by Marion Nestle
Mar 26 2015

Is breakfast necessary?

With apologies for how silly this question might sound, Whitney Kimball of Hopes&Fears asked, “Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?”

Here’s what I told her:

The question isn’t silly at all, although I always laugh when I hear it. That is because I am publicly outed as not a breakfast eater—at least not first thing in the morning. I don’t usually start getting hungry until 11 or so and rarely eat before then. Coffee, yes. Solid food, later please. The idea that early eating is essential makes perfect sense for farm laborers and small children. Whether it matters for normal, sedentary adults is a different question.

Many—if not most—studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal.  Independently funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food. For most people, when you eat matters far less than how much you eat.  If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it.   Kids who won’t have access to decent food in school may well be better off fed breakfast at home and surely will learn better if their stomachs aren’t growling.

  • Vitor

    My clinical experience has showed me that staying long periods without eating (more than 3 to 3,5 hours) isn’t a good habit for people wanting to lose or maintain their body weight. On the other hand research has shown that people who skip breakfast are actually more likely to become overweigh http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/17116514. My experience is that hunger (and thirst) are bad advisers of our need to eat, and if a person want to avoid overeating one should not wait to fell hungry to decide to eat or drink (there is also scientific evidence that shows we easily confound hunger and thirst). When we wake up we have been fasting for a long time, our glucose stores are almost depleted and even if we don’t feel like eating we should, particularly the most vulnerable – children,older people and patients – and the ones who are going to engage in physical activities. Even if one is healthy it is important to don’t skip any meal (breakfast included), because it can’t harm us, and there is no evidence that skipping meals is advantageous to our health in a daily bases, on the contrary, if of course we don’t overeat!

  • Cheryl King Berger

    I do Low Carb and finally got to my goal weight by embracing that breakfast is indeed the MOST important meal of the day. I have breakfast around noon. It means ‘to break your fast’. I am thriving on intermittent fasting, where I eat breakfast at noon, and dinner by 6 or 7 pm. It isn’t set in stone, if I am hungry I eat. It is just a guideline that has helped me to finally reach a great weight. I wish I had known this 20 years ago…could have saved me so much grief and frustration :0( thanks for the blog, I enjoy it!

  • Very interesting post. I didn’t know the facts behind breakfast studies. This certainly makes sense as I had to train myself to eat breakfast (although cereal isn’t my thing at all). I too never craved solid food first thing in the morning. However, it might be a good idea to consume any food within reach (the healthful kind, of course) when you are a mother of two under two!

  • It seems, fasting (caloric deficiency) is the actual force at work here. The same effect can be achieved through eating small portions more regularly and frequently and exercising. The latter is what works for me. And I too prefer to have a good breakfast to start my day 🙂

  • Amit Agrawal

    Hi Marion,

    Could you plz share your research and data, that list out the studies supported by Kellogg. This will help us to see whether their study has flaw or it is just a mere correlation b/w supporting agency and breakfast benefits finding.

  • Emaho

    “When we wake up we have been fasting for a long time, our glucose stores are almost depleted…” Well, as I eat a LCHF diet, my body will quickly turn to fat to burn. So, my glucose stores could be completely depleted and I would function just fine with little to no hunger. My body is accustomed to burning more fat and less glucose. It has geared up all that it needs to burn fat and convert protein into glucose.

    Unfortunately for many, a body can take a day or even several weeks to get geared up to quickly and thoroughly burn fatty acids for energy. And even more unfortunately, many bodies can lose that ability after eating only one carb rich meal.

  • IvorGoodbody

    In favour of your view is this review article by Rania Mekary, the title of which is self-explanatory:

    “Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show 2 practices that distort scientific evidence”

    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/98/5/1298.long

    Also this small randomized trial by Cornell University showing breakfast skippers eat less overall “leaving a [surprisingly substantial] net caloric deficit of 408 kcal by the end of the day”.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938413001479

    But against your view are other studies by Rania Mekary et al. She further muddies the waters by asking what counts as “breakfast” and what as a “morning snack before lunch”. If you lump them together, then many “breakfast skippers” really aren’t!

