You’re not alone if you find weekday mornings a frantic rush – getting in a nutritious breakfast before school can be a tough task indeed. It would certainly be less chaotic if we could just forget that morning meal or just grab whatever we like – especially considering that new research is saying that skipping breakfast may not be so bad for us.
But not so fast. A closer look at the latest scientific studies on the importance of breakfast, or rather the lack of it, reveals that the investigations have not really knocked breakfast off its perch as being the most important meal of the day.
Here’s why breaking the fast with a balanced meal is still key for both children and adults alike. Both studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, received a great deal of media attention, though I’m not sure why.
The first study of more than 300 participants looked at the impact of breakfast on weight loss over a 16-week period. The subjects were divided into one of three groups:
- one received a pamphlet outlining general nutrition with no mention of breakfast;
- one received information about a healthy breakfast (but no specific menu) and were told to eat breakfast before 10 a.m.
- one was told not to consume any calories before 11 a.m. In evaluating the effect of skipping breakfast, the scientists did not look at the quality of what was actually being eaten. In other words, the subjects could have eaten a bagel and cream cheese, a bowl of sugary cereal or even an oversized muffin and coffee. The researchers concluded that breakfast offered no benefit in terms of weight loss.
As a dietitian, I was shocked to see that what was on the menu was not considered to be critical to the outcome. The research on making smart choices and their effect on weight management is overwhelming. Simply calling any food “breakfast” and then assessing its effect seems puzzling.
I contend that starting off the day with the right breakfast is a strategic weapon in battling the rising rates of obesity in all ages.
The second study is even more baffling. This one compared the effect of eating breakfast versus skipping breakfast on both metabolic rates and the calorie intake later in the day. Other scientific research has shown that a balanced breakfast can curb the intake of calories later in the day.
This one did not. But when you look at the study design and again, what the researchers called breakfast, it provides a glimpse into why. During the six-week period, the subjects were randomly assigned to consume either:
- no calories (only water) until noon, or;
- a whopping 700 calories before 11 a.m. each day. As in the first study, they were also not told what to eat. So what did their breakfast consist of? The authors state, “the breakfast group reported ingesting most of this additional energy in the form of carbohydrate, particularly in the form of sugar.”
Are you surprised that eating mostly sugar for breakfast – a 700 calorie meal – doesn’t offer any health benefits? Most parents wouldn’t be. The large caloric intake makes a morning meal of two donuts and a glass of milk look like a diet meal. In addition – and not unexpectedly – the breakfast group consumed significantly more calories on a daily basis.
There are some lessons to be learned by research such as this. One is that you should not trust every study you hear about. Unfortunately, questionable research does make its way to being published.
Another important takeaway is that a couple of studies do not make a scientific consensus. A consensus happens when many findings point to one conclusion. It’s the odd one out that grabs the attention. As far as the consensus on breakfast, it’s still thought to be the most important meal of the day. But it’s time to add “a balanced breakfast” to that statement. But we knew that before and shouldn’t lose sight of the age-old wisdom.
3 out of 4
For optimal health, try to include at least three out of four food groups in your breakfast, one being a high source of protein such as:
- meat and alternatives (high protein)
- dairy (high protein)
- whole grains
- a fruit or vegetable
Try these breakfast trios:
- Whole grain crackers + Cheddar + an apple
- Whole wheat pita + mozzarella + tomato sauce and veggies
- Whole grain toast + Egg + sliced tomato
- Granola + plain Greek yogurt + bananas
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.