Most of us remember our mothers telling us that we have to eat breakfast because “it’s the most important meal of the day.” Recently, I have been on a health journey to lose weight and become more healthy overall. One of the methods I tried was an Intermittent Fasting plan. In essence, prolonging my night fast and not eating before 11am, thereby skipping breakfast. Sure, I lost weight (about 5 pounds in 3 months) but it was hard to stick to. I personally found more benefit and weight loss from the 21 Day Fix program which includes 3 meals per day and 2-3 snacks within your portion control containers. So I was thinking, is breakfast important or is it a gimmick to sell breakfast food?
What Happens When We Fast?
We all fast, right, unless we are being fed food while we sleep? “Breakfast” literally means a break from your fast! When we go to bed at night we are in a fasting state where we are decreasing carbohydrate and glucose levels as the time progresses. Sounds great right? Break down those naughty sugars and carbs and burn some fat!
Our body is meticulous at regulating our blood sugar levels. So, once there are no more glucose stores the body starts breaking down amino acids and then muscle to increase blood sugar levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released by the body to tell us to start breaking down alternate sources for energy (amino acids and muscle). Oh no, so after a prolonged fast we have lost weight (yay!) because we have burned fat, but also lost muscle and are more stressed (Boo!). Conversely, when we eat breakfast we are increasing muscle and liver glycogen stores and decreasing the amount of cortisol in the blood.
A study in 2014 found that skipping breakfast, prolonging our fast, led to weight loss. But, it also led to increased total cholesterol. We know that increased cholesterol leads to heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. In addition, we know that skipping breakfast is detrimental to insulin sensitivity making one less sensitive to the amount of insulin in the blood. The hormone insulin helps control the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood. With insulin sensitivity and eventual resistance, the body’s cells don’t respond normally to insulin. Glucose can’t enter the cells as easily, so it builds up in the blood, aka high blood sugar. This can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.
An iPhone app called Eatery (a food diary where people take pictures of their food they eat throughout the day ) found that those that skip breakfast actually eat 4.9% more at lunch. The longer the person fasts increased the more they ate, up to 6.82% more, and led to worse choices of food. Also, those that ate breakfast were 12.3% healthier throughout the day. (Honestly I am not sure, nor could I find, how they came up with the 12.3% healthier result. I don’t have an iPhone and so I am not completely sure how this app works.)
What Does Fasting Research Say?
Research, ugh! It takes me back to my long afternoons in PT school learning about research methods and how to evaluate a research article. Research is a double edged sword. You can find just as many “research” articles that support a topic as you can find that negate it. So, we must be skeptical of the studies and not believe everything we read. For example, be cautious if a product company financed the research project that encourages the use of their product. Also, be weary of older research studies or those with smaller number of participants.
A study published July 12, 2017 in the Journal of Nutrition followed 50,660 Seventh Day Adventists, so a relatively healthy cohort that fasts regularly. The results suggest that in “relatively healthy adults, eating less frequently, no snacking, consuming breakfast, and eating the largest meal in the morning may be effective methods for preventing long-term weight gain. Eating breakfast and lunch 5-6 h apart and making the overnight fast last 18-19 h may be a useful practical strategy.” Wait, so eating breakfast and making it the largest meal of the day led to preventing long-term weight gain, that means Mom was right, breakfast is important. What this study doesn’t address is the slowing of one’e metabolism with eating so little, of course they won’t gain weight because they are eating so little. See below for more on this.
An older study, published in 2013 also supports this conclusion. This study looked at 93 overweight and obese women over 12 weeks. They ate the same caloric intake (1400 calories per day) but one group ate the biggest meal at breakfast and the other ate the largest meal at dinner. Those that ate their largest meal at breakfast lost 250% more weight versus those that ate larger meals at dinner!!! In addition to weight loss, this group saw decreased fasting blood sugar, decreased belly fat (which I presume is due to less cortisol as noted above), and decreased hunger.
