Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?

By Jack Flanagan

The importance of breakfast may have been overestimated

I was telling my friend how excited I was for a trip to Florence. I explained how Italians usually have a cappuccino for breakfast, and that I was doing an article on breakfast habits. As a non-breakfast eater, I might even feel at home over there.

She seemed to ponder that for a while before asking, “Is that why Italians are so lazy?”

In a word, no. Even if the stereotype of a lethargic approach to life was true for Italians, breakfast would not be a key factor. Like many beliefs about science that have made their way into the wider public imagination, the importance of breakfast may have been overestimated.

In an article published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September, researchers decided to approach the breakfast question a little more skeptically than had been done before. They looked at dozens of studies, especially focusing on the link between breakfast and body weight.

They wanted to know: Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

What’s the science?

Let’s step back. Many nutrition experts claim that breakfast is important because it helps with weight management. The logic is varied, but it comes down to the idea that a healthy breakfast (high in slow-release foods) kickstarts your metabolism for the day.

The idea makes an intuitive sort of sense. You eat your Weetabix and you can easily visualize all your stomach enzymes working away at those carbs all day long. Unfortunately, it might not be the case.
Probably don’t even need this in the morning.

As almost any science graduate can tell you, the battle between correlation, two things that are related, and causation, one thing that causes the other, is always wagging. The “do vaccines cause Autism?” debate at the end of the last century was triggered by scientists and journalists getting ahead of themselves and misreading the data, some say intentionally.

Even on days of feasting, a morning meal is not a crucial element

The same thing may be true of nutritionists overeager to create headline news. The aforementioned American Journal study found that cases made for breakfast being linked with a huge amount of benefits was weak and biased, at best, and misrepresented at worst. Breakfast has been touted as being able to increase your memory, lose weight, and even offset heart disease and diabetes. However, just because a link exists, that doesn’t mean it’s a causal one.

Nutritionist John Berardi has a critical approach to the dogma of breakfast. He takes papers that make these assumptions to task by pointing out that, just because blood sugar stability and lower obesity exist around breakfast-eaters, that’s not convincing evidence that breakfast is the major factor in the subjects’ lack of extra pounds. For instance, people who work stressful, long-hour jobs may not have time to have breakfast every morning, but their blood sugar levels are rioting because of the stress of the job, not a failure to eat at a specific time.

Interestingly, it’s this supposed causal relationship between breakfast and body weight that forms a cornerstone belief of the “most important meal of the day” movement.

Dr. Berardi also quotes a study that looks at ADF, or “alternate day fasting.” ADF are periods of starvation followed by periods of feasting, usually every 24 hours. Breakfast doesn’t feature in ADF behaviour—even on days of feasting, a morning meal is not a crucial element.

Looking through the effects of ADF on animals and humans, the study found a list of possible benefits, including lower diabetes and heart disease in animals and lower diabetes risk in humans. It even found a reduced risk of cancer in animals.

My body probably has no idea what’s coming

Another interesting and potentially naive diet form is the Paleolithic diet. The Paleolithic diet is based on the idea that, because man historically ate mostly meat and root vegetables, our bodies are adapted for those kinds of foods. Again, its reasoning is highly suspect.

Firstly, humans didn’t evolve in one place, so availability of different foods, both animals and vegetables, varied considerably. While people historically from coastal settlements will have bodies adapted to a pescatarian diet, few people now are pure-blooded in that sense.

Did primitive humans eat breakfast? It’d mean storing food for the next day, which isn’t practical: Insects and other vermin would swarm over the food. And it isn’t really possible; our ancestors could barely feed themselves day-by-day, never mind stockpile food for the next morning.

If you wanted to approach the breakfast argument by saying it is more natural for humans to eat breakfast, then that might not be the case.

Elementary, my diet, Watson

Trend setter. Photo via Dynamosquito/Flickr

Trend setter. Photo via Dynamosquito/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As much as breakfast-eaters don’t have all the answers, neither do people who skip the meal

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, there’s more than one scene in which the titular detective is found wasting away in his study. The reason, he tells a dismayed Watson, is his belief that starving yourself leads to intellectual acuity.

If this was an invention by Doyle, it’s a good one. When you wake up in the morning, the body immediately kicks into gear and begins to use off energy in fat to provide you with a rush in the morning. The body’s ability to break down fat and turn it into energy is extraordinary.

However, if you eat breakfast in the morning, at least according to Ori Hofmekler of the Warrior Diet, it disrupts this fat-burning process. Your body instead believes it needs to be storing fat, not burning it. He recommends a breakfast of fruits, not carbs, if you have to eat.

As much as breakfast-eaters don’t have all the answers, neither do people who skip the meal. Berardi and Hofmekler offer convincing arguments, which might get ignored in preference of the accepted wisdom that a good breakfast matters. At the end of the day, it seems the best advice would be to do what’s best for you, until the science catches up with your stomach.