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Updated 11 July 2016

Do we really need to eat breakfast?

We were all taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but now researchers are asking if we might not be better off skipping breakfast altogether.

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Conventional wisdom has it that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that one should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a beggar.

This idea has become entrenched in especially the Anglophone world and explains why the English and Americans have sausages, eggs, bacon and toast/pancakes/crumpets for breakfast – while in France you don't get much more than a croissant and a cup of strong coffee.

The brain runs on glucose

The rationale behind a big breakfast is that we spent the previous eight to 12 hours fasting, and that the body needs to replenish its glucose levels in order to function properly.

The brain runs on glucose, which is also the main energy source for the body. It is said that if you skip breakfast your attention span will be shorter, your reactions will be slower and your productivity will suffer.

In the past breakfast was also widely touted as the way to jumpstart your metabolism.

According to the big breakfast model, your lunch should be smaller in order to sustain your energy levels – but not too heavy, otherwise you might be tempted to fall asleep, which is, again, bad for productivity.

Read: Show us your lunch

And, finally, the reason for a small evening meal is that it prevents you from turning unused energy into fat and helps you to avoid sleep disturbances caused by an over-full stomach.

In theory this model makes a lot of sense as it is only logical that you need a lot of energy in the morning and less at the end of the day when you’re at home relaxing in front of the TV, posting on Facebook or reading a book.  

We're not all the same

We’re not all the same and, predictably, not everyone agrees with this “one size fits all’ model.

In a 2014 article well-known American author, radio host and complementary medicine specialist Dr Ronald Hoffman says that some of his patients report that a good breakfast “anchors” them for the day and prevents them from eating indiscriminately during the course of the day. Others, however, insist that if they eat breakfast it “kindles” their appetites and stimulates food cravings. These people maintain that they’re fine – until they start eating.

Over the last year or two the concept of intermittent fasting has become increasingly popular and the argument here is that the longer we go without eating, the better it is for us. It also gives the digestion a rest and induces ketosis, which is a metabolic state where the body uses its fat stores for energy.

Read: Is intermittent fasting the best diet ever?

Intermittent fasting is reported to combat weight gain, stabilise moods and reduce insulin resistance.

It is also reasonably certain that our hunter-gatherer forefathers during the Paleolithic didn’t have the luxury of three meals a day. Life was a struggle for survival and people often had to go for long periods without food if plant foods were unavailable and the hunt was unsuccessful.  

'No discernible effect'     

A 2014 randomised controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tested how effective weight loss was in adults who either ate or skipped breakfast.

The somewhat unexpected conclusion of the study was that eating or skipping breakfast made no difference to the participants' weight at all.

Do we need breakfast at all?

If breakfast is not as essential to our well-being as we thought, might it not be better for us to skip breakfast altogether?

In an article published in the Washington Post, Peter Whorisky examines evidence that contradicts the widely accepted notion that skipping breakfast can make you fat.

He writes that the idea that skipping breakfast makes people fat is not based on scientific fact and may be entirely unfounded, as illustrated by a New York study:

For four weeks one group of subjects got oatmeal for breakfast, the second frosted corn flakes and the third got nothing at all – and the only group to lose weight was the group that had no breakfast at all. 

The study was conducted at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St Luke's Hospital. The summary of the study was that skipping breakfast for four weeks led to a reduction in body weight.

No clear evidence of weight gain

In his article, Whorisky also mentions research done by David Allison of the University of Alabama-Birmingham who recently compiled a list of randomised controlled trials (published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), investigating links between breakfast and obesity.

Allison found five, of which none offered clear evidence that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain. It appeared that skipping breakfast made no difference. A sixth study, published in Obesity, also could not demonstrate any differences in weight loss between subjects who ate breakfast and those who didn't. 

Allison attributes the current widespread adoption of the breakfast hypothesis at least in part on researchers who read too much into observational studies, and wrongly ignore the stronger evidence from the randomised controlled trials.

Conclusion

Things aren’t always what they seem, and like in the case of the French paradox – where the French have less heart disease than the British or Americans despite their high-fat diet – a breakfast consisting of a dry croissant and a cup of coffee might actually be better for you.

Or it might be best for us not to eat breakfast at all . . .  

Read more:

12 interesting breakfast facts

Cereal a healthy breakfast option

Breakfast – the most frequently missed meal  

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

 
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