Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?
Lots of people skip breakfast for numerous reasons. Yet, common wisdom suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Studies both confirming and discarding the importance of breakfast have both been published. Based on the latest research, it’s worth trying to see if there is a consensus on the importance of breakfast for supporting health, daily functioning and weight loss.
Part of the challenge with understanding the health benefits of breakfast comes from the challenge of researching the topic. Human dietary studies are notoriously difficult to do. Recall studies, where you ask an individual about their dietary habits, are fraught with recall issues. Other studies often find associations between breakfast and health, but associations do not imply causation. With that all being said, we can still do our best to tease out the latest research results.
Breakfast and Heart Disease
Skipping breakfast is associated with increased atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries (Uzhova 2017). This raises obvious concerns for increased heart disease in individuals that skip breakfast. And indeed, a study looking at heart disease found exactly that. Skipping breakfast was found to raise your risk for heart disease by 25% (Takagi 2019).
Adding to and confirming the findings, a more recent study found that those individuals who skipped breakfast had a 40% higher mortality from heart disease than those that didn’t (Sun 2022).
Breakfast and Respiratory Infections
Other research has looked at the incidence of respiratory infections (colds and flu) and breakfast consumption. Interestingly, those that skipped breakfast were sick more often and had more severe infections (Smith 2000, Smith 2002). Unfortunately, the only published studies were small and don’t appear to have been repeated. While the data is interesting, we can’t draw robust conclusions on breakfast consumption and respiratory infections from the available data.
Breakfast and Weight Loss
When it comes to breakfast and weight loss or weight maintenance, the research is very decidedly mixed. Some research indicates that irregular breakfast consumption may be the most harmful, as compared to never eating breakfast, or always eating breakfast (Guinter 2020, Guinter 2019).
A review article exploring studies on breakfast consumption from childhood through adulthood found that consistent breakfast consumption was correlated with improved weight outcomes (Lukomskyj 2020). A separate review article on breakfast as an intervention to help with weight loss concluded that adding breakfast in those that don’t consume it may not be helpful. However, they also state that the quality of the studies supporting their conclusions are quite poor (Sievert 2019).
Another recent review article looking at the mechanisms of how eating breakfast can help with weight loss concluded that there might be some benefit. They noted that higher-protein, higher-calorie solid foods seemed to provide the most satiety benefits (Gwin 2018).
Breakfast for Children and Adolescents
A review article from 2016 looked at breakfast consumption and weight in adolescents. The conclusion was that breakfast consumption may provide protective benefits against weight gain. However, the research has quality and methodological problems which limits the strength of the conclusions (Blondin 2016).
As far as academic performance, breakfast appears to have a positive impact (Adolphus 2013). Breakfast increases “on-task” behavior in the classroom. The clearest benefits were associated with math and arithmetic scores. Interestingly, the quality of breakfast also appeared to correlate with school performance.
The strongest findings in support of breakfast consumption are for reducing the risks for heart disease, and in children, for helping to maintain a healthy weight and supporting academic performance. The data on breakfast consumption and weight management in adults is decidedly mixed.
Since heart disease is the leading cause of death, and breakfast consumption appears to consistently reduce heart disease risks, it would not be unreasonable to consider breakfast the most important meal of the day.