The belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has become part of conventional wisdom. So is the old cliché is true? Breakfast certainly is a very important meal and the advice not to skip breakfast is included as one of the 8 tips for eating well by the Food Standards Agency. Not only does breakfast provide energy to start a new day, but a healthy breakfast is linked to many health benefits, including weight control and improved mental performance.
Studies show that eating a healthy breakfast can help to:
1. Achieve a more nutritionally complete diet, higher in nutrients, vitamins and minerals
2. Improve concentration and performance in the classroom or the work place
3. Provide strength and endurance to engage in physical activity
4. Lower cholesterol levels
5. Help with weight control
Breaking the fast
Breakfast typically follows the longest period of fasting during the 24 hour daily cycle, therefore skipping breakfast will lead to reductions in energy and nutrient levels throughout the morning. Overnight the body’s metabolism changes from an anabolic state (often referred to as well fed) to a catabolic state (starvation mode) and as such the body draws on its energy reserves to keep itself going. The brain is the biggest user of glucose in the body which is supplied by the breakdown of carbohydrate, fat and protein stores, this continues until you literally break the fast, i.e. eat breakfast. While some may view the breakdown of fat stores as desirable, during this catabolic phase the body does not exclusively breakdown fat and carbohydrate stores, in fact protein muscle stores are also broken down which can ultimately decrease lean muscle mass and consequently decrease metabolic rate (which is proportional to muscle mass).
Eating a mixed breakfast soon after waking provides available energy for the day ahead and is said to kick-start the body’s metabolism. On waking it is natural to have a slightly low blood sugar as the body tries to spare available glucose, skipping breakfast can lead to feelings of sluggishness and fatigue until something is eaten (by which time hunger pangs occur). Additionally it is normal to wake up slightly dehydrated as the body loses fluid overnight which is expelled first thing in the morning, skipping breakfast may limit the amount of fluid that is taken in leaving the body not fully hydrated, maybe not dehydrated enough to feel thirsty but enough to affect concentration levels.
Breakfast and cognitive performance
Eating breakfast is important for everyone, but is especially so for children and adolescents. Children who eat breakfast perform better in the classroom and on the playground, with better concentration, problem-solving skills, and eye-hand coordination.
Studies have shown that eating breakfast can improve performance on cognitive tasks. For example, one study demonstrated not eating breakfast impaired the problem-solving abilities of well-nourished 9-11 year old children. When tested in the late morning, the children made significantly more errors on a task when they had not eaten breakfast than when they had eaten breakfast. Similarly, another study found that children made significantly more errors on a test, and did more poorly on an attention task when they had not had breakfast than when they had consumed the meal.
Tests on adults showed that not eating breakfast impaired performance on free recall and recognition memory tasks. University students who did not eat breakfast did more poorly on memory tests than students who consumed a morning meal.
Breakfast and weight control
Many studies, in both adults and children, have shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than breakfast skippers. One theory suggests that eating a healthy breakfast can reduce hunger throughout the day, and help people make better food choices at other meals. It is a common mistake to think that you can ‘save calories’ by skipping breakfast, when in fact, hunger gets the best of breakfast-skippers, and you may end up eating more at lunch and throughout the day. You are also more likely to be in a situation where you are not able to make a healthy choice once hunger strikes, for example, in the middle of the morning at work there is likely to be limited or no access to fruit or cereal, in which case you will have to rely instead on the office vending machine for sweets and crisps.
Another theory behind the breakfast-weight control link implies that eating breakfast is part of a healthy lifestyle that includes making wise food choices and balancing energy intake with activity. This in turn has linked the consumption of breakfast with improved health, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower risk of obesity linked conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The composition of breakfast
While it is acknowledged that eating something for breakfast is better than eating nothing, it has been suggested that the composition of breakfast may be important in maintaining the feeling of fullness until lunchtime.
Protein blunts hunger more than either carbohydrate (even low GI) or fat, and is the most satiating of the energy-providing nutrients. One study compared weight loss in women who ate either two eggs or a bagel for breakfast. The two breakfast meals were identical in energy and volume. Compared to the bagel eaters, overweight women who ate two eggs for breakfast five times a week for eight weeks as part of a low-fat, reduced-calorie diet, lost 65% more weight, reduced waist circumference by 83%, reported higher energy levels, and had no significant difference in their blood cholesterol levels.
When people eat protein at breakfast, they experienced greater satiety, reduce perceived cravings, and reduce subsequent short-term energy intake, compared to those who ate a primarily carbohydrate meal.
Another study found that women who added a little lean protein to their breakfast felt less hunger during the next four hours than those who ate a breakfast without protein. All the participants lost about 18 pounds over the course of the study, but the group eating more protein – about 30% of total calories – kept more lean muscle than the group who ate the same number of calories but less protein. This has been explained by the fact that lean muscle mass is more metabolically active, and thus helps with weight management.
Breakfast Cereal and Weight Control
Many studies have also shown that when breakfast cereal is consumed as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, it can play a role in maintaining a healthy body weight. Analysis of data from the Health Professionals Follow Up Study of more than 17,000 men, found that those who frequently ate breakfast cereal – both refined grain and wholegrain types – consistently weighed less than those who rarely or never ate breakfast cereal.
Choosing a healthy breakfast
A healthy breakfast meal should contain a variety of foods, including fruits and/or vegetables, wholegrains, low fat dairy foods, and lean protein.
Some quick and healthy choices include:
√ A low fat cheese and tomato omelette and a piece of wholemeal toast
√ A wholemeal English muffin with low fat cheese and slice of lean ham with sliced tomato
√ Smoked salmon on a whole-grain bagel with low fat soft cheese
√ Oatmeal made with semi- or skimmed milk, raisins and nuts, with fruit juice
√ Wholegrain cereal with fresh fruit and semi-skimmed milk
For those that think they don’t have time to eat breakfast;
√ some quick and healthy choices include:
√ Smoothie made with fruit and low fat yoghurt
√ Low fat yoghurt or fromage frais and a piece of fresh fruit
√ Carton of fruit juice and a breakfast bar
√ Banana and a probiotic drink
√ Skinny latte and a low fat fruit scone or muffin