Is breakfast the most important meal of the day, or should you skip breakfast to extend your overnight “fast”? That’s a big question that’s really two questions. One: to eat, or not to eat? Two: if eating, what to eat?
I find that a lot of assumptions about breakfast don’t hold up when you look at the research. For example, I often see statements that eating breakfast helps you lose weight or avoid chronic diseases. But these statements are almost always referring to research that found breakfast eaters are also less likely to, say, develop heart disease — but just because a study shows that breakfast eaters tend to be healthier does not mean it’s because they breakfast.
To assess whether breakfast skipping causes weight gain or increases disease risk, you would have to get a large group of people, randomly assign one half to skip breakfast every day and the other half to eat breakfast every day, then follow them for years, or decades, to see what happens. Plus, studies looking at breakfast skippers — having, say, juice or coffee but nothing more — often find they’re more likely to have a poor diet overall, and to have unhealthy habits such as smoke and excess alcohol use. But, yeah, they must be prone to heart disease because of the breakfast skipping. (I’m being sarcastic.)
That said, newer research is finding that the combination of skipping breakfast and eating at night could contribute to health problems — including heart disease — because it essentially shifts the bulk of your daily food intake later in the day. This can interfere with the synchronization of your circadian rhythms and send conflicting messages to your body about whether it needs to ramp up or wind down.
Already a breakfast eater? Research strongly suggests that shifting the majority of your food intake to breakfast and lunch — making breakfast the largest meal if possible — and eating a small dinner has several advantages, including decreased hunger (not that hunger is anything to fear, it’s a natural, normal body cue) and better blood sugar control throughout the day.
Of course, that eating pattern is not practical for many people, so a “second-best” option is to simply eat breakfast and lunch consistently. Even though research suggests that people who skip breakfast don’t necessarily overeat later in the day — eating more calories overall than they would if they had eaten breakfast in the first place — skipping breakfast, lunch, or both can lead to less-nutritious food choices, compensatory overeating, and sometimes even bingeing, in the evening. This is often due to the one-two punch of cravings plus ravenous hunger — felt, or not — with a side helping of deprivation.
“But I’m not hungry in the morning,” you say? That may be because you’re in the habit of skipping breakfast, and your body decided to throw up its metaphorical hands and give up trying to send you morning hunger signals, even though you just went all night without eating. Resume eating breakfast, starting small if that feels more comfortable, and your hunger signals will likely revive after a while.
Now, about the “what to eat?” question. Generally, a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat will keep you satisfied for longer. For example, Greek yogurt with fruit and some granola or chopped nuts, scrambled eggs with veggies and a side of whole-grain toast, or whole-grain toast with peanut or almond butter. Experiment to see what works best for you.