Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? And does eating a morning meal help us maintain a healthy weight?
The breakfast-is-best dogma is based on a blend of cultural tradition and science (and more than a little cereal marketing.)
Some of the earliest evidence goes back to the 1960s, when researchers in Alameda County, Calif., documented residents' everyday habits. The long-term study linked eating breakfast — along with other lifestyle choices, including a good night's sleep and regular exercise — to improved health and longevity.
But in recent years, this association has come under more scrutiny. And what's emerged points to a more complicated conclusion.
For instance, researchers in Canada who studied the habits of about 12,000 adults concluded that "breakfast consumption was not consistently associated with differences in [body mass index] or overweight prevalence." And a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, when it comes to weight loss, breakfast eaters do no better — or worse — than people who skip the morning meal.
Here's the deal: Lots of American adults aren't sitting down to breakfast anymore.
In our informal Twitter poll, almost 1 in 5 respondents said they skip the morning meal entirely, or just drink coffee. Another 25 percent of respondents grab a quick yogurt or energy bar at some point during the morning.
Our results mirror the findings of industry research. The NPD Group finds that Americans are moving away from prescribed mealtimes. The trend is most pronounced among millennials, who, according to NPD, skip twice as many breakfast meals compared with older Americans.
And, increasingly, what millennials are choosing to eat in the morning — when they make time for it — also marks a significant departure in eating habits: They're often opting for a hot breakfast instead of cereal.
How do we square the "breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal" belief with the shift in our eating habits?
If you sift through the scientific evidence, there doesn't seem to be anything magical about eating first thing in the morning. Lots of us aren't hungry until a few hours after we wake up. If you're a "grab-a-yogurt-at-10 a.m." person, that's OK.
And waiting to eat anything until lunchtime might actually work best for some of us. As we've reported, some dieters have found success with minifasts.
So, is there a downside to skipping breakfast — or not eating early in the morning? We put the question to David Ludwig, an obesity researcher, nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of the book Always Hungry?
And his answer, in short, is this: What we eat in the morning may be more important than when we eat it.
"If [your] breakfast is based on highly processed carbohydrates [such as sugary cereals or sweet rolls], it may be as bad [as], or worse than, skipping breakfast," Ludwig says.
Why? All of those refined carbs and sugars can lead to a spike in blood sugar and insulin. "The high insulin programs the body for fat storage, making it hard to cut back calories," says Ludwig.
And a breakfast of highly refined carbohydrates may leave you feeling hungrier later in the day.
On the other hand, if you eat a protein-rich breakfast (think eggs), you're likely to be satisfied longer. "Non-carbohydrate foods, specifically protein and fat, slow down digestion," says Ludwig.
So, what's an ideal breakfast? We asked the advice of Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who studies the links between food and mood.
Ramsey pointed us to eggs, topped with a mix of fresh greens and pumpkin seeds, which are rich in magnesium, thought to play a role in fending off anxiety.
The body of evidence linking high protein to more satiety is growing. For instance, a new study finds that a high-protein breakfast may help people control their appetites and eat less the remainder of the day.
And it seems millennials are ahead of the curve on this advice: NPD Group's Darren Seifer says young adults are big on protein-rich foods.
They may not eat breakfast every day, but when they do, "we are seeing a greater number of younger consumers consuming eggs in the morning," he says. And based on NPD's modeling, this trend is set to accelerate.
In some ways, it seems as if we're going back to where we were at the turn of the last century, when a farmer-style, cooked breakfast was the norm.
We turned away from this when cereal was marketed as the healthier, more convenient alternative. "Americans really did make this shift ... to a lighter, grain-based breakfast," says Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Cereal became the go-to option.
Now, habits are shifting once again.
This post is adapted from a story that originally ran last August.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's time to discover something new about food, as we've been doing every few weeks. I was sitting in the studio recently and NPR's Allison Aubrey came by for a visit.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, David. Well, I'm going to wait to reveal this dish here. It's covered so you can't see what's in it but...
GREENE: And there's a computer monitor in front of it too so...
AUBREY: Yeah. OK.
GREENE: ...So good cover. I have no idea what you have over there.
AUBREY: So today we are going to talk breakfast. Now, this is something that...
GREENE: It's my favorite meal.
AUBREY: ...I know you been interested in.
AUBREY: And we're going to get down to answering a very simple question that always seems to be swirling around, and that is, is breakfast really the most important meal...
GREENE: You are...
AUBREY: ...Or can you just skip it?
GREENE: We're going to be conclusive about this today.
AUBREY: Well, stay tuned. OK.
AUBREY: Now, to tee up this conversation, I want to take you back in time a few decades to listen to one of the most powerful factors that shaped the American breakfast habit.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Catch that leprechaun. He's got Lucky Charms. They're magically delicious.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Count Chocula) I'm the super sweet monster with a super sweet new cereal, Count Chocula.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Tony the Tiger) They're great.
GREENE: Tony the Tiger, I can taste the Frosted Flakes in my mouth right now. My childhood.
AUBREY: (Laughter) So cereal really came as the ultimate convenience food, right? All you had to do is open up the bag...
AUBREY: ...Put in a little milk. And it was an alternative to the cooked breakfast - you know, the bacon and eggs that took time, the farmer-style breakfast. You know, if you didn't do cereal, there were also all these other ready-to-eat muffins and doughnuts, and most of them - here's the bad part, David - laden with sugar and refined starch.
GREENE: Which is bad, right?
AUBREY: Well, given what we know today, a breakfast of just this kind of sugary cereal is not the way to start the day, and here's why. I am going to hand you a little handful of these wheat kernels here. Take a look at them. And I'm going to pass them over.