    Samples:

    “Eating breakfast was associated with significantly lower CHD risk in this cohort of male health professionals.”

    http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/128/4/337.full [NO Kellogg or food industry funding]

    “Irregular breakfast consumption was associated with a higher T2D risk in women, which was partially but not entirely mediated by BMI.”

    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/98/2/436.long [Funding sources not specified in copy I read, but authors claim: “The funding sources were not involved in the data collection, data analysis, or writing and publication of the manuscript.”]

    Here are some other breakfast studies for research geeks:

    http://www.mrbreakfast.com/glossary_term.asp?glossaryID=152
    Full disclosure: All in all, enough for me to make breakfast by far my biggest meal of the day. But then, the mornings are when I work out.
    Wishing you enduring health
    Ivor Goodbody

  • Cheryl King Berger

    I follow the ‘hormonal’ theory of obesity as to why IF has assisted me…not calories in/calories out theory. In the absence of a heavy carbohydrate diet (lower carb, higher fat), I have achieved greater levels of satiety naturally. This theory involves fewer ‘instances’ of insulin rise to the blood and, therefore, less signaling to store fat. I have not reduced calories much at all. For me, snacking, plus three meals a day deprives me of energy and brings weight gain, cravings, etc. In the old days, snacking did not exist…it would ‘ruin your appetite’ so to speak. Snacking strengthens economies via sales of food, it does not strengthen health. Snacking is a new piece of advice and is only around 40 years old.

  • Cheryl King Berger

    This is the same as my experience. The carbohydrate level recommended in the US has, literally, made me hungry… always. I am so glad to be free of it. Eating should be easier, not some sort of constant struggle. It is fuel. I also eat LCHF. Nothing short of life changing. My carbohydrate intake is from vegetables and, as I have achieved my weight goals, more fruit as tolerated. My calorie reduction has happened as I am smaller and require less, but calorie reduction was not the key. Insulin was the key for me.

  • Guys, im a personal trainer and a nutritionist. And i can see that there is a big mixture of ideas going on in here. it looks like people just find random pieces of information from different sources that do not make sense, and then they are trying to apply them all to their lives. And the funniest thing they expect some changes!

    SO RULE # 1: GET RELIABLE SOURCES. Not your cousin, not your neighbour, not random blog, a random successful story, or even a random real published book! There is a lot of bullshit out there and they are just trying to sell you stuff! And that’s hard! So let me help you out here. Start with these 2 books that you should read, which are written by expects (not a pretty skinny girl or an actor!), they have decades of research behind their shoulders and! they are not “sponsored” by a specific company! They must be independent researchers!!!

    READ THESE:

    “Why we get fat” – http://www.amazon.ca/Why-We-Get-Fat-About/dp/0307474259

    “How to eat, move and be healthy” – http://www.amazon.ca/How-Eat-Move-Healthy-Personalized/dp/1583870067/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427947036&sr=1-1&keywords=chek

    RULE #2: DO NOT CUT CALORIES! Calorie in, Calorie out is an old idea, which does NOT make sense! just think about it! you are getting obsessed over trying to calculate how much you workout and how much you eat. they you will start reducing calories expecting more results, which will make you to reduce your healthy fats intake, which is so important for so many body functions, including your skin health, digestion, different chemical reactions in your body, absorption of some vitamins, regulation of your hormones and so much more! plus some days you need more calories, some less. Sometimes you are simply sick or go through a lot of stress and your body needs extra food and calories, but you cut them of! the result you get sick! and of course, by reducing calories, your reduce your nutrient intake, which causes malnutrition and your body starts to feel tired, lack of energy first and then serious consciences like illnesses, chronic fatigue, sleeping disorders, hormone imbalance and much more.

    RULE #3: IT’S NOT HOW MUCH YOU EAT, ITS WHAT YOU EAT!: If you eat right, packing up on veggies and good healthy sources of protein (preferably animal type: like chicken and beef), fruits and some healthy fats (like avocados and olive oil) I PROMISE YOU you will never get fat, no matter how much of these products you eat!!! But if you eat crap all day long, fast food, sugar, and tones of unhealthy snacks like chips/candy, forget it – you will remain fat and will progress on your fat pattern, and I have no empathy for you, because you are not even trying.

