Is Breakfast Actually the Most Important Meal of the Day?


In one of my previous posts, I discussed the negative effects of night eating and what many of my sources mentioned was the dietary benefit of eating breakfast. Being a regular breakfast eater, I decided to research whether I have been making the right choice. After reading many studies, the favored answer is yes.

In 1996, Catherine S. Berkey of Harvard Medical School and a group of three other Harvard University scientists used a questionnaire to come to their own conclusion on the somewhat controversial topic. In this observational study, the scientists sent questionnaires to nurses who were parents all over the United States and got answers back from over 16 882 children (8980 girls and 7791 boys) ages 9 to 14. For those who responded to the questionnaire, they were sent the same questions three years later to analyze the annual effects of their breakfast habits. In the study, weight was measured in terms of body mass index (BMI). Of all the participants, 7545 girls and 5962 boys provided annual data regarding BMI-change.   The study grouped participants based on their average weekly consumption of breakfast: 1-2 days, 3-4 days, or 5 plus.

The participants answered questions that evaluated their physical activity, inactivity (watching TV, playing videogame, etc.), energy intake, race, schoolwork, and their Tanner maturation stage, which measures their sexual maturity. The race question proved to be important because 94.7% of participants were white, 0.9% African American, 1.5% Hispanic, 1.5% Asian, and 1.4% other. These percentages show an obvious lack of comparative representation among many American ethnicities, but based off of the raw number of participants, there was still enough representation in itself. The study found that breakfast skippers were more likely to be overweight. With the breakfast skippers, 26.4% of boys and 25.3% of girls were overweight whereas with the breakfast eaters, 21.2% of boys and 15.8% of girls were overweight. A more surprising finding is that overweight boys and girls gained less weight annually than the overweight children who ate breakfast daily. The results suggest that skipping breakfast is only beneficial weight-wise for those who are overweight. That is not the case for academic achievement, though. According to the graph of results below, the relative risk (RR) for doing very well at school was the highest with the participants who frequently ate breakfast.0802402f1

In Japan, a study on this topic was conducted by a team of 9 scientists including Midori Nishiyama, Ph.D., from the Education Support Center and the Division of Education for Community Medicine at Dokkyo Medical University. In their paper, they observed the relationship between breakfast skipping and unhealthy behavior, academic success, and sense of coherence (SOC), which is made up of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. Here, the first component is confidence in grasping one’s present circumstance or predicting the future, the second is the sense that one is capable of coping with stress, and the latter regards well-being and the sense that one’s life is meaningful. For the study, Nishiyama et al. issued questionnaires to 92 first-year students (57 men, 37 women) at Dokkyo University’s medical school. The participants answered two self-evaluation questionnaires assessing SOC and lifestyle, one in July of 2010 and the second in August of 2011. In this study, breakfast eaters said they ate breakfast at least 6 times per week and the rest of the participants were categorized as breakfast skippers. 65.9% of participants answered to be breakfast eaters the first year and 55.4% the second year.

The study found that breakfast eaters on average had better annual test scores than breakfast skippers. It also found that breakfast eaters were significantly less likely to use sleeping pills. The most surprising results of this study claim was that breakfast skippers had less stress. However, they were also less likely to have the manageability to combat stress, but that was only found among participants in the first year. Concerning the other SOC scores, the only other considerable differences were that breakfast eaters tested better for meaningfulness in the first year and comprehensibility in the second.

In 1985 in Australia, a very similar study began. Dr. Kylie J. Smith and 5 others from the Menzies Research Institute of the University of Tasmania created a questionnaire that was completed nationally by 9-15 year old Australians, 2184 of whom finished the follow-up questionnaire between 2004 and 2006. Of the 2184, 1730 of the participants had their waists measured by trained staff and had blood samples taken after 12-hour fasts. In the follow up, the participants were between the ages 26 and 36. The objective of this analysis was to find the connection between breakfast eating and cardiometabolic risk over a span of about 20 years from childhood to adulthood. Cardiometabolic risk indicates one’s chances of having diabetes, heart disease, or a stroke (Office of Mental Health). The participants were broken up into 4 groups – breakfast eaters in both childhood and adulthood, in only childhood, in only adulthood, and neither. Based off of the blood tests, waist measurements, and the answers to the questions, the results were very one-sided. The participants in the “neither” category had a larger weight circumference, higher fasting insulin, and higher total and LDL cholesterol than those who ate breakfast in both childhood and adulthood. The framework of this study suggests that there is a possibility that it suffers from the Texas Sharp Shooter problem, but the fact that the results were only based off of relatively few questions and measurements is enough to reject that possibility.

