We’ve all likely asked the question: what is the most important meal of the day? Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? “Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.” Lemony Snicket’s inspirational quote in The Blank Book serves as a reminder of how important it is to start your day right. And what better way to do that than with a good, hearty breakfast — which provides you with the burst of energy you need to get through the rest of your day. Having a hearty meal in the morning can also reduce the risk of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes (T2D) and improve your memory and concentration.
In this article, we will talk about what a good breakfast can do for your health and the risks that come with skipping breakfast. Finally, we will provide you with a list of foods that will help you get a delicious and healthy breakfast.
What can a good breakfast provide?
- Nutrient acquisition: In a 2013 randomized controlled trial (RCT), children from low-income families who consumed a cereal-based breakfast had a lower body mass index (BMI) and improved uptake of essential nutrients such as vitamins D, B3, B12, calcium, iron, zinc and potassium. Similar results were observed among a Canadian cohort of children and adolescents, who had higher intake of energy, fibers and vitamins alongside reduced fat intake.
- Improved academic performance: Children and adolescents who have a good breakfast to start their day could also experience improved cognitive function. A 2013 study determined that children and adolescents who partook in school breakfast programs and had habitual breakfast meals experienced heightened academic performance, particularly in arithmetic. A 2016 meta-analysis of 11 studies determined that children and adolescents who had breakfast also experienced same-morning improvements when performing tasks requiring attention, executive function and memory.
- Healthy body shape and weight: A 2013 meta-analysis of 14 studies determined that children who included breakfast cereal consumption in their meal had reduced BMI and decreased likelihood of obesity. Children aged 9-11 who ate regular breakfast meals participated in more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and less time being sedentary, according to a 2019 multinational, cross-sectional study of 6,228 children. Having increased physical activity in turn reduces the risk of obesity and ensures a fit body shape.
- Weight and body shape: A 2008 study determined that obtaining the most calories during breakfast reduces the amount of weight gain. However, a 2019 meta-analysis of 13 randomized control trials (RCTs) determined that having breakfast did not impact weight loss among adults.
- Cognitive function: A 2016 meta-analysis of 38 studies determined that adults who consumed breakfast were better able to recall previously learned information and improve attention, motor and executive function. A 2020 study featuring 46 college students with and without ADHD showed that those who started eating a balanced breakfast shake had improvements in multiple cognitive functions.
While the data supporting the benefits of breakfast are relatively strong for populations of children and youth, the clinical results for adults remain somewhat mixed. Bear in mind that this research field is challenging, and we need to consider some study design caveats. First, confounders such as socioeconomic status and subjective measures of performance can impact the results obtained from these studies. Second, many of these studies do not specify the sets of foods that were consumed for breakfast. Instead, many studies opt to define breakfast as taking in calories after fasting for at least 8 hours through the night. Furthermore, many studies have a low quality of data in part due to the difficulties in accounting for the diverse groups of participants. Other factors such as exercising before and after a meal can also impact the benefits of eating breakfast.
What happens if you don’t eat breakfast?
Even though the benefits of eating breakfast have proven difficult to study, clinically, knowing what happens when you don’t eat breakfast can also highlight the importance of this meal. Here are some of the significant health risks associated with skipping breakfast.
- Reduced nutritional uptake: A 2018 study on 8,590 children determined that children who skipped breakfast had lower nutritional intake and poorer diet quality that was difficult to make up through subsequent meals. The reduced nutrient uptake may contribute to children feeling hungrier and consuming more snacks before lunch, impacting their metabolic health depending on the snacks eaten.
- Obesity: Among adults, skipping breakfast increases the risk of being overweight or obese, according to a 2019 meta-analysis of 45 observational studies. Similar results were obtained from a Japanese cohort where children who skipped breakfast with their parents had an increased risk of childhood obesity.
- Cardiovascular disease and health: A 2011 prospective cohort study featuring 6,550 middle-aged and elderly adults suggested that skipping breakfast was associated with a significant increase in mortality by cardiovascular disease after adjusting for confounding variables. A 2010 study determined that schoolboys who never ate breakfast were more likely to have lower physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness compared with those who ate breakfast regularly.
Is skipping breakfast ever ok?
Even with the possible increased risks, there are still benefits for not eating breakfast in certain situations.
- Most notably, intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating reduces caloric intake and can protect against metabolic disturbances like glucose intolerance.
- Furthermore, there may be benefits to exercising before breakfast. Increased fat burning and weight loss were observed among obese men when they ate breakfast after working out.
