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We’ve been told for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but is it true?

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Q: Lately I’ve heard that eating breakfast isn’t as good for you as once thought. Some people even recommend skipping it. Is this a good idea?

We’ve been told for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Proponents claim the morning meal helps us stay trim, meet daily nutrient needs and think more clearly at school and work.

Recent research though, has refuted the notion that breakfast is integral to weight control. And the intermittent fasting trend has many people skipping breakfast in search of better health.

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Before you ban it from your menu, here’s what to know about the science.

Breakfast and body weight. It’s thought that skipping breakfast leads to hunger and overeating later in the day. Indeed, many observational studies, some sponsored by cereal companies, have found that breakfast skippers tend to have a higher body-mass index than breakfast eaters.

The differences in body weight, although, may be because people who habitually eat breakfast are more likely to have a healthy diet and/or exercise than those who forgo the meal.

In 2019, Australian researchers published an analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials that looked at the effect of regular breakfast consumption on weight change over time. The findings didn’t turn up any evidence that skipping breakfast led to weight gain or that eating breakfast resulted in weight loss.

But this review isn’t the last word. The trials included in the analysis were short, lasting 24 hours to 16 weeks, and most were low quality studies.

Breakfast and fasting. Many people who adhere to time-restricted eating, a type of intermittent fasting, skip breakfast and eat their first meal around noon. Time-restricted eating requires you to eat meals within an 8- to 10-hour window and then fast for 14 to 16 hours.

Data indicate that time-restricted eating promotes weight loss, but not more so than restricting daily calories. Small studies also suggest it helps reduce blood pressure, lower blood triglycerides (fats) and improve how the body uses insulin.

But keeping the eating window early in the day, called early time-restricted eating, is the pattern that’s been associated with health benefits. In studies, participants have eaten meals between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. or 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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Eating early in day is thought to match our body’s circadian rhythm, the internal clock that governs things such as blood sugar, cholesterol and digestion. Eating dinner late may disrupt our circadian rhythm.

Breakfast and heart health. Research has linked skipping breakfast to elevated blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A study published last April, conducted among 6,550 U.S. adults, revealed that after 19 years of follow up, people who never ate breakfast had a significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease or stroke than daily breakfast eaters.

However, a major issue was that participants who skipped breakfast were often former smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive and had a poor diet.

Breakfast, nutrition and brain power. Eating breakfast, in particular ready-to-eat cereal, has been associated with a higher daily intake of fibre, B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium and iron. (Much of this research was funded by cereal companies.)

Some studies, but not all, have found beneficial effects of eating breakfast on a child’s memory and concentration in the classroom. The cognitive effects of breakfast have been most evident, though, in undernourished children.

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Final word. While the research around eating (or skipping) breakfast is somewhat equivocal, there are good reasons to include this meal in your diet. Breakfast foods provide growing kids (and adults) with nutrients that fuel the brain, bones and muscles.

If you work out in the morning, breakfast helps active muscles fuel and recover from exercise. And for some, breakfast is a necessity to prevent feeling overly hungry before lunch.

What’s most important, though, is what you eat for breakfast. A regular breakfast consisting of a greasy, salty breakfast sandwich, refined cereal or a sugary pastry isn’t a recipe for a health-promoting diet.

A nutritious and satiating breakfast should include protein (e.g., yogurt, kefir, eggs, cottage cheese, nuts, salmon), fibre-rich whole grains and whole fruit and/or vegetables.

If you’re interested in intermittent fasting, I recommend setting an early eating window that starts with breakfast.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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