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Breakfast - the most important meal of the day?

I’m sure we’ve all said it, and if not, we’ve definitely heard it- “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” So who was the first to put this bold statement forward? This famous phrase is associated with John Harvey Kellogg, aka the breakfast cereal guru. Mr. Kellogg began using the phrase as a marketing tactic to promote his cereal. Before we jump to a conclusion that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day or breakfast does not matter at all, let’s break down what we know.

When we wake up, our bodies have just endured an estimated 8+ hours without energy intake. During sleep, we still use energy to fuel the brain, repair muscles, pump the heart, and run other organ systems. When first falling asleep, our bodies will use energy from our last meal or snack of the day for these tasks, but that energy is quickly used. After the energy from our last food intake is used, our bodies turn to energy stores in the liver. However, it only takes a few hours of sleep to use our energy stores in the liver. The final backup energy source during sleep is transforming protein into energy. When we wake up, our bodies will continue to turn protein into energy unless fed. To prevent further protein (muscle) breakdown, we must consume the first meal of the day or “breakfast!”

In other terms, energy is blood glucose. Blood glucose is the sugar in the bloodstream that powers the cells in the body. The body will absolutely experience a drop in blood glucose if meals such as breakfast are skipped or too much time has passed between food intake. When the body experiences this drop in blood glucose, food cravings increase in an attempt to signal you to eat something and raise your blood glucose. Research shows that those who endorse restrictive eating habits like skipping breakfast are more prone to emotion dysregulation. Have you ever heard of the term hangry? Using what we just learned about blood glucose, a definition of hangry could be someone experiencing a drop in blood glucose that results in intense cravings and inability to manage emotions. When cravings and heightened emotions combine, we are susceptible to not making logical and rational choices with food and could likely overeat, binge, and/or not provide balanced nutrition to the body. So is overeating prevented simply by having breakfast? Not quite.

Remember, the body experiences drops in blood glucose no matter if breakfast was skipped or lunch was skipped and no matter if it has been 8 hours between dinner and breakfast or 8 hours between lunch and dinner. In any of these cases, the body will experience low blood glucose and we could overeat. Having breakfast does not protect us from overeating the rest of the day, but it does set us up for a regular eating pattern. By starting the day off with nutrition, we are providing our bodies with the needed blood glucose to fuel our brains to make logical food choices and manage emotions over the next several hours until our bodies begin to signal hunger. We are then provided with the next opportunity to honor our bodies with nutrition or skip the meal or snack that will once again lead to blood glucose drops, intense cravings, and heightened emotions.

Would I consider breakfast THE MOST important meal of the day? No, but I would consider it one of the several important opportunities for food intake during the day. I’d like to challenge you to think of breakfast in a different way. It’s easy to rush out the door to make it to your first class or jump right into your work day upon waking up. Tomorrow morning, consider having some kind of nutrition to start your day. Challenge yourself to think of that nutrition as a way to prevent further protein breakdown your body initiated while sleeping, as a tool to regulate emotions, and as a map to navigate cravings.

Yours Truly,

Laura Brooks, RDN, LD


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