Over the years, food trends come and go. No sooner does a study or headline declare a type of food or way of eating as healthy, another comes along to say it isn’t. But there’s been one nutritional belief that has always stood the test of time: that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Over the 15 years I’ve been a health writer, I’ve been schooled by countless experts that breakfast is vital. It stops us diving into the biscuit tin at 11am, it kick-starts our metabolism, it makes us slimmer and more energetic, and it boosts our concentration and alertness.
Study after study has backed up this belief, not to mention ingrained sayings and campaigns like ‘Go to work on an egg’ or ‘Breakfast like a king’.
Nobody has ever challenged it. But a new book is doing just that.
Breakfast is a Dangerous Mealhas been written by Professor Terence Kealey, an Oxford-educated biochemist who lectured in clinical biochemistry at Cambridge University before becoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.
He’s also a type 2 diabetic and, in the wake of his diagnosis, he began to notice various things – such as how his glucose levels were unusually high after eating breakfast. However, if he had a late breakfast or waited until lunchtime to eat, his glucose levels would be normal. So began his mission to question what he calls the ‘glorification of breakfast’ in our society.
During his research he discovered many things – like how many of the studies making claims about breakfast were funded by cereal or breakfast-food manufacturers. In one of the book’s chapters (entitled ‘The dubious advocates of breakfast’), he explains how global breakfast-cereal sales are expected to reach $43.2 billion (around £34 billion) annually by 2019, up from $32.5 billion (£25.6 billion) in 2012.
In other words, there’s money to be made from having people believe breakfast is vital.
Nutritional therapist and Stella columnist Amelia Freer agrees that food manufacturers have a vested interest in telling us to breakfast like a king: ‘They’ve created a scenario where we think there are only a limited number of options – generally toast, pastries, muffins or cereal, which are just about the worst things you can eat for breakfast.’
In his book, Kealey says most cereals are made largely of carbohydrates and sugar, and that ‘it’s hard to think of a worse morning meal’. Freer adds, ‘These types of breakfast foods are usually made from refined and processed grains, added sugars and damaged fats. As are the pastries and muffins you can buy in the supermarket or see sold as breakfasts in high-street cafés.
‘Most lack good-quality protein and fat, and are instead full of empty, sugary calories, meaning they don’t fill you up and offer little in the way of nutrition. Yet so many of us mindlessly grab them out of our cupboards every morning because we’ve been raised on TV adverts that tell us these are foods to eat for breakfast and that breakfast is vital to good health.’
Professor Kealey also discovered that eating breakfast can increase our overall daily calorie intake, which goes against what’s always been reported (which is that skippers of breakfast are more likely to overeat later on to make up for lost calories).
While it seems to make sense that a good breakfast will stop us overeating at lunch, several recent studies have found that the opposite is true. In a recent study at Cornell University in New York, David Levitsky and Carly Pacanowski found that when study participants were given a light breakfast of 350 calories, their calorie intake later on was unchanged.
In other words, a small breakfast didn’t make them eat more later on as has often been believed. Moreover, when they ate a large breakfast of 600 calories or more, they reduced their lunch calories by just 144 calories. New research on snacking has found similar results.
A US study published in the health journal Appetite found that people who don’t snack eat the same amount at mealtimes as snackers. Freer says this could be because the body is far more capable of going without food than we give it credit for.
She believes that the studies supporting intermittent fasting are examples of this: ‘A few years ago, I attended a lecture about blood-sugar management, and the scientist leading it explained our modern dripfeed way of eating creates permanently elevated levels of the hormone insulin in our bloodstream, which puts pressure on the pancreas and liver, in turn putting our bodies into fat-storage mode.’
‘I never tell clients to starve themselves, but you don’t need to eat the minute you wake up or graze constantly either. I totally agree that breakfast isn’t as important a meal as we have been led to believe. I’ll often help clients to move away from breakfast and towards two larger meals a day instead. But they have to be eating the right things for this to be beneficial, so it’s something I work towards rather than just asking someone to stop eating breakfast – especially if they have a bad diet.’
In those cases, Freer advises having a healthier breakfast, and improving overall eating, before moving towards two meals a day rather than several meals and snacks. ‘It really depends on what’s going on with an individual and what their goal is.
‘But, in theory, I don’t think that everyone needs to eat breakfast and I’m in favour of people eating all their food within a window of time, rather than all-day grazing,’ she says. Professor Kealey is also a fan of what he calls ‘time-restricted feeding’, which is linked to intermittent fasting (benefits of which are said to include reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s).
‘Under time-restricted feeding, people fast for part of every day,’ he explains. ‘They eat all their food during a time window, which is generally about eight hours.
In practice, time-restricted feeding generally means that people skip breakfast and morning snacks, but they eat lunch, an afternoon snack and dinner – but no late-night supper.’
Professor Kealey says that research shows that when people eat during a window (say between 11am and 7pm), their blood lipid patterns (blood lipids are fatty acids and cholesterol – elevated levels are a major risk factor for heart disease) and sensitivity to insulin improves.
There’s also research, detailed in Professor Kealey’s book, that people with diabetes do better when they skip breakfast and eat a larger lunch and dinner. And that habitual breakfast-skippers (around 17 per cent of the population, according to studies) often eat less or the same amount as breakfast-eaters, which goes against long-held beliefs (and headlines) that people who skip breakfast binge on biscuits all day as a result.
However, both Professor Kealey and Freer agree that skipping breakfast isn’t right for everybody. Children need it, and those people who happily eat breakfast and are at a healthy weight should just carry on. ‘The trouble with studies is that there simply isn’t a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to real people,’ says Freer.
‘We’re all different. So if you love breakfast, you’re happy with your health and fitness, and it works for you, then carry on. However, if you don’t feel hungry first thing, function well without breakfast, and feel healthy and fit, then there’s no harm in waiting until lunchtime to eat. Or having a larger breakfast later on followed by another meal at 5pm. Just listen to your body.’ So, is breakfast a dangerous meal? Probably not. But it would seem it’s not the most important one either.