The heading of this article is somewhat misleading if I’m honest, at least by definition anyway. By definition, breakfast is simply the first meal of the day that ‘breaks the fast’ and it is independent of the time it is consumed. So while we can’t actually avoid eating breakfast by definition, let’s discuss whether or not the timing of breakfast is as important as social media would have us believe.
Breakfast – The first meal of the day
So what should it include, when should we consume it and how important is it really?
Let’s deal with its perceived importance first…Yes… I used the word perceived for a reason.
It is still the current standard today to refer to breakfast as the most important meal of the day, however, it is quite rare to see such a claim being qualified as to why this is the case with something other than just an opinion.
Often the argument is that breakfast ‘stimulates’ or ‘kicks’ your metabolism into gear, while others claim the opposite and claim the body goes into starvation mode and that not eating breakfast results in a slowing of the metabolism and an increased risk of storing body fat. Bollocks...
Similarly, another physical reason to eat breakfast, some claim that breakfast helps ‘replenish’ blood glucose levels with carbohydrates to support energy production throughout the day after spending 8 hours asleep without food.
Focusing on these physical reasons as to why breakfast is so important (or is it) and putting the psychological ones aside for just a second, the reality is that none of these 3 claims are indeed true.
Especially not within the context of an entire day's consumption of food…
But before I go further it’s probably important to qualify what context this argument about breakfast is being referred to in as well.
The Claim - Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it ‘sets you up for the day.’
So the question is… does breakfast really ‘set you up for success’? Well, the answer as with most nutritional questions is, it depends.
On one hand, eating a breakfast meal that is vitamin and nutrient dense, contains a good quality protein source, is high in fibre and is controlled in calories, is a smart way to start the day as it will keep your energy levels stabilised, will ward off hunger and it helps set a positive start to the day.
On the other hand, eating a breakfast of highly refined carbohydrate-based foods such as cereal or toast, which is minimal in nutrient quality and density and lacks an adequate serve of protein, will more than likely have you feeling great for all of 30 minutes and then your energy levels will slump, you’ll become tired and you may even get hungrier again faster than what you would if you ate nothing at all.
From a body composition standpoint, however, neither of these types of breakfast makes much of a difference to how you look when they are consumed within a calorie and macronutrient (protein, carbs, fats) controlled diet, as the primary (90% of the argument) determinant for how you look is the total calories you consume and the ratio of macronutrients you eat within that calorie target, not the timing.
You can see why this get’s a little confusing… let me try and make it simpler.
Does breakfast ‘kick start’ your metabolism?
No… your metabolism is not a stagnant thing and it will rise and fall throughout the day depending on exercise, calorie intake, temperature, macronutrient intake and many other factors. Despite this, come the end of the day or the end of the week, your metabolic rate is primarily controlled and regulated by your age, gender, height, activity levels and total calorie consumption… it is NOT controlled by nutrient timing or meal frequency.
Do you need breakfast to ‘replenish’ blood sugar levels?
No… your body will regulate your blood sugar levels based upon the energy demand it is under and can efficiently break down stored carbohydrates in the muscle, known as glycogen, to provide sugar to the blood for energy when it is needed. The carbohydrates you consumed the day before, which are now stored as glycogen, are easily and efficiently broken down upon waking without any effort whatsoever.
If I don’t eat breakfast will my body go into starvation mode and store fat?
No… Now I’m not sure where the thought that your body freaks out the moment you don’t feed it when you wake up came from but it is inherently over simplified and undeniably false. Like your metabolism, your body fluctuates in its ‘performance’ on a daily basis, responding to signals it receives from a constant feedback loop. In doing so, it also becomes quite habitual in its response to feeding and the recognition of food intake is monitored and adapted to on a finite control system.
Think about this… have you ever eaten on the clock every 3 hours consistently and then missed a meal, how hungry do you get when that 3-hour mark arrives and you aren’t eating?
Similarly, have you ever got into the habit of not eating breakfast and realised you never really get hungry when you wake up? Perhaps you’ve done both of these things before?
Did you genuinely notice any difference in how you looked when you ate breakfast, versus when you didn’t?
These are two prime examples of the regulatory response of the body to your eating patterns and its inherent need to keep you functioning appropriately.
If you didn’t eat in the morning and your body sent out hunger hormones to make you hungry, it wouldn’t make very good evolutionary sense, would it?
Similarly, if you wanted to eat upon waking every morning and your body blunted the hunger response, isn’t that counter intuitive?
The point I’m making here is that your body is an adaptive organism that responds to a stimulus. When it comes to maintaining a healthy metabolism, it is less about the timing of a meal and more about the total caloric and macronutrient intake of the day, alongside how old you are, how much muscle you have, what sex you are and how active you are, that are the primary stimulus's it responds to and not the minor meal timing ones.
Is breakfast potentially a great way to start the day psychologically, absolutely. But what that breakfast should include is perhaps for another day.
But... is ‘breakfast’ (as in the morning meal) a necessity to be healthy, absolutely not.
In fact, there are even counter arguments now suggesting that a longer fast may even increase a whole multitude of health factors that a normal breakfast would otherwise impair. Again, perhaps for another time…
Where does that leave us?
It leaves us with the freedom of choice to eat in a manner that suits the lifestyle of the individual…
If you want to eat breakfast, go for it, but if you don’t, that is fine too.
Worry less about the timing of food and more about the quality and the quantity first, before nit picking on the minor stuff later as these will have little bearing on how you look but instead may impact how you feel.
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day, all of your meals are as equally important as the next.
Now, who wants a croissant?