Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day? What the Science Says
Find out if your mother really was always right.
You’ve probably been chided at least once in your life for skipping breakfast. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day—right? Actually, the truth is a bit more complicated.
No doubt you’ve heard countless studies about the importance of a morning meal. Research has found breakfast-eaters have fewer cravings, better self-control, and higher productivity. A study in the journal Obesity found that overweight and obese women who had a 700-calorie breakfast and had a light, 200-calorie dinner lost more weight than those who did the opposite. This indicates a morning meal might be most important. But not every study links breakfast with a slimmer waist. One report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for instance, didn’t find any difference in weight loss attempts between overweight and obese subjects who were told either to skip or eat breakfast.
In reality, the importance of breakfast varies from person to person, says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “The research is really mixed on breakfast with weight control,” she says. “Some people who skip breakfast have a much bigger appetite later in the day and tend to overeat. Other people find their appetite is no different later on.”
One problem could be that breakfast talk tends to be a yes-or-no question rather than a discussion of what a healthy morning meal looks like. A balanced breakfast contains a mix of protein, fat, and carbs instead, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But most American breakfast staples—think cereal, bagels, and muffins—are largely refined carbs, which give you a quick boost of energy but a crash later on. “Not only do you have fluctuating energy levels during the day, but you’ll also be hungry again soon after,” says Rumsey. “When you have a balanced breakfast, you’re giving yourself a boost of energy so your blood sugar goes up a bit, but the protein and fat help stabilize that energy.”
When you aren’t starving by lunchtime, you’re more likely to pick healthy foods and avoid overeating in the afternoon. On the other hand, a rumbling belly could kill your self-control, says Rumsey. Even if you aren’t hungry first thing in the morning, she recommends getting something in your stomach before lunch so you aren’t ravenous for your first meal. “It doesn’t have to be right when you wake up, but eating within a couple of hours sets the tone for the day,” she says. Sip a smoothie instead of biting into solid food, or pack a banana with two tablespoons of peanut butter. Starting your day with a balanced meal could also frame your whole day for diet success. “There’s a lot of power there to make healthy choices that carry you to make healthy choices the rest of the day,” says Armul.
But if you’re looking for a quick fix to rev up your metabolism, breakfast might not be the answer. “Some studies say it does boost metabolism, but other strong studies say it doesn’t—at least not significantly,” says Armul. “Sometimes we think we have more control over speeding up our metabolisms than we really do.” In reality, exercise is the only thing that’s been consistently shown to boost metabolism, she says.
For a breakfast that keeps its promise to keep you full, focus on adding protein. “Protein is the biggest one and where the research is strongest in how it can lead to satiety, fullness, and even eating less,” says Armul. Hard-boiled eggs, nuts, Greek yogurt, and nut butter are all easy, filling options. Throw in fiber-rich fruits and veggies (skins on, please!), and you’re good to go.
But the morning rush can make it hard to throw together a healthy, balanced breakfast. People often put effort into packing healthy lunches and cooking nutritious dinners, without giving much thought to a healthy breakfast. Luckily, a morning meal is also the easiest to plan. “It doesn’t have to be sitting down to this big meal,” says Rumsey. She recommends throwing some fruit and nuts in baggies at night, then grabbing them with a yogurt as you head out the door.
The bottom line is, if you’re always starving and making unhealthy choices at lunch, you might want to rethink your breakfast habits—either making it bigger, better, or simply existent. But if you just have a small appetite and can’t stomach anything before (a reasonable-sized) lunch, don’t sweat it. “You can usually kind of sense if you’re the type of person who has an appetite change from eating breakfast,” says Armul.