Growing up, we were told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But, then again, we were also told that there would be terrible consequences if we didn’t wait an hour after eating to swim and that it was illegal to have the interior car lights on while driving, so … we’re a little skeptical.
“The research pendulum continues to swing back and forth in respect to whether or not it is ‘better’ to eat breakfast versus skip it. For every study that supports eating breakfast, there is an equal and opposite study showing the alternative as being superior,” says Rachel Swanson, MS, RD, LDN. The details that really matter—things like, was this in metabolically healthy subjects or metabolically unhealthy subjects with multiple comorbidities? What did the breakfast consist of in the first place?—don’t typically make it into the headlines, she says.
This makes it very confusing for those of us just trying to be healthier. So, how important is it to eat breakfast, anyway? We investigate.
There are many benefits of eating breakfast …
“I’m a big proponent of eating a balanced breakfast,” says certified holistic nutritionist Caroline Johnson. “Generally speaking, within two hours of waking up is ideal to support a healthy metabolism. After fasting overnight while we sleep, our bodies need fuel to start the day. Eating a balanced breakfast that prioritizes protein and fiber-rich whole food sources to maintain a balanced blood sugar will help you feel fueled, focused, and energized.” She adds that for women, a quality breakfast can help maintain hormone balance, which is important for our overall wellness in addition to things like promoting regular cycles and maintaining energy.
… But context is everything
“Never assume a strategy for one person is equally effective for another,” says Rachel. She gives the following examples from her practice:
“Client #1: An elite athlete—a wide receiver in the NFL. I would never recommend he skip breakfast.
Client #2: A successful CEO—mostly sedentary and diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Skipping breakfast feels easy to him and thus a perfect strategy to help reduce total calorie intake.
Client #3: A do-it-all mother burning the candle at both ends, always fatigued and prone to hypoglycemia. For her, starting the day with a balanced breakfast is ideal.”
Consider what you eat versus when you eat
Fasting on its own isn’t a guarantee of better health. “It’s more important to consider what you are eating,” says French biochemist Jessie Inchauspé, founder of Glucose Goddess. “We have to think about several factors, the most important one being: how are you going to break your fast? What are you going to eat first during your day, whether at breakfast time or lunchtime?” In other words, if we skip breakfast, will we be able to make a healthy choice for lunch, or will we be so hungry that we demolish a cookie (or three)?
Rachel says she generally does prefer that people eat breakfast … unless breakfast consists of foods that are refined, processed, and sugary, like conventional cereals, white bagels, and pastries. In that scenario, she suggests, “you’d be better off” skipping breakfast. Jessie agrees, adding, “Breakfast that is sweet and creates a glucose spike will not set us up for success—in that case, skipping it and going straight to our savory lunch is probably best.”
There can be benefits to skipping breakfast
“Skipping breakfast is a strategy that some find both easy and practical in their efforts to compress their eating window,” says Rachel. This can be referred to as time-restricted eating, the purpose being a defined feeding-fasting period. “It can also be an effective strategy to control or reduce total caloric intake.”
However, she adds that “people largely conflate the benefits of skipping breakfast, when in fact those benefits are a result of the calorie deficit that this imposes.” So it’s not so much about skipping breakfast as it is reducing the overall calories we eat. “If you skip breakfast because it’s easy and it helps you achieve your health goals—whether that be for the goal of compressing the eating window, a strategy employed for weight loss, metabolic health, or otherwise—then great! Otherwise, there are many alternative strategies to select from,” she says.
All three experts generally recommend that we eat breakfast …
The consensus among the experts is that in general, they recommend eating breakfast—as long as it’s a balanced breakfast. “This recommendation is about optimizing around biological processes linked to our innate circadian rhythm—our internal clock, or sleep-wake cycles. We know that digestion, metabolism and hormone secretion … are most efficient in the morning,” explains Rachel. For some people, a balanced breakfast helps with appetite regulation and intake for the rest of the day, she adds.
… But ultimately, the choice is ours
“If you feel absolutely amazing without eating breakfast, then keep doing you! We are all unique and have unique nutritional needs,” says Caroline. “Regardless of when your first meal of the day is, for optimal health, it’s important that it is savory. Avoid eating sweet foods—that include fruit juices, fruit-only smoothies—when you are fasted. Build your first meal of the day around protein, and that will help your body thrive,” adds Jessie.
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