While these studies do not unequivocally prove the dietary significance of breakfast, they provide sufficient data that support causation between breakfast and good health. A problem with these studies as a whole is that they are all observational, which means that the chance of confounding variables affecting their results is high. Out of this array of studies, the ones that seem least likely to have been affected by confounding variables are the studies conducted in Australia and the United States because the sample sizes for those two are very large. In sum, these studies conclude that skipping breakfast reduces stress, causes bad grades, has a negative association with overall health, has cardiometabolic risks, and causes everyone besides the obese to gain weight.

5 thoughts on “Is Breakfast Actually the Most Important Meal of the Day?

  1. Hannah Rose Papa

    This topic was very interesting to me because whenever I talked to people about weight loss, the first thing they stated was what they ate for breakfast. I find that many teens do not eat breakfast because they are rushing to make it to school and find it more valuable to get just that little extra sleep rather than eating breakfast. Research has shown that it very common for teens as they get older, specifically girls due to the older they get, the later they tend to stay up on school nights. Researchers are showing that 17% of teens are overweight and to prevent this increase, some are saying that one of the answers is to eat breakfast. This article here talks about ways to help teens make time for breakfast and start the day off

  2. Claire E Going

    Hi Daniel,
    I cannot make it through my day without breakfast in the morning because I will not be able to concentrate, not only due to hunger but also because of the low-blood-sugar feeling you get when you haven’t had nourishing food in awhile. I agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I also think it depends on what you eat for breakfast. If someone were to eat Poptarts for breakfast (or other sugary, simple carbohydrates that would make you crash after eating them) every morning, I could imagine that that person’s weight gain and BMI could potentially be similar to a person who does not eat breakfast. If one eats a healthy breakfast, it makes sense that they would be a better functioning person in regards to grades, test performance, as well as physical health. I found an article on the healthiest things to eat for breakfast that will make you mentally and physically better functioning, especially because breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

  3. Adam David Mccullough

    Personally, I am not sure how people make it through the day without eating breakfast. I eat breakfast everyday but I feel as though the majority of my friends never eat breakfast. Moreover, from the reading I have done on line, it seems quite conclusive that eating breakfast has numerous positive effects on humans health and on weight loss. So, my question would be if it has been proven that eating breakfast is extremely beneficial to ones health then why do people continue to skip this vital meal? Having said this, I found an article on common excuses for skipping breakfast and ways to overcome these excuses.

  4. Xiye Li

    Because I am a breakfast eater, I find your topic pretty attracting. I eat breakfast every day because my mom tells me that breakfast is the most important meal for a day. For your first Harvard Medical School research, though the sample size is quite big, the result comes out surprisingly. So I come up with few questions that I wonder if it can cause the study to have a different conclusion. Since the study is about people who respond to the survey, could those who do not answer lead the result to a different end? Could it because of the lack of diversity in ethnics since 94.7% of these kids are whites? Could the age range of 9-14 lead to the result as well because limited kids age range is considered within the study? For the second research done in Japan, the sample size is much smaller and is limited within first year students. Could it exist confounding variables that affect the study? Why breakfast skippers have less stress than breakfast eaters? These are the questions that need further research to study on.

  5. Alexandra Herr

    Unfortunately, I have never been one to enjoy eating breakfast foods. I always went for the granola bar or chocolate chip muffin versus the scrambled eggs or pancakes my mom offered to make. I understand why breakfast is vital and your blog did a great job of explaining it, but this also raised the question for me if the food you consume for breakfast is matters as long as you are consuming something. According to registered dietician Judy Caplan, the worst thing you can eat is a breakfast with refined carbohydrates, such as sugar. This will spike your insulin, followed by a blood sugar crash, leading you to feel hungry yet again. Basically, avoid the doughnut because 1. lots of sugar and 2. you will still be hungry meaning you will probably eat more and double your calories. She also listed food options which are good for a variety of things ranging from weight loss to brain power so I suggest you check out that article!

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