Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal?!
You’ve heard it over and over again… breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Some of us live hard to this mantra and never skip our AM meal, but for others, simply the thought of eating something in the morning is a no-go. If you’re in the latter group, are you missing out on benefits or potentially causing harm to your health?
Well…. it depends.
Like everything in nutrition, the importance of having breakfast, and what constitutes as a “balanced” breakfast, is dependent on the needs of the individual. Some of us may not experience any direct consequences of waiting until the late morning or lunch time for a first meal. For others, making sure that you have something (even a small meal) can have major importance.
Let’s discuss further…
Before I get into specific examples, I want to discuss what may happen if we have too little in the morning. This may happen consciously, such as choosing to restrict our intake of calories at breakfast for the pursuit of weight loss. In a similar case, we may not have breakfast regularly because it is not within our habit, we have busy mornings and it becomes forgotten.
As you can see from the diagram below, what can happen is that our hunger levels sky rocket by lunch and we over eat to compensate. Ever waited too long to eat and then when you try to eat you feel like a bottomless pit that is never full? This cycle can continue to dinner, and for those with high energy needs (such as athletes), by dinner time you feel deprived and over eat to fill the void. This can lead to a cycle of over eating calories, and not getting them in evenly throughout the day.
So who might benefit from having breakfast?
Athletes or active individuals with morning workouts
If you train in the morning, then it is actually essential that you eat breakfast! Skipping meals, not eating enough and waiting too long after your workout session to eat something can actually cause detriments to your performance, result in decreases in lean muscle mass, and also lead to overeating later in the day.
Individuals with high energy needs
If you have high calorie needs, such as athletes who are in a volume and high intensity phase, then utilizing the morning time to get in 1-2 meals will help you to meet your energy needs easier than if you were to cram in lots of food later in the day. Spreading out intake throughout the day may also help with digestion as well as maintaining lean muscle tissue more effectively.
Individuals who want to increase their lean muscle mass
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t much evidence to support the myth that having around 25-30 g of protein within 30 minutes to an hour of waking up helps with maintaining lean muscle mass. However, based on the evidence, spreading out protein intake throughout the day (rather than concentrating at one meal, like dinner), can help to maintain lean muscle tissue. Therefore, spreading out our intake to include a morning (aka breakfast meal) can help us to incorporate this fact.
Those who struggle with cravings and overeating in the evenings
Cravings and overeating isn’t necessarily a lack of willpower, or a sign that you are a bad person. Rather, they may be a physiological response that our body is telling us its missing something. Behold.. a balanced breakfast! Spacing out your intake throughout the day, such as adding a balanced breakfast meal with enough protein and some high fiber carbs (like fruits, oatmeal, quinoa) may help to regulate hunger levels throughout the day and prevent the negative cycle shown in the diagram above.
As you can see, there are many circumstances where breakfast IS important and it can have a huge impact on what the rest of your day looks like. You might even say breakfast can “make or break” your goals; whether they are to increase/ maintain lean muscle mass, optimize exercise performance, and have stable energy and hunger levels throughout the day.
Does timing matter?
Again, it depends.
For the average person, there is likely no need to force yourself to eat something within 1 hour of waking. It would be better to follow your hunger cues, but aim to have something before 11 AM if possible.
If you are someone who exercises in the morning, timing is more important. Have a small meal or snack about 1 hour before your training session, then have a more substantial breakfast within 30-60 minutes after.
So what should I eat….?
But of course, simply eating “something” isn’t the only thing that is important. It is also WHAT you are eating that matters too. Again, what you choose to have for breakfast can depend on your individual needs. Here are some examples:
If you are someone who….
Works out in the morning
If you train early in the morning, it is SUPER important to make sure you have something before and after. This is crucial to your energy levels, allowing you to push harder in the workout, as well as optimizing recovery so you can get stronger and see improvements over time.
Pre-workout breakfast: Have something lighter (low in fat and fiber) with quick digest carbs and some protein. For example, a glass of soy milk and a banana.
Recovery breakfast: Emphasize carbs and protein (2-4 g of carbs to 1 g of protein is an ideal ratio). Keep this meal low in fat and fiber. For example, toast, turkey bacon and scrambled egg whites.
Has high energy needs
You may benefit from two smaller breakfasts or morning meals if your calorie and nutrient needs are higher than the average person. Make sure you include a good source of lean protein, fibrous carb (such as fruit, starchy vegetables, whole grains) and healthy fats at each of these meals. Spreading it out may help you to get more in.
Breakfast / Meal 1: Egg white omelet plus oatmeal and berries Breakfast / Meal 2: Toast with avocado and hemp hearts
Struggles with having food in the morning
Don’t have much of an appetite in the morning? If you aren’t currently having anything, start off for a few days having something very small (such as a few rice cakes or some berries) to stimulate your appetite. Work up to something with a bit more substance such as a handful of almonds and some fruit. As your appetite adjusts you may be able to increase your intake.
Wakes up and goes to work / school / class first thing
For the average person who works or goes to school during the day, a general guideline for breakfast is to make sure to include a good source of protein (aim for 20-30 g), some fibrous carbohydrates (fruit, starchy carbs and/or whole grains) and a healthy fat (such as a serving of nuts or avocado).
The bottom line….
Each of us has our own structure to our day, in addition to a unique medical history, genetics, lifestyle, food preferences, and fitness goals. Therefore, saying that breakfast is the most important meal for everyone just isn’t true. For some of us, yes, it can be very important to ensure we aren’t missing breakfast. For others, it may not be so crucial. Further, what your breakfast constitutes depends on all of those factors as well. If you still aren’t sure if you’re doing breakfast right, don’t hesitate to contact a dietitian for some personalized support.