Skipping breakfast is on the rise, almost in correlation to the rise in health messages on the importance of eating breakfast – so what’s best? When you scratch the surface of eating breakfast vs not eating breakfast, you find some health nuts who don’t eat anything other than black coffee with coconut oil until 3pm, and then you find other health nuts whose days don’t start until they’ve eaten a decent breakfast – so who is right?
Although I fall into the latter category, I’m a big believer that you should listen to your body, and breakfast probably isn’t for everyone in every situation. For others though, breakfast is an important part of the day if you want to be healthy.
Research on health & breakfast
A study in 2005 found that people who skipped breakfast had reduced insulin sensitivity1 – something which is related to the development of type 2 diabetes, weight gain and cardiovascular disease. These findings are not unusual, and studies consistently find that those who skip breakfast have reduced insulin sensitivity by as much as 26% compared to their breakfast eating counterparts2, which is significant difference.
A study in 2009 found that skipping breakfast has also been shown to increase the amount of intra-abdominal adipose tissue (body fat) by an average of 6kg (just under 1 stone), compared to those who didn’t skip breakfast3.
The research showing that those who skip breakfast are generally unhealthier goes on and on (and on), and makes a rather convincing argument for eating something in the morning.
But the majority of studies show that the breakfast skippers are more likely to be unhealthy, not that skipping breakfast makes someone unhealthy – there is a difference between causation and correlation. As a crude example, are people who skip breakfast just pigging out on doughnuts and sweetened coffee at 10:30am?
Can we distinguish between causation and correlation?
We can to some degree, but not as convincingly as I would have liked, or as convincingly as the media suggests. In the aforementioned 2005 study, the same candidates were used for the breakfast and non-breakfast tests in identical conditions. This means that a causative relationship between not eating breakfast and reduced insulin sensitivity has been identified. However, the 2009 study showing the increased body fat in breakfast skippers is a cross-sectional study, which means that only a correlation can be draw.
Still, despite causation being less clear than I would have liked, the research shows that if you skip breakfast, you are more likely to be unhealthier than if you ate breakfast.
Does it go beyond breakfast?
Of course – you would be foolish to think that one meal in the midst of a 24 hour cycle would exclusively influence your health in such a dramatic way. Breakfast is one contributing factor amongst many others, which include how well you sleep, the foods you eat, and how well/often you exercise. All of which will impact the amount of body fat you will carry and your insulin sensitivity.
Habitual vs healthy breakfast skipping
As I see it there are 2 types of breakfast skippers – those who have made the decision that they do better off by missing breakfast, and those who have been skipping breakfast for so long they don’t know why, but it has become a habit. The same can be said for breakfast eaters of course, but the breakfast eaters aren’t the health risk group here – eating breakfast is consistently associated with being healthier.
The breakfast skippers who have been down the breakfast road and not liked it for whatever reason (perhaps they gained weight) have made a positive decision in their eating habits – they have listened and responded to their body. However, those breakfast skippers who do it because they have their whole lives, perhaps should re-think their eating habits if they want be reduce the risk of having excess body fat and related ailments. I would argue that it is the habitual breakfast skippers which are unhealthy, rather than the healthy breakfast skippers (if that makes sense).
What to do if you are a habitual breakfast skipper?
I don’t think breakfast is for everyone, but I do think that too many people skip breakfast for the wrong reasons. If you have been a habitual breakfast skipper for a long time, re-introduce breakfast into your diet for a few weeks, and monitor how well you exercise, sleep, feel and look during that time. If after a month or so, you feel crap and have gained weight, great. You know that breakfast isn’t for you (or you are eating the wrong thing), and you have done your own bit of experimenting to show this. The important thing is that you have some personal experimentation to support your breakfast skipping, and you’re not being a health zombie – its a win-win really.
The chances are that you will be healthier from eating breakfast though.
What is Breakfast?
For most people, breakfast is nothing more than a morning meal which you either eat or avoid (for better of for worse), but it is so much more, for me anyway. It’s a chance to fuel and feed my body, excite my taste buds and spend a bit of time with my girlfriend before I head off to work. Its not a chore, and it can be a culinary adventure if you want – crack open a coconut and drink the milk with a platter of mango/ grapefruit/apple slices/bananas etc, or fry up some salmon and halloumi with a little salad, or even dip some thick cut bacon in high cocoa dark chocolate (yes, that’s a real thing) and gobble it on the way to work.
So, embrace breakfast, if only for a few weeks, and see how you get on. The odds are you will be healthier.
1. Farshchi HR. (2005). Deleterious effects of omitting breakfast on insulin sensitivity and fasting lipid profiles in healthy lean women.. Am J Clin Nutr. 81 (2), 388-96.
2. NHS. (2014). Missing breakfast linked to type 2 diabetes. Health News from NHS Choices. (9)
3. Katharine E. Alexander. (2010). Association of Breakfast Skipping With Visceral Fat and Insulin Indices in Overweight Latino Youth. Obesity (Silver Spring). 17 (8), 1528-1533.
Image courtesy of norio-nakayama.