Is Breakfast Really The Most Important Meal Of The Day?

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report:Breakfast in America: What It Is and What It Means for more.

Yes. It absolutely is. But not for the reasons you might think.

The great breakfast debate has been raging for some time, now — the consensus on whether or not to eat breakfast seems to sway faster than millennials can come up with new ways to eat avocado toast. One minute big, hearty breakfasts are on everyone's recommendation lists and the next minute experts are promoting an endless fast until lunch.

You might think this is old news: Surely, people know they need to be eating breakfast. But it seems the push for morning hunger is making a fierce comeback.

Fitness instructors are being cited in articles preaching their "banana for breakfast" rituals. Fasted cardio, a practice in which exercisers wait until after enduring cardiovascular exertion to eat, is on the rise in fitness conversations everywhere. These enthusiasts claim that the cardio forces the body to burn fat and jump start its metabolism before breakfast occurs, resulting in quicker weight loss. Intermittent fasting, a practice characterized by eating all of the day's food in the span of a couple hours in the middle of the day, is all the rage in nutrition-interested communities. The ritual involves skipping breakfast to wait for their two-, four-, or six-hour window — the only times of day in which practitioners of intermittent fasting are "allowed" to eat.

Other strains of research suggest the opposite — that eating immediately after you wake up is the best call in terms of overall health and maintaining a healthy, stable weight. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Hohenheim revealed that those who skip breakfast experience a detriment to their metabolic health. Even though over the short time period of the study the participants burned more calories when they skipped breakfast, their blood glucose fluctuated dangerously. Therefore, in the long term, the calorie burn wouldn't sustain, and the impairment to their metabolisms would increase their risk for diabetes, obesity, and more.

But who's right?

Thankfully, biology is on the side of the breakfast-lovers.
We consulted top nutritionists, and the decision was clear: Breakfast is important, whether you like it or not — though how could you not?

It seems all these fads and diets have forgotten the basics of breakfast nutrition. Our favorite meal of the day serves a critical function for our bodies by — as the name implies — breaking the fast we've been keeping overnight. "When you sit down to eat breakfast, your body has essentially been fasting," Liz Weiss, MS, RDN told The Daily Meal. We know now that this fast has a direct relation to our energy levels, sleep cycles, and even slowing metabolisms.

"Think of your body like a car," chimed in Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, to a Daily Meal reporter. "You need food like your car needs gas. What would happen if you tried to drive away with an empty tank?"

Clearly, the car would slow, stall, or even fail to start at all. "Yet, we expect our bodies to perform without proper fuel," Harris-Pincus concluded. When she puts it like that, it makes perfect sense. By skipping breakfast we're setting ourselves up for a sluggish, unproductive, and exhausting morning.

The reason behind our exhaustion is simple, but the consequences aren't. In fact, they could be much more severe than the average person understands. When we think of skipping breakfast, we think only of the way we feel in the moment. On the surface, it might even seem worth it to feel tired and unproductive. Our bodies are burning fat! Isn't that fantastic?

Not so much. You see, when the body is forced into fat burn due to a lack of fuel, it wreaks havoc on your metabolism. "According to the body of research on breakfast," Harris-Pincus told us, "epidemiological studies provide strong evidence of a relation between breakfast-skipping and a greater risk of overweight, obesity, metabolic risk profile, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension."

In other words, skip breakfast and experience a laundry list of risk factors — all because you wanted to shed a few fat cells before lunch.

In reality, those fat cells don't even stay off. Why? "Skipping breakfast has also been associated with higher fasting blood sugar and all-day blood glucose control," explained Harris-Pincus to The Daily Meal. When you experience an increase in blood glucose, it becomes more difficult for the body's insulin levels, which encourage the body to convert sugar into energy rather than store it as fat for later use, to keep up with the excess supply.

So our understanding of fasting and weight loss is pretty simplistic — it's not accounting for the body's rebound reaction to receiving less food. In response to deprivation, the body holds onto the energy it already has in its system. Then, once you do eat at lunch or later, your blood sugar has a higher probability of going into overload.

That's what causes you to put on weight. And that is why you should never skip breakfast.

It matters what you eat for breakfast, too.
Just eating breakfast at all is a good start, but it's not enough — not if you're really invested in your health.

The whole "banana for breakfast" thing doesn't cut it. Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, the nutritionist behind the protein ball company SimplyFuel and curator of one of Panera's new healthy menus, explained to The Daily Meal that "a healthy breakfast includes protein, fiber, and healthy fats."

A banana is just carbs. (And, yes, some fiber.) But what about the protein? Where are the healthy fats?

The other nutritionists we interviewed confirmed Dulan's claim.

"It's important to try and pack as many nutrients as possible into your breakfast," said Harris-Pincus. "Aim for something from 3 food groups like protein or dairy, produce, and whole grains." Her version of a healthy breakfast involves concocting a simple and delicious version of overnight oats: oats, unsweetened nut milk, Greek yogurt, fruit, and nuts or seeds. She doesn't skimp on the mix-ins.

In fact, the third nutritionist we spoke with doesn't skimp, either. (Are you sensing a trend?)

"Choose a well-rounded breakfast rich in protein, whole grains, fiber, and nutrients like bone-building calcium, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants," advises Weiss. One of her go-to breakfasts is pancakes made with whole wheat flour, puréed pumpkin, and eggs. She always tops them with juicy, fresh fruit.

The state of America's breakfast health may be OK.
It's not all so bad. "Many Americans are on track with eating a healthy breakfast," Harris-Pincus explained to us. "Items like oatmeal, whole grain cereal, fruit, veggie omelets, avocado toast with an egg on top, Greek yogurt, or cottage cheese with fruit are all great choices."

The problems arise when our choices are thoughtless. "A large bagel is basically white flour," she said. "The same goes for doughnuts, muffins, or pastries." None of these options are do the trick in terms of nutritional content. Pair your bagel with an egg or some peanut butter. Nix the muffin and opt for some toast with avocado instead. Craving something sweet? Go for a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, jam, and egg whites.

The options don't have to be boring. Just put a little thought into your morning. Even a big bowl of cereal can be healthy — if you pick the right one.