Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? We take a look at the science
As science catches up with homespun wisdom, we are finding that breakfast genuinely is the most important meal of the day and exactly what you need to eat to make the most of it.
What does breakfast look like in your house? Is it a rushed preliminary to getting out the door, or is it a time for fuelling up for the day ahead? Conventional wisdom holds that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but is it really? It is worth taking a moment to think about what your best breakfast might look like.
A brief history of breakfast
You might think that breakfast at 7am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner at 6 or 7pm is the pattern in which human beings have consumed their food forever. It is always psychologically tempting to assume that the ways things are now is the way they have always been and always will be. It’s nonsense of course.
It’s difficult to imagine our hunter-gatherer forebears, arising from a fitful sleep in the foetal position on a slightly raised nest of straw during which they had been the main course for all sorts of gnats and bitey things, tucking into a fry-up or even a bowl of nutty wholegrain goodness before commencing the work day with a quick sprint with the local apex predator at their heels. But you don’t have to go back thousands of years to find different breakfast behaviour from what we have today. In reality, breakfast as we know it is a very recent historical phenomenon.
The Romans were indifferent to breakfast and did not really eat it, usually consuming only one meal a day around noon. Fast forward a millennium or so, and in Europe during the Middle Ages (500–1500 CE) monastic life had a significant influence on when people ate. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It’s thought the word “breakfast” entered the English language during this time and literally meant “break the night’s fast”. The time for dinner gradually crept later in the day, but even in the 1600s the English diarist Samuel Pepys was recording that he ate a huge dinner, complete with heavy drinking of alcohol, at around midday.
It was only late in the 17th century that all social classes started eating breakfast. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich. Then came the Industrial Revolution which formalised work hours, so by the mid-19th century breakfast was a standard part of the day as labourers needed an early meal to sustain them at work.
Then everything changed again at the start of the 20th century due to an oversight by an American (it is frightening to consider how much of modern life has been generated by mistakes made in the United States). One evening, John Harvey Kellogg lazily left some boiled corn that he intended for breakfast out and uncovered overnight, so that it went stale. Obviously a man who did not like wasting food, Kellogg passed the corn through some rollers and baked it, creating the world’s first cornflake. The rest is breakfast history, and for 100 years or so people have been waking to “cereal” and a lighter breakfast.
From what the research tells us though, that light breakfast, or even worse a “skipped” breakfast, is not good for you.
While the timing of the main meal has incrementally moved later in the day, one thing that has remained true is that something has to be eaten to break the fast after sleep. For the last 200 years, in an industrialised world, 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.
Research has shown that people who skip breakfast have an increased overall hunger (no surprise), but they also find high-kilojoule food much more appealing than people who do have breakfast by the time mid-morning rolls around, and they also eat much more at lunchtime. Brain scans show that people who do not have breakfast have 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 after a skipped breakfast, but as a source of pleasure, and that leads to poor food choices.
In the end, that means that skipping breakfast actually makes you more likely to eat high-kilojoule, fat-promoting foods throughout the rest of the day, and that isn’t good for your waistline or your health.
The diabetes breakfast
Diabetes is frequently talked about these days because it is a burgeoning health problem around the world. Research has shown that people who eat breakfast regularly tend to have a lower body mass index than those who skip it, and they also tend to have better blood glucose control.
It has been shown, for example, that people who have a big breakfast will experience greater reductions in blood pressure and HbA1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar) than people who eat a small breakfast. What is happening here is that a big breakfast is probably promoting release of hormones like ghrelin that lead to feeling satiated. The end result is better food choices through the day and better blood glucose control.
A hearty breakfast
“Hearty” meals are synonymous with good eating, and there might be something to the terminology, because a good breakfast is also good for your heart. For example, research from Harvard involving almost 27,000 males aged between 45 and 82 years found that men who skipped breakfast had a 27 per cent increase in risk of heart attack or death from heart attack when compared to men who ate breakfast. The men who skipped breakfast tended to be younger, single, smokers, full-time workers, non-exercisers, who drank more alcohol. Additionally, when the researchers took the effects of high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol and diabetes out of their calculations the link between breakfast skipping and heart disease became insignificant. This suggests that skipping breakfast contributes to these risk factors for heart disease, and that having a big breakfast is indeed a good thing for your heart.
The message is clear: you need to eat breakfast — but how big do you need to go when it comes to the food that starts your day?
The research on the topic tends to divide people’s breakfast habits into roughly three groups. There are those people who consume less than 5 per cent of their daily kilojoules at breakfast; this is the cup of coffee and maybe a glass of orange juice crowd, and they are classed as people who “skip” breakfast. At the other end of the scale are people who eat more than 20 per cent of their daily kilojoules at breakfast; these people are those who typically have their muesli, eggs, some toast and, probably these days, some form of abused avocado. In between these two groups are people who eat 5 to 20 per cent of their daily kilojoules at breakfast.
Generally, people who have more than 20 per cent of their daily kilojoules at breakfast show less fatty build up in arteries. By contrast, the people who skip breakfast show risk factors for heart disease including a bigger waist circumference, higher body mass index, higher blood pressure, higher levels of blood fat and higher fasting glucose levels.