- Interestingly, a 2015 study determined that fat oxidation rates were increased only when exercise was done before breakfast and not for any other meal.
However, just as in the case of studying the benefits of eating breakfast, similar confounding variables affect the quality of studies investigating the risks of not eating breakfast. In many of such studies, the “control groups” ate diverse kinds of breakfasts, so it’s no wonder that some of the benefits and risks of not having such varying breakfast configurations become obfuscated.
What are some ways to have a good breakfast?
While some of the research on the benefits of breakfast (and the risks of not having a morning meal) remain inconclusive, most major medical organizations — such as Cleveland Clinic, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Medicine and countless others — continue to lean on the side of the benefits. However, identifying the healthiest foods to eat at the start of your day is what’s crucial. As a UC Davis Health blog notes, “breakfasts high in refined sugars and carbohydrates can do more damage than good.” By contrast, a healthy breakfast begins with a diverse selection of foods from multiple food groups to get the most complete set of nutrients to jumpstart your day.
- Yogurt: A probiotic food source, yogurt provides bacteria that will help your gut stay healthy. Yogurt also provides a rich source of protein, calcium and potassium. Although more data is needed, a 2019 review concluded that among the dairy-based foods, eating yogurt was most strongly associated with reduced T2D risk.
- Fruits: There are so many fruits to choose from, each of which will give you a rich source of multiple essential nutrients at varying levels. Fruits provide vitamin C, potassium, calcium and vitamin D. They also provide an excellent source of antioxidants that protect your body against diseases related to oxidative stress, such as cancer. Thirdly, fruits are a good source of fiber, which is so important (and underconsumed in the Western diet) for overall longevity: see our report, Best High-Fiber Breakfast Foods. If you want to have a healthy mix of as many fruits as possible, consider preparing a fresh fruit bowl for breakfast.
- Whole-wheat bread: Unlike white bread, whole wheat bread is made from flour derived from the entire wheat kernel. The wheat kernel is composed of the germ, endosperm and the bran. While only the endosperm is used to make white bread, the bran and germ layers provide the bulk of nutrients that whole grains possess. The bran layer provides phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anticancer properties, while the seed core contains healthy fats, vitamins, and other antioxidants. The fiber content of whole wheat breads is another big benefit. If you require gluten-free options, there are many other breads that provide similar nutrients without the gluten; great examples include sourdough, rye bread, and sprouted grain bread.
While we have highlighted the above three food types, consider, too, the healthy benefits of adding vegetables (e.g., a spinach omelette), lean proteins (e.g., smoked salmon) and healthy fats (nuts or avocado toast) to your breakfast options. Some of these benefits include lower Glycemic Index (GI) scores, high fiber content and other benefits that reduce the risk of metabolic diseases, such as T2D.
In addition, the following international breakfast options are worth considering:
- Kimchi scrambled eggs: Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, most notably napa cabbage and Korean radish. The kimchi microbiome includes Lactobacillus species and other lactic-acid fermenting bacteria. Kimchi therefore provides an excellent source of probiotics to keep your gut healthy. Kimchi consumption also provides anti-inflammatory properties that protect against aging and reduce the risk of heart disease. With scrambled eggs providing a rich source of protein, this dish is an excellent way to get your fill for breakfast.
- Kefir milk: While you’re at it, why not try some kefir milk? Kefir is a type of fermented milk prepared from kefir grains. Kefir grains can be found throughout the Caucasus region and the Balkans. Ingesting kefir milk can impact the gut microbiome, providing benefits for the gut-brain axis in mouse models. Here is a kefir milk recipe to get you started on your own kefir milk culture.
- Kinche: This Ethiopian delicacy is a porridge prepared from a mix of cracked wheat, Ethiopian oats and barley. This breakfast option provides an excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and other essential nutrients such as magnesium, potassium and vitamin A. Here is a kinche recipe to try.
So, is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Starting your day with a good breakfast remains important for most people of all ages. Having a healthy breakfast maximizes your cognitive function, reduces the risk of metabolic and other diseases, and helps you keep a fit body shape. While the specific benefits of having a good breakfast require more robust experimental studies, the overall body of existing research points to important health benefits from a breakfast that maximizes nutrient intake and minimizes the ingestion of sugars and saturated fats. With so many healthy breakfast options, take the opportunity to begin integrating a diverse diet that gets you supercharged for the day ahead.