Breakfast’s reputation as the most crucial meal of the day is under the microscope in this blog post. While some research suggests potential cognitive and metabolic benefits, results are mixed, and the role of breakfast extends beyond physiological health to cultural practices and workplace dynamics. There is no one-size-fits-all answer: consider your individual needs, lifestyle, and preferences when deciding on your breakfast routine.
Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?
You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You’ve also probably come across several proposed benefits:
- Better concentration later in the day.
- Improved metabolism.
- Better for weight loss.
While these views are common, the evidence supporting them is equivocal, likely because the research into breakfast consumption reflects most nutrition research in that it’s often observational and, therefore, difficult to control for confounders (other variables which can affect the outcome). These characteristics make identifying the causal role of eating breakfast versus skipping it challenging.
Does breakfast improve cognitive performance?
For example, while some research suggests that eating breakfast is not associated with any significant improvements in task performance, other research indicates that there is a generally positive association between eating breakfast and several aspects of cognition. However, it’s possible that skipping breakfast may be related to other behaviours, such as poor sleep and later waking, which may also influence cognition. For instance, sleep is rarely measured objectively and often not adjusted for in these studies. Consequently, it’s not possible to distinguish the effects of skipping breakfast on cognitive performance relative to confounders such as sleeping poorly and waking late, which may occur when breakfast is missed.
What about breakfast, metabolism and weight loss?
Also, despite often being recommended in relation to weight loss strategies, some studies indicate that skipping breakfast has no discernable effect on weight loss in free-living adults who are attempting to lose weight. Studies have also revealed that eating breakfast does not change metabolic rate relative to not eating it, either. A popular breakfast cereal advertising campaign used the results of this study to suggest that skipping breakfast makes you eat more at lunch, but they only told half the story. Overall daily energy intake was 539 kcal/d greater when people ate breakfast.
Benefits beyond physical health
Despite these mixed findings, it’s important to acknowledge that breakfast can play a role in culture that is not represented in these physiological health-focused studies. One example is eating breakfast together as a household, but breakfast may also play a role in the workplace. For instance, several technology companies provide breakfast for employees at the same time each day. This has the effect of synchronising teams’ schedules, improving subsequent collaboration and facilitating serendipitous meetings during the meal.
The evidence for or against breakfast is not clear-cut, so how can we apply these findings? In general, I’d suggest eating breakfast if you like it. If you don’t, don’t. However, given the cost: reward ratio, if people regularly skip breakfast, I sometimes suggest they try having breakfast and see if they notice a benefit.