Not long ago I was asked to review the science on the benefits of breakfast for a cereal company. Although it is a common truism that “breakfast is good for you” I wanted to know if it remains good advice. So I plunged into 30+ research papers to see what was agreed about the first meal of the day. Here is what I learned.
Breakfast eaters are less likely to be chubby. And it doesn’t matter if you are at primary school, university or calling the shots from head office. That might be all you need to know to reach for the cereal bowl. So, why are breakfasters likely to be leaner? You can probably take a good logical guess at that yourself.
Breakfast eaters are more likely to be active and eat a decent diet for the rest of the day. No surprise there. If you are fit, you get more hungry and can’t bypass breakfast. It may also be that eating soon after arising helps regulate your appetite control hormones, normalise your blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity. There is some evidence that a long fast leads to higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that may stimulate hunger and overeating.
Breakfast doesn’t just pay dividends in the morning; it seems to give a good return on investment at the back end of life too. Breakfast skippers have a higher total cholesterol, higher LDL cholesterol (the evil one), an extra 5 cm (2 inches) of belt leather needed and, in one US study, a 21% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.
It seems that with breakfast, you are more likely to meet your nutrient needs for the day. This may be because most breakfast choices are nutritious. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with nutrients like iron and folate. Milk or yogurt adds calcium and riboflavin. Add fruit or nuts and there is vitamin C, potassium, fibre, and on it goes. Miss breakfast and those two biscuits with coffee at morning tea don’t exactly make up the loss.
A large Australian study from last year showed that breakfast was critical for school performance, boosting both literacy and numeracy skills, independent of the socio-economic group. This backed up a review of the previous 50 years of studies in school children. There is no doubt that breakfast is necessary to help you to learn new stuff. Usually not difficult with primary school kids because they wake up hungry. It is the upper high school kids we need to convince.
Breakfast habits changing
Twenty years ago just about every young kid ate breakfast, with only some older teenagers giving it a miss, rising to 15% of 19-24 year olds being breakfast skippers. Now we have nearly 1 in 4 of upper high school students missing breakfast, in Australia at least.
Two decades ago, over three quarters of adults ate breakfast. Now barely 6 out of 10 adults regularly eat breakfast, women being better than the menfolk.Why the decline? The most common excuse is “not enough time”, in other words not enough time to pour out cereal into a bowl, add milk and consume (Gee, that’s gotta take 6 whole minutes) or plonk two slices of bread into the toaster, shave/brush hair/pack lunch while you wait, then add peanut butter. Let’s see, that’s 7.5 minutes.
But then my concept of time and food differs to most people, a fact I accept and have resigned myself to, especially since the day I saw a line of cars outside the drive-thru section of a famous takeaway at 8 am on a school day.
What if you don’t fancy breakfast?
Don’t know how you can do it, frankly. Me? I can’t do without breakfast. No breakfast and I can’t do up shirt buttons, I squeeze Heel Balm onto my toothbrush and drive into oncoming traffic. I have a court order to eat breakfast by 7.30 am or face serving jail time.
You, of course, may be able to get away with it. Can I suggest that you at least have a banana, a yogurt or one of those breakfast drinks as you leave the house? With some glucose racing through your arteries you will make better decisions. Then, when you do feel hungry, eat smart, like choose a sandwich, fruit or a smoothie and not scarf some eye-level, salty, extruded snack from the vending machine. Just the term “extruded snack” should put you off.
What does it all mean?
It means what it has always meaned. Clever people eat breakfast and breakfast eating makes you clever. The evidence is pretty over-whelming.
There are plenty of choices to kick-start the day – breakfast cereals or muesli with milk, topped with nuts or a banana (my choice), wholegrain toast with peanut butter, poached eggs and mushrooms on toast, yogurt and canned fruit and you can think of more. If you buy your breakfast look beyond the cappuccino and croissant because you are worth a lot more than that. A lot more.
· O’Dea JA, Mugridge AC. Nutritional quality of breakfast and physical activity independently predict the literacy and numeracy scores of children after adjusting for socioeconomic status. Health Education Research 2012; 27 (6): 975-985
· Hoyland A, Dye L, Lawton CL. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition Research Reviews 2009; 22: 220-243
· Astbury NM, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Breakfast consumption affects appetite, energy intake, and the metabolic and endocrine responses to foods consumed later in the day in male habitual breakfast eaters. The Journal of Nutrition 2011; 141: 1381-1389