You’ve probably heard it as a kid while racing downstairs to catch the bus, or maybe on a billboard advertising a new fast food item. It’s a saying that’s been passed down to us from the time we’re old enough to eat solids. But even if it is just a kitschy idiom, is there some truth to calling breakfast the most important meal of the day?
That question has been buzzing around the nutritional community for quite some time, and there still doesn’t seem to be one definitive answer. After all, nutrition isn’t an exact science. So just like with any dietary legend, there appears to be evidence both to support and refute the idea that breakfast is necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle.
So, what do we normal folk do about breakfast as the scientists and food experts and gastroenterologists continue to search for the truth? How quickly should we eat, and at what time? What kinds of foods should we avoid? How big should our portions be?
Let’s take a look at some of these popular breakfast quandaries so you can be informed on what science has to say about optimizing energy, focus, and flavor!
Do I Need to Eat Breakfast?
If by need you mean “Will I die if I don’t eat first thing in the morning?”, then the answer is a pretty definitive “no”. Some studies have reported that people can feel perfectly normal despite not eating until later in the day. (These people do tend to be night-owls, though, meaning they may have had a later dinner/nighttime snack.)
Generally speaking, though, eating breakfast seems to have more benefits than drawbacks.
Filling your belly earlier in the day reportedly replenishes your body’s needed nutrients and jumpstarts your metabolism. It helps raise your blood sugar back to normal levels after it lowers throughout the night, and several studies posit that, based on detailed dietary logs, eating breakfast can help sustain weight loss. Most breakfast-study participants report feeling healthier, happier, and more alert during the day after they have a balanced breakfast.
When Should I Eat My First Meal?
There doesn’t seem to be an indisputable “best” time to eat the first meal of the day, especially since we don’t all wake-up or go to bed at the same time. With all our bodies on different timetables, it’s not practical (or scientifically reasonable) to say a specific time– like 6 AM or something– works best for everyone.
However, a marginal consensus appears to have emerged from the sea of study results that eating early in your day, specifically within two hours of waking up, works best. The reasoning is fairly consistent: it reportedly stabilizes your blood sugar, provides energy, and prevents cravings and overeating. It’s not really about where the sun is in the sky– it’s about how quickly you replenish what your body needs after sleeping.
Does Eating Quickly Make a Difference?
It’s tempting to choke down whatever food you can find to get breakfast over with. But there is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the idea that it’s actually to your benefit to slow down.
It takes your brain about 20 minutes to signal to your stomach that you’ve eaten enough. That means that if you’re a fast eater, you’ll consume more calories before your body realizes you’re full. Try taking fifteen minutes to eat your yogurt and granola instead of your usual five. You’ll likely feel more satisfied and possibly save money by eating smaller portions.
How Big Should My Breakfast Be?
The average person is recommended to consume around 2,000 calories per day. A decent way to calculate meal size is by dividing 2,000 by however many meals/snacks you plan to eat during the day. Using this procedure, a typical breakfast for someone who eats three square meals should be around 500 calories, leaving a few hundred extra for snacks.
You can adjust the size of your meals, and your caloric intake, depending on whether you want to lose or gain weight. Just be sure to consume at least 1,200 every day and avoid gorging yourself on any one particular nutrient. Good nutrition is about balance, and that includes fats, carbs, AND proteins.
If you’re eating a prepackaged or made-to-order meal, the nutrition facts (including the serving size) should be available. Otherwise, you can calculate how many calories something has by using an online calorie calculator.
What Does a “Balanced Breakfast” Look Like?
A lot of breakfast brands like to throw the phrase “Part of a Balanced Breakfast” into their advertising campaigns. But what exactly does that mean?
A truly “balanced breakfast” is just that– balanced. It means focusing on natural, unprocessed meals and ingredients and avoiding those that are particularly high in fats, carbs, or proteins. If your breakfast looks like a single large, colorful bowl of sugary cereal, then chances are you’re not getting all the nutrients you need. That said…
Which Foods Should I Avoid Eating in the Morning?