It is possible that skipping breakfast might just be serving as a marker for a generally unhealthy lifestyle. However, even if this is the case, skipping breakfast does set up hormonal imbalances and disrupts circadian rhythms in such a way that leads to unhealthy eating patterns. If the average adults requires around 8700 kilojoules a day, that means you are looking at around 1750 kilojoules or more for your breakfast.
It still begs the question though as to what are the constituents of a healthy breakfast.
Before we get into what might be good to be eating for breakfast, and before global homogenisation swallows us, let’s pause and consider what different cultures around the world enjoy eating for the meal that starts the day. This might give us some ideas on what we can, or definitely should not, eat at breakfast time. Remember, these are not recommended breakfasts, just a look at how other cultures do it.
The United States is a big place, and you will get different meals from state to state and county to county. In places you might find that a green barley grass shot with an espresso chaser is breakfast. That’s hardly nourishing, but it is better than the other end of the American culinary spectrum, where you find yourself greeted in the morning by a pancake stack topped with bacon and maple syrup. You do need to eat a substantial breakfast but, in so many ways, America finds ways to remind us that bigger is not always better.
In Brazil the word for breakfast is café da manhã, which translates as “morning coffee”. Brazilian coffees tend to be small and strong. For breakfast, coffee is accompanied by some fruit such as guava, papaya, mango, pineapple and passion fruit.
Steaming bowls of congee rice porridge are a traditional Chinese breakfast. Wonton dumplings simmered in a savoury broth are also breakfast favourites.
The Finns often like a cultured milk drink called viili for breakfast. They frequently combine viili with lingonberry jam or cloudberry jam. A Finnish breakfast favourite is also cinnamon rolls known as korvapuusti. In addition, the Finns like open sandwiches for breakfast, often featuring gravlax (raw salmon cured in salt, sugar and dill) or hard cheeses.
For the French, breakfast is often one of their more minimalist meals. Typically they enjoy a breakfast espresso with some bread, toast with jam or a croissant. A bit more elaborate breakfast might include sweet pastries such as pain aux raisins or pain au chocolat.
The traditional German breakfast features strong cheeses, dark pumpernickel bread and sliced salamis. A lighter spread might include a muesli or pretzels.
Similar to the United States, Indian breakfasts vary from region to region, although chai tea (sweet and infused with herbs and spices) is popular throughout the country. In the south of India, steamed rice cakes might be served with a lentil broth and chutney. In the north, roti bread is favoured with a vegetable curry. A Mumbai favourite is spiced scrambled eggs.
Japanese breakfasts traditionally feature a variety of small dishes including rice and hot miso soup. Pickled vegetables are popular, along with rolled omelettes. Tea, green or black, is preferred to coffee.
Mexican breakfasts are big and chunky. They feature tortillas, eggs, cheese, beans, corn, potato hash and spicy sauces.
Moroccan breakfast options tend to be either sweet or spiced. Shakshuka is a popular dish that features poached eggs in a tomato sauce served with flatbread. Other typical Moroccan breakfast foods include dried fruit, nuts and yoghurt.
Filmjölk is a fermented milk product enjoyed at Swedish breakfast tables. It is often served with fresh jams, and smoked or cured fish are also popular.
Phở has been exported to the world as a lunch or dinner, but in Vietnam it is often consumed as breakfast. Pho is a broth made from rice noodles, herbs and usually either chicken or beef.
What to eat
Since it is so important that you do eat breakfast, it is really important to choose your breakfast foods carefully. The real key at breakfast is quality protein.
You want to be having around 35g of protein at breakfast and you want it to be high-quality like eggs, salmon, fish in general or very lean meat. High-protein breakfasts increase feelings of fullness and satiety as well as reducing the activity in parts of the brain involved in food cravings. The effect is not short-term either, but lasts all day. Those who have high-protein breakfasts tend to do less snacking in the evening on high-fat or high-sugar foods.
If you are having grains, avoid highly processed ones and choose whole grains, as they provide fibre that will slow gastric emptying and give you more sustained energy release throughout the day. If you want fruit, choose fresh fruit that is in season, but you need more than just fruit to start your day.
In all, starting your day with high-protein (low-fat) foods helps prevent overeating and poor-quality food snacking. Good-quality lean protein sources, whole grains and fresh fruits will give you energy that will sustain you until lunchtime.
Setting the pattern
Breakfast sets the culinary pattern for your day. It does this on a purely physical level but also on a psychological level. There is no shortage of research out there showing that if you are distracted when you eat then you tend eat more than you should and may also eat the wrong sort of foods. So what do you do when you have breakfast? Do you check your social media, read, listen to the radio or watch something? If you do then you are probably distracted and not as mindful of what you are eating as you should be.
You don’t have to meditate to enter a state of mindfulness while you are having breakfast. You just need to observe the nature of what you are doing. Appreciate the appearance of your food, inhale the aromas of your meal (literally wake up and smell the coffee), experience the texture of the food in your mouth and of course acknowledge the taste it has. Be with your food because it’s about to part of you.
At the same time, express some gratitude for your breakfast, just in thought. Acknowledge the privilege of being able to eat a nourishing, pleasurable meal. Thank the growers, transporters and retailers who allowed the food to be got to you.
Your breakfast will be better for you if you consume it mindfully. Start your day with engagement and gratitude and you set the pattern for a flourishing day. Look after your breakfast, and your breakfast will look after you.
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