QuestionIs breakfast the most important meal of the day?
Hopes&Fears answers questions, with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we wonder if what we've always been told about breakfast is actually true.
Breakfast is overrated, experts now say, and separating meals into three squares might not even be healthy.
Is it true? Are cocoa puffs not good for you? When should you eat, and how much, and how, and why?
We turn to more experts for answers.
READ: MOTHER JONES
Former chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies,
and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University,
author of several books on nutrition
The question isn’t silly at all, although I always laugh when I hear it. That is because I am publicly outed as not a breakfast eater—at least not first thing in the morning. I don’t usually start getting hungry until 11 or so and rarely eat before then. Coffee, yes. Solid food, later please. The idea that early eating is essential makes perfect sense for farm laborers and small children. Whether it matters for normal, sedentary adults is a different question.
Many—if not most—studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal. Independently funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food. For most people, when you eat matters far less than how much you eat. If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it. Kids who won’t have access to decent food in school may well be better off fed breakfast at home and surely will learn better if their stomachs aren’t growling.
Daily Breakfast Consumption
Breakfast consumption and its socio-demographic and lifestyle correlates in schoolchildren in 41 countries participating in the HBSC study
Cultural historian, Author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
The question of whether or not to eat breakfast and what it should look like is not a new one. We've been actively shaping our ideal of the morning meal for a very long time. A century and a half ago, the problem with breakfast was that it was too big, too heavy, and too meat-centered--at least as health reformers saw it. They convinced the American middle class, suffering in large numbers from indigestion at the time, that it would benefit from a lighter, grain-based, vegetarian breakfast: cereal, toast, coffee, fruit. In the 1920s, the Beechnut Company, wanting to move more of its bacon, hired a public relations professional to promote the idea that a substantial breakfast centered on animal protein was in fact much healthier than cereal and toast--and bacon and eggs got a huge lift. The pendulum has swung between heavy and light breakfast ideals for at least 150 years.
Perhaps one reason Americans have opted for a light breakfast (and sometimes no breakfast at all) is not only because of its perceived health benefits, but because we simply want to get to work or get on with our day, and we don't feel we have time to fuss with food. Cereal and toast have not only nourished American stomachs, but our appetite for convenience--and now breakfast bars and yogurt products, even more convenient in the scheme of things, have begun to take their place. But what is the ultimate convenience breakfast? No breakfast at all. Americans of a century or two ago would would have scratched their heads with bewilderment at the thought.
U.S. breakfast consumer habits
(declining at a combined annual growth rate of 1.5% over the past five years)
Frozen foods like waffles, pancakes and French toast
(increasing at a combined annual growth rate of 4.5% over the past five years)
Deli breakfast, particularly
the breakfast sandwich
(increasing at a combined annual growth rate of 7.9% over the past five years)
— Nielson, 2014
COVER ILLUSTRATION: Sergii Rodionov