We have, from time immemorial, been universally admonished by mothers to eat a good breakfast. But why is this? Scientific information seems to be mixed—or at best inconclusive—about this matter. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended breakfast for children but provided no guidance for adults, stating “behaviors have been studied, such as snacking or frequency of eating, but there is currently not enough evidence to support a specific recommendation for these behaviors.” Results from a 2002 National Health and Nutrition Survey indicate that snacking and skipping breakfast are common, with 18% of the populace skipping breakfast and 86% snacking each day. Moreover, another US survey from 1965 to 1991 disclosed that, during that period, breakfast consumption had dropped from 86% to 75%. Thus mothers seem to have lost control of sizeable portions of our population, exposing us to potentially risky eating habits.
Various small scientific studies have suggested that skipping breakfast may carry several adverse consequences, including weight gain, elevated blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, development of diabetes, and increased risk of heart disease. Although we can correlate skipping breakfast with various unfavorable outcomes, that does not prove a cause and effect relationship between the two. That is, do people who skip breakfast possess other traits such as intermittent snacking that predispose them to these various health risks? And would merely adding breakfast to one’s ordinary eating habits produce the universal health benefits we desire?
Although still not conclusive, the evidence supporting the health benefits of eating breakfast continues to mount. A recent large study appearing in the American Heart Association Journal, Circulation,# showed that, after being followed for a period of 16 years, men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of heart disease compared with those who did not. What was most surprising about this study, however, was that, even though those skipping breakfast possessed more risk factors for cardiovascular diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, when the researchers corrected for these variables, those eating breakfast still had better long-term reductions of heart disease. This is powerful information that supports the idea that, by just including breakfast alone in your program, you may be reducing your chances of disease.
Some of the immediate benefits of breakfast are scientifically documented: These include improved concentration and performance at school or work, better physical strength, endurance, and improved eye-hand coordination.
The longer term benefits of breakfast are more complex but seem to be based on multiple factors as noted: Breakfast is more apt to contain more nutritious foods such as fruit and protein. Protein also provides more persistent satiation that delays hunger and, therefore, the desire for mid-morning snacks. Protein is especially helpful, for it not only provides a lengthier sense of fullness but also burns up more energy while being digested, resulting in fewer excess net calories to deal with. Therefore, don’t forget to include protein sources such as eggs, yogurt, low-fat milk, cheese, nuts, etc., but minimize such processed meat sources as bacon, sausage and the like, for the latter pose, in themselves, significant threats to health (see my previous post about red meat).
Another possibility contributing to the dangers of skipping breakfast is that, after an overnight fast, the body’s metabolic rate slows sufficiently to retard the burning of calories, and by prolonging this fasting period, we are more apt to turn the furnace down to “low”, burn up fewer calories, and allow for more conversion to fat that was designed for storage during lean periods. Unfortunately, the obesity produced by excess fat then contributes to hypertension and diabetes.
In conclusion, I must admit that science—while moving at a fairly decent pace—has still not caught up with mother! So I say to one and all, eat your breakfast every morning, and it better be more than just a doughnut and coffee, or I’ll tell mother on you!
# Cahill LE. et al. Prospective study of breakfast eating and incident coronary heart disease in a cohort of male US health professionals. Circulation. 2013;128:337-343.