Breakfast: how bad is it to skip breakfast?

You’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but is it really all that matters? The reality may surprise you.

You’ve probably been reprimanded at least once in your life for skipping breakfast. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day, right? Actually, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Some studies have shown that people who eat breakfast have less appetite, better self-control and higher productivity. A 2013 study in the journal obesity found that overweight and obese women who had a 700-calorie breakfast and a 200-calorie light dinner lost more weight than those who did the opposite. This indicates that a morning meal may be the most important. But not every study links breakfast to a slimmer waistline. Research published in 2019 in the BMJ found that there’s no evidence that eating breakfast is a good weight loss strategy, but skipping breakfast isn’t bad for weight loss either. So what does that mean for you and your breakfast? This is what dietitians say.

How important is breakfast?

In reality, the importance of breakfast varies from person to person, says registered dietitian Torey Armul, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The research is really mixed on weight management breakfast,” she says. “Some people who skip breakfast have a much bigger appetite later in the day and tend to overeat. Other people find their appetites don’t change later in the day.”

One problem could be that breakfast talk is more of a yes-or-no question than a discussion of what a healthy morning meal looks like. A balanced breakfast contains a mix of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, says registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But most American breakfast staples — think cereals, bagels and muffins — are largely refined carbohydrates, giving you a quick boost of energy but a crash later. “Not only will you have fluctuating energy levels throughout the day, but you’ll feel hungry again soon after,” says Rumsey. “Having a balanced breakfast gives yourself a boost of energy so your blood sugar rises a bit, but the proteins and fats help stabilize that energy.”

Why should I have breakfast?

If you’re not starving at lunch, you’re more likely to choose healthy foods and not overeat in the afternoon. On the other hand, a rumbling tummy can kill your temper, Rumsey says. Even if you’re not hungry in the morning, she recommends having something in your stomach for lunch so you don’t feel hungry before your first meal. “It doesn’t have to be good when you wake up, but eating within a few hours sets the tone for the day,” she says. Sip on a smoothie instead of biting into solid foods, or eat a banana with two tablespoons of peanut butter. Starting with a balanced meal can also plan your entire day for a successful diet. “There is a lot of power in making healthy choices that will lead you to make healthy choices for the rest of the day,” says Armul.

But if you’re looking for a quick fix to kick-start your metabolism, breakfast may not be the answer. “Some studies say it boosts metabolism, but other strong studies say it doesn’t — at least not significantly,” says Armul. “Sometimes we think we have more control over speeding up our metabolism than we actually do.” In reality, the only thing that has been consistently shown to boost metabolism is exercise, she says.

What should I eat for breakfast?

For a breakfast that lives up to its promise to keep you full, focus on adding protein. “Protein is the biggest and where the research is strongest in how it can lead to satiety, fullness, and even eating less,” says Armul. Hard-boiled eggs, nuts, Greek yogurt, and nut butter are all easy, filling options. Throw in fiber-rich fruits and veggies (skins on, please!), and you’re good to go. (This healthy breakfast quesadilla will do the trick, too.)

But the morning rush can make it difficult to put together a healthy, balanced breakfast. People often put effort into packing healthy lunches and cooking nutritious dinners without paying much attention to a healthy breakfast. Fortunately, a morning meal is also the easiest to plan. “It doesn’t have to sit down to this big meal,” Rumsey says. She recommends throwing some fruits and nuts in sachets at night and then packing them with yogurt when you head out the door.

The bottom line is, if you’re always hungry and making unhealthy choices at lunch, you may want to rethink your breakfast habits — whether you want to make it bigger, better, or just existing. But if you just have a small appetite and can’t digest anything for (a reasonable) lunch, don’t worry. “You can usually kind of feel like you’re the type of person who has a change in appetite by eating breakfast,” says Armul.

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