A reader writes: Is breakfast really ‘the most important meal of the day’?

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I had an interesting email this week on the subject of skipping breakfast. Here it is:

Inconversation with my mother and on the subject of diets, she reminded me (as she always does) that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. Now my mother is a large lady who has dieted all her life. I was raised withencyclopaedic knowledge of the calorific value of everyday foodsand I have heard this “truth” since I was tiny. This time I challenged her, mostly on the basis that skipping breakfast doesn’t seem to harm me (lifelong slim with plenty of energy and good humour, juggling work and family as most mothers do).

I have always been slow to eat in the morning and am often not hungry until about 10.00/11.00am at which time I am content with a piece of fruit. Skipping breakfast doesn’t seem to slow me down or cause me to snack or eat a huge lunch although I do eat quite substantial meals in the evening (another dieter’s “no-no” as the commute means I never eat earlier than 7.00pm and often much later).

I queried whether the “best meal of the day” mantra was really scientific fact or just lazy repetition of a concept that gained popularity in the dim distant past. I know that Google will deliver pretty much any answer you are seekingbut I did find this in support of myth-busting the breakfast theory. Is it worthy of a blog piece?

She links to this piece which is based on this research which, essentially, showed that skipping breakfast did generally not lead people to compensate by eating more food later in the day. In fact, there was evidence from this study that skipping breakfast generally led to a fewer calories being consumed overall (about 400 calories less being consumed on average). The authors of this study go so far as to suggest that skipping breakfast may be a valid weight loss tactic.

While this study was based on short experiments in a select number of people, its findings do seem to challenge the notion that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’, at least for some people.

Up until relatively recently, I was generally enthusiastic about the idea of eating breakfast. I continue to believe that for some people, it is indeed important for them to eat. Some people tell me, for instance, that they ‘cannot function’ without breakfast, and the idea of, say, leaving for work without breakfast will leave them starving and lacking in energy. Fair enough.

However, in recent times I have come to recognise that some people simply do not seem to be helped by eating breakfast. Some people can hardly face food in the morning, or may simply be not very hungry. The person posing the question about breakfast in the email above seems to be just this sort of person. If she came to me and counselled my advice about her eating in the morning I’d likely suggest she keeps doing exactly what she is doing.

Could it be that eating breakfast is positively contraindicated in some people? I believe so. First of all, I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to eat when one is not hungry. Also, some people (like the person posing the question) may be very good at burning internal fuel stores (like fat) for energy in the morning, and that is not a process we necessarily want to interrupt with breakfast.

Finally, I’ve heard time and again people tell me that they are less hungry through the morning when they eat nothing compared to when they eat a breakfast. When I enquire what that breakfast might be, 9 and a half times out of 10 the answer I get is cereal and/or toast. One fundamental problem with this sort of breakfast is it will tend to cause blood sugar levels to surge, which may then cause gluts of insulin in the system. This can drive blood sugar levels to sub-optimal levels in the mid-late morning, which in turn can trigger hunger and even food cravings.

Are we really to believe that some rubbishy food first thing that induces a drive to eat more rubbishy food later in the morning somehow constitutes something healthy and the ‘ most important meal of the day’? Honestly, for some people, I believe that breakfast, and particularly this sort of breakfast, is way inferior to eating nothing at all.

It is not like me particularly to sit on the fence, but I also know only to well that our nutritional requirements can vary quite a lot. While some people do well on a decent breakfast, I have little doubt that the person posing the question above is probably not one of these people.

It’s harder for me to comment on her mother’s requirements, but there is obviously the possibility that her beliefs about the ‘necessity’ of breakfast are acutally holding her back.

I have found in life that there is often a lot to be gained from the wisdom of our parents. However, no one is infallible, and occasionally parents have something to learn from their children too. It is possible that is just one of those instances. [hr]

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