Should you eat breakfast? We look at the pros and cons

Eggs, toast, maybe fruit, yogurt and granola… Most of us have been brought up to believe beginning the day with a wholesome meal kickstarts the metabolism and fuels the brain. But then – confusion! – the experts started to disagree. It’s time to attempt to unscramble the arguments: should you eat breakfast?

Should you eat breakfast? We look at the pros and cons

Breakfast is a mystifying business these days. Once hailed as the most important meal of the day, its benefits have recently been called into question. Some experts still maintain a balanced morning meal gives the best possible start to the day and stops you overeating later; others argue that skipping breakfast can aid weight loss and improve your health in a host of different ways. Who on earth do we believe?

The science isn’t clear cut on breakfast

The UK’s official health advice is not to skip breakfast. Says the NHS: “You could miss out on essential nutrients, and you may end up snacking more throughout the day because you feel hungry.”

Some studies do show that people who frequently skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight and have a higher risk of heart disease. But skipping breakfast in itself may not be the cause of these problems, argues Professor Tim Spector, a genetic epidemiologist and nutrition expert at Kings College London.

In his book, Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong, he points out that breakfast skippers generally have lower incomes and poorer diets overall than breakfast eaters, which might account for the results. “All these social factors are independently associated with being overweight and the association has nothing to do with eating breakfast.” Studies suggest that for some people (but not all), skipping breakfast “can actually be a useful strategy to reduce weight,” Prof Spector continues.

“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how we eat”

Eat breakfast later

Dr Sarah Berry, a nutritional scientist at Kings College London, says the benefits some people see from skipping breakfast – weight reduction and improved metabolic health, for example – may simply be due to extending their overnight fast and narrowing their ‘eating window’. This is known as time-restricted eating.

Dr Berry says mounting evidence suggests that giving our digestive system a break in this way supports healthy levels of insulin (the hormone that helps control the glucose in our bloodstream) and encourages healthy gut bacteria, all of which have health benefits.

You don’t have to skip breakfast to do this. In fact, the most effective form of time-restricted eating is an early evening meal followed by 14 hours of fasting, says Dr Berry. Many people find it more convenient and enjoyable to skip breakfast, though – or to push it forward and have dinner later, which is beneficial, too.

“If not having breakfast shortens your eating window, there’s likely to be a health benefit and a weight benefit,” says Dr Berry. “I’d suggest a fast period of 14 hours and, ideally, not to eat after 8pm.” For example, if you finish your evening meal by 7pm, an ideal time for breakfast would be after 9am.

Dr Berry doesn’t advocate skipping breakfast entirely, especially if you’re someone who feels hungry in the morning and is likely to reach for unhealthy foods. She also believes eating breakfast is a useful way to top up on nutrients – it’s the one meal where you generally choose your own food, independent of what others in the household are eating.

“I see breakfast as a simple dietary strategy you can use to improve your health,” she continues. “If you need to increase your fibre intake, or diversify your diet, breakfast is a simple way to do it and a great way to get your day off to a good start.”

What you eat is vital

Registered nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini says if you can manage an overnight fast of at least 12 hours, that’s great. But if you can’t, don’t worry – what you eat is more important than when you eat it.

“What you eat for breakfast is likely to impact what you eat for the rest of the day,” she explains. “When your blood sugar gets low, you can feel more anxious, jittery, dizzy or ‘hangry’. In those instances the body is screaming for energy, so we tend to reach for quick fixes like caffeine or sugar, which will send blood sugar levels up. Then they’re likely to drop dramatically a few hours later, when you’ll crave another energy fix.”

It’s important to listen to your body and eat in a way that feels right for you. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed when surrounded by experts offering conflicting advice,” she says. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how we eat. It depends on your life stage, your metabolic health and even how you feel on a day-to-day basis.”

The healthiest start to the day

Go savoury Tucking into sweet stuff first thing can cause blood sugar levels to soar and crash, leaving you hungry. Instead, go for savoury and try to include protein, fibre and healthy fats. A healthy fry-up is ideal. “Scrambled or poached eggs with cooked mushrooms, tomatoes and wholemeal toast, followed by a palmful of berries, for example,” says Thalia Pellegrini. Scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast makes a good quick alternative. “If savoury doesn’t appeal, a healthy compromise could be French toast,” she says. “I like to add cinnamon and vanilla to the beaten egg.” Serve with berries, Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey.

French toast with berries

What about porridge? It can form the basis of a healthy breakfast, but oats and milk aren’t enough. “Don’t forget protein and fats,” says Thalia. Stir in a few tablespoons of chia seeds (for protein) at the start of cooking, and ground almonds (protein and healthy fats) at the end. Top with grated apple or pear for natural sweetness. Larger oats are better than instant or finely cut because they take longer to break down and keep you full for longer.

Smoothie appeal A popular choice for breakfast, but consider how you make them. “Smoothies made in a blender are preferable to juicers as you want to retain the fibre of the fruit or vegetables,“ Thalia Pellegrini says. “This is beneficial to your gut and your blood sugar.” Include at least one vegetable in the mix and some protein, such as yogurt, kefir, ground flaxseed, nut butters, hemp or chia seeds. “Nuts and seeds are also sources of healthy fats, so tick two boxes in one,” advises Thalia – and always mix smoothies with milk or water rather than fruit juice.

Explore our healthy breakfast recipes here.

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