then why so many decades of hype?

In part, explains Carroll, because people really, really want breakfast to be good for you. So when observational studies suggest an association between breakfast and health, people too often frame it as a causal relationship — even when there's no particular evidence supporting that. A 2013 study in the journal Circulation, for example, showed men who ate breakfast to have a lower rate of coronary heart disease than guys who skipped their a.m. meal. But as Carroll points out, that isn't necessarily because the men did or did not eat breakfast. (This is the problem with observational studies — it is incredibly difficult to prove cause and effect.)

Breakfast Is Good!

But the plot thickens. For one thing, while a lot of the historic pro-breakfast studies had methodological issues, the plenty of what we'll call "anti-breakfast studies" had snags of their own. As Women's Health points out, they're often relatively short-term studies — even 16 weeks isn't all that much time — and they don't all take into account what their subjects ate for the meal. Cold pizza is breakfast and oatmeal is breakfast and a banana is breakfast, too. It's a jungle out there.

Skipping Breakfast and Type-2 Diabetes

And there are studies — even recent-ish ones — that suggest breakfast might have at least a few things potentially going for it besides boosting your energy level. A different 2013 study, for example, found breakfast-skipping women had a 20 percent greater chance of developing type-2 diabetes than breakfast eaters. Yet again, this was observational — not to sound like a broken record, but there could be other factors accounting for the difference — but it's also possible that regular breakfasting does have some direct benefits.

Breakfast and Healthy Eating

Also working in breakfast's favor is that it's an easy meal to do well. Lots of American breakfast foods don't have a ton going for them in terms of everyday nutrition — sugary cereals are maybe sub-optimal; bagels are unlikely to be named superfoods anytime soon — but there are plenty of classic breakfast foods that are easy nutritional powerhouses: oatmeal, eggs, whole grains, assorted scrambles, whole fruits. If you're into breakfast, it is certainly reasonable to eat a healthy one.

In Conclusion

Should you eat breakfast?

Maybe! Based on what we know right now, you should definitely eat breakfast if you like eating breakfast. If you don't like eating breakfast, though, you can feel more than justified in skipping it. Do what makes you happy. In this case, there's scientific evidence you should do what you want.

What are you eating (or not eating) for breakfast? Tell us in the comments!

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