When I was a kid, cereal was the go-to breakfast in our house followed closely by toast. In case of emergency, a couple of Rich Tea biscuits would suffice. While this might not seem like the most nutritious of choices, the alternative, of having nothing, was unthinkable. A morning without breakfast was a fearful proposition, only allowed in times of high fever or gastroenteritis. No breakfast meant no energy, a complete lack of ability to think rationally, and a sloth-like metabolism. P.E. and my 6 times table would be a write-off, and my Mum wasn’t having that on her watch.
That was the 80’s, and we’ve come a long way since then. Intermittent fasting is pretty mainstream. It appears on TV and is written about in endless magazines and diet books. Regardless of the modern day hype, people still talk about not being able to concentrate, having low energy, or feeling light-headed or nauseous when they miss their morning food fix. Perhaps you’ve even tried skipping breakfast yourself, got to 10 am and panic eaten a Cadbury’s Whisper and half a packet of Werther’s Originals. What if the panic need not exist?
Ok, I’m going to get right to the point. Breakfast isn’t, and never has been, the most important meal of the day. In the grand scheme of things, when you eat is almost completely insignificant compared to what you eat and how much. Why then, is it such an ingrained belief in so many people?
The importance of breakfast stems from a mess of repeated dogma, biased industry-funded research, and marketing. Make no mistake, breakfast is big business, and the reason you think you need it is that you’ve been told over and over again that you do. It makes sense to me that cereal companies will try to make you believe that a truck full of carbs first thing in the morning is a great idea.
When you hear something repeated often enough it’s hard not to let it stick. To make matters worse, it is true that people who skip breakfast tend to be less healthy than people who eat it. While this can be spun into a marketing message that you, therefore, must eat 500 kcal of cereal a day or your arteries will explode, the truth is that the kind of people who randomly skip meals are simply less health seeking than those who have more of a routine. Skipping breakfast on a whim is not the same as choosing not to eat it as a lifestyle choice, and that’s what we are concerned with here.
So, if you’re not the kind of person to make random decisions about your diet, and you are generally trying to be at least a bit healthy, why are you still worried about not eating breakfast? It’s most common that the worry is centred around three things; a slowing of your metabolic rate, blood sugar crashes, and poor cognition. Skipping breakfast, you’re told, will render you as lively as a hungover sloth, dangerously hypoglycaemic, and utterly stupid. However, it turns out that the idea that Rich Tea biscuits are better than nothing might be a bit far-fetched after all.
“Eating more to burn more”, or eating little and often to “stoke the metabolic fire” are often heard dietary fallacies. The truth is that skipping breakfast or eating only a couple of meals a day does nothing to slow down your metabolism and results in exactly the same amount of fat loss when Calories are matched.
- In 2010, Cameron et al. concluded that increasing meal frequency does not promote greater body weight loss”
- In 1997, Bellisle et al. found that “nibbling” or “gorging” made no difference to 24-hour energy expenditure
In only the last 3 months, I’ve had discussions with people who have claimed the following happens when they skip breakfast:
- They feel like they’re going to faint
- They feel sick
- They feel irritable (I’m not just talking about getting a bit snappy here. I mean full rage)
- They can’t see properly and have flashes in front of their eyes from the lack of carbs (lol)
Hypoglycaemia caused by low blood sugar is no joke if it happens, it’s just that it takes more than missing out on a bowl of crunchy nut cornflakes to actually make it a genuine concern. In a study by Alkén et al, a group of people who claimed to feel shaky, irritated, unable to concentrate and sweaty if they had an extended period of not eating agreed to fast for 24 hours.
- The people in the study said they could feel their blood sugar falling if they missed a meal.
- Because of this belief, they never fasted for any period of time.
- During the study, all of them completed the 24-h fast.
- At no time during the 24 hour fast did blood glucose levels drop below normal levels.
Skipping a meal does not result in dangerous physiological issues. You are not hypoglycaemic, you’re hungry.
Believe me when I say that there is not one part of me that doesn’t want eating pork scratchings for breakfast to improve my concentration. As nutrition ideas go, this is one I can fully get on board with. Alas, breakfast and its benefit on concentration have been put to the test several times and the results are less exciting than the adverts.
- Fulford et al. (2015) looked at how brain activity was affected by breakfast versus no breakfast in kids performing cognitive tasks. They found that task performance was not significantly improved after breakfast. Turns out that skipping the Rich Tea biscuits wouldn’t have resulted in worse grades after all.
- In fact, Adolphus et al. (2015) also found that eating breakfast didn’t predict ability in cognitive testing.
In fact, eating breakfast has even been shown to be detrimental to working memory and mental fatigue later in the day.
Skipping breakfast then is in no way dangerous or detrimental. It’s also a choice. Knowing that it doesn’t mean anything bad is going to happen to you doesn’t mean you have to start doing it right away. Or ever, in fact. If I’ve led you to review your previous doubts on whether it’s a good idea or not though, allow me to point out 3 scenarios where skipping breakfast as part of your diet strategy might be a good idea:
- You like to eat more in the evening and often go over your daily Calories. Skipping breakfast means you can skew your intake to later in the day allowing you to eat a larger meal at night.
- You consistently make poor food choices early in the morning that leads to overeating during the rest of the day. Saying a hard no to food until the afternoon means you swerve the Costa caramel latte and muffin on your way to work, and helps you dodge the morning meeting pastry ritual.
- You honestly don’t give a fuck about breakfast, but always felt like you should eat it due to the terrible consequences of not having any.
Skipping breakfast doesn’t mean your brain will go into meltdown, your metabolism will slow to a standstill, or your blood sugar will drop to dangerous levels. Instead, it’s a great way to fit your diet to your lifestyle or a super simple way to drop unwanted Calories without thinking.
Despite what your mum tells you, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day.
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