Is Breakfast the most over-hyped meal of the day?

Eating breakfast immediately upon waking has long been thought to kick-start your metabolism. Many are led to believe that the first thing you should do when you wake up is eat and break the fast, as a failure to do so would compromise your health and body composition.

Have you ever stopped to think that having breakfast may just not be as important as it is made out to be especially in the context of weight loss and mental cognition?

The media, along with numerous fitness magazines have portrayed the notion that breakfast is highly important for health and fitness enthusiasts, but in doing so, fail to consider how individual lifestyle and preferences may influence what an ideal meal schedule looks like from one person to the next.

The whole breakfast upon waking idea is so deeply engrained into an overwhelming number of people’s minds that suggesting not eat first thing in the morning for many seems utterly wrong and illogical, and for such people, anyone who doesn’t succumb to scoffing down a bowl of cereal before the sun comes up is a straight up weirdo…

 But hey, Men’s Health said it was the most important meal of the day so it must be…

Before I share my thoughts and experiences as well as take a look at some research pertaining to the topic, it’s important to first define what breakfast actually is:

Breaking the fast, generally speaking, the first meal of the day which is typically consumed within the first few hours from waking.

I’m hesitant to define breakfast with any exact time frames due to the fact that there is a wide amount of variance in the actual time that people start their day.

Before discussing why breakfast may not be as important as many people think it is, I must admit that there are stacks of observational research that does in fact support breakfast in being a health booster. This data has found that breakfast eaters typically have a lower BMI (body mass index), which is a measure for whether or not an individual is within a healthy weight range.

This is indeed a win for proponents of eating upon waking, but is the case closed?

Not so fast…

In assessing scientific research as a guide for our decision making in nutritional practices, it is crucial to note that the evidential weight of correlational studies is low, and this is often overlooked by many media platforms. So, remember that:

Correlation does not equal causation.

What this means is, that despite such studies showing non-breakfast eaters having a Higher BMI and the mere fact that they don’t eat breakfast isn’t the causative effect.

A potential reason for this outcome may be that breakfast skippers are generally less ‘health seeking’ overall. They may eat out more, exercise less and engage in other behaviours that lead to a greater influx of calories. For example, those who skip breakfast may simply be in a situation where they are pressed for time, grabbing something quick and easy on the way to work which may contain more calories than your average homemade breakfast. Therefore, eating breakfast is not necessarily ‘healthier’ or better for ‘weight loss’, rather it may just be that those who are healthy and focused on weight loss engage in behaviours that aim to control their calorie intake.

Let’s take this example: In summer, individuals generally present with lower levels of body fat than they do in winter. Think about it, how many people do you know who shred for summer? Probably heaps! Also in summer, ice cream consumption tends to rise and is much higher than it is in winter. These observational statistics show a correlation between high ice-cream consumption and lower levels of body fat…Does that mean the increased consumption of ice-cream is leading to the lower levels of body fat? Of course not, that would be a laughable conclusion! Remember, correlation does not equal causation!

In contrast to popular belief, research shows that breakfast consumption (either eating breakfast or skipping it) has no effect on success rates for health seeking individuals who are trying to lose weight. A Randomised Control Trial (RCT) by Dhurander et al. (2014) rightfully concluded that the consumption or non-consumption of breakfast had no discernible effect on weight loss in free-living adults who were attempting to lose weight when calories were equated for.

So, the answer to whether breakfast is important or not lies within the energy balance concept.

If you are trying to lose weight, you need to eat in a caloric deficit…and if skipping breakfast helps you comply, then go for it!

Let’s say you didn’t ever eat breakfast but you have now been told to do so by a friend, coach or the media.

What happens?

I present you with a study by LeCheminant et al. (2017). Forty-nine Women who were habitual non-breakfast eaters were randomized to one of two conditions. Breakfast and no breakfast. Breakfast eaters had to eat 15% of daily calories before 8:30am and the other group had to wait until 11:30am. After 4 weeks they concluded that non-breakfast eaters who were required to eat breakfast gained weight due to the increase in their daily calorie intake. It was +0.6kg vs no change for the other group. This supports the notion that whether or not you eat breakfast upon waking should be dictated by your lifestyle and preference, and you should likely adopt a meal pattern/schedule that helps you best create an energy deficit if your goal is weight loss.  

So, will skipping breakfast have a negative impact on your cognition throughout the day?

First let’s look at adolescents performing cognitive tasks whilst being assessed. A study by Fulford et al. (2015) assessed adolescents aged between 12-14 by fMRI whilst they completed 2 cognitive tasks. One group had consumed breakfast and the other didn’t.

The results showed no significant different in results between the groups.

I understand that sending your child to school without having had breakfast may seem crazy. That is fair because in some cases you may know that if they don’t eat something before school then they won’t eat much at all. Just take into consideration that if your children are not hungry then skipping breakfast won’t actually affect their performance during their morning classes.

What about adults?

There’s one study on habitually active women that was conducted by Veasey et al. (2015). The group that was assigned breakfast felt it was detrimental to working memory in the mid afternoon and had mental fatigue later in the day. The no breakfast group did experience the same affects.

Now this was a just 1 small study and it was also testing other outcomes of breakfast. So please don’t start saying breakfast is detrimental to cognitive performance because we just can’t say for sure whether it is or it isn’t.

What it does suggest is that it is most certainly not as important for cognition as previously thought. My practical tip would be to see how you individually feel when it comes to being cognitively present post breakfast and for those who are new to breakfast skipping aka intermittent fasting, then there may be a period of time where you feel a little off and need to adjust to a change in meal patterns before you can determine whether or not it’s for you.

In closing, breakfast can occur at any time of the day, given that by definition it is ‘breaking the fast’. How long you fast for can play a big role in how well you can adhere to a calorie restricted diet, and if eating upon waking leads to greater total calorie intake within the day, perhaps skipping breakfast might be a wise idea. As it relates to cognitive performance and breaking the fast upon waking to enhance brain remains equivocal.

author: James Anthony