The idea behind eating a daily breakfast makes sense: we want to have energy and keep from overeating the rest of the day. But is there any true health advantage to eating that first meal of the day?
No doubt about it, of the three meals we eat in a day, breakfast has been hailed by parents and health experts alike as the most important.
Eating a good breakfast before we begin our day provides us with energy and sustenance for the demands of the day ahead.
Proponents of breakfast believe that the food and drink we ingest first thing in the morning can have a pretty powerful influence on both our physical and emotional well-being.
Filling our bodies with nourishing, energizing food upon awakening seems like a no-brainer, but up to 25% of adults and as many as 36% of adolescents in North America actually skip it.
While these statistics are startling, should we be alarmed? Is eating breakfast really the meal that not only sets the tone of our day, but also contributes to our health in many important ways?
Or is its status of king of all meals seriously overblown?
Eating vs. skipping: what the research shows
Despite the common belief that of all meals, breakfast is most important, the truth is that there is no clear-cut evidence that eating a meal first thing in the morning is critical for our health.
The research that studies the health effects of eating breakfast rather than skipping it is actually conflicted.
For example, one study followed the eating habits of 51,529 adult male health professionals between 1992 and 2008, and found that those who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared with men who did not.
Those same breakfast skippers also were 15% more likely to gain more than 11 lb over 10 years, and 21% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
But another study showed that in fact, eating breakfast or skipping it may have no real bearing on our ability to lose weight. Over 280 adults trying to lose weight were followed over 16 weeks, and the group who ate breakfast did not lose any more appreciable amount of weight compared to those who skipped it.
The quality of your breakfast might make the real difference
A daily breakfast has been recommended for children and adolescents for decades for its ability to boost cognitive performance in school, provide energy, lower BMI, and positively influence dietary choices in adulthood.
Kids who skip breakfast are also shown to be at higher risk of drinking alcohol, smoking, and being sedentary, and are more likely to be chronically stressed and depressed.
But it turns out that the quality of a child’s breakfast may be the biggest health determinant of all.
To illustrate this, a 2018 study found that kids who ate very poor quality breakfasts, defined as eating commercially baked goods rather than bread, cereal, or dairy products, actually fared worse than the kids who skipped breakfast entirely.
The kids who skipped breakfast reported lower levels of depression and stress, and a better home life overall.
The biggest culprit that explains this may be the sugar content found in store bought baked goods. Higher added sugar intakes are known contributors to depression.
How might a high quality breakfast lead to greater mental health? The healthy carbohydrates that we eat after a night of fasting are converted into glucose, which reduces the production of the stress-hormone, cortisol.
The conversion of carbohydrates to glucose also helps promote the formation of tryptophan, a protein needed for the production of serotonin, a key hormone that stabilizes our moods.
So in short, it is not necessarily whether you eat breakfast or not, it is the foods you choose to eat that may make all the difference.
Make your breakfast count
If breakfast is a mainstay meal that helps you fuel through your morning, make it count nutritionally.
This means staying away from high-fat, sugary, and salty foods first thing in the morning like doughnuts and pastries, sausage biscuits, colored, sugar-laden cereals, and bagels loaded with cream cheese or butter.
Make dairy products, whole grain cereals and grains, and fresh fruit the stars of your breakfast plate for a dose of protein, fiber, and antioxidants.
If you are a dedicated early morning, caffeinated coffee drinker who is prone to stress or anxiety, you may want to rethink your drinking habit.
After we wake up from sleep, our adrenal glands produce a 50% increase in cortisol that generally peaks between 8 and 9 AM in anticipation of the day ahead.
Caffeine is also shown to increase our cortisol, so to best avoid a double dose of the stress hormone, wait to drink caffeine between 9:30 and 11:30 AM or between 1:30 and 5:00 PM, when our cortisol levels tend to naturally dip.
Quick and healthy breakfast ideas for busy mornings
A fiber-rich whole grain, low sugar cereal is a great choice for an easy, wholesome breakfast to keep you energized until lunch, but tasty inspiration abounds beyond just the cereal aisle. Try these healthy and easy breakfast ideas that are especially useful for when you are on the go.
Oats. Pour instant oats in a travel mug and hydrate with a bit of hot water for a filling breakfast. Top with cinnamon, walnuts, or dried fruit to mix in for extra flavor and nutrition. If you can plan ahead, prepare a batch of overnight oats for effortless, grab-and-go meals in the morning.
Smoothies. For busy mornings, simply blend your favorite frozen fruits and green leafy veggies along with yogurt, low-fat or plant-based milk, and nut butters for a filling antioxidant boost. Pour into a thermos and take with you to sip on.
Avocado toast. Mash some ripe avocado onto whole grain toast and top with sliced tomato or chopped hard-boiled egg and your favorite herbs and spices.
Whole grain breakfast sandwich. Slather your favorite nut butter or low-fat cottage cheese onto half of a whole grain piece of bread, English muffin, or waffle, and make a sandwich to tote along with you.
Low-fat yogurt and fruit parfaits. Fill a few mason jars with plain low-fat or fat-free yogurt, oats, nuts, and fresh or frozen fruit and leave in the fridge for already-prepared healthy breakfasts.
Banana Walnut Overnight Oats
Start the day off right with this nutritious, satisfying breakfast featuring potassium-rich bananas and heart-healthy walnuts and oats. Prepared the night before, this grab-and-go breakfast is perfect for extra busy mornings.
½ cup raw rolled oats
¼ cup fat-free milk or plant-based milk of your choice
¼ cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt
½ banana, mashed
4 walnuts, chopped
1 tsp honey
¼ tsp cinnamon
- The night before, mix all ingredients in a glass mason jar or container.
- Cover with lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Overnight oats can be warmed in the microwave or eaten cold. Top with sliced bananas and extra chopped walnuts if desired.
Nutrient facts per serving: Calories: 490, Total Carb: 56g, Protein: 19g, Total Fat: 24g, Polyunsaturated fat: 15g