AUBREY: This is how you make flour or wheat cereal. When bread makers or cereal makers refine these little kernels, they've basically got two options. They can use the whole thing including the little tiny germ that's inside that's packed with all of the good stuff - so folate, magnesium, protein, fiber. Or they can refine it out and just leave the starchy part, which doesn't have as much nutrition. And what's left moves through our bodies really quickly and can spike blood sugar. I spoke to David Ludwig of Harvard Medical School, and here's how he explains the potential problem.
DAVID LUDWIG: It's not a coincidence that the obesity epidemic got its start as we began replacing the typical higher-fat, higher-protein meals and breakfasts in our diet with all of these processed carbohydrates.
GREENE: Oh, God. We're blaming the obesity epidemic in part on my favorite breakfast cereals?
AUBREY: Well, hang on here. Now, we're told that breakfast is the most important meal, right?
AUBREY: We hear it all the time. But the fact is that a lot of people are skipping breakfast. And we did this little informal Twitter survey and found that about 1 in 5 people say they skipped breakfast or just had coffee. Here's what David Ludwig says about this question of do you have to have breakfast.
LUDWIG: If that breakfast is based on highly processed carbohydrates, be they grains or sugar, it may be as bad or worse than skipping breakfast.
GREENE: Better to have nothing than to have one of those unhealthy cereals.
AUBREY: That's basically what he's saying. And to me, I really think we've been asking the wrong question. It's not whether you need to eat breakfast, but what kind of breakfast you should be eating. It's the quality of the breakfast that can determine its impact on our hunger and our metabolism throughout the day.
GREENE: Can I ask a personal question?
GREENE: So I love eggs.
AUBREY: OK - oh...
GREENE: I make a couple eggs every morning...
AUBREY: All right.
GREENE: ...in the microwave.
AUBREY: There you go.
GREENE: Is this too - can you compare this to the awful cereals you were talking about?
AUBREY: OK. So actually here is the big reveal, David.
AUBREY: I'm about to lift the cover off of this hot plate here.
GREENE: Oh, are you going to show me some eggs?
AUBREY: I am going to show you what one expert told me is the ideal breakfast. I'm going to hand it over to you.
GREENE: Is that an omelette?
AUBREY: That is an omelette.
GREENE: Oh, you are the best colleague in the entire world. You're going to make me feel like I make a healthy breakfast every morning.
AUBREY: Just for you. So it's eggs. Those eggs are loaded with protein, some fat, which really slows down digestion...
AUBREY: Gives you that nice steady energy, probably the reason you eat the eggs. And look in there. What's inside that omelette?
GREENE: It looks like spinach.
AUBREY: That's a bunch of greens, kale, now, that's probably...
GREENE: A lot of greens, kale.
AUBREY: ...not something your grandmother would have put in her eggs, right?
GREENE: No, I'm looking for the melted cheese. Am I not...
AUBREY: (Laughter). So there's not cheese in there.
GREENE: There's no melted cheese, OK.
AUBREY: Let me tell you, I got the kale thing from a physician. And see what's sprinkled on the top there?
GREENE: Yeah, it's like little shells or something.
AUBREY: Little pumpkin seeds.
GREENE: Pumpkin seeds. Not something I usually...
AUBREY: And those...
GREENE: ...Put in my omelette, but OK.
AUBREY: Those are a good source of zinc and magnesium that are thought to play a role in fending off anxiety.
AUBREY: So it turns out your breakfast, David, you know, with all of those eggs, they're going to give you that nice steady energy. And if you put the other stuff on top, maybe the pumpkin seeds, maybe can help keep you in a good mood...
AUBREY: ...throughout the whole day.
GREENE: ...During the day. And the yolk is in these eggs, right? I don't have to go egg white?
AUBREY: Those are real eggs.
GREENE: OK. And if I throw a tiny bit of cheese in, would I be ruining everything?
AUBREY: I think you can throw in a tiny bit of cheese if that makes it taste better to you.
GREENE: OK. I mean, this looks lovely, pumpkin seeds and everything. Not something I'd have on hand in the morning. So here's what I do. I come in very early because I'm hosting this radio show...
GREENE: ...and in the middle of the night, I throw a couple eggs or some egg-like stuff in a carton that I buy at the store, and microwave it with some cheese and some salt and pepper.
AUBREY: Got it.
GREENE: And it just sort of blows up into an omelette in a mug in two minutes.
AUBREY: Whoa. OK.
GREENE: Is that, I mean, that feels, like, pretty healthy.
AUBREY: You know, I would say that if that works for you and you like it, that is your way of having eggs. I think a lot of people might be listening to this and be like, oh, my God, I don't have time to turn on the stove, make eggs. Actually, if you look at the inside of that, David, it's burned.
AUBREY: I was trying to make this as I got my kids out the door, (laughter). So you can see, not always possible to...
GREENE: NPR's food correspondent burns her omelettes so don't be ashamed if you burn yours.
AUBREY: ...Not always possible to do the full breakfast. So I think if you don't have time for eggs, just think about checking a few key nutritional boxes. You want some protein, you want some fiber, you want a little bit of fat to hold you for several hours, until lunchtime. And so for me really, though, oftentimes that's a little bit of yogurt with no sugar and those pumpkin seeds and maybe a piece of fruit.
GREENE: And if you want to go back to the cereal, I mean, the real bare-bones cereal, like, you know, just like, some grain with some milk...
GREENE: ...I mean, is that - is that OK?
AUBREY: Here's what I would say. I would say cereal makers, they get this. I mean, they know. You'll see this all the time now on labels. You see cereal makers adding back in more protein, more fiber, more of the whole-grain and taking out the sugar.
GREENE: And that's a good thing.
AUBREY: And that's a good thing.
GREENE: So we're not banning cereals all together.
GREENE: OK. Allison, thanks a lot.
AUBREY: Thanks so much, David. Enjoy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.