Breakfast is often described as the most important meal of the day, but is skipping this morning meal really detrimental to health? Newer research suggests this may not be as bad as many of us believe. In this Honest Nutrition feature, we take an in-depth look at breakfast and whether skipping it is really harmful.
Written by Lindsey DeSoto, RDN, LD — Fact checked by Hilary Guite, FFPH, MRCGP
This series of Special Features takes an in-depth look at the science behind some of the most debated nutrition-related topics, weighing in on the facts and debunking the myths.
Design by Diego Sabogal.
Breakfast literally means “to break the fast.” It is the first meal of the day after a stretch of not eating overnight.
Breakfast earned its title as the most important meal of the day back in the 1960s after American nutritionist Adelle Davis suggested that to keep fit and avoid obesity, one should “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”
Though around 15% of people in the United States regularly skip breakfast, many still believe it to be the most important meal of the day. Breakfast provides the body with important nutrients, to start the day feeling energized and nourished. Many also believe that it can promote weight loss.
But is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
As with most things in nutrition, the answer is complex. While some research suggests that skipping breakfast is not harmful, other research suggests otherwise.
Eating regular meals and snacks, including breakfast, allows for more opportunities throughout the day to give the body the energy and nutrients it needs to function optimally.
However, as long as a person can fit their nutrients in during other meals, breakfast may not be the most critical meal of the day.
Here is what the science says.
Evidence in support of eating breakfast
Most of the claimed benefits of eating breakfast are primarily derived from observational studies, which cannot prove cause and effect.
For example, one 2021 systematic review of 14 observational studies found that those who eat breakfast seven times per week have a reduced risk for:
high blood pressure
elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Again, this particular group of studies can only suggest that those who eat breakfast are more likely to have a reduced risk for the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases mentioned above. It cannot prove that breakfast is what is causing it.
However, an analysis of data on over 30,000 North Americans shows that people who skip breakfast may miss out on important nutrients.
The most common nutrients those who skipped breakfast fell short on include:
vitamins B1, B2, B3
What is more, one randomized control trial published in 2017 that included 18 participants with type 2 diabetes, and 18 healthy participants found that skipping breakfast caused disrupted circadian rhythms in both groups.
Those who skipped breakfast also experienced larger spikes in blood glucose levels after eating. The authors of the study thus suggested that eating breakfast is vital for keeping our internal clock running on time.
Does skipping breakfast cause weight gain?
Although many people report increased feelings of satiety after starting their day off with breakfast, studies suggest that those who omit or consume breakfast both end up with nearly identical total daily calorie intakes.
Another randomized control trial carried out over 4 months tested the effectiveness of a recommendation to eat or skip breakfast on weight loss in 309 adults with overweight or obesity trying to lose weight in a free-living setting.
At the end of the study, researchers concluded that eating breakfast did not have any significant impact on weight loss compared with not eating breakfast.
According to a 2019 review of 13 randomized control trials published in The BMJ, the addition of breakfast may not be a good weight loss strategy. Researchers further added that caution should be used when recommending breakfast for weight loss because it may actually have the opposite effect.
However, it is important to note that this review did have limitations. The types of foods consumed were not included, and the studies were not very long in duration. Additionally, researchers cited the need for additional studies to determine the long-term effects of skipping breakfast.
Interestingly, another study found that skipping breakfast may actually lower total daily calorie intake by 252 calories. Researchers did note, however, that it decreased the overall diet quality when any meals were skipped.
At this time, there does not appear to be any strong evidence that ties breakfast intake to weight gain.
Are people who eat breakfast healthier?
According to one 2018 observational study, those who frequently eat breakfast often pay more attention to their overall nutrient intake, regularly participate in physical activity, and adequately manage stress.
Conversely, those who skip breakfast tend to have unhealthier lifestyle habits such as frequent smoking and drinking. They also tend to have diets higher in fat, cholesterol, and calories than habitual breakfast eaters.
These findings suggest that lifestyle habits may contribute to the overall health status of breakfast eaters, not eating breakfast.
Should you eat breakfast?
Because breakfast gives us the opportunity to fuel our body with nutrients, it is an important meal. However, according to recent studies, it may not be the most important meal of the day.
Eating breakfast and listening to your hunger cues is very important if you wake up hungry in the morning. However, if you get busy and skip breakfast one day, there is no need to feel guilty.
If you habitually skip breakfast, it is important to ensure you are optimizing your nutrient intake at other meals.
Certain groups of people, such as fitness professionals or athletes who train early in the morning, may also feel better after eating breakfast.
What should you eat for breakfast?
If you enjoy breakfast, begin your day with nutritious foods.
Some healthy breakfast foods include:
Find what works best for you
Recent nutrition research continues to show us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to food. What is important when it comes to achieving optimal health is adopting a healthy lifestyle.
Ways to improve your health include:
get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week
strength training activities for all major muscle groups two or more days a week
maintain a healthy weight
limit added sugar, saturated fat, and processed food
eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods
pay attention to your body and hunger cues
drink plenty of water
avoid tobacco products and excessive alcohol use
get at least 7 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period.
The bottom line
Although research suggests that breakfast may not be the most important meal of the day, it is still important. It serves as an opportunity to help you fuel your day and provide key nutrients that your body needs.
If you choose not to eat breakfast, there is no reason to feel guilty, and there is not much evidence that it can negatively impact your health.
What is important is to eat in a way that works best for you while living a healthy lifestyle and ensuring your nutrient needs are being met during your other meals.
If you are finding it challenging to meet your nutritional needs, consider speaking with a registered dietitian who can help you navigate through any questions you may have.