Is it really all that important?
Q:I’m a young person, on the move and conscious about my weight, so I put off eating until later in the day. Lots of us aren’t hungry until a few hours after we wake up, and we do all right. Is breakfast really that important?”
A:While broadcasting a breakfast story in 2016, one announcer conducted an informal Twitter poll of listeners that showed only about one third of listeners had had a substantial breakfast that morning. After citing a few studies and a brief history of breakfast cereal, the announcer concluded that the breakfast-is-best dogma is really based on a blend of cultural tradition and some science, but that its persistence is significantly fueled by marketing campaigns by cereal and breakfast food makers. “What works for you is what you should do,” she said.
Over the past decade, research studies have raised awareness that a hearty breakfast leads to better health. A Tel Aviv University study was done of obese women on a controlled 1,400-calorie diet distributed 700/500/200 in one group and the reverse in the other. Both groups lost weight, but the morning loaders lost two and a half times more weight than evening loaders, lost more body fat—especially tummy fat—and had healthier glucose levels.
A seven-year study of 50,000 Seventh-day Adventists strongly supports front-loading our calories early in the day and tapering off as the day progresses to a light or no supper. There was better weight management in people who ate a wholesome early breakfast, lunch ending by midafternoon, and no foods or snacks until the following day.1 One researcher interviewed by the New York Times said that we seem to be hardwired for cyclic feasting and fasting with “digestive rest” of up to 18 hours per day, and reporting that we should skip a large supper.
Skipping breakfast increases the risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes from blood clots and from bleeding. Using sophisticated imaging techniques, the PESA CNIC-Santander study (Progression of Early Subclinical Atherosclerosis) clearly demonstrated that breakfast skipping is associated with atherosclerosis development, even in as short a time frame as six years. A morning breakfast consisting of at least 20 percent of total daily calories is associated with a healthier metabolic profile and lower risk factors for heart disease. Riskwise, breakfast skipping now joins the ranks of sedentary living, cigarette smoking, and high cholesterol.2
Young people who skip breakfast have higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure measurements, are 30 to 40 percent more likely to be obese, and do poorer in objective measures of academic performance. Not coincidentally, adverse effects of breakfast skipping start in childhood and progress into adulthood.
While some say the breakfast-is-best approach seems to be switching to a “whatever suits you” one, current evidence supports the conclusion that meal timing is just as important as meal content. To be able to have a good breakfast is a blessing.
So the “old-timers” were right: make morning breakfast a robust, wholesome meal, and taper off the calories as the day progresses. This helps even our biological clocks—but that’s another story.
- H. Kahleova et al., “Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated With Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2,” Journal of Nutrition 147, no. 9 (Sept. 1, 2017): 1722-1728.
- B. Lopez-Melga et al., “Subclinical Atherosclerosis Burden by 3D Ultrasound in Mid-Life: The PESA Study,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 70, no. 3 (July 18, 2017): 301-313.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.