As delicious as they may be, there are a few breakfast foods that are especially harmful to your energy supply. Avoid these foods and ingredients to prevent crashing on the couch too early in the day:
- White bread doesn’t give you the same positive boost in energy that wheat breads do. It’s digested faster and you get less fiber out of it because of how it’s processed. Yes, you’ll get a small boost of energy from its carb content, but you’ll also get a rough crash.
- Sugary cereals are some of the tastiest, most iconic breakfast options, but they’re also some of the least healthy ones. They tend to contain a crazy amount of sugar and carbs, which often give you a brief rush before sending you into nap-mode.
- Fast food is convenient, sure, but at what cost? Starting your day with meals that are deep-fried, flash-frozen, or steeped in sugar will fill up your calorie count very early in the day, and slow your metabolism in the long run.
- Energy drinks claim to, well, give you energy, and for a while they do. But the added sugars in these drinks will give you an insane burst of energy before dropping sharply and quickly, leaving you more tired than when you first drank it.
It really is all about balancing what your body wants and what it needs, and more often than not, traditional “big breakfast” foods will actually give you less energy than a restrained, healthy meal.
Instead of cereals and biscuits, try these healthy meals and ingredients instead:
- Eggs are some of the best things you can eat in the morning. They’re versatile, they have a tremendous source of protein, and they encourage lower calorie consumption because they fill you up fast!
- Coffee is a stimulant that can cause quite a bit of discomfort when it’s consumed too much. But when you drink it in smaller, less frequent increments, drinking coffee (especially black coffee) can boost your energy and keep your digestive track regular!
- Oatmeal is a fantastic breakfast option for people who want to feel full. It’s rich in antioxidants, reduces cholesterol, and, when coupled with milk, can be a good source of protein!
- Yogurt is, all-around, a great base for a meal. Greek yogurt, in particular, is chocked full of gut-healing probiotics and makes you feel full faster! Avoid yogurts with a lot of added sugar. Instead, throw some nuts and berries into plain Greek yogurt for a tasty, filling breakfast!
Are Quickie-Breakfasts a Good Idea? (Shakes, powders, etc.)
Breakfast can feel like a time-waster when you have ten minutes to leave the house or you don’t have a lot in your fridge. The most common solution to this problem is protein shakes and powders. Having breakfast in a bottle sounds great, but does it work? Well, generally speaking, yes.
It’s recommended that, for each meal, you ingest 15 to 25 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and 10 to 13 grams of healthy unsaturated fat. Most shakes and supplements vary on their nutritional makeups, and more often than not, they fail to provide you with all of the nutrients you need for a substantial, healthy meal. That said, they work wonderfully as meals when they’re paired with bananas or peanut butter. Supplement them with other snacks to create a quick, balanced meal.
NOTE: This tip does NOT extend to energy drinks. Avoid those like the plague during breakfast.
How Often Can I Have a Cheat Breakfast?
We’re all humans here. We’re going to fall short of our nutritional and dietary goals from time to time. The sort-of good news here is that, in many diets and lifestyles, planned cheating can actually be very beneficial! (Hint: the keyword here is planned.)
Some diets, like keto, don’t make allowances for excess carbs or sugars. However, many are flexible enough to allow purposeful cheat-days or cheat-meals to help you avoid hitting a nutritional wall. It can be a comfort to know you’ll get a weekly cheat-breakfast so you have something to look forward to when you’re growing tired of chomping on celery sticks.
At the end of the day, there’s not any single rule about how often you can “cheat”. Just know that you’ll likely feel better later if you invest in clean, healthy breakfasts rather than taking the full bacon-and-pancakes route.
Maybe it’s time to stop asking “Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?” and start asking “What can I do to give myself the best head start to my day?” For most people, it appears that eating breakfast within two hours of waking up has a lot of health benefits, especially when they eat clean, non-processed, non-sugary items. Try some of the tips above and see how much more energy you have throughout the day!