When I was younger and more seriously into sports, the first thing I would think about when I woke up was breakfast.
I would stumble into the kitchen and half-asleep put some cereal into a bowl, poured milk over it, and ate it, vaguely gazing at the table, not knowing yet where I was.
I was also told I needed to eat breakfast because it was the most important meal of the day. Luckily enough, I didn’t need to disobey because I liked it and needed it.
But what about the desobedient ones, kids or adults, who don’t feel the need to eat breakfast? Or at least eat it the first thing in the morning?
Epidemiological (observational) research shows the connection between obesity, diet quality, and chronic disease development risk, and skipping breakfast. You assume right – skipping breakfast is connected to all of the above.
The key word here is connected.
Correlation does not imply causation
While observational research can establish a connection, it cannot establish the cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, the fact that two events are connected does not mean one causes the other.
When the ice cream sales rise, the number of people with sunburn rises as well. Does that mean ice cream causes sunburn?
The answer is no, in case you were wondering.
Also, observational research can be influenced by many confouding variables, i.e. factors beyond control..
For example, research associates consuming wine with better health. Those who drink wine (generally those of better social and economic status) generally take better care of their health, have a more balanced diet, exercise more, and they do it more regularly. Does wine enhance health or do healthy diet and physical activity do so?
Probably the latter.
The importance of quality research and correct conclusions
On the other hand, a quality randomized controlled trial, which could lead to establishing causation, does not determine the causal relation between skipping breakfast and obesity nor negative influence on health.
A great majority of published research in nutrition science is observational. Due to the quest for sensationalism the media does not report the research as it should, adding causality where there is none. Because it is less interesting and possibly even tiring to read…
Research points to the connection between total fat quantity in the diet and higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
„Fat causes heart attacks!“.
This type of misinterpretation is one of the main causes why we see so much supposed contradictions in nutrition science.
The media aren’t the only problem, of course. Scientists are also just humans, they have their own motivations and biases.
We all know that if a scientist is paid by the food industry, there’s a greater chance his or her research will be in accord with the industry’s interests. Which doesn’t mean you should instantly steer clear of research financed by the industry, but that’s a topic for another article.
But financial interests aren’t the only ones to cause bias. Sometimes personal ones are even stronger.
Our mind protects us from contradictory beliefs, often meddling with new information to make it easier to place into existing mental drawers. Believing that breakfast is a healthy habit, and trusting it’s the correct one, will enhance the probability that the scientist, consciously or unconsciously, will search for data which confirm the benefits of it and neglect or „adjust“ the ones that don’t.
When they do this in good faith, this phenomenon has been recorded in literature as white hat bias.
Breakfast shouldn’t be forced (too much)
There are people who aren’t too happy with the idea of food in the morning. If you’re one of those people, but think you should eat breakfast because you’re bombarded with the cliché of it being the most important meal of the day, this message will cause you stress, because you’re not doing something you should be.
Other than stress, a potential consequence could be a less healthy diet. You might get discouraged from sticking to healthy habits since you failed the first daily dietary assignment. „All or nothing“ approach is completely human, and almost never desirable.
If you manage to force yourself to do it, I believe that the stress of the habit could cause more damage than benefit. Willpower is like a muscle and can get fatigued, even exhausted, so it’s better to use it to do things that have proven benefits. Like preparing your own meals instead of going to fast food restaurant.
If you decide to include breakfast as part of your daily routine, bear in mind you’ll need to decrease the calorie intake during the rest of the day. If not, you’ll create a calorie surplus which will result in fat accumulation.
Don’t forget, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of the meal it was in.
Should I eat breakfast?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against breakfast. Quite the opposite. I recommend it to most of my clients. I myself have been eating it almost without exception my entire life.
But I am against dietary dogmas and unfounded limitations.
If you wake up hungry, have breakfast.
If you don’t wake up hungry, delay breakfast for an hour or two.
If after those 2-3 hours you’re still not hungry, skip breakfast.
If you’re trying to save up a few calories, skipping the breakfast might just do it.
However, if you’re feeling weak and without energy, experiment with including breakfast in your daily routine. Disclaimer: if you sleep for five hours a night, lack of energy is most likely not due to skipping breakfast.
If you’re diabetic or have other blood sugar regulation issues, you should regularly schedule your meals, and shouldn’t skip breakfast.
I would definitely recommend breakfast to serious athletes and those who are in “shredding” phase, trying to lose fat while retaining muscle mass.
Also, children are somewhat more sensitive to lack of food through prolonged periods of time, which skipping breakfast would cause, and this can lead to impaired cognitive performance, especially in academic enviroment. So do try to develop the habit of breakfast with your kids.
Breakfast is not healthy in and of itself. The quality of it depends on what you’re consuming. Since the general population usually has low fiber intake, I would recommend that the meal is based on fiber, including whole-wheat grains. Put some milk or yoghurt in there because there’s less probability you’ll consume dairy products with lunch or dinner. For variety and taste, add other ingredients, minding the quantity. Sweet or salty, doesn’t matter, as long as it’s diverse.
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. It’s no less or more important than lunch or dinner. It’s not mandatory and it has no magical power. Don’t be afraid to skip it if it really doesn’t suit you.