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Breakfast and your brain

19 November 2012

The history of mealtimes has been something of a moveable feast. The way we eat now is not the pattern in which people have consumed their food over the centuries. This is no mere matter of etiquette because the timing and nature of your food can have a significant impact on your health and your weight. As an illustration of this, a new study has shown that not having breakfast can program your brain to seek out more kilojoule (calorie) dense foods and hence make you put on weight.

You might think that breakfast at 7am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6-7pm is the pattern in which human beings have consumed their food forever. It is always psychologically tempting to assume that the major platforms and habits of your life are immutable and have been that way for humanity forever. In the scope of history though, even cultural norms are mere phantasms that shape-shift with generations. Eating patterns are no different.

Of course our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate very differently to the way in which we do, but even in recent centuries eating has been a different matter. In Europe during the medieval era, breakfast was eaten early and dinner, the main meal of the day, was eaten around 10am. The time for dinner gradually crept up to later in the day but even in the 1600s the English diarist Samuel Pepys was recording the he ate a huge dinner, complete with heavy drinking of alcohol, at around midday.

While the timing of the main meal has incrementally moved later in the day, one thing that has remained true is that something has always had to be eaten to break the fast after sleep. What is eaten and exactly when it is eaten has varied over time and depending on social class, but some form of breakfast has usually been consumed. Until now. In a hectic, weight-obsessed world people often skip breakfast. This might be just due to lack of time but you may also skip breakfast thinking the absence of early morning kilojoules will help you to lose weight. Unfortunately, it is likely to do exactly the opposite.

In a new study researchers took brain scans of participants who took part. The subjects either ate a large breakfast or arrived at the test centre and went without a breakfast. While having brain scans, the subjects were asked to rate the appeal of pictures of high-kilojoule and low-kilojoule foods. After the scans the participants were offered a smorgasbord lunch and the researchers watched to see how much they ate.

The results showed that people who skipped breakfast had an increased overall hunger (no surprise), but they also found high-kilojoule food much more appealing than people who did have breakfast and ate much more at lunch time. The brain scans showed that people who did not have breakfast had a lot more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in detecting pleasantness and reward. This brain activity indicates that food is not being viewed as a functional thing but as a source of pleasure.

So all in all, skipping breakfast actually makes you more likely to eat high-kilojoule, fat-promoting foods. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it determines what you will eat for the rest of it.