You’ll often see it claimed on TV and in newspaper headlines that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. According to this type of article, a good breakfast gives our body a kickstart and will also help us lose weight. But, is that really true? The results of recent scientific studies are extremely divided.
It’s not only ‘grandmother’s wise counsel’. Many national health agencies, including those in the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands, recommend to start the day with a good breakfast. One of the most cited reasons for this is that skipping breakfast will make us hungry later in the day and this will cause us to overeat, and thus gain weight. However, this viewpoint was rejected by a recent review article summarising all the studies on the difference in weight change between ‘breakfasters’ and ‘non-breakfasters’. This study showed that ‘breakfasters’ ate on average an additional 260 kcal each day compared to ‘non-breakfasters’. The summary of all the analysed studies showed that after a period of seven weeks, body weight of the ‘breakfasters’ was 0.44 kilograms more than of the ‘non-breakfasters’.
It is, however, short-sighted to use this finding as the basis for the decision that breakfast is ‘bad’ and thus should be skipped it in order to lose weight. For instance, the aforementioned review article included multiple studies with very contradictory results. Moreover, these studies did not say anything about the effect of skipping breakfast over a longer period of time. What can be concluded from this study is that a good breakfast is not necessary in order to lose weight. For instance, this can be seen with diets that follow the principle of intermittent fasting, where regularly skipping a meal has been shown to be an effective weight loss method. And, of course, the meal skipped within such a diet can also be breakfast.
Breakfast and athletic performance
The aforementioned study examined the significance of breakfast in the context of weight loss. However, there are other reasons for eating breakfast than simply controlling body weight, particularly for athletes. Breakfast prepares an athlete for a good athletic performance, it aids recovery after the heavy physical exertion of the previous day, etc. Whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day for athletes is also strongly dependent on the situation. This is certainly the case for a cyclist who is going to participate in a strenuous one-day competition. Breakfast is obviously necessary to provide an athlete with a sufficient amount of energy (i.e. carbohydrates) needed to perform well. But an athlete may choose to delay breakfast or even skip it on a day when they want to train fasted.
Various studies show that skipping breakfast negatively impacts athletic performance. It has been systematically demonstrated that different types of athletic performance in a fasted state are worse than when the athletes did eat breakfast. This negative effect remains even when an athlete skips breakfast and then exercises in the evening, despite that opportunity to eat as much as they like on beforehand. Studies show that athletes’ performance during a simulated time trial or rowing competition in the evening can be up to 5% better when they ate breakfast in comparison to ‘non-breakfasters’.
Breakfast also plays an important role in the recovery and building of muscle for athletes who exercise intensively. The process where muscles recover and rebuild after exercise takes 24 to 48 hours. This process requires that a continuous stream of building blocks (i.e. proteins) must be constantly distributed to the muscles through the day. This means that a good breakfast should contain at least 20 grams of protein, such as in the form of dairy products, eggs, or a savoury sandwich (see table below). Skipping breakfast will create a ‘gap’ in the process, which will disrupt the optimal recovery process.
Whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day depends on the reason for breakfast. Recent research shows that breakfast is not actually necessary for weight loss as has been previously claimed. A good breakfast is important for most athletes. Athletes should very carefully decide on whether to skip breakfast, because this will negatively impact performance or recovery in many cases.