    RULE #4: DANGEROUS CARBS. The biggest problem among fatties is that they eat waaaaaaaay to much carbs, thinking that this is where the energy comes from! wrong again! Even if you are eating cleaner types of carbs: rice, potatoes, some kind of magical whole wheat super healthy breas etc. (and im not even talking here about other horrible carbs that should not even enter your system, like sugars/candies/mcdonals crap etc. If you have a tire around your belly, love handles especially, it simply says your particular metabolism is not made for these! NOW LET ME PUT IT NICE AND SIMPLE FOR YOU GUYS SO YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHERE I AM COMING FROM. If you have problem with fat, your metabolism is “slow”. In our world we call it “insulin resistant”. What does it mean: every time you eat carbs, especially when you eat a lot of it, your sugar goes up. (and if you eat way too much you have a sugar high). So the more carbs or sugar you eat, the more your blood sugar goes up. In response to it, so that you dont die from raising sugar (which is possible – that would be diabetics), your body produces insulin to crush it down. And as a result your energy crushes down with it. Further insulin needs to go somewhere. So if you have a good metabolism or “insulin sensitive” then insulin breaks down and goes into your muscle, which you can use for energy. But if your metabolism sucks, “insulin resistant”, the insulin byproducts go into fat cells and store as fat! so get that, check your love handle, if you have a nice jiggle-jiggle there stop eating carbs, and load up on veggies and protein. and now it get as to the next one.

    RULE #5: STABILIZE YOUR SUGAR: if you stop this sugar insanity in your system – sugar rush/sugar crush, then first of all your energy level during the day will stabilize and you will stop crushing several times a day. Your insulin will stabilize. So your stomach and love handles will go down. It will also force your sex hormones to get in check: estrogen will go down and testosterone will go up. which will help your legs and the back of the arms lean down too (that information, what fat storage response to which hormones you can check by googling BioSignature).

    now, do it! you will success 100%. dont listen to other bullshit and youll be fine. just buy natural products, preferably no packages foods at all. Veggies, fruits, healthy fats, healthy proteins and eat as much as your body needs – it knows better.

    now, i think i did a good job here, plus im tired of typing. check my youtube channel, i will be covering all this information for you shortly.

    https://www.youtube.com/user/toextremes/videos

  • TR

    I’m starving when I wake up. My bloodsugar levels are dragging through the dregs when I get up no matter how much I ate the night before and if I drink any caffeine it just makes it worse. I have to load on carbs within an hour of getting up. Although, I prefer carbs with a nice top dressing of fat. I struggle to keep weight on as I’m a scrawny fellow. I don’t care for much protein for my first meal though. I need easy and quick to digest and absorb carbs. Homemade granola is my prefered choice, grits, semolina, or couscous serves well too. About 2-4 hours later, I’ll have a big lunch. That usually keeps me fueled up through the afternoon and I can do a lot of heavy physical activity then – gardening, yard work, cutting firewood… I’m a Nutritionist in public health and am very sensitive to my body’s physiological processes in this area. That’s a sensitivity that I think more people should learn to develop. Cast your cultural assumptions regarding food aside and learn some physiology.

  • Sports Fan

    If I could just distinguish between hunger and craving, I’d be better off. How do I shut off that, “it’s noon, time to eat” feeling? I’m OK when I’m distracted…

  • Carla Iturralde Fraser

    I think the problem is that nutrition and medical authorities are blind-locked into the “one size fits all” mentality. Logic and experience has shown me this is not only untrue but illogical. Just thinking of food when I wake or shortly after makes me gag. I am a registered dietitan and have tried to force myself to eat breakfast many times for many years and it lead to health problems. It made me feel ill, sluggish, gave me headaches and hungry and anxious. For other people it is the exact opposite. You have to work with your body, listen to it. Make healthy adjustments but if your body is screaming “no” than that is not the way to go. Health care professionals have to start to individualize recommendations and acknowledge peoples vast differences even in reference to biology and biochemistry. We are not all the same.

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