Breakfast is the most important meal of the day: it’s a dietary truth few would disagree with.
The NHS Choices website insists that you eat it. “Not hungry first thing in the morning? Pushed for time? Trying to lose weight?” It suggests “apple-pie porridge” or granola to “rediscover the pleasure of breakfast”.
Missing breakfast, warn experts, is a recipe for raiding the office vending machine later and piling on the pounds. So there must be a stack of research to support these assertions, right?
When Dr James A Betts, lead researcher for the Bath Breakfast Project, is asked by people how important breakfast is, he says that the jury is still out. His team’s latest research – a randomised controlled trial published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – shows that neither obese people who eat breakfast, nor those who miss it, lose weight. These are similar findings to the team’s earlier study of lean people, who were found to have consumed in excess of 500 calories more a day on average if they ate breakfast. Betts says that people don’t catch up on the calories they skipped at breakfast, but instead compensate by preserving energy – they fidget less at their desk or take the lift over the stairs, which, over the days, mounts up as burning fewer calories.
The already mythological link between missing breakfast and overeating later is further contradicted by another randomised controlled trial of 283 people that found no difference in weight gain between those who ate breakfast and those who didn’t.
The breakfast issue is part of the ongoing debate around fasting. Betts says evidence is emerging that the idea of grazing little and often is not that healthy: fasting can make people more sensitive to insulin (and so protect them from diabetes) and increase the levels of good fats in their blood (reducing the risk of heart disease). It also restricts calories and can (despite inducing lethargy) promote weight loss.
Betts says a combination of a food industry pushing breakfast goods and the media misreporting science have combined to create a mythology around the morning meal. If easing your hunger when you wake up is important to you, then eat breakfast. If you are not hungry – and especially if you are overweight – then don’t eat out of some misguided notion that breakfast is essential. As a rule of thumb, don’t eat unless you are hungry. If you are doing something where you need to perform well, or you’re an athlete, then breakfast will be useful. Children may also benefit – they may not be hungry when they wake up, but often don’t have the free choice to self-regulate what they eat during the day.