Why Does Your Metabolism Slow When You Get Older?
Metabolism is the rate at which we burn calories, and unfortunately is starts its inevitable natural decline around age 25. There are lifestyle mistakes that can slow your metabolism earlier and faster:
- Cutting too many calories: Yes you need to cut calories to lose weight, but if we eat less than our body requires for basic metabolic function our body slows our metabolism. Using a Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator will help you determine the lowest amount of calories you need to eat based on gender, age, weight, height, and activity level to maintain your metabolism.
- Not eating enough protein: high protein intake can significantly increase the rate at which your burn calories
- Not exercising: Common sense, if you are less active you burn less calories
- Not getting enough sleep: several studies have found that not getting enough sleep lowers your BMR
- Drinking sugary drinks: Sugary drinks decreases BMR and promotes fat storage in the stomach area and liver (as well as leads to type 2 diabetes and obesity)
- Not doing any strength training: studies show that strength training can increase BMR in healthy individuals as well as those that are overweight or obese
How Important Is Breakfast for Kids?
I know it is rushed in the morning, who has time to get their children a nutritious meal? Luckily most public schools offer a well balanced breakfast for a reasonable cost. As noted above, skipping breakfast can lead to type 2 diabetes, which none of us want for our children. In addition an observational study in 2013 of Chinese kindergartners found that those that ate breakfast daily had higher IQ scores than those that didn’t.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s because those that ate breakfast were of a higher socioeconomic status or their parents were more educated, right? No, the difference remained when these factors were accounted for. It makes sense really, if you are full and not hungry you can concentrate more on school work.
A study of children ages 9-14 years old compared overweight children and those with average BMIs. The results were that overweight children who skipped breakfast may lose body fat, but normal weight children did not lose weight. Average weight children that skipped breakfast actually ended with a higher BMI.
I found one study that linked skipping breakfast to increased risky behaviors in children (smoking, drugs, and alcohol consumption). I am a bit skeptical that this is a direct causation though. In reality it may have more to do with socioeconomic status.
What is the Ideal Breakfast?
I eat an omelet most mornings and other mornings I fix overnight oats. I change the ingredients of my omelet based on what I have available such as spinach, sausage, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms. If you haven’t tried overnight oats, you are missing some delicious meals!!! I know that everyone doesn’t have time in the morning to make omelets, but there are still many healthy options available on the market for a grab-and-go breakfast.
Ideally you want a breakfast meal that is high in fiber and protein. Dietitians suggest that the breakfast meal contain:
- 20-35% of your daily allotted calories
- less than 20 grams of sugar
- at least 6-10 grams of protein
- at least 3 grams of fiber
- be eaten within 2 hours of waking
Remember, carbohydrates are necessary for muscle and the nervous systems to function properly. Check out this website for some ideal healthy breakfast ideas and recipes.
Breakfast Is Important! – Summary
So in summary, breakfast of some sort is very important! It is beneficial for weight management to have your largest meal for breakfast. This means we should eat a smaller dinner earlier and not snack before bedtime. We need to eat enough protein, exercise regularly, and include weight training. Breakfast is especially important for young children for concentration and reducing the risk of adult onset disease such as diabetes and high cholesterol.
As with all health and nutrition, let’s use some common sense: eat healthy and exercise. There is no reason to go off the deep end and follow some extreme diet plan. When we eat breakfast we are getting our bodies out of starvation mode and telling them to “burn these calories/fat, there is plenty more to come.” Conversely, if we skip breakfast we are making our bodies think that we are in starvation mode and don’t know when our next meal will come.
List of Studies on the Importance of Breakfast
- Skipping breakfast leads to weight loss but also elevated cholesterol compared with consuming daily breakfasts of oat porridge or frosted cornflakes in overweight individuals: a randomised controlled trial
- Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2.
- High Caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women
- Longitudinal study of skipping breakfast and weight change in adolescents