We frequently hear the old adage, "breakfast is the most important meal of the day." But is it really? Or is that just a slogan cereal companies coined back in the 50s to sell more boxes? Does the size of your breakfast matter? And is skipping breakfast really that bad?
As it turns out, whether and how you eat breakfast really does have a big impact on your weight, focus, long-term health and mood. STACK talked with Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine and dietician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, to learn more about the importance of the morning meal.
A Big Breakfast Has Loads of Benefits
Eating a big breakfast has some obvious benefits. If you eat high-quality food, you're loading up your body with plenty of good fuel to take on the day. A good breakfast will keep your metabolism up, which is a necessity for athletes and students. Since a slow metabolism limits your ability to burn calories, it can lead to lower energy levels and hinder both your focus and endurance.
But a breakfast full of low-quality foods—such as pastries or sugar-filled cereals—simply packs on bad calories and will inevitably lead to a mid-morning crash. So it isn't just a big breakfast that's beneficial, but a big, healthy breakfast, full of fruit, whole grains and lean proteins.
Eating a big breakfast confers amazing benefits when subsequent meals throughout the day—in particular dinner—are smaller in calories. Perhaps the most impressive benefit of this practice was found in a 2013 study.
The study was conducted with two groups of similarly obese and overweight women over a 12-week period. Both groups were put on a strict, 1,400-calorie-a-day diet that consisted of foods like grilled chicken, melon, egg whites, turkey breast, green salad and milk chocolate. One group ate a breakfast of 700 calories, a lunch of 500 calories and a dinner of 200 calories. The other ate a breakfast of 200 calories, a lunch of 500 calories and a dinner of 700 calories.
After the 12-week period, the group that ate the large breakfast and small dinner had lost nearly 2.5 times as much weight as the group that ate the small breakfast and large dinner. The big-breakfast group lost approximately 18 pounds, compared to 7 pounds lost by the large-dinner group. Remember, the two groups ate the exact same number of calories and the exact same foods every day—just in a different order. The big-breakfast group also reported feeling less hungry throughout the day.
"An isocaloric weight loss diet with exchanged caloric intake between breakfast and dinner differentially influences weight loss, waist circumference, serum ghrelin and lipids, appetite scores, and insulin resistance indices in overweight and obese women with the metabolic syndrome," the study concluded.
The extra weight loss might be a bit surprising, but the fact that the large-breakfast group was less hungry throughout the day isn't shocking. "Consuming a big breakfast in the morning, especially one including protein, fat and fiber, can increase satiety throughout the day," Bonci says.
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A new study found this same strategy (big breakfast, small dinner) resulted in lower blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetics.
These findings give the old phrase, "eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper" some credence—especially when many people are skipping breakfast or eating something unsubstantial, only to return home and load up on calories at dinner. It's become an American tradition for dinner to be the biggest meal of the day. Eating a big meal in the morning and a small meal in the evening might break tradition and require waking up a little earlier, but the benefits could be huge.
A Small Breakfast Has Its Place
Sometimes, eating a big breakfast just isn't going to happen. Whether you're running late for school or just don't want to head into a morning workout with a bulging belly, there are plenty of reasons why you might not want (or might not be able) to sit down to a big breakfast.
If an early morning workout prevents you from eating a big breakfast, Bonci suggests breaking up your meal into two parts—pre-workout and post-workout. That way, you'll have something in the tank for your workout without feeling weighed down, and you'll consume nutrients immediately after your workout, which can benefit recovery and muscle growth.
Forcing down a big breakfast prior to training won't do you much good if it ends up in the trashcan half way through your workout. "If you're going to be doing an intense workout early in the day, you may want to rethink eating a big breakfast before. Too much food could result in an out-of-body experience!" Bonci says.
If you truly are someone who doesn't like to eat in the morning, forcing yourself to eat a big breakfast could leave you feeling lethargic—the exact opposite of what you want from your breakfast. If you find that a big breakfast doesn't work for you, try to break your breakfast up throughout the morning.
No Breakfast is a Big Mistake
Everyone's guilty of skipping breakfast now and then. Maybe you don't like to wake up early, maybe you're just not hungry or maybe you think it will help you lose a few pounds. But skipping breakfast altogether is a bad move.
"Breakfast is a way to get your fluid, fiber and protein quota for the day," says Bonci. "Without it, you're shortchanging your body and your mind. You'll be tired and have more trouble focusing."
That isn't just an old wives' tale. A 2005 study found that elementary school kids who ate breakfast had better short-term memory than the students who didn't. In addition, a 1999 study found that those who ate breakfast (in this case, a breakfast cereal) performed better on a spatial memory task than those who did not—plus, they had a more positive mood and felt calmer. Yes, skipping breakfast can make you cranky.
Besides making you feel sluggish and grouchy, skipping breakfast could have some insidious ramifications. A 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that "men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] compared with men who did not."
Though it sounds counterintuitive, missing breakfast might also lead to weight gain. A 2003 study found that "subjects who regularly skipped breakfast had 4.5 times the risk of obesity as those who regularly consumed breakfast." In this study, regularly skipping breakfast was defined as not eating breakfast 75 percent of the time, and regularly eating breakfast was defined as eating it 95 percent of the time.
If you're an athlete or fitness-minded person who wants to live a healthy, high-performing lifestyle, skipping breakfast is not something you should do on a regular basis. If you have a hard time eating breakfast, Bonci suggests using your blender. She says, "If you truly don't have time or just don't have much of an A.M. appetite, how about breakfast in a blender? A smoothie or a shake can be an easy and convenient way to get something into your body."
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