Food & Nutrition

The importance of breakfast

WeightWatchers® experts look at the latest science to find out if breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.
Published 26 December 2018

How important is breakfast?


A good breakfast sets you up for a healthier day You’ll be less hungry throughout the morning and have better concentration and alertness levels. Breakfast can help you eat less at main meal times and even reduce your risk of suffering a non-fatal heart attack.

As our eating habits change and evolve, the importance of breaking the overnight fast has become a topic debated by everyone, from scientists to dietitians and doctors, and has left many wondering if there’s any truth to the old adage: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” In addition, the rise in popularity of intermittent fasting diets, which at times involves skipping breakfast, has called into question the importance of what has traditionally been the first meal of the day. So, how important is breakfast?


How does breakfast affect metabolism?

Most people are religious about having their morning coffee, but it’s not always the case when it comes to breakfast. Various studies have noted the benefits of eating a healthy breakfast, which include revving up your metabolism – a process that can help with using more kilojoules – improving your cognitive performance and giving you more energy to get you through your busy day.

“Having a good breakfast sets you up for a healthier day,” says accredited practising dietitian Skye Swaney. “You’ll be less hungry throughout the morning, be able to avoid snacks at morning tea, have better concentration and eat less at lunch and dinner.”


What happens if I skip breakfast?

Making time for the first meal of the day has its benefits, but what actually happens when you skip breakfast?

“Throughout the morning, blood sugar levels will gradually decrease, meaning energy and concentration levels will decline and the desire for high-carb, high-sugar foods will likely increase,” says Swaney. “As well as seeing similar trends with my clients, studies report that breakfast skippers have higher intakes of unhealthy snack foods than breakfast consumers and appear to make poorer food choices,” says accredited practising dietitian Aimee Boidin.

Missing breakfast could also encourage inflammation in the body. A small study from Germany’s University of Hohenheim looked at what happens to the body when people skip breakfast regularly. It tested 17 healthy adults on three separate days – once when they skipped breakfast, once when they had regular meals and once when they skipped dinner. Of the meals they ate on each day, the kilojoule content and breakdown of carbs, fat and protein were all the same. What the study found was that there was no difference in 24-hour glucose levels, insulin secretion or total physical activity between the three days, but glucose concentrations and markers of inflammation and insulin resistance were higher after lunch on the days participants skipped breakfast.

Over time, insulin resistance may lead to type 2 diabetes so, while the sample size is quite small, the research does pose some interesting thought-starters about the effects of skipping breakfast on the body and nutrition experts agree that it does warrant further study.


Can skipping breakfast cause health issues?

Eating breakfast could also have an effect on chronic disease and heart health. One observational study of 46,289 conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health found women who skipped breakfast had a 20 per cent higher risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than those who ate it daily. Another study from Harvard University that looked at 16 years of data from 26,902 healthy men found those who skipped breakfast were 27 per cent more likely to have a non-fatal heart attack.


What about breakfast and weight loss?

The thing most people want to know is, what’s the connection between eating breakfast and losing weight? Eating one less meal a day may seem like a step towards weight loss because you’re consuming fewer kilojoules. However, there’s research available now that suggests eating or cutting out breakfast makes little difference to losing kilos.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition split 283 overweight participants into three groups. The first received dietary guidelines on the importance of eating breakfast to lose weight and was asked to eat breakfast daily. Another group was given dietary guidelines about healthy eating minus the information about breakfast and skipped breakfast. The control group was given information about healthy eating and was not given instructions on whether to eat or skip breakfast. Researchers found there was no difference in the weights of participants, regardless of whether they were asked to eat breakfast, skip it or decide themselves. While this has been an interesting revelation, there is still research that suggests a link between eating breakfast and weight loss success.

While a review of 153 studies on eating habits and excess weight found a small connection between skipping breakfast and excess weight. One of the common weight-loss factors associated with eating breakfast is the fact it can help with how much is being consumed throughout the rest of the day. “For many people, skipping breakfast leads to overeating later in the day due to the effects on blood sugar levels. It may also lead to reduced activity as a result of poor energy levels, reducing the amount of energy the body utilises,” says Swaney. “Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is a safer bet for long-term success if weight loss is the goal.”

“Research continually shows the frequency of breakfast skipping is associated with weight gain. Skipping breakfast is linked to less consumption of good-quality foods and more of poor-quality, higher-energy choices,” says Boidin.


What should I eat for breakfast?

For most, breakfast is imperative to feel alert and ready to tackle the day (especially for children and adolescents), but it’s also important to consider what you eat as a whole. “I think our grandmas and parents were on the right track when they were saying, ‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.’ However, with that said, nutritional intake and best health is influenced by food and beverage intake throughout the entire day and is relevant to the individual,” says Boidin.

Anyone wondering if they should eat breakfast should think about how they feel if they don’t eat in the morning, says Boidin. Are you overeating during the day? Are you experiencing loss of concentration and increased fatigue? Are you noticing increased irritability towards the end of the day? If you’re nodding your head as you read, it’s likely that’s your answer. But ‘to breakfast or not to breakfast’ isn’t the only question to consider here. What you put on your plate can also affect how you feel and what you eat for the day. “Making a healthy choice from the start can set you up for a better day overall,” says Swaney.

Swaney says protein, carbs and healthy fats with some fibre are important to incorporate into your meal for satiety and to give you energy for the day ahead. Boidin recommends eggs on toast with vegetables such as mushrooms, spinach or cherry tomatoes. Alternatively, try Bircher muesli made with rolled oats and Greek yoghurt, along with some nuts and seeds, a meal with Swaney’s tick of approval.


Skipping breakfast and intermittent fasting

Whether it’s the 5:2 or the 16:8, it seems there’s always a new intermittent fasting diet popping up. While they may promise weight-loss results, there can be downsides to such strict eating plans. According to the Dietitians Association of Australia, fasting may cause side effects including: “fatigue, feeling foggy-headed, affected mood, feeling ‘hangry’, constipation and headaches”.


3 surprising benefits of eating breakfast

1. It may lower your BMI
A study published in the Journal Of Nutrition found not skipping breakfast was linked to a drop in body mass index (BMI) for participants.


2. It can reduce hunger
Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia revealed eating breakfast lifts satiety levels and can help reduce hunger throughout the day.


3. It can help you focus
A breakfast high in protein can increase your levels of tyrosine, dopamine and noreprinephrine, which will increase your alertness.