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The Science Behind Breakfast

Why breakfast is the most important meal of the day

Healthy breakfast cereal with strawberriesYou might think that the recommendation not to skip breakfast is just plain good advice. After all you need enough fuel to make it through the morning, right? Recent studies are finding even more reasons for making room for the "most important meal of the day." 

Probably the most appealing benefit is that breakfast jumpstarts your metabolism and, thus, helps you burn more calories throughout the day.

When you eat breakfast you’re telling your body that there are plenty of calories to be had for the day. When you skip breakfast the message your body gets is that it needs to conserve rather than burn any incoming calories.

"Studies have found that although people who skip breakfast eat slightly fewer calories during the day, they tend to have higher body mass index, or BMI," says Christy C. Tangney, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Rush University and an expert on the effects of diet and nutrition on heart health. 

"We use BMI, the ratio of a person’s weight compared to height, as an easy measure of whether someone is in the range of his or her healthy weight or not," she says.

"A BMI of 25 or higher, for example, indicates that someone is overweight and needs to take action to come back to their ideal weight." 

Interested in seeing the range for your ideal weight or calculating your BMI? Visit Determining Your Ideal Weight. 

Advantages 

Various studies have found different benefits of starting your day with breakfast, including being more likely to:

  • Have a lower BMI
  • Consume less fat through the day
  • Meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption
  • Have higher daily calcium intake
  • Have higher daily fiber intake
  • Have better performance (memory and attention) (for school-aged children)

"Much of the research just makes good common sense," says Tangney. "If you start with a healthy, satisfying meal in the morning you’re less apt to nibble on less nutritious things during the day, which we often do out of hunger — you grab the first or easiest thing in front of you." 

Disadvantages

Various studies have found a range of disadvantages of skipping breakfast: 

  • More likely to be overweight
  • Less likely to meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption
  • More likely to consume unhealthy snacks

Studies of children and adolescents have shown that those who skip breakfast are apt to be overweight.

"Of more concern is that an association has been found between skipping breakfast and other risky behaviors like smoking, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol," says Tangney. 

Making good breakfast choices

You might think that a muffin and a cup of coffee ought to do the trick, but experts advise being more careful about what you choose to start your day. Here are some suggestions for those on the go:

  • High-fiber cereal with fresh fruit and low-fat milk or soy or rice milk substitute
  • Low-fat protein shake with fresh/frozen fruit
  • High-fiber toast or bagel with tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Select protein bar and yogurt or a glass of milk

"You can also have one serving of fresh fruit later as a mid-morning snack," says Tangney. 

Read labels on any processed breakfast selections to see if they’re healthy choices.

"Especially with protein bars and some yogurts; some of them can have a lot of added sugar," says Tangney. "It’s a good idea to try to keep sugars under 20grams and look for bars with about 6-10 grams of protein, and 3 or more grams of fiber." 

You may want to consult with a dietitian if you need to get yourself back on track or are looking for menu ideas.

"You can share your food preferences and your limitations with a dietitian and he or she can help you with a good plan of action," Tangney says. 

"Breakfast is like exercising, if you make room for it in the morning, you’ll look and feel great throughout the day," says Tangney.

January 2012