There’s nothing quite like breakfast habits to get even the most reasonable of people riled up.
While the old adage “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper” may seem like good advice to abide by, is it actually true?
There is a good amount of evidence showing that for those who are hungry, having breakfast can set you up for the day — provided you’re eating the right food.Credit:Shutterstock
Does not eating breakfast every day make you fat? Is it really the most important meal of the day?
It turns out that, scientifically speaking, the jury’s still out on whether breakfast is actually even necessary – let alone good or bad.
That’s right: scientists have been as confused as the rest of us when it comes to proving – or disproving – that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Can breakfast help keep you trim?
The crux of the breakfast divide is what nutrition scientists call the "proposed effect of breakfast on obesity," or the PEBO. It's the idea that people who don't eat breakfast actually end up eating more and/or worse things over the course of the day, because their nightly fast was not properly broken.
While this is a popular belief, experts say it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Eating breakfast does not necessarily prevent obesity,” says Professor Helen Truby, the head of nutrition and dietetics at Monash University.
“If you eat breakfast everyday, it doesn't mean you won't be overweight; and if you don’t eat breakfast, it doesn’t mean you will be overweight.”
However, she does point out that those who do eat breakfast have a slight advantage: not only do they give themselves the maximum amount of time to burn off the calories eaten in the morning, but eating breakfast at home gives us greater control of what we eat – and can curb those sugar cravings that present themselves mid-morning.
“It’s better to eat breakfast – provided you're hungry and eating the right things – but again if you're someone who isn't hungry, take something nutritious to have at work so you're not stopping off mid-morning and grabbing a high fat coffee and a sugar-laden muffin,” Professor Truby says.
“It’s much harder to make good food choices when you're out of home”.
According to Dr Tim Crowe, the incoming Associate Professor in Nutrition at La Trobe University, the belief that breakfast skippers will put on weight can also stem from dieting behaviours.
“People who are overweight are often trying different dieting methods to lose weight. Skipping breakfast may be one of them, and this can create the association that people who are overweight often skip breakfast.”
How much does what we eat vs when we eat matter?
It turns out that whether or not you eat breakfast doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to your health; often, it can be more about what you eat, rather than when you eat.
“If you don't feel hungry, making yourself eat breakfast won’t be necessarily the right thing to do,” says Professor Truby.
“It’s related to the body clock; people who are evening people often don't feel hungry first thing in the morning, and people who prefer the morning often enjoy a good breakfast.”
There is a good amount of evidence showing that for those who are hungry, having breakfast can set you up for the day – provided you’re eating the right food.
Professor Truby suggests picking foods high in protein, such as milk or dairy products, eggs, yoghurt, some (make sure they’re fortified, so full of nutrients) breakfast cereals and oats.
“These items will make you feel fuller for longer, and reduce cravings for snacks mid-morning which tend to be higher in sugars and fats.”
Professor Crowe agrees: “Call it breakfast at 7am or 11am, it's eating well that is the best for your health,” he says.
However, when you eat can have an effect on your health (and weight), especially if it’s not offset by healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and a rich and diverse diet.
Last year, Monash University researchers looking into shift worker diets found that eating at night has a significant effect on blood sugar levels.
Because many metabolic processes such as appetite, digestion and the metabolism of fat, cholesterol and glucose follow a circadian pattern, workers who live a schedule that's out of sync with their circadian rhythms have poorer health outcomes, with the World Health Organisation even declaring in 2007 that shift work is a probable carcinogen.
In this study, researchers fed participants the same meal (a low glycaemic index meal) at 8am, 8pm and at midnight on three separate days, and found that when they ate the meal at night time, their insulin levels and blood glucose were much higher.
This has paved the way for a larger study seeking to find out when shift workers should eat in order to avoid cardiovascular health problems and diabetes, two conditions shift workers are more likely to suffer from.
Professor Truby says that while failing to eat breakfast in the early morning if you’re not hungry is not bad for you, eating late at night can have detrimental effects on your overall health.
“The reason we get hungry is that our blood sugar drops down, and it pushes us to eat,” she says.
“The body has a certain rhythm (circadian rhythm) that influences insulin secretion. Less insulin is produced at night, so if you're eating at night and in particular having high sugar snack items that stimulate insulin, your overall health will be more impacted.”
Is breakfast necessary to help perform at your best?
There’s been a lot of research dedicated at looking into the importance of breakfast consumption for cognitive performance.
Stemming from another key belief that breakfast helps us concentrate better at school and work, some studies have found that eating breakfast has a short-term effect in improving selected learning skills, especially working memory, which is important for reasoning and decision-making.
Another study again found that benefits of eating breakfast extended to having a better memory and making fewer errors during demanding tasks, particularly during the late morning.
This has been especially evident in studies with children, who experts say are particularly sensitive to the effects of breakfast.
Professor Rachel Burton, the head of Plant Science and the School of Agriculture Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide, says that younger kids just need the energy.
“They’re so active; they just run around all day, unlike adults. Children also learn better in the morning, and need the extra energy,” she says.
The problem is that many parents are confused about what exactly constitutes a good breakfast. Professor Burton says that many breakfast foods directed at children, such as brightly coloured cereals and orange juice, are full of sugar and lack the protein, fat, complex carbohydrates and micronutrients that are essential for health.
“Kids do need breakfast, but they need something that’s whole grain and that will enable a slow burn of energy throughout the day. I think a lot of parents don’t realise how much sugar is in common breakfast foods and drinks like cereals and orange juice,” she says.
And if you like to exercise?
For those who like to exercise, Professor Crowe says eating breakfast is good for peak performance — “it will allow you to do more physical activity later in the day.”
A University of Bath study of 33 people randomly assigned to eat or skip breakfast found that breakfast eaters were less sluggish in the morning; they burned almost 500 calories more in light intensity movements. That said, they also consumed more calories in the morning, but their energy levels were higher and they did more in the morning.
This is supported by another University of Bath study, which found that eating breakfast before exercise may “prime” the body to burn carbohydrates during exercise and more rapidly digest food after working out.
At the end of the day, whether you eat breakfast or not is not actually the most important question.
Eating breakfast is good for you, but if you eat the right things. And if you’re not a breakfast person? Don't sweat it: it’s better to eat nothing at all than something full of sugar and bad fats.
“What matters is protein and complex, low GI carbohydrates. Protein is what stops you from being hungry, and getting some slow releasing carbs into your system will help you concentrate better,” Professor Truby says.
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