Editor’s note: This post was originally written in Oct of 2014, and I made updates in Jan 2019. Many of the updates are in italics and in the form of “notes”.
I had the chance to participate in a webinar called "The Science Behind Breakfast: An Up-to-Date Review", hosted by Today's Dietitian and sponsored by Kellogg's. I point out the sponsor, because some of the research was specific to eating cereal for breakfast. But, the conclusions and outcomes of the research were independent. Here is a list of the studies, for your personal reference.
You've probably heard the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Is it really more important than lunch or dinner? Eh, I don't necessarily think so. Before you breakfast skippers scream "I knew it!", let me point out that it is certainly not less important. For most people, I usually recommend eating four times a day and not going more than 3-5 hours between eating. But that's another post for another day.
Benefits of Breakfast
Research shows some significant benefits to eating breakfast. Breakfast eaters tend to have better diet quality, improved energy balance (i.e. weight management), and improved performance in school.
Specifically, people who eat breakfast get more fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamins A and C, and the B vitamins. That's a lot of quality nutrition.
Note: correlation doesn’t equal causation. Just because having breakfast is correlated with a better diet and improved performance at school doesn’t mean it’s the cause of these things. It’s always about the big picture and overall healthy habits!
One habit of people who lose weight and effectively keep it off? You guessed it - eating breakfast. In addition, kids who eat breakfast are less likely to become overweight as adults. Children, young adults and women all are less likely to be overweight if they consume cereal for breakfast. Kids and teens that skip breakfast have greater risk of being overweight and obese.
Skipping breakfast is also connected to obesity and overweight. This might seem counterintuitive. Two reasons why this might be true: (1) Your metabolism doesn’t love fasting for too long and consuming your calories in a short amount of time. (2) Your sense of hunger can get out of control, and you overcompensate at your next meal or throughout the day.
Note: again, these are correlations! Also, I’m not going to tell you to eat breakfast to lose weight. But I will point out that skipping breakfast is a dieting trick (not super helpful) that I have heard among many clients. They believe that if they skip breakfast, it’s a way to eat less and lose weight. Please don’t skip meals out of fear of weight gain.
Finally, there is evidence that eating breakfast is related to improved performance in school. Most of this research is connected to kids and teens. But I would guess we can translate that into improved work performance as adults. Focus, cognition, energy, alertness - these are all things every employer desires from every employee on a daily basis!
There are some complicating factors when we try to do a review of the current research on breakfast. Specifically, these research reviews require compiling studies for greater impact and sample size. To start off, there is no standard definition of breakfast. When is it consumed - both time of day and in relation to waking up? How much food is consumed? Does it still count if it's not eaten before leaving home? It's hard to compare studies - or compile their results - when there isn't a standardization on how the term breakfast is used.
This is a large enough problem, in fact, that the presenters announced their research - published this coming December - will define breakfast. So here it is:
Breakfast is the first meal of the day that breaks the fast after the longest period of sleep and is consumed within 2-3 hours of waking; it is comprised of food or beverage from at least 1 food group, and may be consumed at any location.
Note what this definition doesn't say. It doesn't say it must be eaten in the morning (shift workers and college students rejoice). Or even that it must be eaten immediately upon waking. It doesn't state that it must be a well-balanced meal (but a cup of coffee or can of soda doesn't count!). And it can be eaten at home, on the commute, at the office, at a restaurant, etc.
Building a Better Breakfast
If you're going to make the effort to eat breakfast, you might as well eat a quality breakfast. Here are some quick guidelines on building a better breakfast.
Consume between 15-25% of your daily calories at breakfast. For most of us, simply keeping breakfast around 300 calories will be fine.
Note: Providing these numbers doesn’t mean that I want you to count your calories or track your food. What I want to show you is that the recommendations might be to eat something a little more substantial than you’re used to. I still want you to listen more to your body’s hunger cues than information on a food label!
Choose from at least one of the following food groups:
Low-fat dairy (note: this is what the breakfast study showed - we are seeing more research that dairy fat isn’t a huge concern - so feel free to enjoy a full-fat yogurt if that’s what you prefer!)
Lean protein (seafood or meat) or plant-based proteins (beans/legumes, seeds, nuts, nut butters)
Fruits and vegetables
Whole - or enriched - grains and cereals
Hit all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, protein
Carbs - energy, help your body break the fast
Fat - encourage stabilizing blood sugar, stay full longer
Protein - feel satisfied, spreading protein throughout the day is best for muscles
Lots of you wrote on my Facebook page with your questions, concerns, and frustrations with breakfast. Want more? In part 2, I share a bit on how to turn this into practical advice and actual meals.